Home inFocus COVID-19: The More Things Change... China’s Censorship, Propaganda & Disinformation

China’s Censorship, Propaganda & Disinformation

Daniel Blumenthal and Linda Zhang
Chinese President Xi Jinping (Photo: kremlin.ru)

Disinformation, censorship, and propaganda are pillars of the Chinese Communist Party’s grand strategy. CCP General-Secretary Xi Jinping has both added ballast to these capabilities as well as relied upon them even more to further his aims. Most recently, the Chinese Communist Party response to the COVID-19 pandemic shows us that disinformation, censorship, and propaganda are “features,” not “bugs,” of the CCP’s system of government. A war on the truth is a central pillar of the CCP’s strategy for survival. 

The Bureaucracy

In February 2016 on a tour of Chinese media outlets, Xi announced “all the work by the party’s media must reflect the party’s will, safeguard the party’s authority, and safeguard the party’s unity.” The job of Chinese media is not to inform the public and search for the truth. Rather, it is to “report” stories favorable to Xi and the party and censor those that are not. 

The CCP has constructed a massive propaganda and censorship apparatus: it considers the truth to be dangerous. It does not want its citizens to know the extent of its corruption, its repression, its mismanagement of the economy, and of crises such as the current virus, the bird flu in 1997 and SARS in 2003. The below sample of a few organizations tasked with censorship and propaganda hints at how prominent a place these efforts hold in China’s foreign and domestic policy: 

1. The General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP) – GAPP drafts and enforces restraint regulations; 

2. State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT) – SARFT controls the content on radio, film, and TV aired in China; 

3. Ministry for Information Industry (MII) – MII regulates the Chinese telecommunication, software industries, and Internet related services; 

4. State Council Information Office (SCIO) – SCIO promotes Chinese media to a global audience and is also responsible for restricting news that is posted on the Internet; 

5. Central Propaganda Department (CPD) – CPD is the Party organ that works with GAPP and SARFT to monitor content; 

6. Ministry of Public Security (MPS) – MPS monitors and filters the Internet and punishes and detains those who speak out; 

7. General Administration for Customs – Customs collects books, videos, and other information that China does not want inside its borders; and 

8. State Secrecy Bureau (SSB) – SSB enforces state secrecy laws, which are often used to punish individuals who write undesirable content. 

‘Controlling’ the Internet

There are two major Internet censorship programs: The “Great Firewall” and the “Golden Shield” program. Both rapidly censor internet content produced within the People’s Republic of China (PRC.) The PRC also seeks to assert new international legal prerogatives in the information domain, such as “internet sovereignty,” a concept that would give countries the right to control their domestic internet space, and “data sovereignty,” the idea that data is subject to the laws of the country where it was collected. 

The PRC has proposed an International Code of Conduct on Information Security (with the support of the Russian Federation) to the United Nations that would put states in control of the Internet. These changes would not only significantly enhance the effectiveness of PRC control of the Internet, but also change the international rules governing it. 

CCP and the Media 

Chinese media portray specific criticisms the West has made against China, such as on human rights issues, as being “anti-China,” as if a story about the party’s human rights abuses is an affront to all Chinese people. Recently, the Chinese propaganda machine has started manipulating Western sensibilities by calling any criticism of Chinese government actions “racist” against all Chinese. The goal is clear: to shut down such criticism. 

Chinese media have long deliberately misrepresented events to attack the country’s perceived enemies. For example, during the 2008 Olympic Torch Relay, CCTV described all protestors in the West as “Tibetan separatists and members of other anti-China groups” who “repeatedly assaulted” torchbearers. This was simply not true. Almost all such protests were peaceful and joined by many different ethnic groups in the United States and other countries. The cause of religious and cultural freedom in Tibet has long been championed in the West. 

More recently, China has accused the United States of “sinister intentions” after Congress passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019. Xinhua state news agency published a statement from the Hong Kong Liaison Office accusing Washington of supporting violence and instability. The truth is that Congress cares about the basic rights of Hong Kongers and about the CCP upholding its obligations. The CCP wants its people and targeted groups around the world to think that Hong Kong (like Taiwan) is simply an internal Chinese issue and that America acts imperialistically and with an unrelenting anti-Chinese bias.

The Chinese government monitors, harasses, and bans Western journalists who publish content portraying China in a “negative” light. Examples include:

1. China kicked three Wall Street Journal reporters out of the country after The Journal published an Op-Ed about China that spoke the truth about the risks China’s system of government poses to the world;

2. China blocked access to The New York Times website after The Times published an article on party official Wen Jiabao’s family wealth in 2012;

3. Bloomberg News self-censored an investigative report on the wealth of “Princeling” families to protect their journalists (or their bottom line); and

4. The arrest of Jimmy Lai, the founder of Apple Daily and a Hong Kong media mogul, ostensibly for participating in an illegal assembly during the 2017 anti-government protests. This was meant to silence him (he too had just written a critical Op-Ed in The Wall Street Journal) and his own paper as well as punish him for supporting pro-democracy movements.

The CCP has always used access to China as a key point of leverage to shape perceptions. For years before these arrests, China would blacklist scholars and analysts from entering the country if they were deemed to be “anti-China.” The CCP also uses physical intimidation to enforce censorship. Fifty-seven percent of respondents of a Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China survey reported some form of interference, harassment, or violence while attempting to report in China, and eight percent have reported manhandling or use of physical force. Twenty-six percent of respondents reported that Chinese government officials have harassed, detained, questioned, or punished their sources.

Going After American Popular Culture

Not only does China target journalists and media in its territory, but the regime also has started to influence pop culture abroad. Beijing knows that its people have great admiration for American sports and pop culture icons. It therefore believes it must control with an extreme intensity what such figures might say. Two examples highlight the level of Chinese interference: Basketball and Hollywood.

The case of the National Basketball Association (NBA) in China is one of China using its market power to make Americans curtail their free speech. It began when Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted an image that read, “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” This was during Hong Kong’s demonstrations over its basic human rights. 

The Chinese response was fast and furious: Chinese tech giant Tencent and state broadcaster CCTV suspended broadcasts of Rockets games, while other sponsors suspended relations with the team. Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta publicly rebuked his general manager. All-Star James Harden apologized for Morey’s tweet. The NBA released a statement in Mandarin expressing disappointment in Morey. 

Like many American businesses, the NBA is making billions of dollars in the China market, on viewership, digital ownership rights, merchandising, and individual player sponsorship. To be sure, the Chinese do not have absolute power in disputes like this. The Chinese people love the “product,” as they do so many American products, and the Chinese censorship apparatus backed off eventually. But still the episode shows the extent of China’s censorship efforts. Indeed, the lure of the China market is the most powerful weapon the Chinese have in their fight to stave off any criticism of the regime’s practices and abuses. The point was made; it is very unlikely that NBA stars or management will criticize China in the future.

Chinese censorship has also hit the heart of American entertainment in Hollywood. Americans have likely noticed the absence of Chinese villains or “bad guys” in American movies. No other country including our own is spared negative portrayals in film or television. Since China agreed to open its market to foreign films in 2012, Hollywood has had to make concessions to its Chinese censors. Producers and directors must coordinate with the Chinese government or lose access to the Chinese market. Films with Chinese characters portrayed poorly, such as Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight,” are not even submitted for approval in China. 

As the writer Martha Bayles has chronicled, China believes that films are also a tool of the state and their content should align with the CCP’s ideology. The forthcoming Top Gun: Maverick – “a sequel financed in part by the Chinese firm Tencent—omitted the Japanese and Taiwanese flags from Tom Cruise’s jacket….”

According to Bayles, in addition to the many censorship and propaganda organizations mentioned above, films now also have to pass muster with the State Ethnic Affairs Commission, the Ministry of Public Security, the State Bureau of Religious Affairs, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and numerous other bureaucratic entities. 

China also has started to make blockbusters for its domestic market. Movies made for the China market are assertive in their portrayal of China as brave and righteous and America as weak and decadent.

America’s pop culture is one of its competitive advantages, enjoyed by billions across the globe. When repressed populations really begin to ask why America is so dominant in entertainment, they find the answer to be its freedom – its free markets, its innovative and creative culture. If China can co-opt and silence cultural icons, people will lose faith in the power of these ideas.

Foreign Disinformation 

A key effort of Chinese grand strategy is to break U.S. alliances. Chinese state media consistently attacks American allies as being economically dependent on the United States and highlights fragility in the relationships. Japan is a frequent target. China Daily has also described Britain as “currying favor” with the United States because it has no choice after it leaves the European Union. Other themes include the loss of sovereignty to America and economic dependency on the United States. These themes come up in both Chinese and English-language articles and Op-Eds in media outlets such as China.com, Xinhua, China Daily, and Global Times, and are shared on social media. 

COVID-19 Pandemic

We know that COVID-19 is far more widespread than it otherwise would have been as a result of China’s censorship. We know that Li Wenliang, Xu Zhangrun, Chen Qiushi, Fang Bin, and countless other doctors, journalists, and activists who spoke out and tried to tell the truth about the seriousness of the virus and inept response were silenced, arrested and intimidated. 

The CCP also attempted to censor critical early research on the virus. On January 1, after labs returned the first batches of genome sequence results to health authorities, the Hubei Provincial Health Commission ordered at least one company to stop testing, stop releasing test results, and destroy existing samples of the coronavirus. Two days later, China’s National Health Commission ordered all institutions to stop publishing on the new coronavirus and ordered coronavirus samples to be either transferred to designated labs or destroyed. The laboratory that first sequenced the COVID-19 genome was closed for “rectification” on January 12, the day after the team published its genome sequence results on open platforms. 

Finally, authorities are continuing their usual practice of shutting down any criticism or negative portrayals of the government. Censors closed down WeChat groups and social media discourse, punished individuals, and removed articles that portray the government response in a negative way. The Chinese government censored Fang Fang, an award-winning writer based in Wuhan, who blogged a diary account of her experience during the lockdown. Her writing described deserted landscapes, overcrowding of hospitals, mask shortages, and government incompetence. The state-run press criticized her diary as “biased and only exposes the dark side in Wuhan.” 

Not only did the CCP silence the truth, it also pushed false narratives about an influenza epidemic in the United States, criticized the United States for “[creating] chaos and [spreading] fear with travel restrictions,” and lied about hospital construction. Zhao Lijian, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, promoted a conspiracy theory that the U.S. Army brought the coronavirus to Wuhan. The United States wasn’t the only country the CCP falsely accused of starting the virus. A Weibo post claiming that the coronavirus was in Italy in late November, before the outbreak in Wuhan, went viral and reached over 490 million views as of March 24. The intent of this disinformation was not necessarily to make people believe in a particular story, but to sow general discord around discussions about the origins of the virus. This indicates an increasing sophistication in the CCP’s disinformation techniques. 

What to Do?

Strategic approaches to China’s mass use of censorship, propaganda, and disinformation can be broken up into two categories: China’s targeting of its own people and China’s external efforts. There are offensive and defensive measures we can take. Remember, the CCP relies upon lies to stay in power. 

First, the United States should substantially ramp up its own Chinese-language efforts (we have the broadcasting institutions already) to tell the truth to the Chinese people about how they are governed. The truth should be revealed about public health, the environment, corruption, and injustice. We should place ourselves on the side of the Chinese people and help them discover the truth that could better their lives. Obviously, Xi’s regime will try to block all such efforts. But multimedia campaigns in Chinese make their way into China. Censorship is a cat and mouse game, and the regime needs to spend ever-greater resources to stop its people from learning the truth. When the United States Information Agency (USIA) operated, we had career paths for those who wanted to be “information officers” or even “information warriors.” We need that again. 

The State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC) can fill this gap if properly funded and staffed with Mandarin-speakers. Such efforts should tell America’s story in Chinese. Public diplomacy together with multimedia campaigns should explain and persuade – we need to tell the story of why Americans support basic democratic values in Hong Kong and Taiwan and how we would do so in China as well. We need not be defensive about our foreign policy. 

Second, we should pass proposed legislation enabling the United States to do a better job of highlighting the origin of political ads, particularly from foreign sources. We also should disclose the origin of content of social and other media from countries we have deemed rivals or enemies in our national security documents. 

Third, we should set up a center for excellence in combatting disinformation in Taiwan. Taipei faced down an onslaught during its past election. Many countries, including our own, can learn from it. And Taiwan is a Mandarin-speaking country that knows what messages work in Chinese and in Chinese culture. 

Fourth, congressional and administration leaders can do a better job in our own country explaining the nature of Chinese human rights abuses and censorship. Pressure should be put on U.S. entertainment figures who bend to CCP dictates – they will likely face a backlash among American followers and customers if the public is more informed about China’s abuses. 

 Fifth, Congress can continue to help set industry standards and best practices that guide social media companies in information sharing with each other and with the private and public sectors. This should include disclosing automated accounts, providing the locational origin of content, and providing users with more context when they see certain content. 

Sixth, the administration should be encouraged to accelerate and broaden efforts to designate Chinese state controlled media companies as foreign agents who need to register as such, and to make sure that “journalists” working for such entities are not credentialed as journalists. Congress could help by publishing and disseminating easily digestible information on China’s mass censorship and media control system. The American people should know exactly where their information on China is coming from and who is paying for it.


For the CCP, the truth is dangerous. The party cannot allow its citizens to know that it makes grievous mistakes that lead to sickness and death within China, that freedom and democracy work in Taiwan and in the West, that Hong Kongers are demanding their basic freedoms, that the United States is a force for good in the world. 

Beijing cannot admit any failures of governance, from mismanagement of the viral outbreaks to a starkly slowing economy. The CCP has been struggling for legitimacy and a raison d’etre since it began allowing markets to function (and thus undermined Maoism) and certainly since its violent crackdown on protestors in Tiananmen Square in 1989. It now coerces its people to accept its legitimacy and needs to protect itself in a web of lies. And, since President Xi has also set very ambitious geopolitical goals for his country to rejuvenate and return to its “rightful” place as the Middle Kingdom, CCP propaganda targets the United States. It does so by its influence over movies in which the United States is portrayed as declining and decadent and in its media portrayal of America as greedy and overbearing.

While the CCP has a vast apparatus to control information, arguably its most powerful tool is its market size. The economy may be slowing but the consumer market is still very large. The CCP will threaten U.S. media and entertainment companies with loss of market and financing if they deviate from the CCP party line. We need to break down and publicize as much as possible the specific entities that propagate the CCP’s ideological line and stop treating Chinese “media” as anything but foreign agents. 

Daniel Blumenthal, J.D., is Director of Asian Studies and a Resident Fellow, and Linda Zhang is a Research Assistant at the American Enterprise Institute. This article is adapted from testimony before Congress in May 2020.