Congress hears of Beijing’s ‘discourse power’

Even US companies, scared of being frozen out of China’s huge market, are toeing its political line, experts say.
By Alex Willemyns for RFA
2023.12.01
Washington
Congress hears of Beijing’s ‘discourse power’ “The war has already started on the most important battlefield, which is in your mind,” says Rep. Mike Gallagher, chair of the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party. The panel held a hearing Thursday in Washington, D.C.
House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party

The Chinese Communist Party leverages the profit motive of U.S. businesses operating in China to force them to side with it on sensitive political issues, experts told Congress on Thursday. 

The House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party was also told that America’s richest businessman, Elon Musk – who last month met Chinese President Xi Jinping in San Francisco – could be at particular risk of coercion given his vast interests in China. 

Speaking at the special panel’s latest prime-time hearing, Rep. Mike Gallagher, a Republican from Wisconsin who serves as the chair of the committee, said Beijing was engaged in an effort to win control of Taiwan and the South China Sea before shots are ever fired.

“The war has already started on the most important battlefield, which is in your mind,” Gallagher said. “The CCP calls it ‘cognitive domain warfare,’ and it is part of their larger political warfare strategy.”

That has led China’s leaders to vow to achieve “discourse power,” he said, by which they seek to overpower perspectives about the world they consider to be threats with perspectives they have crafted.

“Once the front lines of human thought have been broken through, other defensive lines become harder to defend,” Gallagher said, adding that a Chinese military handbook described “the realm of ideas” as a “smokeless battlefield” where victory is possible via propaganda. 

That contrasted with U.S. mass media, he said, where “there’s no way you can find a more scathing critique of the United States and its government” than in The New York Times or on Fox News.

Wall Street to K Street

Experts appearing before the committee said the modern style of propaganda utilized by Beijing involved more than just producing and disseminating news that favors the Chinese Communist Party.

Miles Yu, director of the China Center at the Hudson Institute, said a more accurate translation of “discourse power,” as the term is used by the Chinese Communist Party, would be “discourse dominance.” 

Xi “wants to make the CCP’s propaganda about China the only global discourse about China,” he explained, and thereby eliminate any competing depictions of the country.

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China forces U.S. companies that want to do business in China to fall in line with its censorship on “sensitive” issues, even when doing business outside of China, Miles Yu [left], director of the China Center at the Hudson Institute, told the hearing Thursday. (House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party)

To that end, he explained, Beijing sent agents to “Wall Street, K Street, and think-tank row on Massachusetts Avenue” to cultivate U.S. elites and turn them into “Friends of China,” or “F.O.C.,” who can exert their influence on U.S. business and government in favor of Beijing.

But one of the most insidious methods of ideological warfare by Beijing was, he said, the ways in which it forces U.S. companies that want to do business in China’s vast market to fall in line with its censorship on “sensitive” issues, even when doing business outside of China.

“This is in Hollywood and the NBA, and everybody who wants to do anything about China today,” Yu said. “You have to really be mindful of the fact that everything you write, everything you say, every single email you send, could hinder your opportunity to work … in China.”

NBA

U.S. basketball stars like Enes Kanter Freedom have said their NBA careers were cut short after they wore shoes bearing political slogans such as “Save Uyghur,” due to Beijing subsequently banning the broadcast of games involving their teams in China’s huge market.

ENG_CHN_SelectCommittee_120123.3.jpg
Boston Celtics' Enes Kanter wore these shoes during an NBA basketball game against the Toronto Raptors, Nov. 10, 2021. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

“The NBA is big business in China,” said Rep. Andy Barr, a Republican from Kentucky, noting the playoffs air on state-run television there.

Barr said it was clear why the NBA was fearful of rubbing China’s leaders the wrong way on “sensitive” issues. Besides the NBA’s own Chinese subsidiary being worth US$5 billion, he said, each of the individual team owners have extensive business interests there.

“ESPN examined investments of the 40 principal owners of the NBA and found that they collectively have more than $10 billion tied up in China, including one owner whose company has a joint venture with an entity that has actually been sanctioned by the U.S.,” Barr said.

The export of the NBA to China could have been “quite advantageous in the cultural competition we have,” he added, but was instead being leveraged by China’s government in the opposite direction, forcing American basketball champions to echo Beijing’s talking points. 

He pointed to NBA all-time leading points scorer LeBron James’ criticism of Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey in 2019 as “misinformed” after Morey spoke out in favor of the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong that year, to Beijing’s loud chagrin.

Hollywood 

Yaqiu Wang, the research director for China, Hong Kong and Taiwan at Freedom House, said a similar dynamic was present in Hollywood.

“Think about any blockbuster you watched in the past 10 years that portrayed China or the Chinese government in a negative light,” Wang told the committee. “I don't think we can come up with even one.”

“Hollywood producers, when they think about making a movie, the first thing that goes through their mind is ‘I need to make sure this movie can be sold in China, because that's a huge market,” she said, calling it potentially “even bigger than the U.S., because of the population.”

“The result is that they are not going to produce anything that is going to portray Beijing in a negative light,” Wang said. “It’s very pervasive.”

ENG_CHN_SelectCommittee_120123.4.jpg
“Hollywood producers, when they think about making a movie, the first thing that goes through their mind is ‘I need to make sure this movie can be sold in China, because that's a huge market,’ ” Yaqiu Wang [left], the research director for China, Hong Kong and Taiwan at Freedom House, told Thursday’s hearing. (House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party)

She also said that Musk, the owner of Tesla and the social media platform X, which was previously known as Twitter, may face the same pressure behind-the-scenes to police discourse in favor of China.

“Musk may be particularly vulnerable to pressure from Beijing because he has significant business interests in China,” Wang said, noting that China was Tesla’s second-largest market and Shanghai was home to a Tesla factory that is the largest electric vehicle maker in the world.

“The CCP is very, very good at leveraging foreign businesses’ access to the country to compel them to toe the party line,” she said.

Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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