Chinese State Media Abroad: More Effective than Expected

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Over the past two decades, China has become an increasingly active and important international actor. The country is a global power on the diplomatic stage and increasing numbers of Chinese citizens, businesses, and government officials are shaping China’s image abroad. However, Chinese leaders may be discovering that global influence does not always correlate with popularity. Global surveys show that in recent years international negative attitudes towards China have risen, especially in developed and democratic countries. This is evident from the data collected and analyzed by the Pew Research Center between 2002 and 2022, for example (see Figure 1). 


Professors Yu Xie from Princeton University and Yongai Jin from Renmin University have processed the Pew survey data further to get a better picture of the trends at play. Their analysis demonstrates that global views towards China have been on a negative trajectory between 2005 and 2018. They also find that respondents in democratic countries and countries with higher human development index scores are more likely to hold a negative view of China.  

The decline in favorable opinions on China in democratic countries suggests that ideology may play an important role. However, in some countries, especially developing economies, economic factors may help explain trends in public opinion towards China. By analyzing multiple types of data professors Xie and Jin found that Chinese investment in a country is correlated with more positive opinions on China, while higher exports from China seemed to correspond with more negative views. Finally, in their analysis, Professors Xie and Jin found that more highly educated people in developed countries tend to have a more negative view of China, while the opposite is true in developing countries, where higher levels of education are correlated with more positive views of China. 

Building Soft Power

Although survey data show that views towards China have been declining overall, some countries appear to be bucking the trend and research is being done to explain this phenomenon. One area of attention are the explicit efforts on the part of the Chinese government to shape the country’s image and “soft power” abroad—something that global powers have long attempted. Chinese official engagement has taken place through Confucius Institutes, scholarships, and trainings, for example. And state media, which usually presents a very tightly controlled message, is a key channel to present China’s official perspective to the world.  

An increasing number of scholars have been looking at China’s soft power and its international messaging to understand its dynamics, trends, and impact (see Resources). For example, Professors Daniel Mattingly, Trevor Incerti, Changwook Ju, Colin Moreshead, Seiki Tanaka, Hikaru Yamagishi used an experimental approach to explore how influential Chinese state media is and how it compared with American official messaging in 2022.  They found some surprising results.

The scholars presented samples of real Chinese and American media products to a randomly selected audience of over 6,000 people located in 19 countries with different political systems, GDP levels, geographic locations, and relations with China. The countries ranged from Kenya and Saudi Arabia to Singapore and Canada. Participants were organized in four different groups and watched either only two Chinese-produced videos, two American-produced videos, one Chinese-produced and one American-produced video, or two videos on nature that were unrelated to China, the United States, or politics (so as to get a measure of baseline opinions prior to exposure to targeted media). The research team then asked respondents their opinions regarding the quality of governance and the democratic character of both the United States and China and their preferences between the two countries’ political and economic models, among other things. 

The results showed that Chinese state media can be very persuasive, especially when it comes to improving opinions on China’s political and economic models. For example, exposure to Chinese state media messages more than triples support for the Chinese political system vis-a-vis the American one, from 16 percent to 54 percent.  

The data from the survey shows that Chinese state media can have a remarkable effect on public opinion, but it is worth noting that views on China and the United States were heavily in favor of the latter to begin with—consistent with the data collected by Pew. The scholars used the responses from the group that wasn’t exposed by political messaging and only viewed nature videos before the survey to assess a country’s baseline opinion. The average for this group indicates that only 16 percent of respondents preferred China’s political system to the American one (see Figure 2). We can consider this the baseline level of support for China’s and the U.S.’ political systems in these countries.

Figure 2 illustrates that there is much room for public opinion towards China to improve, with most respondents that had not watched Chinese state media videos generally preferring the U.S. political and economic models and for the United States to be the global leader. This high level of goodwill may also help explain why in the experiment U.S. messaging was less effective in shifting views compared to Chinese state media. Exposure to positive messaging on the United States did have an impact; preference for the U.S. political model increased by 8 percentage points among those who watched American government-produced videos (see Figure 3).  

The picture becomes more complicated when assessing results from the group that was exposed to both American and Chinese messaging. Support for China increased by less than in the group that only watched Chinese government-produced videos and didn’t watch the content produced by the U.S. government, but overall preference for the Chinese political and economic model and China as a world leader increased. This seems to suggest that Chinese government-produced media is more persuasive than equivalent American government-produced media. 

One notable finding from the study was that in the group not exposed in the experiment to either Chinese or American government-produced media, the level of knowledge of China was quite poor. For example, 43 percent of respondents in that group believed that China has a democratic political system, 48 percent that Chinese citizens have the right to free speech, and 25 percent that all adults in the country vote for their national leader.

When breaking down the data by country, the research team found that there were some discernible trends. Respondents from African and Latin American countries were more likely to indicate preference for the Chinese political and economic models and China as a global leader compared to other regions. European and North American respondents were instead far less likely to favor China, even after being exposed to Chinese government-produced media. As other scholars have discussed, citizens in developing countries may be more responsive to messaging focused on economic development offering potential solutions to poverty and are more relevant to the experience of developing nations. 

Implications for Washington

The data presented from these studies should be understood within the broader framework of diplomatic efforts on the part of the United States and Chinese governments to court friends in third countries and as part of strategic competition. The research presented in this microfeature shows how carefully curated messaging can influence those very global perceptions, potentially expanding a country’s soft power.  

One reassuring finding for Washington is that global perceptions of the United States are generally quite positive relative to China, and that in many countries opinions on China are deteriorating. However, the United States government should be wary of the influence of Chinese global media, especially in the Global South and in countries with low levels of knowledge of China. In fact, in developing countries, the Chinese message on economic development and good governance may, in fact, be more appealing simply because of the type of topics addressed such as poverty reduction efforts.  

More research into the long-term effect of exposure to Chinese (and American) media, including whether different messages have different effects, can help better understand the implication of the data presented here. Such research should also consider whether the type of messaging presented in U.S. government-produced media could be made more effective, especially in developing countries. These efforts could be linked to broader efforts to improve relations with countries in the Global South through new economic and diplomatic initiatives.

Finally, the U.S. government runs programs aimed at countering disinformation through the Global Engagement Center among other departments. This is valuable, but as proven by the research discussed in this microfeature, media can be powerful even when it is not necessarily spreading misinformation per se. Further expanding existing efforts to promote independent local media and education through embassies and other American agencies and involving local stakeholders in initiatives that aim at furthering the discussion of China’s role in their country could be effective in countering official PRC portrayals of China. 


  • Ilaria Mazzocco
    Ilaria Mazzocco is a senior fellow with the Trustee Chair in Chinese Business and Economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Prior to joining CSIS, she led research on Chinese climate and energy policy for Macropolo, the Paulson Institute’s think tank. She holds a PhD from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
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Ilaria Mazzocco, "Chinese State Media Abroad: More Effective than Expected," Big Data China, Center for Strategic and International Studies, March 16, 2023, last modified March 16, 2023,