CITW: Exploring PRC influence in Latin America and the Caribbean
In late July, Doublethink Lab visited Bogotá, Colombia, to co-host “Navigating China’s relations with Latin America and the Caribbean: challenges and opportunities,” a workshop held in collaboration with Andrés Bello Foundation — Chinese Latin American Research Center (ABF).
The event featured seminars and training courses designed exclusively for journalists and researchers from Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), conducted by specialists in the coverage and analysis of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Some 40 attendees from nine countries in LAC, as well as France and Spain, gathered to discuss reporting themes and share tools useful in covering PRC activity in the region.
The majority were journalists, both independent and from major news organizations, with others joining from civil society organizations, and academic think tanks. Their interests spanned development models, the economy, the environment, foreign influence, policy, and trade and investment. Pre-event polling found a strong demand for information providing context on LAC-PRC relations, in particular around PRC foreign policy, as well as China-focused research tools.
Working in Chinese languages was flagged as a major challenge, and perhaps for this reason, a presentation by Niva Yao, Non-Resident Fellow — Global China Hub of the Atlantic Council,
“Tools for Non-Chinese Speakers to Investigate PRC Engagement Internationally”, was voted among the most useful of the workshops. “Using Artificial Intelligence Research Tools to Understand PRC Narratives in LAC,” delivered by Pablo Matamoros, Executive Director — Centro de Análisis para la Democracia (CADLatam), was also popular, as journalists were able to integrate AI research techniques into their ongoing projects.
Doublethink Lab’s Global Research team prepared a “China Influence 101”, distinguishing Taiwan’s democracy from PRC authoritarianism, and fleshing out the islands’ experience on the frontlines of PRC disinformation efforts, covering espionage, cyberattacks, the cultivation of proxies in domestic politics, and efforts to introduce malign propaganda into Taiwan’s information environment. This set the stage for future speakers to explore the nature of United Front work, particularly around elite capture in countries with highly concentrated power bases.
The Sunflower Movement epitomises the differences between democratic Taiwan and PRC authoritarianism (China Influence 101).
DTL also introduced the China Index, highlighting the importance of data in reporting on the issue of PRC influence in LAC, and calling for new partners to expand Index coverage beyond 2023. ABF later shared China Index research focused on Latin America (LatAm), exploring the nuances of how exposure to PRC influence, as well as PRC pressure and influence effects, varies across the region. ABF Senior Researcher Catalina Micolta also offered possible explanations for relatively high LatAm linkages across Doublethink Lab Chairman Puma Shen’s “Dependency” China Index Domain cluster, comprising the Economy, Technology, and Domestic Politics.
ABF presented China Index research that focused on Latin America and opened the door to discussion around potential reasons for the varying nature of PRC influence in the region, in this showing the hierarchy of PRC influence in the region according to the China Index.
DTL’s Social Engagement Team Lead Ai-men Lau joined Yau to explore “The Diaspora Dilemma,” equipping listeners with context to understand why the PRC is so intent on targeting the Chinese diaspora. They showed that while the CCP presents diaspora views as monolithic and united behind its propaganda, in reality, the diaspora is markedly more diverse, and deserving of nuanced attention. Slides from “Unpacking the Power of Propaganda: The Factors in Shaping Overseas Chinese Communities’ Attitudes Towards Pro-CCP Narratives,” a DTL report conducted in Malaysia and New Zealand, unpacked examples of how diaspora actions and attitudes can diverge when it comes to propaganda consumption, for example. Instances of why CCP efforts to target diaspora communities can be so corrosive to democracy, such as in Canada and New Zealand, underscored why related understanding is crucial to reporting wider issues. Their talk also showed the damage that PRC actions can do in terms of stoking unfounded suspicion and violence toward diaspora communities.
DTL Social Engagement Team Lead Ai-men Lau (on screen) and Non-Resident Fellow — Global China Hub of the Atlantic Council Niva Yau (on far right) turned the spotlight on the complex relationships between the CCP and the diaspora communities it targets.
ABF Founder & Executive Director Parsifal D’Sola shared personal anecdotes from his time working in the PRC, and highlighted the relative lack of awareness of its norms and structures in LAC, compared with PRC citizens’ understanding of the region, its leaders and institutions, tensions with the United States. He also mentioned the key role played by the former President of Venezuela Hugo Chavez in cultivating ties with the PRC. In contrast, perhaps only Chile and Costa Rica have a defined ‘China’ policy, despite strong PRC efforts to influence the region, D’Sola said. Meanwhile, the PRC targets the Caribbean due to its crucial role in facilitating global financial fund flows and the relative ease with which their citizenship can be obtained. Finally, regular high-level visits between officials in the two geographies have helped secure Caribbean support for the PRC in international forums.
ABF Founder & Executive Director Parsifal D’Sola shared personal anecdotes from his time working in the PRC, as well as insights into the nature of United Front operations in LAC.
The discussion touched on culture wars in Venezuela as a result of PRC companies’ importation of labor, a lack of transparency over the deaths of workers on various infrastructure projects, corruption in contract allocation, and the channels through which high-level pressure can be brought to bear on reporters trying to get to the heart of a story. Several attendees cautioned against viewing PRC relations in a bilateral context without heed to the roles played by countries with a disruptive historical presence in the region, such as the U.S. and UK. Others highlighted the danger of focusing too intently on the PRC to the detriment of holding local power to account.
Isolda Morillo, a veteran China correspondent and independent journalist shared recollections of her time reporting from the PRC, highlighting the importance of journalists’ role in promoting a greater understanding of the country’s complexity, and of language skills in earning sources’ trust.
Isolda Morillo shared insights into the realities of working as a journalist in the PRC, beginning with a reminder of reporters’ vital role in witnessing and recording historical events.
Juan Pablo Cardenal, Editor for Análisis Sínico — Centro para la Apertura y el Desarrollo de
América Latina (CADAL), marshaled his experience conducting fieldwork on PRC companies in 40 countries over eight years to deliver a coruscating assessment of how the lack of a free press in the PRC exacerbates poor corporate conduct overseas. He also highlighted the role of journalism in changing this state of affairs, while the audience noted that media coverage also impacts PRC firms’ domestic share prices, as investors read about them in their Corporate Social Responsibility reports.
In conclusion, China in the World (CITW) China Index partners offered a window into their research, with Data Privacy Brasil exploring PRC efforts to export legal regulatory frameworks in the technology sector to Brazil, and Matamoros reviewing his work monitoring CCP social media mentions and interactions in LatAm. Finally, ABF shared news of an important new project mapping PRC company operations in the Andean region, which currently extends to CHEC and China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) projects in five countries.
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