The Australian Strategic Policy Institute has accused China of attempting to “spread false narratives and suppress information on a range of topics” in the Solomon Islands, even as the countdown for the crucial National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party has begun.Days ahead of the 20th National Congress due to begin next week, accusation of ‘spreading false narratives and suppressing information’ in the Solomon Islands is embarrassing for China which has always boasts of non-interfering and transparent foreign policy. Such accusation is not something President Xi Jinping would like as he prepares to get a third term in power.
Theprestigious ASPI has claimed that China is attempting to “spread false narratives and suppress information on a range of topics” in the Solomon Islands. The report further claimed that the Chinese Communist Party is attempting to influence public discourse in the Solomon Islands through coordinated information operations that seek to spread false narratives and suppress information on a range of topics.
Following the November 2021 Honiara riots and the March 2022 leaking of the China – Solomon Islands security agreement, the CCP has used its propaganda and disinformation capabilities to push false narratives in an effort to shape the Solomon Islands public’s perception of security issues and foreign partners. In alignment with the CCP’s regional security objectives, those messages have a strong focus on undermining Solomon Islands’ existing partnerships with Australia and the US, alleged the think tank group.
News reports on the controversial agreement between China and Solomon Islands in March had pointed out that the fears about lopsided agreement proved to be justified when the draft text of the security agreement, granting Chinese military and police significant access to Solomon Islands, was leaked online. The news had set off shockwaves that were felt in Canberra, Wellington and Washington.According to accounts from diplomatic sources, politicians and analysts, the China-Solomons security pact was a deal shrouded in secrecy, which took diplomats and government officials – even from within Solomon Islands – by total surprise, prompting a scramble by western powers to try to block Chinese influence in the region and outrage among Solomon Islanders, the Guardian paper reported.
The most shocking was that even the leader of the Solomon Islands opposition, Matthew Wale’s remarks that he too had learnt of the proposed deal in mid-2021 from a source. Wale claimed the deal was being negotiated by a very small team of elected representatives trusted by the prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare, but was being kept secret from everyone outside this tight circle including the rest of Sogavare’s cabinet. The charges were quite serious.
Although some of the CCP’s messaging occurs through routine diplomatic engagement, there’s a coordinated effort to influence the population across a broad spectrum of information channels. That spectrum includes Chinese party-state media, CCP official-led statements and publications in local and social media, and the amplification of particular individual and pro-CCP content via targeted Facebook groups, said the ASPI. There is now growing evidence to suggest that CCP officials are also seeking to suppress information that doesn’t align with the party-state’s narratives across the Pacific islands through the coercion of local journalists and media institutions.
Following are a few most important takeaways from the crucial ASPI report :
1: Local media outlets have the highest level of online penetration and engagement in Solomon Islands. CCP official-led articles published in local media—including opinion pieces, press releases and other quote-based articles—are the most effective method of propagating CCP narratives in Solomon Islands’ online information environment.
2: Party-state media articles produced by outlets such as the Global Times and the People’s Daily, although useful in highlighting CCP narratives, had little impact on and penetration into the Solomon Islands’ online information environment. They were rarely shared in public Facebook groups and, when they were shared, received mostly anti-China comments in response. Unlike CCP media releases and editorials published in local media, party-state media articles were rarely republished by local media outlets, which favoured content from Western media sources independent of state control, such as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
3: ASPI research has stated that Facebook comments as positive or negative towards a subject country, and showed that the most common social media comments relating to the two events investigated were negative towards China and the Solomon Islands Government. However, there was an overall decline in anti-China Facebook commentary and an increase in pro-China and anti-West commentary in the weeks following the Honiara riots and the leaked China – Solomon Islands security agreement.
4: Analysis of the anti-West online commentary following the leaked security agreement suggests that the local population used language featured in the CCP’s narrative, such as ‘bullying’, equally as much as language from local politicians who were independently critical of the US for doing ‘too little, too late’ and failing to address the issue of unexploded ordnance on Guadalcanal.
5: The Chinese Embassy has strong connections to several media outlets in Solomon Islands. Across the Pacific, there’s a growing body of evidence to suggest that Chinese diplomats exert pressure to influence local publications and control press releases in support of the CCP’s narratives. This suppressive activity probably plays a key role in the CCP’s information operations.
6: A Facebook group in Solomon Islands, created just after the riots and now with more than 1,000 followers, is being used to amplify party-state media articles. Articles in this group aim to promote the benefits of engaging with China at the expense of other foreign partnerships, although connections between the operation and the ownership of those pages are unknown.
7: Some Solomon Islands decision-makers and journalists were found to have connections with China – Solomon Islands Friendship Association. Many of those individuals have shared messages in the media that align with the CCP’s narratives and objectives in Solomon Islands, and the relationship between friendship associations and CCP narratives across the Pacific should be investigated further.
The ASPI’s findings have caused a huge embarrassment to the Chinese leadership which is against anti-Xi publicity at this juncture. However, Chinese authorities slammed ASPI report stating that such move is an ineffective attempt to stir trouble. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning stated that ever since China established diplomatic ties with the Solomon Islands in 2019, China has always upheld the principles of mutual respect, equal treatment, mutual benefit and win-win cooperation, openness and inclusiveness.