The 21st century has seen a rapid expansion of globalisation at unprecedented speed. So much so that no country is an island anymore, not even Sri Lanka. This phenomenon, which has brought the world closer, comes with numerous benefits but also some detriments – one is in the form of foreign influence.
Sri Lanka, with its strategic location to the south of India, placed at the crossroads of major shipping routes to South Asia, the Far East, Europe, and America, is no stranger to such influential efforts, which seem to come from all sides.
China, sometimes a friend, sometimes a foe, has been in the centre of many controversies concerning the sovereignty and security of Sri Lanka, often butting heads with India, Sri Lanka’s closest neighbour and largest trading partner, and the US. Inevitably, the island nation often finds itself in the diplomatic crosshairs, unsure of which way to turn.
The relationship between China and Sri Lanka has been one that dates back centuries, although the first official recognition of this came in the 1950s. Cooperation between the two countries spans the areas of trade, investment, tourism, finance, culture and more. Over the years, China has signed several agreements and established numerous associations to foster further cooperation, including the Sri Lanka-China Friendship Association, Sri Lanka-China Youth Friendship Association, Sri Lanka-China Buddhist Friendship Association, Association for Sri Lanka-China Social and Cultural Cooperation (ASLCSCC), Sri Lanka and China Society, Sri Lanka China Journalists Forum and the more recent China-Sri Lanka Association for Trade and Economic Cooperation (CSLATE).
China has also heavily lent to Sri Lanka, with a notable increase in debt extended over the past 20 years, making it one of the country’s biggest lenders. A substantial portion of this debt was utilised to build infrastructure projects that are part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). However, some of these, like the Hambantota Port and the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport, have become white elephants. China also invested in the Colombo International Financial City (formerly Port City), which was declared an economic zone through the controversial Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill that was passed last year, despite receiving much flak.
Beijing’s media influence efforts
News of Beijing’s efforts to influence local media has been making the rounds over the past few years. The phrase “China’s red carpet trap” would sound familiar to those closely following Sino-Sri Lanka relations.
Local journalists, when interviewed in 2020, stated that following participation in fully paid training sessions in China, they were expected to portray the country positively in their stories; they clarified, though, that this arrangement wasn’t unique to China, while adding that the Chinese Embassy, and not the editors/management of their respective publications, would decide on journalists’ eligibility for such programmes.
Meanwhile, the Twitter account of the Chinese Embassy in Colombo, operational since 2020, is known to engage with other Twitter users in a hostile manner, “including by tagging elected Sri Lankan leaders and other diplomatic representatives”. Additionally, “sock puppet accounts” – semi or fully automated Twitter accounts – were seen amplifying posts by the embassy and BRI accounts.
While the China Communist Party (CCP)’s efforts to influence Sri Lanka have been previously highlighted in an International Republican Institute (IRI) report, a recently released comprehensive Country Report on Sri Lanka, which is part of Freedom House’s Beijing’s Global Media Influence 2022 report, uncovers some unnerving aspects of China’s efforts to influence local media during 2019-2021.
Favoured narratives and distribution channels
The report lists out the CCP’s propaganda efforts and promotion of favoured narratives in Sri Lanka. It touts its close political and financial ties with the country and the Sinopharm vaccines donated to Sri Lanka since 2020, which helps push its narrative of being the “global provider” of COVID vaccines. It also addressed negative stories through the rebuttal of criticism related to its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and its origins and human rights violations in Xinjiang and Tibet, and engaged in coercive diplomacy through misleading or false claims, with a lot of ire directed at the US. It also engages in disinformation campaigns and suppression of and countering bad press through censorship and intimidation with aggressive diplomatic push on social media, also known as “wolf warrior” tactics.
The CCP distributes its content mainly via active diplomatic communications such as the Chinese Embassy; China Radio International (CRI), which is an FM radio station that is broadcast in Sinhala, and its social media accounts; Chinese state-affiliated social media influencers that target local audiences; local think tanks; official and unofficial partnerships with local pro-Beijing groups and local newspapers; subsidised journalist trips, to curry favour for positive coverage – which has been going on for several years; and local political leaders, elites, and certain media, by maintaining high level ties with them.
Low media professionalism and gaps in self-regulation, a lack of legal safeguards against media monopolies and political influence, and a dearth of Chinese language research and expertise are cited as vulnerabilities in Sri Lanka’s media landscape that leave room for such influence by the CCP.
The report highlights the industry’s quid pro quo culture when it comes to advertising and reporting, and the lack of verification/fact-checking of news that is often pulled from social media and/or when quoting politicians/officials.
The report attributes this to the highly competitive media landscape that has evolved to prioritise speed and quantity over quality and the low remuneration and financial troubles in the industry, which lead to easy manipulation through economic incentives.
The report also states: “Partisan influence over the media and other restrictions on free expression remains a problem. The government periodically blocks social media sites arbitrarily and journalists continue to experience pressure when it comes to reporting news on religious or cultural issues. Sri Lanka has no laws against partisan ownership of the media, and as a result, over half of the outlets have political affiliations, making them vulnerable to potential Chinese party state influence, given the relationship between the political leadership in both countries.
“High media concentration is another impediment to diverse discourse. In the print media, the top four owners have a combined readership share of 75 percent. The gap between the market leader and the remaining outlets is exceptionally high.”
Social media manipulated; youths targeted
While not unique to Sri Lanka, and not even as streamlined as in some of the other 29 countries researched, the CCP’s influence efforts were found to be tailored to each region it targeted. Here, for instance, China Radio International (CRI) broadcasts on FM in Sinhala and has a Tamil language YouTube channel. Moreover, a Facebook account named Cheena Sinhala Handa posts content of Chinese personalities speaking in Sinhala about various cultural and soft diplomacy topics; the account shows high user engagement.
The report also brings to light more covert and insidious strategies on social media that were implemented in 2020 to shape a commendatory image of China among the Sri Lankan public in what could be termed an evolution of its modus operandi.
The report states: “Facebook influencers affiliated with Chinese state media have increasingly pushed content targeting young adults in local languages including Sinhala…Several Sinhala and English language Facebook accounts affiliated with Chinese state outlets like CRI and CGTN have been created in the past two years. To the casual viewer they would appear as personal pages rather than accounts affiliated with the Chinese party state. These accounts, apparently belonging to young, attractive Chinese women, have between 80,000 and over one million followers. Though they are identified as ‘state-controlled content’ on some social media platforms, they are not labelled on all of them.
“An investigation by researcher (Dr.) Sanjana Hattotuwa revealed that many of the accounts were running Facebook ads targeting audiences in Sri Lanka, coinciding with their increased following in what he suspects to be a coordinated effort to expand local reach. Most of these accounts posted largely apolitical content, covering topics like similarities between Chinese and Sri Lankan culture (Buddhism, traditional medicines), food, and travel advice, while occasionally sprinkling in political content, such as during major anniversaries like the centennial of the CCP’s founding. Perhaps due to their apolitical and more personal presentation, these accounts appeared to garner more genuine engagement from users than clearly labelled state media accounts.”
The report notes that several local journalists who were approached to be interviewed refused to speak about their experience on fully paid trips to China for fear of reprisal or losing perks.
Resilience, response, and public opinion
While Sri Lanka’s resilience to Chinese influence in the media industry is low, there is some underlying resistance through a robust human rights and press freedom community as well as think tanks with expertise relevant to countering Chinese influence. In total, there are 35 media associations, 17 of which are national. Additionally, Sri Lanka’s audiences have a high awareness of media biases, according to a Sri Lanka Media Audience study conducted in 2019, and several media literacy programmes have commenced since the COVID-19 pandemic, some of which aim to increase awareness on disinformation on social media. “Many media users routinely turn to multiple sources to verify news and other information. Audiences also supposedly have a strong sense of what good journalism is, identifying characteristics such as evidence-based, balanced, unbiased, detailed, and drawn from multiple sources as journalistic ideals,” states the report.
China-specific media resilience is very low but developing, with some civil society members being very vocal about problematic aspects of CCP influence in Sri Lanka.
That publications pick up China-focused news from various foreign news sources, including CNN, Quartz, Radio Free Asia, The Atlantic, and Reuters, means pro-Beijing views do not dominate commentary on China. “Moreover, given the relatively insular nature of Sri Lankan media, China is featured less frequently on television and radio than in the press, meaning that Chinese state media content does not typically reach large swathes of the population, decreasing its potential for influence,” the report states.
The stance on China among Sri Lanka’s political elite is fairly diverse, and certain political leaders have been critical and ambivalent when it comes to China’s influence.
Meanwhile, public opinion is varied. While there is limited public polling of Sri Lankans’ views on China, there is some evidence that COVID-19 related donations have led to public goodwill towards China, although perceptions are mixed regarding China’s investment in Sri Lanka. “There are university academics who uncritically sing praise of Chinese investments and loans to Sri Lanka, but also civil society groups who are cautiously critical of becoming overly reliant on Chinese investment. Experts believe most Sri Lankans trust China and are happy about its many investments in the country but there is also growing backlash from the public against China’s involvement in Sri Lanka,” adds the report.
The report rates Sri Lanka Vulnerable to Beijing’s media influence with notable (34/85) efforts by the CCP and low (27/85) local resilience and response.
The Chinese Embassy in Sri Lanka has denied any truth to the report’s contents. Its full statement can be found here.
Bhavna Mohan is a contributor to Ground Views.