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China’s Efforts to Shape the Information Environment in Myanmar

Ryan LoomisHeidi Holz
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The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has embarked on a campaign to shape what audiences around the world read, hear, and watch about China. This report examines the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) efforts to shape the information environment of its southern neighbor, Myanmar.

Key findings

China has invested heavily in establishing a presence in Myanmar’s information environment. Key elements of China’s efforts include the following:

  • Multiple PRC media outlets produce a broad range of Burmese-language content. More Chinese state-run media outlets produce Burmese-language content than any of the other major languages spoken in the Mekong region. Xinhua News Agency and China Radio International (CRI) both host Burmese-language webpages that feature reporting on a range of topics, including news, culture, and entertainment. Xinhua has launched a Burmeselanguage mobile news app, and CRI and the PRC embassy in Yangon co-publish China Today.
  • PRC media engage in content sharing with a variety of state-run and private Myanmar media outlets. PRC media outlets have established content-sharing agreements with online, TV, radio, and print media outlets in Myanmar. Xinhua and CRI provide content to state-run outlets through via agreements with Myanmar’s Ministry of Information (MOI), as well as with popular private media outlets such as Mizzima.
  • PRC media outlets have established popular Burmese-language Facebook pages. Facebook is the most popular source of news and information in Myanmar, and PRC media has readily adapted to this environment. CRI and Xinhua have both established an active Burmese-language presence on Facebook.
  • China seeks to influence Myanmar journalists by sponsoring forums, training, and travel. Beijing seeks to shape the perceptions of Myanmar media professionals by hosting international media forums, reporting trips, conferences, and training programs. Hundreds of journalists from Myanmar, including MOI officials, have visited China at invitation of Chinese entities.
  • PRC media outlets tailor entertainment content to Myanmar audiences through joint production. In addition to actively exporting Chinese-produced entertainment to Myanmar, Chinese production companies also co-produce pro-China documentaries, films, and television series with local partners.
  • PRC companies seeks to capture segments of Myanmar’s telecom market to shape future development. China actively seeks to expand its presence in Myanmar’s telecommunications sector. Two Chinese telecom companies, Huawei and ZTE, have partnered with Mytel and Ooredoo Myanmar, respectively, to roll out 5G technologies in the country. Additionally, China Telecom Group is reported to be in talks with Ooredoo Myanmar to purchase an ownership stake in the company.

Despite these efforts, PRC state-run media outlets have not yet overtaken other foreign media outlets in popularity.

  • At least seven major international news outlets produce Burmese-language content: two from the US, two from China, and one each from the UK, Australia, and Japan. The most popular foreign-owned media outlets in Myanmar are from the United States (VOA, YouTube, and Facebook) and the United Kingdom (BBC).
  • Chinese entertainment has yet to overtake other foreign entertainment programs in popularity, most notably Korean dramas.

China uses its presence in Myanmar’s information environment to promote narratives that further its strategic interests. Key narratives that China seeks to promote to audiences in Myanmar include the following:

  • China and Myanmar have a unique friendship. PRC officials and media tailor this narrative for audiences in Myanmar by using the Burmese term “pauk-phaw” (fraternal ties) to describe bilateral relations.
  • Cooperation with China is beneficial to Myanmar. PRC media and officials promote the narrative that cooperation with China, particularly on projects associated with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is especially beneficial to Myanmar’s economic development.
  • Unlike the US/West, Beijing supports Myanmar’s efforts to deal with the Rohingya crisis. In addition to being Myanmar’s largest investor, PRC media points out that China has become an indispensable partner to Myanmar as it deals with isolation from the West and international legal repercussions over the Rohingya crisis.
  • China provides Myanmar with the means to fight COVID-19. As a corollary to this narrative, Burmese-language PRC media also criticizes the US response to the pandemic and has published disinformation suggesting that the US is responsible for the emergence of the virus.

Popular domestic pushback against China’s presence in Myanmar is likely to complicate PRC efforts to shape the media environment and limit the resonance of PRC narratives.

  • Public opinion data show that the Myanmar public’s views of China are mixed. Respondents to a recent survey indicated that they were worried about China’s growing influence and were far more interested in learning English than Mandarin.
  • Many in Myanmar have criticized China’s role in ongoing militant clashes in Myanmar’s north and east, China’s consistent ranking as the top destination of human trafficking of Myanmar citizens, and the environmental effects of China’s BRI projects. Both state-run and private media outlets in Myanmar have reported on expressions of popular anti-Chinese sentiment related to these topics.

Issues to watch

China has a substantial footprint in Myanmar’s media environment, but it has yet to overtake or crowd out other external sources of news, entertainment, and media-related aid. As China seeks to further its interests in Myanmar, including BRI-related projects such as the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor and the development of the Kyaukpyu port, it is likely to continue its efforts to shape Myanmar’s media. Some issues to watch include the following:

  • Evidence that PRC media is taking concrete steps to increase the reach and resonance of content targeted at audiences in Myanmar, including the following:
  • Increasing joint production of content with local partners in Myanmar
  • Expanding content-sharing agreements with state-run and private outlets
  • Hiring local journalists
  • Developing Burmese language programs at Chinese universities
  • Reporting on local events in Myanmar that do not involve China
  • Increasing direct radio and television broadcasting from China into Myanmar
  • Opportunistic Chinese investment in Myanmar media outlets. In recent years, financial strain has forced many Myanmar media outlets to close and has left many others struggling to survive. Local media experts have expressed concern that the global economic downturn triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to exacerbate the financial pressures that local media outlets already face, creating more opportunities for PRC investment.
  • Coordinated online activity amplifying pro-China narratives in Burmese. China has demonstrated a willingness to engage in coordinated inauthentic behavior on social media. Beijing may employ this tactic in Myanmar, where it can take advantage of Facebook’s popularity to promote its preferred narratives.
  • The spread of disinformation by Chinese state-run media. Chinese state-run media has engaged in a disinformation campaign during the COVID-19 pandemic. CRI Myanmar’s Facebook account, for instance, has posted Burmese-language videos implying that the US military is responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. PRC media publication of blatant disinformation targeted at audiences in Myanmar is an issue that warrants careful monitoring.

Recommendations from experts & media professionals in the region

The Myanmar media professionals and experts with whom we spoke over the course of our research suggested ways that the international community could help to support the integrity of Myanmar’s information environment. These include the following:

  • Support efforts to promote digital literacy. The complexity of the modern information environment and the rise of social media can work to the advantage external actors like China. Moreover, disinformation has played a role in worsening the internal conflict within Myanmar. Improving digital literacy in Myanmar would help provide media consumers with the skills to identify and utilize reputable sources of news and avoid disreputable sources.
  • Provide financial support to independent media outlets. Because most people in Myanmar now consume news and information for free online, many media outlets’ revenues are down. The COVID-19–induced economic downturn is likely to further exacerbate the financial stresses that smaller, independent media outlets in Myanmar already face. Experts suggested that the international community could provide funding to support local independent media outlets. Reports by the Center for International Media Assistance provide useful resources for international donors looking for effective strategies for supporting independent media.
  • Partner with local media organizations to promote media development. A 2019 United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) report concluded that Myanmar media practitioners prioritize legal reforms, the right to information, gender and inclusion, and the development of local content promoting peace, democracy, and good governance. To support these local priorities, the international community could work with local media development and training organizations, such as the Myanmar Journalism Institute (MJI), the Center for Myanmar Media Development (CMMD), and the Yangon and Mandalay Journalism Schools.
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Details

  • Pages: 96
  • Document Number: IIM-2020-U-026098-Final
  • Publication Date: 9/1/2020
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