Who Influences Beijing?
U.S. companies operating in China – or otherwise affected by intensifying competition between Washington, D.C. and Beijing – have entered a challenging and protracted period of uncertainty. Conventional approaches to analysis and risk mitigation either have been sharply curtailed or proven ineffective. Most fundamentally, American business leaders no longer have access to even the most basic indicators of the priorities, ambitions, and insecurities of China’s leadership. To address this urgent need, Baron deployed the firm’s Influencer Analytics research platform to reveal shifts in China’s competitive posture and support corporate decision makers navigating gathering threats.
Influencer Analytics aggregates observations at scale, providing empirical – rather than anecdotal or theoretical – perspectives of what matters to Beijing. By analyzing sources targeting non-Chinese audiences, this study reveals Beijing’s core perception of, and approach to, bilateral competition. Baron collected more than 13,000 citations made by English-language Chinese state media between November 2022 and September 2023. Baron’s Influencer Analytics algorithm scored top entities based on factors including: volume (number of citations of influencer); diversity (number of different sources citing same influencer); consistency (limiting distortions caused by news spikes); and significance (baseline frequency of statements).
- U.S. perspectives matter to Beijing. China’s leadership class values validation by credentialed U.S. elites and affiliated institutions, and also displays hyper-sensitivity to U.S. criticism.
- Contrary to official policy statements suggesting broader economic leadership ambitions, Beijing practically is most focused on achieving economic superiority over the United States in two specific areas: tech and automotive.
- Beijing communicates a position in the world defined by loneliness and isolation. China perceives few genuine allies, resulting in a heavy reliance on transactional relationships that yield only artificial support. China’s sense of alienation from, and even rejection by, the rest of the world should be considered an important factor in the bilateral competition.
- China’s messaging in state media tends to be negative, aggressive, and defensive. This contrasts sharply with U.S. norms.
- The composition of top influencers – many of whom are relatively obscure in the West – suggests a certain clumsiness to China’s efforts to communicate with Western audiences.
Top Influencers: Thought Leaders
Top foreign influencers tend to emphasize the global over the national and typically possess elite credentials. Business leaders such as Elon Musk and Tim Cook serve as important American champions for preserving the bilateral trade relationship upon which their companies heavily rely. Henry Kissinger, Fareed Zakaria, and Larry Summers all boast impeccable credentials and prioritize the stability of the international order.
Despite the strong performance of several fringe figures, Beijing prefers voices with credibility, not just views favorable to China. For example, the overwhelming majority of the citations of Gal Luft occurred before his arrest in February 2023 on charges that included acting as an unregistered foreign agent for China.
Beijing expresses the greatest sensitivity to critics who assess China as weak or collapsing. Gordon Chang, the highest-scoring China critic, rose to prominence as the author of The Coming Collapse of China. Questions of economic stability, territorial integrity, and government legitimacy consume Beijing to a far greater degree than many U.S. leaders appreciate.
Beijing is fascinated by futurists. While the U.S. policy debate on China tends to be dominated by shorter-term news cycles, Beijing tends to be focused on international experts who offer sweeping macro-theories explaining the future of the global order and China’s position. Graham Allison, the exponent of the “Thucydides Trap” theory, is a prominent example.
China seeks to elevate foreign figures who highlight – or even exacerbate – divisions within American society. Beijing’s approach to sowing discord in the United States likely projects China’s understanding of its own vulnerabilities and fears.
China struggles to conduct effective influence operations in the United States. Beijing’s frequent reliance on fringe figures points to weaknesses in its approach. Many of China’s high-scoring influencers are simply translating existing Chinese narratives into English. These heavy-handed approaches with awkward narratives point to a failure to cultivate deeper support.
Rankings: Thought Leaders
- Elon Musk – CEO of Twitter (X), Tesla, and SpaceX
- S.L. Kanthan – Bangalore-based online personality
- Henry Kissinger – Founder, Kissinger Associates
- Seymour Hersh – Independent journalist
- Kishore Mahbubani – National University of Singapore
- Fareed Zakaria – Host, Fareed Zakaria GPS (CNN)
- Gordon Chang – Author, The Coming Collapse of China
- Jonathan Cheng – China Bureau Chief, WSJ
- Gal Luft – Institute for the Analysis of Global Security
- Ian Bremmer – President and Founder, Eurasia Group
- Julian Assange – Founder, WikiLeaks
- Carl Zha – American Twitter personality based in Bali
- Edward Snowden – Whistleblower
- Jeffrey Sachs – Columbia University
- Jamie Metzl – Geopolitical commentator
- Stephen Roach – Yale University
- Erik Solheim – Green Belt and Road Institute
- Bert Hofman – National University of Singapore
- Cyrus Janssen – Las Vegas-based online personality
- Tim Cook – CEO, Apple
- Larry Summers – President Emeritus, Harvard
- Samuel Ramani – University of Oxford; RUSI
- Tucker Carlson – Independent journalist
- Neysun Mahboubi – University of Pennsylvania
- Selina Wang – ABC News (DC); former CNN (Beijing)
- Derek Grossman – RAND Corporation
- Adrian Zenz – Human rights researcher
- Bonnie Glaser – German Marshall Fund
- Medea Benjamin – Code Pink
- Kenneth Roth – Princeton University; former HRW
- Graham Allison – Harvard University
- Sari Arho Havrén – University of Helsinki; RUSI
Top Influencers: Institutions
Western credentials matter to China. Six Ivy League universities, as well Stanford and Oxford, feature prominently. These rankings echo not only longstanding Confucian values, but also the credentials of China’s elites.
Beijing focuses relatively little on Washington, D.C. Few Washington, D.C. institutions rank highly, with universities instead dominating the list. Yet within the China policy debate in elite U.S. politics, think tanks and other Washington, D.C. institutions tend to perform better, as defined by frequency of citations by members of Congress and their staffers, Congressional testimony, and op-eds in leading publications.
China avoids any criticism of leading universities. While news organizations might be cited positively or negatively, elite academic institutions almost always are referenced positively. For example, not a single criticism of Harvard surfaced in the dataset.
China negatively portrays top U.S. think tanks. Beijing sharply criticizes prominent U.S. research organizations, including RAND Corporation, The Brookings Institution, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, that produce research contradicting Beijing’s desired narratives. Such rebuttals likely signal to internal Chinese audiences, rather than seek to change American perspectives.
Beijing will sometimes alternately criticize and praise the same institution. Rather than treating organizations as if they were on a black list, China instead modulates its messaging toward them in response to their changing content. This pattern of behavior suggests that, instead of seeking to influence policy makers in Washington, D.C., China might be using a “carrot-and- stick” approach.
The role of institutions in U.S.-China competition is highly asymmetric. Beijing appears highly sensitive to the views of leading U.S. institutions, whereas U.S. political opinion leaders have minimal interest in China’s universities and think tanks. China will need to address this asymmetry to become the leader in the intellectual or psychological dimension of bilateral competition.
Rankings: Top Institutions
- Harvard University
- National University of Singapore
- RAND Corporation
- Columbia University
- Brookings Institution
- Yale University
- Eurasia Group
- University of Oxford
- Johns Hopkins University
- Institute for the Analysis of Global Security
- University of Pennsylvania
- Princeton University
- Center for Strategic and International Studies
- Stanford University
- Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
- Peterson Institute for International Economics
- University of North Carolina
- U.S.-China Business Council
- Australian Strategic Policy Institute
- Code Pink
- Brown University
- Semiconductor Industry Association
- Georgetown University
Top Influencers: Companies
Beijing’s concept of U.S.-China competition in the private sector focuses narrowly on tech and, by extension, industries such as the auto sector that have become increasingly tech-focused. In the corporate sector, China focuses on the competition between China’s tech companies and their Western rivals through the prism of U.S. trade controls. A group of Chinese “champions” (Huawei, ByteDance, and Tencent) are described as having succeeded against all odds to become globally-influential leaders. Despite the evident pride in the accomplishments of these national champions, China’s English-language state media portrays Apple as ahead of even China’s most successful domestic tech company, Huawei. This juxtaposition implies a certain insecurity regarding the comparative advantages maintained by Western tech firms.
Beijing views its auto companies as successfully gaining on Western competitors. China’s superior EV battery production capacity has created an aura of confidence over companies such as Tesla and Volkswagen, which China’s English-language state media describe as friendly but dependent on emerging Chinese brands like BYD. Similar to the tech industry, where Huawei trails Apple, the sources depict BYD as the challenger to the leading Tesla.
Beijing lacks confidence in China’s domestic semiconductor industry. The relative lack of influence exercised by SMIC, Yangtze Memory Technologies, Naura Technology Group, and other Chinese semiconductor firms suggests that Beijing has low confidence in China’s capabilities. Unlike the consistent comparison of Chinese tech companies to Western competitors, only non-Chinese semiconductor firms, like Qualcomm, emerged prominently in the data. Western semiconductor firms are characterized as victims of Washington’s use of national security concerns to prevent them from doing business in China.
“Systems vs. brands”: Consumer-facing brands are an area of weakness for China. Although China frequently messages about brands and its brand power, few Chinese companies outside of the tech sector actually project strong premium brands internationally. More broadly, U.S.-China economic competition can be generally summarized as “systems vs. brands”: China has been focused on, and fairly successful at, elevating companies that provide platforms and infrastructure, while the United States remains unmatched in consumer-facing brand power.
Rankings: Top Companies
- Silicon Valley Bank
- Goldman Sachs
- Morgan Stanley
- Lockheed Martin
- Signature Bank