Fernando Pedrosa: «Argentine public opinion knows very little about China»

Fernando Pedrosa

In the last twenty years, China’s presence on the international scene has grown exponentially. Since Hu Jintao’s visit to Argentina in 2004, information about China has flooded the Argentine media. In conversation with ReporteAsia, Fernando Pedrosa, a renowned academic and Ph.D. in Contemporary Political Processes from the University of Salamanca (Spain), shares his perspectives on this topic. He currently directs the Asia and Latin America Studies Group (GESAAL) of the Institute of Latin American and Caribbean Studies of the Faculty of Social Sciences of the University of Buenos Aires and is a researcher at the Institute of American and Caribbean Studies of the same university.

He is also recognized for his deep knowledge of contemporary politics in Latin America and Asia. These credentials make him an expert in analyzing Beijing’s influence in Argentina, especially in the context of the BGMF (Beijing Global Media Footprint) report on the South American country, recently published by Freedom House, which combines geopolitics, content production and political meaning and communication. 

This talk is part of the analysis of the report, which highlights the significant presence of Chinese influence in Argentine media and social networks in recent years. The report highlights that Chinese influence is carried out through various propaganda strategies, seeking to generate a positive and unequivocal image of the Chinese Communist Party and its management. Fernando Pedrosa’s analysis of the avalanche of Chinese information in Argentina focuses on the commitment of Argentine society to resist these influences, a crucial aspect in understanding the phenomenon.

Fernando, how do you perceive the impact of information about China in Argentine society during the last twenty years?

The amount of information has increased significantly, but most of it is superficial and based on the fantasies of Argentine journalists and politicians. Reality is distorted by these perceptions, creating a gap between fantasy and reality in Argentina-China relations.

Then Argentina, once again, constructs realities that are not real, constructs fantasies, and then real relations develop within that fantasy framework. Therefore, fantasy is more beautiful than reality. What one expects from fantasy is always happiness and contentment, and what comes in reality is not.

So that information ends up being qualitatively little, confusing, in the framework of unreality, and above all to fulfill or satiate the interests of different Argentine groups, rather than the real links between Argentina and China.

In its BGMI report, Freedom House identifies attempts to install pro-China narratives in the Argentine media, what is your perception of these efforts: are they efficient?

I do not see China actively promoting pro-China narratives in the Argentine media. Rather, I observe Argentine elites, especially in the press and academia, trying to construct a misguided view of China, often comparing it to the Soviet Union. This narrative seems to be more of a local creation than a demand from China.

As I have been saying, there are Argentine fantasy narratives, which think that it is what China wants, or what it can be, rather than what it is.

Based on this, we can affirm that in Argentina there are groups that, in anachronistic and leftist authoritarianism, use China to renew their political ideologies. I would not consider them as pro-China militants specifically, but as defenders of authoritarian systems and of a narrative linked to the pre-Cold War left.

So there are militants and groups interested in using China to expand and show that there is a narrative that has a global back from the rise of China. 

As the professor explains, «It is undoubtedly convenient for China, and in some countries, it could even be said that these groups are financed with Chinese capital, but in the case of Argentina it is simply a matter of their initiative, they are groups that need to show a sort of world power or global alliance, to certify their narratives».

The influence of pro-China groups

«These groups exert an influence within the media; an influence that is often used to undermine the liberal democracies of Latin America, saying that while in Latin America people vote but we have so many poor people, China lifts so many others out of poverty without democracy. We can raise two major objections to these statements. On the one hand, China’s information is opaque; it is difficult to certify whether they have lifted so many people out of poverty. It is necessary to understand what it means to lift people out of poverty. Whether it is living on half a dollar a day or something else.» 

«And secondly -he continues- the idea that non-democracy is more efficient than democracy because it avoids internal debate, seems to me to be false, first because in China, at least until this last term of Xi Jinping there was much debate, although it was not a democracy as we know it, within the Communist Party there were trends, these trends and groups governed different cities and provinces, there were more liberal sectors, more leftists and others more Confucian. That is to say, the fact that it is not a democracy does not mean that there is no internal debate. In other words, internal debate also affected decisions. 

For Professor Pedrosa, who has traveled twice to China, «In fact, China made better decisions when there was internal debate. Since Xi Jinping became the new Mao Zedong, China has had several problems in its management».

On this point, for him there is no doubt that: «democracy is still a valuable system, and the negative perception of it is based on authoritarian discourses that try to undermine liberal democracies in Latin America».

Do you consider that public opinion in Argentina is interested and educated on the China issue or is there confusion about it?

I believe that public opinion does not show a genuine interest in the China issue. Although it may have superficial knowledge of some commercial transactions, the information, in general, is confusing. 

Thus, for example, we can see that there is a deficit trade balance between Argentina and China, which contrasts with the perception that «the Chinese buy everything from us». In other words, in reality, the fantasy that Beijing’s gold is coming to save us does not match the facts. These stories are woven around fantasies, rooted in national issues, and linked to political, intellectual, and journalistic elites. As a result, public opinion lacks substantial knowledge.

I always highlight Argentina’s position in the U.S. geopolitical sphere, underlining shared bases such as region, religion, and culture. Despite these commonalities, our historical relations with the United States were conflictive, even violent. Being a traditionally anti-American country, imagine our relations with China, with which we share neither religion, language, nor political model, and which is thousands of kilometers away. 

Argentine public opinion, immersed in its reality and with limited global knowledge, knows very little about China and the world in general.

Fernando Pedrosa

Do you think that in Argentina there is an open debate about China in terms of its geopolitical position and less positive aspects?

In Argentina, the debate on China is limited. Although President (Javier) Milei initiated some discussion during the campaign by expressing his reluctance to relations with China, the vision is often simplistic.

We have to think well about the links with autocratic countries, it does not mean that we do not have relations, or that we do not do business. We all know that China does business with Taiwan and the United States. They say terrible things and continue negotiating and we have to take that example.

In Argentina we do not have those difficult and deep discussions, they are all simple ideas, «China is good» «China is bad» «China is necessary». This is also due to the lack of development in Argentina of a much more independent, academic and scientific sinology. Argentine sinology has grown like flowers in the spring from these fantasies claiming China as a new socialism, or the funds that associating with China could bring. 

The Chinese are pragmatic, they are not fools, and they do not give away money. So it seems to me that we are in debt with the changes in the world, we are still looking at Europe, the Atlantic world, and the Asian world we do not see it and when we do see it we restrict it to an image of China that we fabricated. So, in the end, all these links end badly for us. 

Do you consider that China represents a threat to Argentina in terms of values, pressure on the legal system or communist strategies?

Currently, I do not see China as a threat to Argentina. There is a low presence of Chinese infrastructure compared to other countries. It is a mistake to underestimate the asymmetry in bilateral negotiations and not to expand relations towards Mercosur and other places.

For me, the danger is still more Argentines than foreigners in general terms. We are problematic and we have these authoritarian groups that take the existence of China and project very anachronistic ideas on it.

In recent years, several Argentine media have established cooperation agreements with Chinese media. Do you consider this collaboration desirable, or do you think it can be a negative instrument to disseminate information, and also, how do you inform yourself about what is happening in China?

First of all, I get information from various sources, both from exiled Chinese references and from specialists inside China. I also examine the official press and official spokespersons to get a complete picture, although information and China are entities that do not always go hand in hand, especially in the case of good information.

On the other hand, addressing the issue of international cooperation, I can tell you that this is desirable, but the non-Chinese media must take responsibility for assessing the veracity of information. Agreements must be accompanied by internal verification policies to avoid the propagation of propaganda from authoritarian regimes.

In the field of social media, have you identified fake news about China or opaque information? Do you observe an increase in fake news about China daily?

Yes, there is fake news about China, although its direct detection is usually easy. When the information comes directly from China, one is already cautious. What is more difficult to see is when this pro-China discourse is mediated by organizations or groups that have a certain credibility and even expertise. 

We have to think and rethink our spokesperson groups in Argentina and Latin America, there is more of a problem than in China itself. We always have to think about how intermediaries work. The Chinese cultural world is foreign to us in general, so all the Chinese voice comes through intermediaries, when those intermediaries are Latin American academic or political groups, that is where we have to pay attention, more than when it comes directly from the Chinese media, which we already know how they work.

Fernando Pedrosa

Going forward, how do you think information about China will evolve? Do you think there will be more awareness of information management?

Globally, 2024 is going to be a complicated year, with elections in Taiwan, also in the United States, two ongoing wars, and the possibility of more conflicts. 

So, there is no possibility that we will find a calmer world environment, where information flows, on the contrary, when there is more war and violence, information tends to be more opaque and more difficult. 

Speaking specifically about Argentina, I am more optimistic. Regarding the new presidency, during the campaign, things are said and affirmations are made, but then, at the moment of governance, rationality prevails. 

Argentina should continue trading normally (or more) with China, but it should start opening its prospects to the rest of Asia. In this sense, Milei gave some interesting signals, such as the ambassador to India, that the Chancellor (Diana) Mondino met with the Asian Chamber before taking office. I am hopeful that Argentina will finally open up to Asia and that will help us to loosen our dependence on China.  

If you look at it, there was almost no point of continuity between Kirchnerism and Macrism, in any aspect. But the link with Vietnam is a State policy that survives all administrations. Alberto Fernandez, (former Argentine president) had a very good link with India, (Mauricio) Macri also, the link with Indonesia is growing. I believe that the recipe for Latin American countries to loosen their dependence on China is to open the game to the rest of the Asian countries, which are huge, powerful countries, with a view to ours, which is a sparsely populated and poor country.

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