Laureano Perez Izquierdo: «Public perception of China has changed in the last 20 years»

Laureano Perez Izquierdo

In the context of the relations between Argentina and China, Laureano Perez Izquierdo, an expert in international relations and journalist of Infobae, in conversation with ReporteAsia, analyzes the evolution of information about China in the Argentine media during the last two decades, within the theoretical framework of the findings of the report Beijing Global Media Influence, issued by Freedom House in 2022.  

Pérez Izquierdo, recognized for his focus on international politics with special attention to autocracies, has played a key role in the coverage of key events that have marked the bilateral relationship between Argentina and China.

With an outstanding career, he previously held the position of news and production manager in radio and television, consolidating his experience in the journalistic field. His joining Infobae in 2005 marks the beginning of a continuous and fruitful collaboration, during which he has contributed significantly to the understanding and dissemination of relevant information in the context of international relations.

From his position in the journalistic direction of Infobae America, he continues to play a crucial role in shaping the narrative on international issues, offering a valuable perspective on the evolution of public perception in Argentina regarding China and other issues of global relevance.

The «boom» of Chinese information in Argentina

Throughout the conversation, Pérez Izquierdo analyzes the impact of key events in the bilateral relationship between Argentina and China, particularly since the arrival of former President Hu Jintao to the South American country in 2004.

Since the visit of the former Chinese president, the relationship between the two countries has been transformed. In a way, bilateral relations were re-established and there was an increase in the information about China in the Argentine media, as it happened all over the world at the same time as China’s «awakening», which was consolidated since 2008 and the Beijing Olympic Games. 

But evaluating this new stage of Argentine-Chinese relations, the expert goes further by focusing on another historic moment of the last 20 years: the visit of Xi Jinping, who visited Buenos Aires in July 2014. Therefore, Pérez Izquierdo then divides the modern period of bilateral relations into two distinct phases, before and after Xi Jinping’s presence, not only in Argentina but in Latin America as a whole.

He highlights, at the same time, the metamorphosis of the bilateral relationship, which went from being predominantly commercial in the early years to having a more structural presence and a more accentuated geopolitical influence under Xi, the Chinese president who has accumulated the most power since Mao Zedong.

«Since 10 years ago, Xi Jinping started a much more aggressive process, with a much more structural presence and geopolitical influence than his predecessors, who were much more dedicated to commercial matters,» he says. 

Laureano Perez Izquierdo

The evolution of media coverage of China

In this context, with more information and the presence of China in the region, the coverage of China in the Argentine media also evolved.

On this media level, Pérez Izquierdo also speaks of two distinct stages, the first, characterized by a positive focus on Chinese economic growth, which was transformed by a second period marked by a more aggressive presence and hostile news towards other countries, reflecting the change in China’s strategy in the region.

«In the last 20 years, there was a stage in which everything was focused on economic issues and on showing how a country of more than one billion inhabitants had been able to (supposedly) grow and lift the majority of its population out of poverty,» explains Perez Izquierdo and adds that «in this context, since it is all good news, we must focus on the fact that this good news is usually centralized, and the issuer of this news is centralized. And that centrality lies in the power of the Chinese Communist Party, which is the one that disseminates and promotes that news. All Chinese state media, logically, have an absolute and political filter. So one should decode the source, depending on the intentionality behind the news». 

«In recent years, we have also seen a very aggressive broadcast and periodic publication of news. With a hostile tone towards other countries that was perhaps not so evident before. They were not evident because of geopolitical issues or because of diplomatic interest and commercial and economic issues.» 

Journalistic activism

Based on this, the question arises as to whether «militant» or «pro-China» journalism exists today. Pérez Izquierdo addressed the complexity of this issue, acknowledging the presence of partisan and political interests that could influence the representation of China in the media. However, he stressed the difficulty of identifying a specific sector dedicated to militant pro-China journalism.

«I don’t know if there is a militant pro-China journalism, there probably is,» he said. He did not identify any specific sector. I think there are interests, partisan and political interests in showing China as a possible alternative as an economic, and political channel, and as a solution to a country’s structural problems. But this is happening throughout Latin America,» he argues. 

«There is a belief, especially in recent years, in devaluing some basic concepts that Latin America had, in believing that an autocracy like China could solve the urgent problems of the population. This immediacy in the solution of problems, which was shown for 20 years, penetrated society and the discourses are repeated. In a society as depressed as the Latin American one, with its ups and downs in politics, speeches of this kind have a brutal impact and that is what happened in the last years», he added. 

China and the Argentine public 

Concerning the formation of Argentine public opinion on China, Pérez Izquierdo highlighted an increased interest in issues related to Chinese power and its attempts to influence Latin America. He mentioned that news on these issues usually generates great attention and curiosity among the Argentine public.

«I can tell you about the case of Infobae in which every time we publish a note about China and its attempts to co-opt wills in Latin America (be it in Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador, or any other country) people pay a lot of attention. They are the most read news of the day, they are news that arouses curiosity», says Perez Izquierdo and adds that about China: «Today the media are realizing the importance of covering certain topics with greater journalistic rigor, taking out the nuances about the goodness of the economy, which they wanted to sell us for almost 20 years». 

Addressing the issue of Chinese propaganda in the Argentine media, Pérez Izquierdo stated that he had identified publications that lacked a critical analysis of certain issues. Although he acknowledged that in the last few years, they have managed to raise doubts about certain benevolent coverage of Beijing, he pointed out the persistence of a certain soft bias towards China in some media. 

In fact, the Freedom House report notes that in the 2019-2021 period, the Chinese embassy in Argentina maintained close ties with a variety of media groups, academics, political leaders, and influential individuals. It published dozens of bylined articles, gave interviews to local media, and held media briefings to disseminate Beijing’s preferred narratives on particular issues. 

«There is a belief, especially in recent years, in devaluing some basic concepts that Latin America had, in believing that an autocracy like China could solve the urgent problems of the population. That immediacy in the solution of problems, which was shown for 20 years, permeated strongly and penetrated society.»

The journalist’s job

In conversation with Laureano Pérez Izquierdo, crucial questions were addressed about how less experienced journalists should deal with reporting on China. On this question, Pérez Izquierdo stressed the importance of doing journalism, urging young people to contrast data, seek alternative sources, and consider censored voices inside and outside China.

The veteran journalist also shared his reflections on China’s influence in Argentina, exploring the narrative of a successful autocracy as opposed to democracy. Perez Izquierdo raised the possibility that this idea could undermine the perception of democracy as a success, especially in the context of the successful eradication of poverty attributed to China.

A critical issue discussed was the handling of the COVID-19 crisis by different regimes. Perez Izquierdo noted a global tendency to compare autocracies with democracies regarding effectiveness in managing the crisis. This comparison, he said, was based on questionable and, in some cases, laughable data provided by China, which generated a debate on the efficiency of different systems of government.

«This idea that an autocracy, by having a strong figure at the helm, could better manage a social crisis became quite established, and leaders such as Xi Jinping or Vladimir Putin were shown as people who could deal with COVID and could confine and take care of the population more effectively than other Western leaders» -explains Perez Izquierdo-, «then that debate was opened, it was intended to install that autocracies are more efficient than democracy. That democracy was already in decline, that the way it was conceived in the West was part of the past and should be modernized and streamlined to meet the demands of a much more diverse society, more immediate in its demands, and that, I believe, hit democratic values very hard. And the values with which we grew up».

Latin America and the crisis

Perez Izquierdo expressed concern about how China could take advantage of Latin America’s economic and political crises, especially the structural corruption affecting the region. 

He argued that China seeks to take advantage of the political weaknesses of Latin American governments, offering economic solutions that could have unknown consequences for the recipient countries. He warned about the lack of transparency in Sino-Latin American financial agreements and the possibility that China seeks to gain geopolitical advantages through the construction of critical infrastructure in the region.

In this scenario, Pérez Izquierdo stressed the need for the international community to monitor these agreements and loan conditions, highlighting the risk of China using its economic influence to consolidate its presence in Latin America, including by demanding strategic bases and ports in exchange for investments. 

Laureano Perez Izquierdo

Challenges in the China-Argentina relationship: fake news and the future of diplomatic relations

In the last part of the interview with Laureano Perez Izquierdo, the focus shifted to the presence of information about China in Argentine social networks and its possible influence. 

Also with experience as a social media journalist, Perez Izquierdo addressed the phenomenon of fake news highlighting the relevance of individual preferences in the networks and the need to be alert to disinformation. Although he acknowledged the existence of disinformation campaigns from China, he pointed out that their impact is limited to pre-existing personal and ideological interests that are registered.

In this sense, Perez Izquierdo explained that «with the fake news, the armies of trolls that Beijing manages, and the social networks, there are different ways of dealing with it. For example, social networks are managed by algorithms, which generally try to reaffirm what you think. If you are pro-China, it will show you pro-China news. If you are pro-Japan, it will show you pro-Japan news, and so on.» 

«So, if the user has no interest in China or the United States, it’s very unlikely to show you news of this kind. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t fake news or disinformation campaigns, because there are, and plenty of them. But they explode mostly in areas of influence, it depends a lot on the person’s taste». 

«China seeks to take advantage of the political weaknesses of Latin American governments, offering economic solutions that could have unknown consequences for the recipient countries.»

He also stressed that «there are campaigns to try to influence Latin America, governments, public opinion, unfortunately, it is not only China the government that executes them, but there are more and more governments. That is why we must always be attentive to the source of information, that it is a known source, and that it is of a certain prestige within the world of communication».

China’s global footprint

The experienced journalist also shared his perspective on the Chinese geopolitical presence in Argentina. Pérez Izquierdo reflected on Chinese objectives in the South American country, highlighting significant developments, such as the presence of a military base in the province of Neuquén and the signing of agreements for the construction of a strategic port in Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego. Although the journalist acknowledged that Chinese plans are extensive and have achieved much, he stressed the uncertainty about the totality of their objectives.

Finally, the conversation evolved to Chinese diplomacy during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. Perez Izquierdo discussed the so-called «chinstrap diplomacy,» which he interpreted as an attempt by China to wash its image after the initial problems of the pandemic. 

However, he also highlighted a more aggressive diplomacy, dubbed «Wolf Warrior,» which responded inordinately to criticism, generating tensions in media outlets.

«China’s footprint was already very strong pre-pandemic. Post-pandemic it continued to be strong because it had to (or wanted to) maintain its global hegemony in some form. Wolf Warrior’s» diplomacy, incredibly aggressive, is based on responding blow by blow to any criticism, disproportionately. To such an extent that many newsrooms receive letters from ambassadors to demand or demand the deletion of information about China, which was public».

The future of diplomatic relations

Addressing the future of the relationship between Argentina and China, Pérez Izquierdo expressed his vision of the challenges that the Argentine government will face. He anticipated a relationship of tension and pronounced fluctuations, especially with the change of government and previous statements showing distrust towards communist regimes. However, he also stressed the difficulty of breaking bilateral relations given the important commercial connections between both countries.

In this context, he anticipates a bilateral link marked by conflicts but rules out the possibility of a total break given the large-scale economic implications.

«I don’t know how China is going to press, nor how the current government is going to react,» says Perez Izquierdo, «what I do know is that a bilateral relationship of tension and very pronounced back and forth is coming. There is not going to be a decoupling or a rupture of relations, there is no context in Argentina to do that, and of any country. No country would break off relations with such a great power as China». 

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