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China In Eurasia

“As opposed to China, Russian disinformation is rarely about trying to make Russia look good to a foreign audience,” says Edward Lucas of the Center for European Policy Analysis. “It’s about exploiting disunity and polarization that already exists in the West."

China and Russia have pushed disinformation and propaganda about the origins of COVID-19, unproven cures for the disease, and the efficacy of vaccines aimed at winning over foreign audiences and sowing distrust toward Western governments since the emergence of the deadly virus in the Chinese city of Wuhan two years ago, a new study shows.

The strategies used by Chinese and Russian politicians and how their state media outlets carry out these campaigns is the focus of a new study from the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) released on December 2.

The study found that while China and Russia have played a central role in spreading COVID-related disinformation and propaganda, they have followed largely separate strategies. It said, however, that the two countries have recently borrowed from and amplified each other’s campaigns.

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While Beijing has mobilized its array of multilingual state media, social-media platforms, government officials, and online networks to try to convince the world that it should not be blamed for the pandemic and that China is the most effective global partner in combating the virus, Russian disinformation networks have largely sought to undermine faith in Western efforts to fight COVID-19 and exacerbate tensions, the study finds.

“Russia largely followed its preexisting playbook of using crises to inflame tensions in foreign societies,” the report states. “China borrowed some tools from Russia but used them for different ends, sanitizing its own record and spreading conspiracy theories on a global scale.”

While various governments and individuals from all across the world have helped boost disinformation related to vaccines and the origins of the virus, numerous studies and incidents have documented how China and Russia have played a leading role in amplifying politically expedient conspiracies already in circulation and spreading foreign disinformation about COVID-19’s origins.

The CEPA report aims to build upon previous studies and understand how the countries’ stepped-up efforts have evolved during the pandemic by compiling a 144,000-piece database to analyze articles and social-media messaging from Chinese and Russian government officials and state-backed media from March 2020 through March 2021.

“China selectively borrows from Russia’s playbook, but that has its limits,” Edward Lucas, a senior fellow at CEPA and one of the report’s authors, told RFE/RL. “China is trying to send out a message of self-confidence and push a consistent message about the [Communist Party’s] abilities, whereas the Russian campaigns are more focused on creating chaos regardless of whether it contradicts the Kremlin’s official version.”

A Disinformation Playbook?

Since 2016, Russia was been widely seen as the leading foreign actor spreading disinformation, for instance in efforts to influence important national elections.

With COVID-19, however, China took the lead globally, boosting its efforts to spread conspiracies about the origins of the virus and to polish its own image.

Chinese President Xi Jinping gestures to a coronavirus patient and medical staff via video link at the Huoshenshan hospital in Wuhan in March 2020.
Chinese President Xi Jinping gestures to a coronavirus patient and medical staff via video link at the Huoshenshan hospital in Wuhan in March 2020.

Chinese propaganda and disinformation have varied, from criticizing Western efforts to combat the virus to defending its own policies to curb the virus and promoting its efforts to supply countries with protective equipment and vaccines. While the CEPA report notes that Chinese narratives were “mostly positive, kept China at the center of attention, and showed remarkable consistency between state-backed outlets and diplomats,” there were notable exceptions.

In particular, China’s so-called Wolf Warrior diplomacy, where individual embassies and diplomats have taken to aggressively attacking Western policies and spreading conspiracy theories.

According to the report’s findings, these tactics from China accelerated after U.S. President Donald Trump and leading American conservatives floated the idea that COVID-19 may have escaped from a Chinese lab and grew more prominent again following a request by the administration of President Joe Biden that the U.S. intelligence community provide a more conclusive report on the possibility that the coronavirus leaked from a Wuhan lab.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian

In response, both Chinese state media and officials, including Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, stepped up efforts to spread conspiracies about the virus’s origins, including recirculating disinformation from early in the pandemic about Fort Detrick, a U.S. military lab in Maryland.

Fort Detrick has long been a focus of Russian disinformation campaigns, but Chinese efforts helped push it into a more mainstream discussion in China and across the West. In February, the AP published a nine-month investigation that found China had launched a global digital disinformation campaign, using its growing presence on Western social media to plant and spread stories implying that the United States created COVID-19 as a bioweapon.

Russian disinformation efforts, Lucas says, have been far more sporadic, from fostering doubts and misgivings about Western COVID-19 vaccines to defending the effectiveness of Sputnik V, Russia’s homegrown shot.

For example, social-media influencers in France and Germany reported in May that a London-based group controlled from Moscow offered to pay them to spread disinformation about the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. In another case, Russian state media and officials launched a campaign accusing Western media of being controlled by pharmaceutical corporations for what was deemed negative coverage around the trials of Sputnik V.


“As opposed to China, Russian disinformation is rarely about trying to make Russia look good to a foreign audience,” Lucas said. “It’s about exploiting disunity and polarization that already exists in the West, and this is something that Russian actors have fine-tuned over the years.”

Evolving Tactics

The CEPA report notes that Chinese and Russian efforts are constantly changing and may be entering a period of recalibration.

A Pew Research poll of mostly Western, developed countries published in June found that unfavorable views of China have reached new heights over the course of the pandemic and that Russian actors have changed some of their messaging as Russia has faced a sharp rise in COVID-19 infections and deaths and a widespread reluctance among Russians to get vaccinated.

The Two Faces Of RT: Russia's Competing COVID Narratives
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But disinformation campaigns linked to both Beijing and Moscow continue.

Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, said on December 1 that it had removed more than 600 accounts linked to a Chinese influence operation that claimed the United States was pressuring the World Health Organization (WHO) to blame COVID on China.

Looking ahead, Lucas says that while there is limited evidence of explicit cooperation, China and Russia will continue to borrow tactics and amplify one another’s propaganda and disinformation campaigns.

One area to watch, he says, is a greater focus on developing countries, particularly across Africa, rather than in the West. China has been investing in its media operations across the continent for years and Russia has also begun to look to the region.

With the emergence of new variants of the coronavirus and a lack of access to vaccines in developing countries, Lucas says Africa is “fertile ground” for Chinese and Russian propaganda and disinformation.

“There is real resentment in parts of Africa and Asia about the slow global vaccination rollout and the West controlling access to vaccines,” Lucas said. “It’s a real problem, and when things are going bad somewhere, people are more willing to listen to messages and narratives coming from the outside.”

A demonstrator holds a placard depicting Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban as Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong during a protest against the planned Chinese Fudan University campus in Budapest in June.

Welcome back to the China In Eurasia briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter tracking China's resurgent influence from Eastern Europe to Central Asia.

I'm RFE/RL correspondent Reid Standish and here's what I'm following right now.

As Hungary prepares for a tight election in April between Prime Minister Viktor Orban and the opposition's Peter Marki-Zay, the government's close ties with China are hanging over the campaign, Balint Szalai, my colleague from Budapest, and myself reported.

Finding Perspective: Close ties with Beijing have been a hallmark of Orban's foreign policy since he took the helm of the country more than a decade ago and the opposition has tried to push Orban's controversial China ties into the spotlight during the tightening election.

Marki-Zay has called for a review of Budapest's ties with China and also focused on a series of controversial China-backed ventures that have been green-lit under Orban, including a Chinese-funded university in Budapest, a railway to Belgrade, and the procurement of Chinese ventilators and vaccines during the pandemic.

Polls show that China itself isn't a wedge issue for Hungarian voters, but the corruption and debt concerns that are attached to the country's Chinese-projects have the potential to break through -- and that looks to be part of the opposition's strategy moving forward.

Orban's government appears to be aware of this. Despite having been one of China's more reliable partners in Brussels, Hungary has grown more silent of late and did not oppose the extension of the EU's Xinjiang sanctions in order to avoid the appearance of cozying up to Beijing amid the close election cycle, EU officials familiar with the issue who were not authorized to speak to the media told RFE/RL.

Why It Matters: Marki-Zay, a conservative small-town mayor who emerged as a unity candidate chosen by a coalition of opposition parties, represents what many say is the best chance to oust Orban in more than a decade.

The opposition candidate has so far been clever in his messaging by seeking to criticize Orban for agreeing to and mismanaging the Chinese-backed projects, rather than targeting Beijing itself. In fact, Marki-Zay has gone out of his way to say that he respects China and that Chinese investment is welcome in the country.

Stepping back, foreign ties look to already be a feature of the election campaign rhetoric in Hungary. Pro-Orban pundits have already stated that there will be "major U.S. interference" in the 2022 elections and have taken aim at Marki-Zay's time living in the United States as evidence that he represents foreign interests.

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● The controversial Chinese-funded Budapest-Belgrade railway is embroiled in controversy and an opposition Hungarian lawmaker has successfully sued for the release of the loan and construction contracts for the project. Meanwhile, Serbia began construction on a portion of the rail line last week.

● Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi held a video call with Peter Szijjarto, his Hungarian counterpart, where they warned of foreign interference and Szijjarto said that the government would not allow "outside forces" to influence Budapest's China-friendly policies.

Activists say the working conditions of the Vietnamese workers at the Chinese project are inhumane and they may have even been trafficked to work there.
Activists say the working conditions of the Vietnamese workers at the Chinese project are inhumane and they may have even been trafficked to work there.

Expert Corner: Fallout From Serbia's China Scandals?

Readers asked: "Serbia has been one of Beijing's closest partners in Europe, but recent environmental protests and a scandal over poor labor conditions for Vietnamese workers at a Chinese-owned factory point to problems ahead. What's next for Belgrade and Beijing?''

To find out more, I asked Stefan Vladisavljev, an analyst at the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence: (For another look at this topic, keep scrolling down to the next section)

"Serbia has agreed to infrastructure projects that will be implemented by Chinese companies that are worth more than 7 billion euros ($7.8 billion). It doesn't matter who is in power, the current political elite or the next one, China will want its money back.

"It also has to be said that there is no actual pushback against China from the opposition parties. The criticism regarding environmental damage and Vietnamese workers came from local and civil society activists, but China reportedly has connections to Serbia's opposition leaders as well.

"The biggest challenge for the China-Serbia partnership is from abroad. If tensions between Beijing and the West escalate and Serbia finds itself in a position where it has to choose a side, that could jeopardize things."

Do you have a question about China's growing footprint in Eurasia? Send it to me at StandishR@rferl.org or reply directly to this e-mail and I'll get it answered by leading experts and policymakers.

Three More Stories From Eurasia

1. The EU's Answer To China's BRI

Brussels is set to announce Global Gateway on December 1, a 300 billion-euro infrastructure initiative to respond to China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). RFE/RL saw a draft document of the plans and I gave an early look at the EU project here.

The Details: Global Gateway will aim to rely on public investment, as well as the private sector, to build infrastructure intended "to strengthen digital, transport, and energy networks" around the world and invest in "projects that can be delivered with high standards, good governance, and transparency."

The 300 billion-euro ($340 billion) sum will be invested by 2027 and leverage resources from the EU, European financial institutions, development banks, and member states from the bloc.

A big focus of the project will be in presenting Global Gateway as an alternative program that the draft says will focus on providing an "ethical approach" to infrastructure financing that is "values-based" and relies on fair and open competition.

Focus On China: The EU plans do not mention the BRI or China explicitly, but European Commission sources told RFE/RL that Global Gateway is meant to counter China's infrastructure initiative.

The stepped-up plans from the EU come as many Western countries are looking to play a larger role in funding infrastructure across the developing world and roll back the BRI, which has become an important strategic tool for Beijing to extend its influence since its launch in 2013.

But the BRI has also been undercut in recent years by questions regarding the commercial value of many of its projects, growing worries over murky lending practices, and concerns over the initiative being a vehicle for Chinese control.

Activists clash with police in Almaty, Kazakhstan, at a protest against the rising influence of China and increasing food prices in July.
Activists clash with police in Almaty, Kazakhstan, at a protest against the rising influence of China and increasing food prices in July.

With that in mind, Brussels is hoping that it can offer a more high-quality alternative for countries around the world and help propel the EU to the forefront of efforts to fill the developing world's infrastructure needs.

The EU project is not without its own question marks, as I explore here, but it has the potential to make an impact, according to several analysts that I spoke with.

"The BRI raised the stakes and made Western policymakers more aware of the strategic consequences of not being involved in infrastructure," Jonathan Hillman from the Center for Strategic and International Studies told me. "Beijing has also created an opportunity for higher-quality alternatives through its own mistakes. It's hard to imagine Global Gateway existing if it wasn't for the BRI."

2. Interpol's New Bosses

Interpol elected representatives from China and the United Arab Emirates to the global police agency's leadership on November 25, raising fears that the organization could end up under the sway of autocrats.

Setting the Stage: Human rights groups and Western lawmakers told me ahead of the election that China's Hu Binchen, who was elected to Interpol's executive committee, and the U.A.E.'s Major General Ahmed Naser al-Raisi, who was elected as Interpol's president, could set a precedent and send a signal to other authoritarian governments to misuse the police organization to go after political opponents.

Raisi stands accused of torture and has criminal complaints against him in five countries and Hu, an official at China's Public Security Ministry, is backed by the Chinese government, which stands accused of using Interpol's global network to disappear its citizens and target dissidents, particularly Uyghurs.

Interpol says it refuses to be used for political ends and insists that the issuing of red notices, the electronic arrest warrant for the organization's most wanted, is strictly monitored.

But activists and human rights groups say that Interpol's member governments continue to use the agency for their own ends and that this could grow worse under new leadership.

China has a documented history of abusing the red-notice system to go after dissidents and target Uyghurs.

One of the more recent cases is Yidiresi Aishan, a Uyghur activist living in Turkey who was detained in Morocco in July under a red notice. Following outcry over his arrest, Interpol withdrew the red notice, but Aishan is still on trial in Morocco, where he faces extradition back to China.

3. Serbian Pushback

Environmental protests targeting a Chinese-owned factory and a scandal involving abusive conditions for Vietnamese workers hired by a Chinese construction company mark an unexpected wave of resistance for Beijing's interests in Serbia, my colleagues at RFE/RL's Balkan Service reported.

What You Need To Know: As noted earlier by Vladisavljev, China enjoys a warm relationship with Belgrade, as well as working contacts with Serbia's opposition. The two events, however, show the difficulties that exist when dealing with other aspects of society.

Around 500 Vietnamese workers are building a massive tire factory in Serbia, which when completed will be the first of its kind in Europe. But activists say the working conditions of the laborers are inhumane and they may have even been trafficked to work on the $900 million construction project.

The Serbian government rejects the claims, but recent evidence put forward by activists, including footage that was broadcast on television, shows tough conditions and many workers saying their passports and wages have been withheld.

Environmental protests, meanwhile, erupted against two new laws that could give free rein to foreign mining companies in the country, including China's Zijin mining company.

Serbian protesters rally on a bridge in Novi Sad against amendments to the referendum and expropriation law on November 27.
Serbian protesters rally on a bridge in Novi Sad against amendments to the referendum and expropriation law on November 27.

Across The Supercontinent

Kazakhstan's Picket: Police in Kazakhstan's largest city, Almaty, have detained six protesters who were demanding the release of relatives they say are being illegally held in China, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported.

The demonstrations, which call on the Kazakh authorities to do more to protect ethnic Kazakhs who have been caught up in the Chinese crackdown in Xinjiang, have been ongoing for months and protesters have been periodically detained.

Slap On The Wrist: A court in Montenegro ruled that the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) will have to pay a 200,000-euro fine ($225,300) for environmental damage caused during the construction of a massive highway project in the country, RFE/RL's Balkan Service reported.

Downgraded: China downgraded diplomatic relations with Lithuania on November 21 over the opening of a Taiwanese office in Vilnius. Since then, Beijing has launched a tough diplomatic and propaganda campaign against Lithuania, but it has been met with resistance.

A delegation from Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia is currently on a trip to Taipei and met with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, who said she wants to expand ties with the Baltic states.

Winds Of Change: Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev said in a recent speech that bilateral trade with China grew by 5 percent in 2020 and was over $15 billion. After the announcement, he said, "as a Chinese saying goes: When the winds of change blow, some people build walls & others build windmills."

Warning Berlin: With the Greens' Annalena Baerbock as Germany's new foreign minister and a coalition government in Berlin that has unveiled a tougher agenda on China, Beijing seems worried.

China issued a warning to Germany, telling the new government not to interfere on matters like Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang, and urged it to stick to previous friendly policies followed under Angela Merkel.

One Thing To Watch

U.S. President Joe Biden will be hosting a virtual summit for democratic countries on December 9-10, and China and Russia aren't happy they were snubbed from the invite list.

In a rare joint op-ed, the ambassadors of China and Russia to the United States called the U.S. plan "an evident product of its Cold-War mentality" and that the event would "stoke up ideological confrontation and a rift in the world, creating new 'dividing lines.'"

The article then went on to claim that both China and Russia were democratic and that "it has been proved that the whole-process democracy works in China, and works very well."

Beyond the odd claims in the article, it points to a growing trend of Beijing and Moscow moving in tandem when it comes to pushing back against U.S. rhetoric about democracy and human rights.

That's all from me for now. Don't forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you might have.

Until next time,

Reid Standish

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About The Newsletter

In recent years, it has become impossible to tell the biggest stories shaping Eurasia without considering China’s resurgent influence in local business, politics, security, and culture.

Subscribe to this dispatch in which correspondent Reid Standish builds on the local reporting from RFE/RL’s journalists across Eurasia to give you unique insights into Beijing’s ambitions and challenges.

The newsletter is sent on the first and third Wednesdays of each month.

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