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Tuesday 3 May 2022

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A woman in Hong Kong stands in front of TV screens showing the news that Russian troops invaded Ukraine on February 24.

China has emerged as a potent outlet for Kremlin disinformation and propaganda for its February invasion of Ukraine, with Beijing officials and state media echoing the Kremlin's justification for the war and often parroting false claims about events while ignoring commentary from Kyiv.

But Chinese state news agency Xinhua made the rare move on April 30 of giving Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba uncensored space to criticize the Kremlin. It also let him push for China to play a larger role in bringing Russia to the negotiating table and warn about the global consequences for Beijing in sticking with Moscow amid mounting international pressure and fallout.

“Russia is jeopardizing Chinese leaders’ Belt and Road Initiative,” Kuleba said, referring to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy project. “This war is not in line with China’s interests. The global food crisis and economic problems...will pose a serious threat to the Chinese economy.”

The interview with Kuleba appeared shortly after a similar one the same day with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in which he pushed familiar Russian talking points about Ukraine being run by far-right nationalists and engaging in a Western-led proxy war with Moscow.

But while the contrasting interviews do not suggest an imminent change in Chinese policy, publishing Kuleba’s words verbatim -- where he painted Russia as a threat to global stability and an unreliable ally for Beijing -- marks an evolving line for Chinese propaganda amid the Ukraine crisis that is slowly incorporating more Ukrainian viewpoints while taking aim at the United States as the instigator of the conflict.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, share a vodka toast over Russian pancakes as Xi visits the 2018 Eastern Economic Forum on Russky Island.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, share a vodka toast over Russian pancakes as Xi visits the 2018 Eastern Economic Forum on Russky Island.

Bolstered by nearly a decade of cooperation in international media -- including pledges signed by Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin dating back to 2013 -- and a deepening partnership against the West that both leaders characterized as a “no-limits” friendship in February, Chinese state-controlled outlets have helped spread Moscow’s narrative of the war to their massive audiences at home and abroad.

China's tightly controlled media do not refer to the war as a Russian invasion and have instead used the Kremlin terminology, calling it a “special military operation.” Elsewhere, Chinese channels have pushed a Russian false claim that the United States runs dangerous bioweapons labs in Ukraine, have asserted that the bombing of a children’s hospital in Mariupol and the extrajudicial killing of civilians in the town of Bucha were hoaxes, and have suggested that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was being controlled by U.S. billionaire George Soros.

“The speed with which the topic was seeded into the Chinese information environment shows the ease with which [Chinese and Russian] state-media cooperation can sow disinformation by citing each other as sources and expanding on each other’s angles,” Jerry Yu, an analyst at Doublethink Lab, a Taiwan-based organization that tracks Chinese disinformation and propaganda, wrote in a recent report.

An Evolving Line

China has one of the world’s most restrictive media environments and is mostly made up of state-backed outlets, with its Internet and social media platforms monitored by a vast censorship apparatus that removes any information deemed sensitive.

Since Russia’s February 24 invasion, China has walked a careful diplomatic line and looked to distance itself from Moscow’s war while avoiding any criticism of its actions.

While experts say Beijing is highly unlikely to drop Moscow as a partner, they acknowledge that Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the economic and political blowback it has caused does not sit well with China and that Beijing may be looking to signal growing displeasure as the war shows no signs of ending.

But any speculation about the resiliency of Beijing’s support for Moscow appears misplaced when looking at the pro-Russian slant within Chinese reports.

Chinese state media still continue to lend their platforms to amplify Russian propaganda, often citing Kremlin officials and Russian-controlled media as their news sources, according to the China Digital Times, a U.S.-based group that tracks Chinese online censorship and discussion, which also notes that outlets receive regular state directives that guide their coverage.

Beijing has stayed consistent since early in the war with its line that NATO -- and the United States in particular -- are to blame for provoking Russia into attacking its neighbor.

People in a Hong Kong restaurant watch a broadcast as Russian troops invade Ukraine.
People in a Hong Kong restaurant watch a broadcast as Russian troops invade Ukraine.

But the nature of coverage has shifted during the 10 weeks of the conflict.

Some Chinese reports and social media posts have covered news much like that of Western media, pointing to the growing humanitarian cost of the war and efforts by international bodies like the United Nations to provide aid.

But this line has been adopted slowly. The state broadcaster CCTV, for example, didn't mention civilian casualties from Russian attacks until the third week of the war.

While criticism of Zelenskiy has been minimal, so, too, has coverage of the Ukrainian leader.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy

His regular speeches to Western parliaments and nightly addresses to his country have received scant coverage with state-run media instead only quoting Zelenskiy when he has criticized Western partners over the lack of energy sanctions or inconsistent military support.

Chinese media also began to focus more coverage on warnings about neo-Nazis in Ukraine, which has been a dominant part of the Kremlin’s justification for invading.

According to a database created by the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a group that tracks Chinese and Russian disinformation, Chinese diplomats and state media have tweeted about neo-Nazis more times since the war began than they did in the six months before.

In one notable example, Li Yang, an official with China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, tweeted a doctored photo in early April that alleged to show a group of neo-Nazis holding a banner with a swastika on it next to Ukrainian and American flags.

“Surprisingly, the [the United States] stands with the neo-Nazis!” Yang wrote above the image, which had a swastika flag inserted in place of a U.S. one that was in the original photo.

That focus on the United States amid the war in Ukraine has been a feature of Chinese coverage since the beginning, but also appears to be becoming a more dominant thread.

'They Killed People Systematically': Bucha Residents Allege War Crimes By Expelled Russian Forces
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Amid reports of atrocities by Russian soldiers in the Ukrainian village of Bucha, the Global Times, a state-run nationalist tabloid, looked to absolve Russia of responsibility for the killings and instead putt the blame on Washington.

“It is regrettable that after the exposure of the ‘Bucha incident,’ the [United States], the initiator of the Ukraine crisis, has not shown any signs of urging peace and promoting talks, but is ready to exacerbate the Russia-Ukraine tensions,” the editorial said.

Beyond The War Of Words

While the full extent of any direct collusion between China and Russia on propaganda over the Ukraine war is unclear, Beijing’s rhetorical backing of Moscow has left it facing pressure from the European Union and the United States, its two-largest trading partners.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman accused Chinese state media of “parroting the Kremlin’s disinformation” and spreading conspiracy theories in late April while the EU warned Xi and other high-ranking Chinese officials during a late March summit that its support for Russia could jeopardize economic ties with Brussels.

China so far shows no signs of circumventing Western sanctions or rushing in to fill the void left by the departure of Western companies from Russia and U.S. officials told Reuters recently they were “relieved” that Chinese economic and military support has not materialized amid the war.

Writing in the U.S. journal Foreign Affairs on May 2, Yan Xuetong, dean of the Institute of International Relations at Beijing’s elite Tsinghua University, wrote that Moscow’s war has created a “strategic predicament” for China due to heightened international tensions and the disruption of billions of dollars of Chinese trade, but that Beijing is still likely to remain in Russia’s camp.

“China blames the United States for provoking Russia with its support for NATO expansion and worries that Washington will seek to prolong the conflict in Ukraine in order to bog down Russia,” he wrote. “Beijing sees little to gain from joining the international chorus condemning Moscow.

Zhang Ming (left), the secretary-general of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, meets with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing on March 17.

When Zhang Ming left his post as China’s ambassador to the European Union and became secretary-general of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) on January 1, Central and South Asia looked a lot different.

The region had already been rocked by the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August, but in the span of a few decisive days, the path ahead for the career diplomat took an unexpected turn.

Unrest broke out across Kazakhstan in early January, leading to violent clashes sparked by long-simmering, popular grievances and a behind-the-scenes power struggle that culminated in a Russian-led military intervention in the Central Asian country under the guise of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Moscow-dominated security bloc.

About seven weeks later, the Kremlin invaded Ukraine, launching the largest-scale conflict in Europe since World War II and triggering a tougher-than-expected Western response that has brought a series of political and economic knock-on effects that continue to reshape both Ukraine's and Russia’s neighbors.

For Beijing, both crises have proved to be revealing tests about the scope and limits of Chinese foreign policy, particularly across Eurasia, where the SCO has been one of China’s main vehicles for engaging with Central and South Asia.

Born from the collapse of the Soviet Union, the multilateral security and economic bloc helmed by China -- which includes India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan as members -- must now navigate the fallout across the region from Russia’s Ukraine invasion, including the risk of a food crisis, the ripple effects of Western sanctions against Russia’s economy, and growing anxiety over possible Russian political machinations in Central Asia.

“In general, the war in Ukraine has deeply disappointed the Chinese and also largely derailed their goals for the SCO,” Haiyun Ma, a professor at Frostburg State University in Maryland who studies Beijing's relations with countries in Central and South Asia, told RFE/RL.

For China, the SCO has long been an umbrella for China’s more specific interests in the region and has also come to represent a balance of power between Beijing and Moscow, who cemented their deepening ties together in a meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in early February.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on February 4. China must now navigate the task of embracing many SCO members’ desire for more distance from Russia, while still politically backing Moscow in the war.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on February 4. China must now navigate the task of embracing many SCO members’ desire for more distance from Russia, while still politically backing Moscow in the war.

But the Ukraine war has thrown that balance off-kilter and experts believe it may never be reset.

“China has been trying to promote bilateral ties with Russia, but also multilateral ones, too, and the SCO was set to play a larger role between Beijing and Moscow,” said Ma. “But Russia’s invasion and the blowback it has brought with the war mean that the SCO is now entering a period of reevaluation. It will need to find a new identity.”

A New Face For Eurasia

Finding that new face will be the task of the 64-year-old Zhang in his three-year term at the helm of the SCO.

During his tenure in Brussels, he earned a reputation as a consensus-maker with an “old-school” approach to diplomacy, in contrast to the brash and confrontational style seen in a younger generation of Chinese “wolf warrior” diplomats who have gained headlines in recent years, according to an EU official who dealt with Zhang during his time as ambassador to Brussels.

“He is a man of compromise and pragmatism,” said another EU official who worked with Zhang and asked to remain anonymous.

Both those traits will be needed as Zhang steers around the regional wreckage brought by the Ukraine war.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) with Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev in Beijing on September 11, 2019. Political fallout from Russia's invasion of Ukraine could lead to Beijing becoming even more appealing as a partner to countries in Central Asia.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) with Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev in Beijing on September 11, 2019. Political fallout from Russia's invasion of Ukraine could lead to Beijing becoming even more appealing as a partner to countries in Central Asia.

In Central Asia, both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have sent aid to Ukraine and said that they respect Kyiv’s territorial integrity.

While not an outright rebuke of the Kremlin, the moves highlight the tightrope the governments in Central Asia are currently walking between their unease and displeasure with Russia’s invasion and the need to preserve what is traditionally a close working relationship.

With brutal fighting under way in Ukraine and nationalism rising inside Russia, countries in the region are eager to avoid getting caught in the Kremlin’s crosshairs while maintaining room to maneuver. They’re also looking to cushion themselves from the effects of Russia’s economic free fall, which has already cut growth estimates across the region.

According to Temur Umarov, a fellow at the Moscow Carnegie Center, Russia remains firmly planted within Central Asia, but political fallout from the Ukraine war could lead to Beijing becoming even more appealing as a partner in the region, where it has already invested billions and become its preeminent economic force.

Chinese soldiers are seen a joint military exercise of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization held in Kyrgyzstan in September 2016.
Chinese soldiers are seen a joint military exercise of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization held in Kyrgyzstan in September 2016.

“On the one hand, you have Russia's reputation being damaged and its brand becoming toxic,” Umarov told RFE/RL. “On the other hand, all the Russian assets in Central Asia didn’t disappear. Its economic and security presence is still there and, in addition to that, Moscow still has a deep understanding for how domestic politics works that China does not.”

Founded in 1996 as the Shanghai Five by China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, the bloc renamed itself the SCO in 2001 with the introduction of Uzbekistan. India and Pakistan joined in 2018 and Iran’s membership application was approved in 2021, although the country still needs to pass a technical and legal process before it can formally join.

The SCO served as an early format for Beijing to settle lingering territorial disputes with the other members, and China initially had designs for creating a strong economic focus for the bloc. But those efforts were largely pushed aside by Russia, the organization’s other hegemon, who has guarded its influence in Central Asia.

As a result, the SCO consolidated around what it calls the “three evils” of terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism and has focused on combatting organized crime and narcotics trafficking, as well as enforcing a loosely defined counterterrorism mandate.

Since its founding, the SCO has faced criticism of being too diluted by competing ideas from its members and bogged down by a lack of funding and underlying mistrust between governments.

In particular, Beijing has been careful about the Kremlin's interests in Central Asia, which it views as within its “sphere of influence,” although in recent years the two countries have strengthened their cooperation.

When Putin and Xi met in Beijing on February 4 and signed a strategic document to hail their “no limits” partnership, they also vowed to strengthen the role and relevance of the SCO with both Beijing and Moscow at the helm.

Participants listen to Chinese President Xi Jinping deliver a speech via a video link during a Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Dushanbe on September 17, 2021.
Participants listen to Chinese President Xi Jinping deliver a speech via a video link during a Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Dushanbe on September 17, 2021.

But now China must navigate the task of embracing many of its members’ desire for more distance from Russia, while still politically backing Moscow in the war, where it has often echoed the Kremlin’s narrative of the conflict and refused to condemn alleged war crimes in Ukraine.

“Due to its size and geography, China’s role will grow, but the SCO won’t have many success stories to point to,” said Umarov. “Beijing is also now seen as a supporter of Russia and as a country that isn't doing much to restrain Moscow when many [SCO members] are seeing it as a potential threat.”

China's Western Neighborhood

Overcoming these problems will be no small task for Beijing.

Zhang and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi have floated the prospect of the SCO playing a mediator role in the Ukraine crisis, but such an idea received little reception outside of Chinese circles and has since vanished from official talking points.

The SCO did not respond to RFE/RL’s requests for comment about how the Ukraine war could affect its future, but Giulia Sciorati, a fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies, who studies the bloc, told RFE/RL that she believes the organization will look to find new opportunities by broadening its focus more to the Middle East and South Asia and branching out more into economic initiatives rather than the security focus it has taken on in recent years.

“This is an opportunity for China to push the SCO in new directions,” she said. “Beijing will have more on its shoulders than before, but there is still a view from China that the SCO is complementary to other outlets for Chinese power in the region and beyond.”

Prior to his posting as China’s ambassador to the EU, Zhang worked in the Middle East and Africa. Three EU officials told RFE/RL that they view him as one of the architects of Beijing’s policy on that continent, where China has grown into one of Africa's most economically influential actors.

The structure and mandate of the SCO make it difficult for an individual to put a personal stamp on the organization, but EU officials who worked with Zhang in Brussels said his new role should be viewed as a promotion and a sign that he is trusted in Beijing.

As Ma, the Frostburg State University professor notes, this experience could go a long way as both Beijing and the SCO adapt to changes in the region and search for new relevance.

“The SCO has lost a lot of attraction right now,” he said. “But Zhang has a strong [CV] that shows that he could help reform and reframe it as more of an economic mechanism.”

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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.

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