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Disinformation Wars: China, Russia Cooperating On Propaganda More Than Ever, Says Report


People in a Hong Kong restaurant watch a broadcast as Russian troops invade Ukraine on February 24, 2022.
People in a Hong Kong restaurant watch a broadcast as Russian troops invade Ukraine on February 24, 2022.

After a year of war in Ukraine, China and Russia have grown closer together in the information space, often parroting each other's talking points across state-owned media as part of a wider strategy to undermine the West, a new report finds.

The yearlong study by the German Marshall Fund's Alliance for Securing Democracy found that messaging by Chinese officials and media evolved following Moscow's February 2022 invasion to provide greater "rhetorical cover for the Kremlin" despite Beijing's official stance as a neutral party in the conflict.

"There has definitely been a pro-Russian convergence, and China has been repeating pro-Russian talking points since the beginning of the war while also downplaying Russian war crimes and giving prominence to Russian voices," Etienne Soula, a research analyst with the Alliance for Securing Democracy and one of the report's authors, told RFE/RL.

Given that growing overlap, the report, issued on February 24, notes that "China's ability to use its own global influence network to undermine the West" gives it a uniquely powerful role to play moving forward in shaping attitudes among nonaligned countries in the Global South.

A TV screen shows news about Russia's invasion of Ukraine at a shopping mall in Hangzhou, China, on February 25, 2022.
A TV screen shows news about Russia's invasion of Ukraine at a shopping mall in Hangzhou, China, on February 25, 2022.

"To weaken Western democracies and their allies, China also has tried to isolate those countries by appealing to the Global South," the report states. "In the context of the war in Ukraine, Chinese messaging has consistently argued that countries supporting Ukraine are hypocrites and indifferent to the rest of the world."

A Year Of War

China's tightly controlled media have refrained from calling the war an invasion and have instead used the Kremlin terminology, referring to it as a "special military operation." At other times, Chinese outlets have pushed disinformation and conspiracy theories popularized on Russian state-led channels such as that the United States has bioweapons labs in Ukraine and that the extrajudicial killings of civilians by Russian forces in the town of Bucha is a hoax, and have suggested Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is controlled by U.S. billionaire George Soros.

Bolstered by nearly a decade of reports propagating against the West and deepening ties that the countries characterized as a "no limits" partnership prior to Moscow's invasion of Ukraine, Chinese state-controlled outlets have helped spread the Kremlin's narrative of the war to their massive audiences at home and abroad.

According to the report's analysis, this stance was borne out across social-media channels.

Between February 24, 2022, and January 23, 2023, Chinese diplomatic and state-affiliated media accounts on Twitter quoted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov "more than three times as often" as Dmytro Kuleba, his Ukrainian counterpart. Russian President Vladimir Putin also received eight times more mentions than Zelenskiy.

As the report notes, the Chinese outlets' echoing of Russian narratives has also provided an opportunity to chide the United States and bolster long-standing talking points from Beijing about U.S. foreign policy.

In the first year of the war, Chinese diplomatic and state-affiliated media accounts on Twitter mentioned the United States twice as often as Russia when mentioning "war" and have put a greater focus on NATO, which "was not a regular feature of Chinese [media] attacks prior to the war."

In 2021, according to figures compiled by the Alliance for Securing Democracy, Chinese state media mentioned "NATO" in more than 1,200 tweets, with the alliance's "expansion" only included in 52 tweets. Following Russia's invasion, the frequency of both "NATO" and "expansion" rose more than 540 percent and 1,700 percent, respectively.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, and Russian President Vladimir Putin arrive for the 10th BRICS summit in Johannesburg in 2018.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, and Russian President Vladimir Putin arrive for the 10th BRICS summit in Johannesburg in 2018.

Taiwan is another topic that has seen its references skyrocket since Russia's invasion last year, although in a way that has proved awkward for China's convergence with Russia in the information space.

Chinese accounts mentioning the self-governing island that Beijing claims as its own in the same tweet as Ukraine happened more than 500 times, although the report notes that the vast majority of them were Chinese officials or media aiming to dispel comparisons between the two. Beijing views Taiwan as a rogue province and often cites a respect for its own "sovereignty and territorial integrity" as reasons why countries should not engage with Taipei as an independent nation.

"China's support for Russia isn't unequivocal. The red line is that Chinese interests come first no matter what," Soula said. "That's quite clear whenever Taiwan gets brought up and the talking points are adamant in distinguishing that Ukraine and Taiwan are not the same and, in doing so, it kind of throws Russia's narrative under the bus."

China And Russia In The Global South

The report's findings echo comments made by James Rubin -- a coordinator for the Global Engagement Center, a U.S. State Department body set up to "expose and counter" foreign propaganda and disinformation -- during a European tour in early March in which he warned that the West has been slow to respond to China's emergence in the information space and Beijing's close ties with Russia.

"We as a nation and the West have been slow to respond, and it is a fair judgment that we are facing a very, very large challenge," Rubin told reporters on February 28. "In the communication space, the alignment between China and Russia is near complete."

People hold placards during a protest against Russia's invasion of Ukraine, outside the Russian representative office in Taipei on March 1, 2022.
People hold placards during a protest against Russia's invasion of Ukraine, outside the Russian representative office in Taipei on March 1, 2022.

China and Russia have invested heavily in courting new audiences across Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia in the last decade, with Rubin claiming both countries have spent billions to expand their operations globally.

Chinese state media has been central to Beijing's efforts to influence other countries, control information about the Communist Party, and be able to amplify China's narratives about its policies and role in the world.

Against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, those narratives seem to be finding fertile ground in the Global South. A late February poll by the European Council on Foreign Relations found that while strong majorities of Western countries stand in support of Ukraine, those surveyed across the Global South were less supportive of continued war and more likely to sympathize with Moscow's grievances and be suspicious of Western leaders' motives.

Soula says this means Beijing and Moscow's growing convergence is set to expand, even if the two countries might not see eye to eye on every issue.

"Information space is the low-hanging fruit. No one says they will put sanctions on China for supporting Russia there," he said. "It keeps Russia happy, and it also serves Beijing's broader interests by accelerating a loss of Western influence in places like Africa, where only China really has the capacity to fill the void left by Western powers."

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    Reid Standish

    Reid Standish is an RFE/RL correspondent in Prague and author of the China In Eurasia briefing. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has reported extensively about China's Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Reid was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and its Moscow correspondent. He has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.

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