China’s echoes of Russia’s alternate reality intensify globally
By Paul Mozur, Steven Lee Myers and John Liu
When Twitter put up a warning message atop a Russian government post denying civilian killings in Bucha, Ukraine, last week, China’s state media rushed to its defense.
“On Twitter @mfa_russia’s statement on #Bucha got censored,” wrote Frontline, a Twitter account associated with China’s official English-language broadcaster, CGTN.
In a Chinese Communist Party newspaper, an article declared that Russians had offered definitive evidence to prove that the lurid photos of bodies in the streets of Bucha, a suburb of Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, were a hoax.
A party television station in Shanghai said Ukraine’s government had created the grisly tableaux to win sympathy in the West.
“Obviously, such evidence would not be admissible in court,” the report said.
Only a month ago, the White House warned China not to amplify Russia’s campaign to sow disinformation about the war in Ukraine. The Chinese efforts have intensified anyway, contradicting and disputing the policies of NATO capitals, even as Russia faced renewed condemnation for the killings in Bucha and other atrocities in recent days.
The result has been to create an alternate reality of the war — not just for the consumption of China’s citizens but also for a global audience.
The propaganda has challenged Western efforts to isolate Russia diplomatically, particularly in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, which have been fertile ground for conspiracy theories and distrust of the United States.
“Russia and China have long shared distrust and animosity toward the West,” said Bret Schafer, an analyst who tracks disinformation for the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a nonprofit group in Washington. “On Ukraine, it’s a level above that — just the extent to which they have parroted some pretty specific and in some cases pretty far-fetched claims from Russia.”
The campaign by China has further undercut the country’s effort to present itself as a neutral actor in the war, eager to promote a peaceful resolution.
In fact, its diplomats and official journalists have become combatants in the informational war to legitimize Russia’s claims and discredit international concerns about what appear to be war crimes.
Since the war began, they have parroted the Kremlin’s justifications for it, including President Vladimir Putin’s claim that he was fighting a neo-Nazi government in Kyiv. On Twitter alone, they have used the word “Nazi” — which Russia uses as a rallying cry — more times in the first six weeks of the war than they did in the six months before, according to a database created by the Alliance for Securing Democracy.
In an example last Wednesday, an official with China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs tweeted a doctored photo appearing to show Nazis holding a flag with a swastika next to flags of Ukraine and the United States.
“Surprisingly, the US stands with the neo-Nazis!” the official, Li Yang, wrote of the image, which originally featured a neo-Nazi flag in place of the American flag.
The timing and subjects of many of the themes prominent in the countries’ coverage suggest coordination or at least a shared view of the world and the United States’ preeminent role in it. China’s attacks on the United States and the NATO alliance, for example, now closely hew to those in Russian state media blaming the West for the war.
At times, even the wording — in English for global audiences — is almost identical.
After YouTube banned RT and Sputnik, two Russian television channels, for content “minimizing or trivializing well-documented violent events,” both RT and Frontline accused the platform of hypocrisy. They did so using the same videos of former U.S. officials, including President George W. Bush, President Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, joking about weapons, drones and the killing of former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
In another instance, the same accounts used a video of Joe Biden warning in 1997, when he was a senator, that NATO’s eastward expansion could provoke a “vigorous and hostile” reaction from Russia to suggest that Putin’s decision to go to war was justified.
China’s efforts have made it clear that the White House’s warning did little to influence Beijing. China’s propagandists have instead intensified their efforts, amplifying not only the Kremlin’s broad views about the war but also some of the most blatant lies about its conduct.
“If you’re just looking at the outputs, then that message didn’t get through,” Schafer said. “If anything, we’ve seen them sort of double down.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment about China’s support of Russian disinformation.
While the extent of any direct collusion between Russian and Chinese on war propaganda remains uncertain, the roots of cooperation in international media outreach stretch back nearly a decade.
China’s leader, Xi Jinping, pledged to deepen ties between Russian and Chinese state media on his first foreign trip in 2013 — to Moscow. Since then, the two countries’ myriad state media organs have signed dozens of pledges to share content.
At times, China’s information campaigns have seemed to contradict the country’s official diplomatic statements, undercutting China’s efforts to play down the links between its relationship with Russia and the brutal invasion. On Wednesday, Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, called the images from Bucha “disturbing” and asked for all parties to “exercise restraint and avoid groundless accusations.”
Maria Repnikova, a professor of global communication at Georgia State University who studies China and Russia information campaigns, said the two countries had “a shared vision of resenting the West” that drove nationalistic sentiment at home. At the same time, the shared messages have resonated globally, especially outside the United States and Europe.
“It’s not coordination but echoes of the similar sort of concerns or stance when it comes to this war,” she said of views in Africa and other parts of the world. “China is also trying to showcase that it’s not isolated.”