China’s echoes of Russia’s alternative reality are intensifying around the world

When Twitter posted a warning message over a Russian government post denying the killings of civilians in Bukha, Ukraine, last week, China’s state media rushed in defense. “@ Mfa_russia’s statement about #Bucha on Twitter was censored,” wrote Frontline, a Twitter account associated with China’s official English-language station, CGTN.

An article in a Chinese Communist Party newspaper claimed that the Russians had offered definitive evidence to show that the horrific photos of bodies on the streets of Bucha, a suburb of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, were a hoax.

A party television station in Shanghai said the Ukrainian government had created horrifying pictures to win sympathy in the West. “Obviously, such evidence would not be admissible in court,” the report said.

Just a month ago, the White House warned China not to step up Russia’s campaign to sow misinformation about the war in Ukraine. Chinese efforts have intensified anyway, contradicting and disputing the policies of NATO capitals, even as Russia faces a renewed condemnation of Bucha’s assassinations and other atrocities in recent days.

The result has been to create an alternative reality of war, not only for the consumption of Chinese citizens, but also for a global audience.

Propaganda has challenged Western efforts to isolate Russia diplomatically, especially in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America, which have been fertile ground for U.S. conspiracy and distrust theories.

“Russia and China have been sharing distrust and animosity toward the West for a long time,” said Bret Schafer, an analyst who monitors the disinformation of the Alliance for Democracy, a nonprofit group in Washington. “In Ukraine, it’s a level above that, only to the extent that they’ve reiterated some pretty specific and, in some cases, pretty crazy statements from Russia.”

China’s campaign has further undermined the country’s efforts 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 fighters in the information war to legitimize Russia’s claims and discredit international concerns about what appear to be war crimes.

Since the war began, the Kremlin’s justifications have been repeated, including President Vladimir V. 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 war cry – more often during the six weeks of war than in the previous six months, according to a database created by the Alliance for Ensuring Democracy.

In an example Wednesday, an official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China tweeted a manipulated photo it appears to show Nazis holding a flag with a swastika next to the flags of Ukraine and the United States. “Surprisingly, the US is on the side of the neo-Nazis!” the officer, Li Yang, wrote about the image, which originally featured a neo-Nazi flag instead of the American flag.

The timing and themes of many of the issues highlighted in country coverage suggest coordination or at least a shared view of the world and the preeminent role of the United States in it. China’s attacks on the United States and the NATO alliance, for example, are now closely linked to those of the Russian state media blaming the West for the war.

Sometimes even the wording (in English for global audiences) is almost identical.

After YouTube prohibited RT and Sputnik, two Russian television channels, for content that “minimizes or trivializes well-documented violent events.” RT i First line 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 the former leader’s weapons, drones, and assassination. Libya, Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi.

In another case, the same accounts used a video of Joseph R. Biden Jr. warning in 1997 that NATO’s eastward expansion could provoke a “strong and hostile” reaction from Russia to suggest that Mr. Putin to go to war was justified.

China’s efforts have made it clear that the White House’s warning had little effect on Beijing. China’s propagandists have intensified their efforts, expanding not only the Kremlin’s broad views on the war, but also some of the most egregious lies about its conduct.

“If you’re just looking at the exits, then that message didn’t come,” Mr. Schafer. “In any case, we’ve seen them bend.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment on China’s support for Russian misinformation.

While the extent of any direct collusion between Russia and China over war propaganda remains uncertain, the roots of international media outreach cooperation go back almost a decade.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping pledged to deepen ties between Russian and Chinese state media on his first trip abroad in 2013 to Moscow. Since then, countless state media outlets in both countries have signed dozens of content-sharing commitments.

Sputnik alone has reached 17 agreements with major Chinese media. In 2021, its articles were shared more than 2,500 times by major Chinese media, according to Vasily V. Pushkov, director of international cooperation at Rossiya Segodnya, the state-owned company that owns and operates Sputnik.

The two have also taken other cues from each other.

In mid-March, after Russia Today began using clips from Fox News host Tucker Carlson to support the idea that the United States was developing biological weapons in Ukraine, Chinese state media also began airing Sr. Carlson.

On March 26, Mr. Carlson was quoted in China’s flagship nightly news program as saying that “it turns out that our government has long funded biolaboratories in Ukraine.” The next day, the English-language channel CGTN repeated a Russian statement linking the labs to the laptops of Hunter Biden, the son of the US president.

Russian and Chinese state media have also increasingly relied on the opinions of the same group of celebrities, experts and Internet influencers, who present them on their YouTube programs and videos. One of them, Benjamin Norton, is a journalist who claimed that a US government-sponsored coup took place in Ukraine in 2014 and that US officials had installed the leaders of the United States. current Ukrainian government.

He first explained the conspiracy theory to RT, although it was later picked up by the Chinese state media and tweeted by accounts like Frontline. In a March interview with Mr. Norton, which is China’s state broadcaster, CCTV, trumpet as an exclusive, said the United States, not Russia, was to blame for the invasion of Russia.

“On the current situation in Ukraine, Benjamin said that this is not a war provoked by the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, but a war planned and provoked by the United States as early as 2014,” he said. unnamed CCTV narrator.

At times, China’s information campaigns have seemed to contradict the country’s official diplomatic statements, undermining China’s efforts to minimize the links between its relationship with Russia and the brutal invasion. On Wednesday, Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, described Bucha’s images as “disturbing” and called on all parties to “try and avoid baseless allegations.”

Just the day before, Chen Weihua, a vocal and prolific editor of the China Government-owned China Daily, seemed to be doing just that. He retweeted a widely shared post saying there was “not a shred” of evidence of massacre in Bucha and accused the West of “carrying out atrocities to increase emotions, demonize opponents and prolong wars.”

Mr. Chen is part of an extensive network of diplomats, government-controlled media and state-backed and influential experts who have spread China’s internal narrative about the conflict to foreign platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. Central to his message is that the United States and NATO, not Mr. Putin, they are responsible for the war.

A political cartoon, shared by state media and Chinese diplomats, showed the European Union being kidnapped by Uncle Sam and chained to a tank with a NATO flag. Another, of a Chinese diplomat in St. Petersburg, Russia, showed an arm with a sleeve of stars and bars embedded in the back of a European Union puppet brandishing a spear.

Other images show the European Union as a lackey of the United States came out of a series of Chinese official accounts in the run-up to a tense meeting between Mr. Xi of China and the European Union, in which Europe called for China not to subvert Western sanctions or support the Russian war.

Maria Repnikova, a professor of global communications at Georgia State University who studies the information campaigns of China and Russia, said the two countries have “a shared vision of resentment in the West” that drives nationalist sentiment at home. At the same time, shared messages have resonated worldwide, especially outside the United States and Europe.

“It’s not a coordination, but an echo of concerns or similar positions when it comes to this war,” he said of views in Africa and other parts of the world. “China is also trying to show that it is not isolated.”

Claire Fu research provided.

New Technology Era

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