China’s Echoes of Russia’s Alternate Reality Intensify Around the World

When Twitter posted a warning about a Russian government post denying the killings of civilians in Bucha, Ukraine, last week, China’s state media was quick to defend it. “On Twitter, @mfa_russia’s statement about #Bucha was censored,” wrote Frontline, a Twitter account associated with China’s official English-language broadcaster CGTN.

In a Chinese Communist Party newspaper, an article stated that the Russians had offered definitive evidence to prove that the lurid photographs of bodies on the streets of Bucha, a suburb of Ukraine’s capital kyiv, were a hoax.

A party television station in Shanghai said the Ukrainian government had created the lurid cadres to curry favor with 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 amplify Russia’s campaign to sow disinformation about the war in Ukraine. Chinese efforts have intensified anyway, contradicting and questioning the policies of NATO capitals, even as Russia faced renewed condemnation for the Bucha killings and other atrocities in recent days.

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

The propaganda has challenged Western efforts to diplomatically isolate Russia, particularly in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, which have been fertile ground for conspiracy theories and mistrust of the United States.

“Russia and China have long shared mistrust and animosity toward the West,” said Bret Schafer, an analyst who tracks disinformation for the Alliance to Secure Democracy, a nonprofit group in Washington. “In Ukraine, it’s a notch above that, just to the extent that they’ve repeated some pretty specific and, in some cases, pretty far-fetched claims from Russia.”

China’s campaign has further undermined the country’s effort to portray itself as a neutral actor in the war, eager to promote a peaceful resolution.

Indeed, its official diplomats and journalists have become combatants in the information 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, 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 rallying cry, more times in the six weeks of war than in the previous six months, according to a database created by the Alliance for. Securing Democracy.

In an example from Wednesday, a Chinese Foreign Ministry official tweeted a doctored photo which appears to show the Nazis holding a swastika flag next to the flags of Ukraine and the United States. “Amazingly, the United States supports neo-Nazis!” the official, 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 the country coverage suggest coordination or at least a shared vision of the world and America’s preeminent role in it. China’s attacks on the United States and the NATO alliance, for example, now closely resemble those of Russian state media blaming the West for the war.

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

after YouTube forbidden RT and Sputnik, two Russian television channels, for content that “minimizes or trivializes well-documented violent events”, both RT Y first line accused the platform of hypocrisy. They did so using the same videos of former US officials, including President George W. Bush, President Barack Obama, and Hillary Rodham Clinton, joking about guns, drones, and the assassination of Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi, the former Libyan leader.

In another case, the same accounts used a video of Joseph R. Biden Jr. 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 the decision Putin’s decision to go to war was justified.

China’s efforts have made it clear that the White House warning did little to sway Beijing. Instead, China’s propagandists have stepped up their efforts, amplifying not only the Kremlin’s broad views on the war, but also some of the most blatant lies about its conduct.

“If you’re just looking at the results, then that message didn’t get across,” Schafer said. “If anything, we’ve seen them double.”

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

While the extent of any direct Russian-Chinese collusion in war propaganda remains uncertain, the roots of cooperation in international media outreach go back nearly a decade.

China’s leader Xi Jinping vowed to deepen ties between Russian and Chinese state media on his first trip abroad in 2013, to Moscow. Since then, the myriad state media bodies of the two countries have signed dozens of commitments to share content.

Sputnik alone has struck 17 deals with major Chinese media, which shared its articles more than 2,500 times in 2021, 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 of Fox News host Tucker Carlson to support the idea that the United States was developing biological weapons in Ukraine, Chinese state media also began picking up Carlson’s broadcasts. .

On March 26, Mr. Carlson was quoted on China’s flagship nightly news, stating that “it turns out that our government has funded bio-labs in Ukraine for some time.” The next day, the English-language channel, CGTN, repeated a Russian claim linking the labs to the laptops of Hunter Biden, the US president’s son.

Russian and Chinese state media have also increasingly relied on the views of the same group of celebrities, pundits and internet influencers, featuring them on their shows and in YouTube 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 current Ukrainian government.

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

“Regarding the current situation in Ukraine, Benjamin said that this is not a war provoked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but a war planned and provoked by the United States as early as 2014,” said an anonymous CCTV narrator.

At times, China’s information campaigns appear to contradict the country’s official diplomatic statements, undermining China’s efforts to downplay the links between its relationship with Russia and the brutal invasion. On Wednesday, Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, called Bucha’s footage “disturbing” and called on all parties to “act with restraint and avoid baseless accusations.”

Just the day before, Chen Weihua, a vocal and prolific editor at China Daily, which is owned by the Chinese government, seemed to do just that. He retweeted a widely shared post that said there was “not one iota” of evidence of massacre in Bucha and accused the West of “organizing atrocities to heighten emotions, demonize adversaries and extend wars.”

Chen is one thread in a sprawling network of diplomats, government-controlled media and state-backed pundits and influencers who have spread China’s internal narrative about the conflict to overseas platforms like Twitter and Facebook. The core of his message is that the United States and NATO, not Putin, are responsible for the war.

A political cartoon, shared by Chinese state media and diplomats, showed the European Union kidnapped by Uncle Sam and chained to a tank flying a NATO flag. Another, from a Chinese diplomat in St. Petersburg, Russia, showed an arm with a Stars and Stripes sleeve tucked into the back of a spear-wielding European Union puppet.

Other images portraying the European Union as a lackey of the United States emerged from various official Chinese accounts in the run-up to a tense meeting between Mr Xi and the European Union, in which Europe called on China not to subvert China. West. sanctions or support Russia’s war.

Maria Repnikova, a professor of global communication at Georgia State University who studies Chinese and Russian information campaigns, said the two countries had “a shared vision of resentment toward the West” that fueled nationalist sentiment at home. At the same time, the shared messages have resonated globally, especially outside of the United States and Europe.

“It’s not coordination, but echoes of similar concerns or 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 she is not isolated.”

claire fu contributed research.

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