While the official position from Beijing is that China remains a neutral observer of the Russian-Ukrainian war, Chinese state media content suggests otherwise. Since the start of the war, coverage by Chinese state media outlets has shown a substantial increase in citations of Russian state media. The content of this coverage has leaned heavily towards pro-Russian and anti-Western narratives and has amplified conspiracy theories and other Russian-government-backed disinformation.
This week, Chinese government officials and state media also began amplifying disinformation from Russian officials and state media about American-funded biolabs in Ukraine alleged to be secretly producing chemical weapons. A wave of articles from Xinhua, CGTN, China Daily, People’s Daily, and Global Times—all citing Russian government and media sources—has flooded the Chinese media landscape. David Rising from the Associated Press described these articles and the traction they have gained online:
China has been actively promoting the claim, however, with headlines like “Russia reveals evidence of U.S.-funded bio-program in Ukraine” and “China urges U.S. to disclose more details about biolabs in Ukraine” on state-run China Global Television Network’s website. The Communist Party’s Global Times newspaper published a story Thursday with the headline “US tries to refute ‘rumors’ about its biolabs in Ukraine, but can we believe it?”
A nearly three-minute video of a Russian Defense Ministry news conference repeating the allegations has been viewed more than 10 million times on Sina Weibo, a popular Chinese social media platform akin to Twitter, and liked more than 90,000 times. [Source]
The topic is hosted by People's Daily and has attracted over 260 million views. People's Daily is one of the most official publications in China. In comparison, Global Times can be considered as a tabloid. pic.twitter.com/e18FjLYkXF
— Wenhao (@ThisIsWenhao) March 11, 2022
Left is how CGTN covered the news. It notably added that the US has denied the accusations. Right is how CCTV (domestic version of CGTN) covered the news, with no mentioning of the other side whatsoever. pic.twitter.com/aKtmQ6lDes
— Wenhao (@ThisIsWenhao) March 11, 2022
While experts worry that Russia may have floated these conspiracy theories as a pretext for its own potential use of chemical weapons and to increase domestic support for its invasion, China found another reason to amplify it: to reinvigorate its own conspiracy theories claiming that the U.S. is responsible for having artificially created the virus that causes COVID-19novel coronavirus. Chinese state media articles have now begun citing Russian government sources claiming that the biolabs had been conducting research into bat coronavirus.
It has been picked up again in Chinese media environments this week alongside Russia propaganda campaigns, and been brought to China’s Foreign Ministry press conference. https://t.co/PYdJBtoEtx
— TTCAT 🇺🇦 (@TTCATz) March 10, 2022
Dziś rosyjskie i chińskie MSZ gra na tę samą nutę: laboratoria biologiczne w Ukrainie, a że udziały w nich mają rzekomo Amerykanie, to Chiny mogą upiec dwie pieczenie na jednym ogniu: odgryźć się za żądania USA (i reszty państw) dot. dochodzeń w Wuhan i poprzeć Rosję. pic.twitter.com/sU0EArf7aN
— Krzysztof Pawliszak (@luigiluib) March 8, 2022
Last week, Li Yuan from The New York Times tracked numerous other instances of Chinese state media recycling disinformation from Russian state media:
Hours after Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, the Chinese Communist Party tabloid, Global Times, posted a video saying that a large number of Ukrainian soldiers had laid down their arms. Its source: the Russian state-controlled television network, RT.
Two days later, China’s state broadcaster Central Television Station (CCTV) flashed a breaking news alert, quoting Russia’s parliamentary speaker, that President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine had fled Kyiv. CCTV then created a related hashtag on the Twitter-like platform Weibo that was viewed 510 million times and used by 163 media outlets in the country.
[…] Chinese media is also propagating Russian disinformation that Ukraine has been using civilians as human shields. In its prime-time news program on Feb. 26, CCTV quoted President Putin as making that allegation. A few days later the nationalistic news site, guancha.com, ran a banner headline that said the Russian military was going only after military targets, while the Ukrainian military was using civilians as human shields.
[…] While videos circulated outside China purportedly showing Ukrainians’ kind treatment of Russian prisoners of war, the trending social media topic in China was that captured Russians had endured Nazi-like torture. Both CCTV and the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, created hashtags echoing the same, based on a briefing by the Russian defense ministry. They had combined views of more than 200 million. [Source]
Staying on the theme from the previous tweet, Chinese state media outlets Global Times and CGTN both had to issue corrections after falsely reporting that President Zelensky had fled Kyiv. He hasn't.
— Shayan Sardarizadeh (@Shayan86) March 4, 2022
They marvel at Russia’s propaganda skills with a video about Russian soldiers sharing food with Ukrainian children or Ukrainian POWs reflecting on their sins at a memorial for children killed by the evil Ukrainian Government…. Note these are all from Chinese state media accounts pic.twitter.com/1fMMoL5tvf
— 杨涵 Han Yang (@polijunkie_aus) March 6, 2022
DoubleThink Lab, a Taiwan-based organization mapping online information operations, created an observatory that has tracked, among other information operations throughout the war, Chinese state media’s use of Russian government and state media content:
7th March 2022: China’s Role in the Russian-Ukrainian War
[…] Global Times also made a series of posts about the discovery of biological laboratories in Ukraine on Weibo, and used hashtags such as, “U.S.-funded laboratories have developed biological weapons” (美資助的烏克蘭實驗室曾研發生化武器), or “Russia says it has found U.S. military-biological programs in Ukraine” (俄方稱在烏發現美國軍事生物計劃). Chinese media Guancha Syndicate also published a post with the hashtag that “Ukraine is destroying U.S. funded chemical and biological weapons” (烏克蘭正銷毀美國資助的生化武器項目). The information in these posts is heavily based on an article published by Russian think tank the Strategic Culture Foundation (SCF) on February 25, 2022, which alleged that there were bio labs in Ukraine funded by the U.S. government. SCF is closely affiliated with Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Global Times then used the information to write a Mandarin-language article, but it did not receive immediate attention at that time.
[…] 6th March 2022: Anti-US, Anti-Ukraine, Pro-Russia Sentiments in the Chinese Information Space
[…] The Russian government released a video showing Vladimir Putin explaining the reason for sending Russian troops to Ukraine to a group of flight attendants sitting in close proximity to him, in an attempt to turn around his image. The video was quickly reposted by Global Times, which added Chinese subtitles to it, and spread to other Chinese media environments including Taiwan.
[…] 4th March 2022: Regularly quoting disinformation and conspiracy theories from Russian sources
[…] Xinhua’s “Reference News” established a Weibo topic “Putin states only Fascists fight like this,” claiming that Ukraine’s military has no humanity towards their populace, echoing Russian state media’s false narrative that “Ukraine’s government is using the populace as a shield.”
[…] From 9 pm Global Times published a number of articles on Weibo questioning whether Zelensky had left Kyiv, referencing Sputnik and TASS. Close to midnight, they referenced Sputnik as reporting that Zelensky was still in Kyiv. An hour later they quoted an opposition parliamentarian’s claim that Zelensky had already fled to Poland. On the morning of the 5th, after Zelensky posted a video of himself clarifying that he is still in Kyiv, Global Times followed suit and once again changed their story. [Source]
The content used by Chinese state media has been propagated widely across Western and Chinese social media. An investigation by Axios discovered that Chinese state broadcaster CGTN had placed dozens of advertisements on Facebook that support Russia’s narrative of the war. The ads feature newscasts from CGTN, and are particularly controversial since Facebook recently stated it would ban ads from Russian state media. Over on Chinese social media, an analysis by CNN’s Simone McCarthy and CNN’s Beijing bureau revealed a significant amount of Chinese state-media content to be pro-Russian and sourced directly from the Russian government or state media:
A CNN analysis reviewed nearly 5,000 social media posts from 14 Chinese state media outlets during the first eight days of Russia’s invasion posted onto China’s Twitter-like platform, Weibo. The analysis found that of the more than 300 most-shared posts about the events in Ukraine — which were each shared more than 1,000 times — almost half, about 140, were what CNN classified as distinctly pro-Russian, often containing information attributed to a Russian official or picked up directly from Russia’s state media.
[…] While about 140 posts showed Russia in a positive light, the analysis identified fewer than 15 posts that portrayed Ukraine positively. [Source]
In another vivid example, Chinese reporter Lu Yuguang gave a report for Phoenix TV, a partially state-owned Chinese broadcaster, while embedded with a frontline Russian military unit in Mariupol, Ukraine. Lu managed to interview Russian soldiers, and he parroted Russian disinformation that militants in Kyiv were using hostages. In an earlier report, he also managed to interview Denis Pushilin, leader of the separatist-occupied Donetsk region. CGTN recently amplified Pushilin’s call for Ukraine to surrender to Russia.
A lot of questions floating around about this guy at the moment, who's appeared in Mariupol, interviewing Russian soldiers on Chinese TV.
His name is Lu Yuguang and he's Phoenix TV's chief Moscow correspondent. He's a former navy officer. pic.twitter.com/QlJzZJOdAG
— Kerry Allen 凯丽 (@kerrya11en) March 8, 2022
— Zichen Wang (@ZichenWanghere) March 8, 2022
Edward Wong from The New York Times reported that China has reached a new level of government cooperation with Russia in spreading disinformation over state media:
The Chinese government’s promotion of Russian disinformation in the middle of the war has ignited concern among Western officials because of China’s powerful diplomatic standing and extensive cyberabilities. Analysts who study disinformation from the two nations said this was the first time they had seen this scale of amplification between Beijing and Moscow around a conspiracy theory.
“I can’t think of another active propaganda campaign by Russia that has gotten this level of boost from China,” said Bret Schafer, who tracks disinformation from China, Russia and Iran as a senior fellow for the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a Washington nonprofit group. “I haven’t seen this volume around something like this.”
[…] “Now that American tech platforms have taken action against Russian state media, the Chinese state media are filling the gap,” [Mr. Schafer] said. “They’re mirroring Kremlin talking points.” [Source]
China and Russia have a history of amplifying one another’s government talking points, with China often copying from the Russian playbook and both countries mutually benefitting. Within the realm of state media, China and Russia have a longstanding partnership focused on sharing content and “combatting disinformation.” In an article for The Moscow Times last year, Alexander Gabuev and Leonid Kovachich, Russia and China experts respectively, described some of the agreements underpinning Sino-Russian state-media cooperation and China’s interest in emulating Russian state media tools:
Since 2014, Russian and Chinese state-run media have signed several agreements. Russia’s Sputnik News and the China Media Group (CMG) are the most visible and important players. (The CMG includes CCTV, Chinese National Radio, and Chinese Radio International.) In 2018, Sputnik and the CMG signed a cooperation agreement focused on content sharing and joint projects. Sputnik previously had similar agreements with other Chinese media outlets (including the Xinhua News Agency, Chinese Radio International, and the Global Times), but since the CMG’s emergence as a leading international media holding in China, the company has become the prime interlocutor on the Chinese side. The respective heads of Sputnik News and the CMG—Dmitry Kiselyov and Shen Haixiong (who is also deputy director of the CCP’s Propaganda Department)—co-chair the Media Council of the Russia-China Peace, Friendship, and Development Committee. Despite the fanfare, the 2018 agreement remains limited to bilateral exchanges of content, with CMG materials about China appearing on Sputnik News platforms in Russian and vice versa.
[…] Several internal Chinese government studies examined the modus operandi of Russian state-run channels and news agencies aimed at foreign audiences. These studies sought to identify international best practices to improve engagement with international audiences by the Xinhua News Agency, the Chinese Global Television Network (CGTN), and other state-run Chinese media that produce content in foreign languages. Internal analytical pieces were also produced by state-linked research organizations operated by the Ministry of State Security and the CCP Propaganda Department. They reportedly looked into the experience of Russian international media outlets, as well as the digitalization of the Russian diplomatic corps. [Source]
"That China has chosen to follow Russia's lead in deliberately mischaracterizing the war…almost makes a mockery of China's self-proclaimed impartiality in helping to engage with Russia &bring an end to the violence." I think we can safely strike "almost" https://t.co/nTkp48Kuqf
— Mareike Ohlberg (@MareikeOhlberg) March 11, 2022
The sweeping pro-Russia disinfo on the Chinese internet isn’t created in a day. Want to recap a tiny bit of what happened in the past decade. As the idiom 草蛇灰线 goes, there’re always traces. All the developments below are intertwined with each other. 1/
— Tony Lin 林東尼 (@tony_zy) March 10, 2022