When Twitter posted a warning message on a Russian government post denying the killings of civilians in Bucha, Ukraine, last week, Chinese state media rushed to his defense. “On Twitter @mfa_russia, the statement about #Bucha has been censored,” wrote Frontline, a Twitter account linked to the official Chinese English-language broadcaster, CGTN.
In the newspaper of the Communist Party of China, the article published that the Russians offered definitive evidence that proves that the gruesome photos of the body on the streets of Bucha, a suburb of the capital of Ukraine, Kiev, are a scam.
One party television station in Shanghai said the Ukrainian government had painted a gruesome picture 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 a Russian campaign to sow disinformation about the war in Ukraine. China’s efforts have intensified anyway, opposing and challenging the policies of NATO capitals, even as Russia faces renewed condemnation of the Bucha killings and other atrocities in recent days.
The result was the creation of an alternative reality of war – not only for the consumption of Chinese citizens, but also for the global audience.
The propaganda provoked Western efforts to diplomatically isolate Russia, especially in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, which were fertile ground for conspiracy theories and distrust 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 for Democracy, a nonprofit group in Washington. “As far as Ukraine is concerned, it is a level above that – only to the extent that they have repeated some rather specific and in some cases rather tense claims 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 solution.
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, they have repeated the Kremlin’s excuses for it, including President Vladimir Putin’s claim that he fought against the neo-Nazi government in Kiev. On Twitter alone, they used the word “Nazi” – which Russia uses as a call to assemble – more times in the past six weeks of war than in the previous six months, according to a database created by the Alliance for Democracy.
For example, on Wednesday, a Chinese Foreign Ministry official tweeted the corrected photo it seems to show the Nazis holding a swastika flag next to the flags of Ukraine and the United States. “Surprisingly, the United States is with the neo-Nazis!” an official, Li Yang, wrote about the painting, which originally featured a neo-Nazi flag instead of the American flag.
The timing and themes of many of the topics highlighted in the countries ’reporting suggest coordination or at least a shared view of the world and the United States’ paramount role in it. China’s attacks on the United States and NATO, for example, are now close to those in Russia’s state media blaming the West for the war.
Sometimes even the wording – in English for a global audience – 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 i 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 assassination of former Libyan leader Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi.
In another case, the same reports used a video by Joseph R. Biden Jr. warning in 1997 that NATO expansion eastward could provoke a “sharp and hostile” reaction from Russia to suggest Putin’s decision to go to war justified.
China’s efforts have clearly shown that the White House warning had little effect on Beijing. Chinese propagandists instead intensified their efforts, reinforcing not only the Kremlin’s broad views on the war, but also some of the most obvious lies about its conduct.
“If you’re just looking at the results, then that message hasn’t passed,” Mr Schafer said. “If nothing else, we’ve seen them double.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment on China’s support for Russian disinformation.
While the extent of any direct collusion between Russia and China over war propaganda remains uncertain, the roots of international media cooperation go back almost a decade.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping has promised to deepen ties between Russian and Chinese state media during his first foreign trip in 2013 – to Moscow. Since then, countless state media bodies of the two countries have signed dozens of promises to share content.
Only Sputnik has reached 17 agreements with the main Chinese media. In 2021, the main Chinese media shared his articles more than 2,500 times, according to Vasily V. Pushkov, director of international cooperation at Rossiya Segodnya, a state-owned company that owns and operates Sputnik.
The Russian-Ukrainian war: a key development
The two of them took other signs from each other.
In mid-March, after Russia Today began using clips from Fox News host Tucker Carlson to support the idea of the United States developing biological weapons in Ukraine, Chinese state media also began taking over Mr. Carlson’s shows.
On March 26, Mr. Carlson was quoted in the main Chinese night news program, claiming that “it turns out that our government has been financing biolabs in Ukraine for some time.” The next day, the English-language channel, CGTN, reiterated a Russian claim about linking the lab to the laptops of Hunter Biden, the son of the US president.
Russian and Chinese state media are also increasingly relying on the opinions of the same group of internet celebrities, experts and influencers, showing them in their shows as well as on YouTube videos. One of them, Benjamin Norton, is a journalist who claimed that a coup d’etat sponsored by the United States government took place in Ukraine in 2014, and that American officials appointed the leaders of the current Ukrainian government.
He first explained the conspiracy theory on RT, although it was later taken over by Chinese state media and tweeted orders like Frontline. In a March interview with Mr. Norton, who is China’s state broadcaster, CCTV, trumpets as exclusive, he said the United States, not Russia, was to blame for the Russian invasion.
“As for the current situation in Ukraine, Benjamin said that this is not a war caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but a war that the United States planned and provoked in 2014,” said an unnamed CCTV narrator.
At times, China’s information campaigns seemed to contradict the country’s official diplomatic statements, undermining China’s efforts to reduce ties between its relations with Russia and the brutal invasion. On Wednesday, Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, called the images from Bucha “disturbing” and urged all parties to “show restraint and avoid baseless accusations.”
Just the day before, Chen Weihua, the vocal and prolific editor of China Daily, which is owned by the Chinese government, seemed to do just that. He retweeted a widely shared statement stating that there was “not a whit” evidence of the Bucha massacre and accused the West of “staging atrocities to heighten emotions, demonize opponents and prolong wars”.
Mr Chen is part of a wider network of diplomats, government-controlled media and government experts and influential people who have extended China’s domestic narrative of the conflict to overseas platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. Their central message is that the United States and NATO, not Mr. Putin, are responsible for the war.
One political caricature, shared by state media and Chinese diplomats, shows the European Union abducted by Uncle Sam and chained to a NATO-flagged tank. Another, from a Chinese diplomat from St. Petersburg in Russia, showed a hand with a sleeve with stars and bars filled on the back of a European Union doll waving a spear.
Other images depicting the European Union as a lackey of the United States came out of numerous official Chinese reports ahead of a tense meeting between Mr. Xi of China and the European Union, in which Europe called on China not to lift Western sanctions or support the Russian war.
Maria Repnikova, a professor of global communication at Georgia State University who studies China and Russia’s information campaigns, said the two countries have a “shared vision of resenting the West” that drives nationalist sentiment at home. At the same time, common messages resonated around the world, especially outside the United States and Europe.
“It’s not coordination, but echoes of a similar kind of concern or attitude when it comes to this war,” she said of views in Africa and other parts of the world. “China is also trying to show that it is not isolated.”
Claire Fu contributed to the research.