How China Embraces Russian Propaganda and Its Version of War

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Hours after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, the Chinese Communist Party tabloid, Global Times, published a video saying that a large number of Ukrainian soldiers had laid down their arms. Its source: the Russian state-controlled television channel, RT.

Two days later, China’s state-run Central Television Station (CCTV) issued a breaking news alert, citing the speaker of the Russian parliament, that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had fled Kyiv. CCTV then created a related hashtag on the Weibo Twitter-like platform which was viewed 510 million times and used by 163 media outlets in the country.

On February 28, as Russia became an international pariah, Russia’s state-run news agency Sputnik shared a message of strength with its 11 million Weibo followers. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Sputnik said Russia still has friends around the world, especially “a real giant” like China.

“Add oil, Russia,” Sputnik follower @fengyiqing applauded on Weibo, using a Chinese expression of support. “All people in the world who love justice are friends of Russia.”

As European and US officials pressure Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and other online platforms to crack down on Russian disinformation, China has embraced Russia’s propaganda and lies about the war. Chinese state-run media quoted coverage from their Russian counterparts without verification, helping to amplify their disinformation on the Chinese internet. They put Russian officials on state television networks with little hindsight on their claims.

When it comes to information, the Chinese government is a control freak, dictating and censoring what its 1.4 billion people consume. Beijing has silenced and imprisoned its critics and journalists. It coerced and co-opted China’s biggest online platforms to enforce its censorship guidelines. It blocks almost all major western news and information websites including Google, Twitter, YouTube, Wikipedia, New York Times, Wall Street Journal and BBC.

Yet as the world faces one of its most serious geopolitical crises since the end of the Cold War, China has abandoned its digital defenses and allowed the Kremlin’s propaganda machine to help shape perception. public of war. No wonder the Chinese internet is overwhelmingly pro-Russia, pro-war, and pro-Putin.

If China wants to remain officially ambiguous about whether it supports Vladimir V. Putin’s war – refusing to call it an invasion and abstaining in a UN vote to condemn the invasion – its controlled media by the state nevertheless make China’s position very clear.

The Sino-Russian information alliance is forged on a worldview shared by two leaders, Xi Jinping and Vladimir V. Putin, who, out of deep distrust of the United States, are determined to challenge domination of the West in the race for public opinion.

In a 2013 speech, Xi urged the country’s propaganda operatives to boost the country’s “international discourse power” under the notion of “telling China’s story well”. During a visit to RT headquarters the same year, Mr Putin said the network had been created to “break the Anglo-Saxon monopoly on global news flows”.

In 2015, Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin decided that the two countries should strengthen their media cooperation. Since then, they have organized a Sino-Russian media forum every year, aiming to “redefine the map of international discourse”.

Last November, an RT executive told the forum that major Chinese media quoted RT.com an average of 2,500 times a week in 2021.

Many Chinese media admire RT and Sputnik, which they say broke the Western news monopoly, or at least muddyed the water. Many media experts have analyzed what China’s state-run media could learn from their successes. An academic article detailed RT’s coverage of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea to illustrate how the Russian network carefully planned its reporting strategy to increase its credibility and apparent accessibility so that it could establish its own program.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, the Kremlin’s media machines worked well in China. Combined with Beijing’s censorship of pro-Ukrainian content, they have woven a web of disinformation that most Chinese internet users have struggled to escape.

The message they are trying to get across: Russia’s military actions are anti-Western, anti-NATO expansion and anti-Nazi – therefore justified and popular.

In Chinese state media, there is very little about international condemnation of Russia; Ukraine’s success in the battle for public opinion led by President Zelensky; or anti-war demonstrations in Russia.

The one-two punch works, shielding the Chinese public from the facts while causing confusion.

On Chinese social media platforms, many people have adopted the language of Mr. Putin and Russian media, calling the Ukrainian side extremists and neo-Nazis.

They continued to raise the Azov battalion as if it represented all of Ukraine. The battalion, a unit of Ukraine’s National Guard, is known to have neo-Nazi sympathizers but remains a marginal presence in the country and its military.

President Zelensky himself is Jewish and won the presidential election in 2019 with 73% of the vote. His approval rating soared to over 90% recently for his wartime leadership.

The misinformation fog thickens as Chinese state media portrays Russia’s war as an anti-fascist effort. After Russia’s defense minister announced this week that his country would host the first international conference against fascism in August, CCTV published a one-paragraph article and then created a Weibo hashtag. In 24 hours, it was viewed 650 million times and used by 90 media. Many commentators have called Ukraine and the United States fascist countries.

Chinese media also propagate Russian disinformation that Ukraine is using civilians as human shields. In its February 26 prime-time news program, CCTV quoted President Putin as making the allegation. A few days later, the nationalist news site guancha.com displayed a banner big title which said that the Russian army only pursued military targets, while the Ukrainian army used civilians as human shields.

Taken collectively, Chinese netizens are witnessing a war quite different from that of much of the world.

As videos circulated outside China allegedly showing Ukrainians’ kind treatment of Russian prisoners of war, the trending topic on social media in China was that captured Russians had endured Nazi-style torture. CCTV and People’s Daily, the Communist Party‘s official newspaper, created hashtags echoing the same, based on a briefing from the Russian Defense Ministry. They had combined views of over 200 million.

Sputnik, with 11.6 million followers on Weibo, has posted more than 100 articles a day lately, filling its timeline with words like “criminal Zelensky,” “empire of lies,” “fake news” and “Nazi. “.

“We must stand in solidarity with Russia! Weibo user @qingdaoxiaowangzi commented on one of Sputnik’s posts, using a line popular on the Chinese internet. “If Russia falls, NATO and the neo-Nazi USA will intimidate China!

At the same time, Weibo and other platforms censor pro-Ukrainian content. Actor Ke Lan’s Weibo account, which has 2.9 million followers, has been suspended after she retweeted a video and photo of an anti-war protest in Russia with the 🌹 emoticon. Just like the account of a transgender celebrity, Jin Xing, with 13.6 million followers. “Respect all lives and resolutely oppose war!!!” said his last message.

But as the war continues and China recalibrates its stance, some Chinese netizens have begun to scrutinize Russian media reports. Under a Sputnik Weibo post claiming that the Ukrainian army murdered civilians, a user with the handle @jialalabadededashen wrote: “Is this another news tailor-made by the Russian news agency for China?

In a discussion on social media, some people denounced Russia for waging information warfare in China. “Russia’s external propaganda has infiltrated China from end to end,” wrote a Weibo user called @juediqiangshou. “That’s why any excuse to justify the invasion is popular here.”

Some people also wonder if the flood of pro-Russian information would be detrimental to the interests of China and its people.

Even Wang Xiaodong, a famous nationalist writer, suggested on Weibo that the Russian-Ukrainian war was more complicated than it looked. “The Chinese people should have access to comprehensive and diverse information,” he wrote on Wednesday.

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