China’s echo of Russia’s alternative reality is growing around the world

When Twitter last week posted a warning message from a Russian government post denying the killings of civilians in Bucha, Ukraine, Chinese state media rushed to the defense. “On Twitter, @mfa_russia’s statement about #Bucha was censored,” wrote Frontline, a Twitter account linked to China’s official English-language operator, CGTN.

An article in a Chinese Communist Party newspaper said the Russians had offered conclusive evidence to prove that the ominous photos of bodies on the streets of Bucha, a suburb of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, were fraudulent.

A party television station in Shanghai said the Ukrainian government had created a terrible picture to win Western sympathy. “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 disinformation about the war in Ukraine. China’s efforts have intensified, contradicted and challenged the policies of NATO capitals, even as Russia faces new condemnation of the Bucha killings and other atrocities in recent days.

The result is to create an alternative reality of war – not only for consumption by 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 conspiracy theories and distrust of the United States.

“Russia and China have long shared mistrust and hostility to the West,” said Brett Shaffer, an analyst who tracks misinformation about the Alliance for the Security of Democracy, a nonprofit organization in Washington. “As far as Ukraine is concerned, this is a level above that – exactly the extent to which they have repeated some very specific and in some cases quite exaggerated statements from Russia.

China’s campaign further undermines the country’s efforts to present itself as a neutral participant 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 beginning of the war, they have been repeating the Kremlin’s excuses for it, including President Vladimir Putin’s claim that he is 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 the war than in the past six months, according to a database created by the Alliance for Democracy.

For example, on Wednesday an employee of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China tweets a fake photo seems to show Nazis holding a swastika flag next to the flags of Ukraine and the United States. “Surprisingly, the United States is with the neo-Nazis! Officer Li Yang writes about the image that originally depicted a neo-Nazi flag in place of the American flag.

The timing and themes of many of the topics leading up to the coverage of countries suggest coordination or at least a shared view of the world and the leading role of the United States in it. China’s attacks on the United States and NATO, for example, are now close to those in Russia’s state media, which have blamed the West for the war.

Sometimes even the wording – in English for a global audience – is almost identical.

After YouTube prohibited RT and Sputnik, two Russian television channels, for content “minimizing or trivializing well-documented violent events”, both RT and Front 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 weapons, drones and the assassination of former Libyan leader Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi.

In another case, a video of Joseph R. Biden Jr. was used in the same accounts, warning in 1997 that NATO enlargement to the east could provoke a “vigorous and hostile” reaction from Russia to suggest that the decision. Mr Putin is justified in going to war.

China’s efforts have made it clear that the White House warning has had little effect on Beijing. Instead, Chinese propagandists have stepped up their efforts, reinforcing not only the Kremlin’s broad views on the war, but also some of the most outspoken lies about the war.

“If you’re just looking at the exits, that message hasn’t reached you,” Mr Schaefer 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.

Although the degree of direct agreement between the Russians and the Chinese on military propaganda remains uncertain, the roots of international media co-operation go back nearly a decade.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping has promised to deepen ties between Russian and Chinese state media during his first trip abroad in 2013 to Moscow. Since then, the two countries’ countless state media outlets have signed dozens of content-sharing commitments.

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

The two have taken other signs from each other.

In mid-March, after Russia Today began using videos by Fox News presenter Tucker Carlson to support the idea that the United States was developing biological weapons in Ukraine, Chinese state media also began accepting Mr Carlson’s broadcasts.

On March 26, Mr. Carlson was quoted in China’s leading evening newscast as saying that “it turns out that our government has been funding biolaboratories in Ukraine for some time.” 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 are also increasingly drawing on the opinions of the same group of Internet celebrities, experts and influential people, presenting them in their shows as well as in YouTube videos. One of them, Benjamin Norton, is a journalist who claims that a coup in Ukraine was sponsored by the United States government in 2014 and that US officials installed the leaders of the current Ukrainian government.

He first explained RT’s conspiracy theory, although it was later picked up by Chinese state media and tweeted by accounts such as Frontline. In an interview in March with Mr. Norton, the Chinese state television, CCTV, trumpeted as exclusive, he said the United States, not Russia, was to blame for the Russian invasion.

“Regarding the current situation in Ukraine, Benjamin said it was not a war caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but a war planned and provoked by the United States back in 2014,” an unnamed CCTV spokesman said.

At times, China’s information campaigns seemed to contradict the country’s official diplomatic statements, undermining China’s efforts to downplay ties with Russia and the brutal invasion. On Wednesday, Zhao Lijiang, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, called the Bucha photos “embarrassing” and called on all countries to “show 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, seems to have done just that. He retweeted a widely shared post saying there was “not an iota” of evidence of the Bucha massacre and accused the West of “staging atrocities to stir up emotions, demonize opponents and continue wars”.

Mr Chen is part of a growing network of government-controlled diplomats, government-backed and state-backed experts and influencers who have expanded China’s domestic narrative of the conflict to overseas platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. The key to their message is that the United States and NATO, not Mr Putin, are responsible for the war.

A political caricature shared by state media and Chinese diplomats portrays the European Union as abducted by Uncle Sam and chained to a NATO-flagged tank. Another, a Chinese diplomat in St. Petersburg, Russia, showed a hand with stars and bars crammed on the back of a European Union doll waving a spear.

Other images portraying the European Union as a lackey of the United States came from a number of official Chinese accounts ahead of a tense meeting between Mr. Xi from China and the European Union, in which Europe called on China not to undermine Western sanctions or support the Russian war.

Maria Repnikova, a professor of global communications at Georgia State University who studies information campaigns in China and Russia, said the two countries have a “shared vision of Western discontent” that spurs nationalist sentiment at home. At the same time, the messages shared resounded around the world, especially outside the United States and Europe.

“This is not coordination, but an echo of such fears or positions 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 research.

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