China and Russia are joining forces to spread disinformation

Russia President Vladimir Putin and China President of the Xi Jinping hold talks in Beijing, China, on Friday Feb 4, 2022. It is Xi first face-to-face meeting with world leader since 2019.

When Chinese leader Xi Jinping met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the Beijing Winter Olympics last month, the two leaders signaled to the world that their relationship had entered a new era. In a joint statement, the two men spoke of reshaping the international order, and a crucial aspect of this strategy centers on information. In the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the full scope of their ambitions on this front, taking shape over many years, is coming into view.

The deepening relationship between China and Russia is driven in part by a shared narrative that the United States and the European Union are constraining their interests and that they are using information and technology to exert leverage over their adversaries. Putin and the Chinese Communist Party have cracked down on free expression, independent media, and internet freedoms largely to counter what both perceive as the risk posed to their respective regimes by alternative sources of information reaching domestic audiences—and to legitimize these methods internationally.

Though Russian and Chinese interests diverge in important ways, they are increasingly collaborating on the narratives being supplied to domestic audiences, feeding similar disinformation and propaganda to a citizenry increasingly cut off from the global web. In the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Beijing has on the one hand avoided fully backing the incursion while on the other amplifying Kremlin propaganda on the issue. This week, for example, China’s foreign ministry repeated false Russian claims about the presence of U.S. biological weapons in Ukraine.

Against the backdrop of last month’s joint statement from Xi and Putin, this collaboration should be seen as part of a broader project to reshape the global information landscape to favor the Kremlin and Beijing’s authoritarian political projects.

Rejuvenating internet controls

Xi Jinping has invested his future as the country’s first strongman since Mao Zedong in the idea that he, and he alone, can lead the Chinese people in a grand return to global center stage after two centuries languishing in the shadow of the West. A core part of this revanchist narrative, which Xi has called the “Great Rejuvenation,” is the idea that China’s rightful return is threatened by a conspiracy of Western information containment. As relations with the United States and the West have steadily worsened over substantive issues—from trade and technology to human rights and who bears responsibility for the COVID-19 pandemic—China has gone on a concerted narrative attack, railing through state-run media and a host of new digital propaganda products against the hypocrisy of the Western values, the deep dysfunction of Western societies, and the outrageous untruths of the “Western media,” which are seen as vehicles of “anti-China public opinion.”

In its ambition to be free of Western-controlled narratives, China has found a friend and compatriot in Russia, which shares its ambition for information control and has its own formidable machine of disinformation. Although Moscow and Beijing still have separate interests and strategies for information competition, the two sides have nonetheless grown much closer in recent years in their shared authoritarian vision of global information control and related questions of national sovereignty. A key part of last month’s joint statement was a call for the “internationalization of internet governance,” by which Xi and Putin mean that the internet should be subject to the control of sovereign states. This position is at odds with a free and open internet governed with the involvement of citizens and civil society. In joining forces with Russia to seek an overhaul of global internet governance, China seeks to legitimize its domestic restraints on speech and the technologies that support them and establish what it calls “cyber sovereignty.”

Putin was one of the earliest partners to sign on to China’s vision of cyber sovereignty. Over the past decade, a number of high-level meetings in Beijing and Moscow have taken place between top Chinese internet officials and their Russian counterparts. In May 2019, Russia hosted a delegation of Chinese officials that included Fang Binxing, the computer scientist credited as instrumental in creating China’s internet censorship infrastructure. The same month, Putin signed a “sovereign internet” law that took effect the following November. The law tightened control over the country’s internet sector, allowing the government in principle to cut off the Russian internet from the rest of the web by routing traffic through state-controlled infrastructure. Moves by Russia in recent days to block Facebook and Twitter act on this principle and degrades Russians’ access to alternative sources of information.

Together, China and Russia have provided the world with what a 2019 Brookings report described as “technology-driven playbooks for authoritarian rule.” For China, implementing this playbook globally is a key objective, and Russia has an interest in pushing global norms that legitimate its own system of control. When Xi and Putin announced at a June 2019 meeting in Moscow that relations between their two countries had been upgraded to a “comprehensive strategic partnership,” cooperation on information and internet governance was a key part of the arrangement. Both parties spoke of the need to “[maintain] peace and security in cyberspace on the basis of equal participation of all countries,” and to “promote the construction of a global order for the governance of information and cyberspace.” Less than three months after the Moscow meeting, delegates from the Chinese tech firm Huawei tried to make the case for a new internet protocol (IP) system to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the UN agency for ICT technologies. The Huawei proposal was to alter the current system of decentralized governance in favor of a system of loosely interconnected networks that would enable governments to shut down and/or filter incoming and outgoing traffic. The proposal was rejected by Western countries at the time. But China remains determined, and is expected, with Russian support, to present a new proposal for a centralized governance system this month in Geneva.

An alliance for disinformation

As relations with the United States and the EU have worsened in recent years, China has sought more actively to project what the CCP calls “external propaganda” overseas, conducting what it has characterized as a “war without smoke.” It has sown disinformation about COVID-19, about the efficacy of Western vaccines, about the ongoing genocide in Xinjiang and much more. Glimpsed through Chinese cyberspace, the world is colored in the starkest blacks and whites. While restrictions on coverage of foreign affairs inside China make more nuanced coverage virtually impossible, it is open season in Chinese cyberspace for viral content depicting the evils of the United States and the West. The conflict in Ukraine has only seen China and Russia grow closer in their respective disinformation campaigns against the West.

For China’s disinformation content mills, many of which are now run out of traditional Party-controlled media, Russian propaganda is a goldmine of shared disdain for the United States and the West, and China’s censorship regime has accelerated its delivery to domestic Chinese audiences. On Feb. 22, as Putin ordered Russian troops into the territories of Donetsk and Luhansk, a Chinese propaganda directive instructed media not to report information “disadvantageous to Russia or sympathetic to the West.” The same directive instructed them to use only official news releases from the state-run People’s Daily, Xinhua News Agency, and China Central Television. Content sharing deals struck between these official state media sources and their Russian counterparts mean that those official news releases are shaped by Russian narratives. During Xi Jinping’s first trip to Moscow in March 2013, Putin and Xi presided over the signing of a cooperation agreement for news sharing between Voice of Russia and People’s Daily Online, the new media arm of the CCP’s flagship newspaper. The following year, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev attended the signing of a cooperation agreement between Russia Today (RT) and the People’s Daily. According to the RT agreement, the two sides “agreed to cooperate in mutual sharing of online news resources.” Three months later, in January 2015, China’s official Xinhua News Agency signed a cooperation agreement with RT to “strengthen the exchange and mutual use of news products between the two sides.” Commenting on the cooperation, RT’s chief said, according to a Chinese-language report from the state-owned news agency Sputnik, that “Russia and China are allies in the construction of a multipolar and pluralistic world.”

This “win-win” cooperation has been a resounding loss for Chinese experts and decisionmakers as well as ordinary readers when it comes to understanding the nature and origins of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. Through the entirety of 2021, as Russia amassed troops on Ukraine’s border, the only report in the CCP’s People’s Daily on the issue was a story published on April 2 that said “the forces of NATO countries and other powers are becoming more active in Russia’s border areas, which forces Russia to remain vigilant.” The facts in that report, entirely inaccurate, were taken directly from Russia’s TASS news agency, which quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying that “the mobilization of Russian troops within its own territory according to its own decisions does not pose a threat to anyone, and no one should be concerned.”

In recent months, Russian stories have proliferated in Chinese cyberspace, laying the foundation for aggression in Ukraine, even in reports that had no relevance to the situation in Europe. In early December, a story from RT circulated on Chinese social media reporting the first-ever joint exercise between naval ships from Russia and ASEAN-member countries. The story portrayed Russia in heroic opposition to NATO, which it casually mentioned as “increasing its troops around Russia.” It called the ASEAN exercise a “strong retort to the US-led NATO group that is hounding Russia.” In December, an RT story appeared in China’s Reference News, a digest of foreign news coverage published by Xinhua News Agency, that misrepresented the level of support in Ukraine for joining NATO. A poll from February found 62% of Ukrainians support such a move, but the RT story put that level at 20%. Shared on a number of major news sites in China, the story made a series of completely unsubstantiated claims, including that the West had “first supported the overthrow of Ukraine’s democratically elected president,” and then violently suppressed those rising up against this “coup.” In February, Cailian Press, a new media service launched by Jiemian News under the state-run Shanghai United Media Group, picked up a news item from Sputnik reporting that Russian-speaking refugees from Ukraine’s Donbas region were streaming into Russia to escape violence perpetrated by Ukrainian forces. The news item ran on numerous platforms, including the news portal Sohu, and supported one of the most basic false narratives justifying Russian aggression—that the government in Kyiv was bent on genocide.

China’s close collaboration with Russia on news content, justified as a key aspect of broader China-Russia cooperation on information and internet policy, has perhaps made sense in the midst of tense relations between China and the United States. Russia has offered a steady diet of content conforming with China’s self-serving narrative about a corrupt and hypocritical West. But events in Ukraine highlight the damaging potential longer-term consequences for China, which has strategically painted itself into a corner by selling Russian facts wholesale to its own people—and committing itself to responses that do not accord with reality.  

War narratives

Given the restrictions placed by Chinese media and internet authorities in recent months on any substantive discussion of the crisis in Ukraine, and given a steady diet of Russian disinformation, it is hardly a surprise that many Chinese feel a sense of indignation over what they see as the unjustifiably aggressive posture of NATO against their country’s staunchest partner. When the Global Times newspaper, a nationalist spin-off of the People’s Daily, reported remarks from the Russian Foreign Ministry about how “accidents” might occur with NATO given the supply of equipment such as anti-tank missiles to Ukraine, the majority of comments on Chinese social-media platforms were supportive of Russia and even adoring of Putin. “Glorious Russia! Glorious Putin! They have politicians in the West, but Putin, he is a great political player who will go down in history,” one commenter wrote. Many saw Russia as the first line of defense of their own interests. Read one comment: “I support the disintegration of NATO! I support Russia, because when Russia falls, China is next!” Much of the sentiment on social media platforms in China in the midst of what Chinese officials have resisted calling “war” in Ukraine, has been pro-war and pro-Putin. Voices calling for peace and calm against clear Russian aggression have been notable exceptions. “Russia has done a beautiful job!” read one comment on Weibo. As another put it: “Sanctions from Western countries over the past few days have made me think that Russia’s today could be China’s tomorrow. Righteousness demands that we support Russia in its defense of world peace by war!”

Despite the prevalence of such extreme views in Chinese cyberspace, some have pointed to signs that China hopes to cool the situation. They have argued, for example, that China’s decision to abstain on the United Nations resolution condemning the Russian invasion, rather than vote with Russia in opposing it, was an indication of its desire to somehow remain a neutral third party and avoid alienating the nations that have stood with Ukraine—not just the United States and the EU, but also developing countries that have resoundingly criticized Russia. 

The unfortunate fact, however, is that China has gone all-in with Russia in the peddling of clear falsehoods. This has made it virtually impossible, even in light of continued Russian outrages on the ground in Ukraine, for China’s leadership to change course and fully acknowledge the culpability of its partner. As the crisis in Ukraine continues to develop, China will be under growing pressure to speak out and make its position clear. But if it wishes to stand with the majority of the world’s nations in seeking peace and upholding the sovereignty of Ukraine, it will also need to end the strategic framework of disinformation that has inundated the Chinese media and Chinese cyberspace with pro-Russian lies. This, surely, would be a difficult choice for China’s leadership. And this week’s dangerous lies regarding the presence of U.S. biological weapons suggest it might be a path China is unwilling to take, concerned that it could risk a break with its only strategic partner in its effort to control global narratives.

David Bandurski is the co-director of the China Media Project, a research program in partnership with the Journalism & Media Studies Center at the University of Hong Kong.