The United States Needs a New Strategy against China’s Disinformation Campaign
In a nutshell: the United States and NATO are posed as the greatest evil. The larger and economically successful Central European countries like the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary have become a testing ground for the most notorious anti-Western and anti-US narratives. Because it views the European continent predominantly as an economic interest, China tries to combine in one strategy the creation of a positive image of itself as an economic power with the demonization of the United States.
Moreover, Western sanctions against Russia create a broad window of opportunities for Chinese economic expansion in Russia, which remains an important economic partner. This is one of the main reasons that China supports Russia’s view on the war and echoes the latter’s accusations against NATO and the collective West. It is the West, as China poses it, that actually provoked Russia in the first place.
On a different note, it is also beneficial for China that Russia becomes gradually more ostracized from the EU, NATO states, and other major democratic countries. This grants China greater leverage over Russia and encourages Russia’s support of China’s foreign agenda. Additionally, China can continue to demonize the collective West, which, in Beijing’s opinion, constantly uses double standards, including against Russia. Consequently, China contends that NATO and the EU have no moral ground to accuse China of violating human rights domestically and international law principles toward foreign territories, such as Taiwan.
Chinese Narratives about Russia
On February 4, 2022, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin and China’s leader Xi Jinping declared a friendship with “no limits” during a high-level meeting. When 20 days later Russia attacked Ukraine, China initially adhered to moderate rhetoric without taking sides in the war and mainly called for a peaceful resolution under the auspices of the UN. Gradually, though, China elaborated a more specific vocabulary that enabled it to implement its information agenda: calling the war “the conflict” or “the Russia-Ukraine conflict.” Many of the disinformation narratives spread by the Kremlin-backed media are repeated by Chinese counterparts, for example that Russia’s aggression in Ukraine was provoked by the United States and NATO.
Similar spins on the Russian line can be found at major official Chinese media outlets, including the global Chinese TV channel CGTN and Chinese Radio International (CRI) services. Interestingly, the Ukrainian version of CRI contains much more neutral material on Russia’s war in Ukraine and predominately stresses the neutral position of China in the conflict.
The Russian government may also benefit from China’s expertise in another field. Following the growing censorship and repression of independent media and a civil society that opposes the war in Ukraine, Russia could copy some of China’s repression techniques that have been in place for decades, especially those targeting free press, social media, and civil society. When it comes to a monopoly over the influx of foreign information penetrating the online space, Russia can still learn a lot from China.
Europe and the EU
Leading Chinese media outlets and social media mostly portray the EU and European countries as “puppets” and “victims” of anti-Russian politics propagated by the United States through NATO. After the introduction of EU sanctions against Russia, Chinese media and officials underlined the harmful consequences these sanctions would bring to Europe. In May 2022, when many African and Asian countries expressed concern about the food crisis related to the obstacles to importing crops from Russia and Ukraine and fertilizers from Russia, China blamed sanctions and the collective West; Chinese diplomats echoed the accusations against the West. Initially an anti-Western argument of the Kremlin media, this narrative was seamlessly adopted by China in serving its geopolitical goals.
Since the start of the war, on the Czech, Polish, Romanian, and Slovak versions of their official pages and social media, Chinese outlets and diplomats have criticized the EU for its lack of political autonomy. After most Kremlin-supported propaganda outlets broadcasting in local languages in Europe were banned, many European experts previously appearing on Kremlin-backed media outlets started to speak on Chinese platforms. In addition, many propagators of Russian interests among the local politicians, for instance in Slovakia and Hungary, began to promote China’s view on the war. Thus, Ľuboš Blaha, a member of the Slovak Parliament representing the left-populist and nationalistic Slovak Social Democracy party, directly cited Chinese narratives on the alleged US biolabs in Ukraine. After a number of such manipulations and subsequent reports of them to Meta, Blaha’s Facebook account, with more than 175,000 followers, was blocked for good. At the same time, multiple Chinese publications called upon the EU to maintain friendly relations with China and to avoid being pulled into the “ideological trap” by the United States through NATO.
NATO and the United States
The greatest culprit in the conflict, according to Chinese official propaganda, is NATO and the United States. (This includes comparing NATO to the nefarious Harry Potter-series figure of Voldemort, who uses “black magic” on Ukraine.) NATO and the United States not only provoked Russia’s aggression, but contributed to the escalation of the conflict, according to these narratives. China adopted the most notorious disinformation narratives, initially spread by the Kremlin-backed mass media and specifically attacking the United States—one focused on alleged Ukrainian neo-Nazi forces being financed by the United States and another on alleged US biological laboratories operating in Ukraine. At first, the latter narrative was spread by Russian propaganda. But news about “US bio labs” fit perfectly into earlier Chinese disinformation narratives on the origin of the coronavirus, as it was one of the accusations that China had used during the pandemic. China, together with Russia, accused Western countries, mainly the United States, of creating the coronavirus in a laboratory in order to enable the US pharmaceutical industry to profit from medicine and vaccines.
Another myth disseminated in Chinese media domains is that the United States is spreading disinformation about China’s role in the Ukraine war. China blames the United States for demonizing it and portrays the United States as a destructive player in the peaceful resolution of the military conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Chinese media and officials also claim that the United States manipulates the EU and uses Ukraine’s vulnerability to promote its geopolitical goals. China has stressed in its media in European countries that the UN, and not the United States and NATO, should be playing a key role in de-escalation.
Since the beginning of the war, the Chinese information strategy and disinformation narratives have combined China’s narratives with those of the Kremlin. At the moment, it is beneficial for China to join Russia in criticizing the West—especially the United States for its role in global politics—and to exploit Russia’s political and economic dependence on China.
For the US government, NATO, and their allies:
- develop an information strategy that tackles Chinese information and disinformation narratives specifically harmful for the United States, NATO, and their allies;
- pursue an innovative path toward relations with China that would decrease Beijing’s political interest in cooperating with and supporting Russia in the war in Ukraine;
- counterbalance the Chinese narratives in EU and NATO countries with positive messages promoting the United States and its democratic values;
- expand the support of independent media that provide timely and high-quality information on Russia’s war against Ukraine in the CEE states; and
- increase public diplomacy efforts in the NATO member states.
This publication was funded by a grant from the United States Department of State. The opinions, findings, and conclusions stated herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Department of State.