China may have wanted to present itself as a neutral party to the war in Ukraine, but the dominant messages on its internet paint a different reality.
As Russia continues to spread its war propaganda through various channels, a cyber-monitoring group in Taiwan has found that pro-Kremlin propaganda has also spread rapidly on Chinese social media.
According to a report by Taiwan-based Doublethink Lab, the close relationship between Russian and Chinese state media has helped amplify Russian propaganda on Chinese social media platforms like Weibo. Analysts believe it is part of Beijing’s efforts to encourage solidarity between China and Russia in the face of “foreign forces interfering in its internal affairs” and “foreign-funded Nazism”.
China’s partnership with Russia has ‘no limits’
Russia has repeatedly used the threat posed by NATO expansion and neo-Nazi rhetoric in Ukraine to justify its invasion. China insists it remains neutral in the face of the war and Beijing has yet to openly criticize Russia’s actions in Ukraine. China’s partnership with Russia has “no limits”, according to Chinese President Xi Jinping, and it has also sparked skepticism among democratic countries about Beijing’s real stance on Moscow’s military aggression.
Jerry Yu, an analyst at Doublethink Lab, says in the report that since the invasion began on February 24, Chinese state media and influential Weibo accounts have circulated Russian propaganda about Ukraine, while linking Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claim that “Ukrainian Nazism” with protests against the 2019 anti-extradition bill in Hong Kong.
“Chinese state media (Global Times/CGTN, etc.) picked up Putin’s anti-NATO expansion reasoning at the outbreak of hostilities, and then focused on the denazification angle themselves, citing speeches and statements by Russian government officials,” he wrote. in the report.
Some experts see these efforts as strategically beneficial to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). “Obviously there are at least parts of the party apparatus that have decided that strategically it is in the CCP’s interest, if not China’s, to support the invasion of Russia and the narratives about what’s happening in Ukraine,” said Sarah Cook, China Research Manager, Hong Kong. Kong and Taiwan at Freedom House.
“Once this decision was made, the propaganda and information control apparatus moved in this direction, whether in terms of state media coverage, directives to media and online platforms, on allowed and even amplified content, or censorship of alternative opinions and sources of information,” she added.
Other experts believe the propaganda efforts are also an attempt to stir up nationalist and anti-Western sentiments in China. “I’ve seen a lot of pro-Russian rhetoric which is also very much tied to and overshadowed by anti-Western sentiment challenging the legitimacy of the US, the West and NATO,” said Maria Repnikova, professor Associate in Global Communications at Georgia State University.
How is Russian propaganda proliferating on Chinese social media?
The Doublethink Lab report points out that the Chinese public was unfamiliar with the discourse surrounding “Ukrainian Nazis” before the war, and relevant topics did not attract much media attention in China.
Days before the invasion, Chinese authorities issued a directive asking domestic media to only publish content from official media such as People’s Daily, Xinhua News Agency and China Central Television, which signed cooperation agreements with Russian state media in 2015.
Shortly after Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine, Chinese state media and the Chinese Foreign Ministry began airing content reiterating Russian media’s claim that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had left kyiv where the Ukrainian soldiers had surrendered. Other content cited Russian officials’ claim that the Ukrainian government was a Nazi-run administration.
Linking Ukraine and Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement
The report also highlights that on the third day of the war, influential accounts on Chinese social media platform Weibo began recycling fake news from 2019 that claimed the US government had funded members of the Ukrainian far-right Azov Battalion. and that the money was then used. to participate in the Hong Kong Anti-Extradition Bill 2019.
“This tactic succeeded in tying the discussion of Nazism and the longstanding trope of foreign forces interfering in China’s internal affairs into Chinese online discourse, influencing public opinion to support the invasion of China. ‘Ukraine by Russia,’ Yu wrote in the report.
Overall, the report identified Chinese-language social media accounts of Russian state media, Chinese national media, influential accounts on Weibo, and Chinese accounts on Western social media platforms as among influencers. spreading Russian propaganda to the Chinese-speaking world.
“As various media outlets and internet platforms ban Russian officials and Russian propaganda channels, the impact of Weibo discussions on the wider Chinese-speaking diaspora should not be underestimated,” the report said. “Chinese speeches continue to spread Russian political propaganda via Weibo, Douyin, YouTube and other platforms, creating a negative image of Ukraine among Chinese users.”
On March 24, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin refuted NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg’s claim that China was spreading lies and disinformation about the war in Ukraine. “Accusing China of spreading false information related to Ukraine is in itself disinformation,” he said at a press briefing.
Pushing back against Russian propaganda on Chinese social networks
As Russian propaganda has dominated Ukraine war news on Chinese social media, individuals have made efforts to push back against the propaganda. Wang Jixian, a Chinese programmer living in Odessa, uploaded daily videos to several social media platforms, including YouTube, WeChat and Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, showing first-hand information about Ukraine to Chinese-speaking audiences. .
However, his Chinese social media accounts were later banned last month. “Does my voice scare you that much?” he said in a video uploaded to YouTube on March 18. “If not, why would all social media accounts under my name be canceled at 3 p.m.? The only way for my parents to contact me has been cancelled. Why can’t you tolerate one of your citizens? I’m not just a programmer, not someone who fights in the war.
Wang told DW that he started recording these videos because he thought a lot of heroic deeds by the Ukrainian people had been overshadowed. “I think the world needs to see their heroic deeds, but when I search for information about the war in Ukraine on the Chinese internet, most of the content portrays Ukrainians as terrorists,” he said during an interview. a telephone interview.
“I think it is unfair that my Ukrainian friends and neighbors are stigmatized. I also want to encourage the Chinese people to regain their ability to think critically. I hope that the Chinese people can receive information from more points of view and make their own judgment on the war accordingly,” he added.
Additionally, a prominent academic from Shanghai also published an article suggesting that China should sever ties with Russia over the war in Ukraine, but hours after the US-China Perception Monitor published the essay in Carter Center, the website has been blocked in China.
How effective are China’s propaganda efforts?
Professor Repnikova told DW that while there are critical posts and fact-checking efforts on Chinese social media to counter mainstream anti-Western rhetoric, these critical posts are often quickly censored. “The loudest voices tend to be nationalist and anti-Western messages that align with the pro-Russian statement,” she said. “Other voices that attempted to challenge were quickly censored.”
Sarah Cook of Freedom House says that in addition to amplifying Russian propaganda, muzzling dissenting voices is also essential for propaganda to be effective.
“If the voices in China, including those of some very prominent intellectuals, or content enjoyed by a Chinese resident in Ukraine, were not restricted, then propaganda would be much less effective,” she told DW. .
Although China officially takes a neutral stance, its online maneuvers suggest a very different stance regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Edited by: John Silk