Chinese “wolf warrior” diplomats and state-controlled media actively promote the Russian government’s line and disinformation on the Ukraine war, contrary to Beijing’s claim of being a neutral party toward the conflict, the State Department charged this week.
The ruling Communist Party and government “routinely amplify Kremlin propaganda, conspiracy theories and disinformation,” the department said in a new report. “This amplification rationalizes [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin’s unjustified and unprovoked war against Ukraine while undermining trust in the United States and other countries, democratic institutions and independent media.”
It is the first time the State Department, through its counter-disinformation unit known as the Global Engagement Center, produced a detailed assessment of anti-U.S. disinformation and propaganda by China. The report, first made public on Monday, also included an illustration highlighting the Beijing-Moscow coordination with tweets from the Russian Foreign Ministry that were then repeated in the Communist Party-affiliated Global Times.
Party and government-controlled media are utilizing social media platforms banned in China and directing diplomats to promote Russian talking points to global audiences in multiple languages in the campaign, U.S. officials say. At the same time, Chinese state media censor credible reports on Russian military atrocities in Ukraine, such as the killing and bombing of civilians.
China’s official media campaign strongly backs the Kremlin’s assertion that NATO expansion and Western aggression sowed the seeds for the war, rejecting the Western condemnation that the Ukraine invasion was a “war of choice” for Mr. Putin, even while proclaiming official neutrality on the war itself.
“The ‘pro-Russia neutrality’ of PRC officials avoids explicit public endorsement or condemnation of Russia’s invasion of and conduct in Ukraine, and continues to insist Beijing is a neutral stakeholder that respects the ‘sovereignty and territorial integrity of all nations,’” the report said using the acronym for People’s Republic of China. “However, PRC and [Chinese Communist Party] media and officials’ further uncritical amplification of Moscow’s messaging demonstrates Beijing’s support for Russia.”
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A Chinese Embassy spokesman did not immediately respond to an email request for comment.
According to the report, the Chinese disinformation campaign presents unverified information and claims that are drawn directly from Russian state-run media and officials. The disinformation is amplified as part of what the report called a “feedback loop” of Russian state-controlled media outlets that reference Chinese government and state media, claiming that Russia’s position is widely supported.
Chinese social media, such as the Twitter-like platform Weibo and others, along with large-scale state propaganda outlets such as the People’s Daily and Global Times, favorably report on the preferred Russian narratives.
At the same time, the Chinese are “heavily censoring and editing” comments by U.S. and other officials in democratic states and in independent news outlets on the Ukraine conflict and alleged atrocities being carried out by Russian military forces there.
Censors in China also are blocking critics within China who oppose the Ukraine war.
Key players in the disinformation operation are so-called “wolf warriors” – Chinese government officials, diplomats and party spokesmen who aggressively promote the government’s positions. Among the most well-known is Deputy Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian. Mr. Zhao who was the first Chinese official in 2020 to begin spreading the unsubstantiated charge that the coronavirus pandemic started with a virus created in the U.S. military laboratory. International public health experts say the virus began in Wuhan, China in 2019, either in a laboratory or a wild animal market.
Mr. Zhao has been busy in recent days amplifying Russia’s case in the Ukraine conflict.
“My colleagues and I have repeatedly pointed out that the conflict may appear to be a conflict between Russia and Ukraine, but in fact it is one between Russia and the U.S.-led NATO,” he told reporters Tuesday.
The State Department report said “PRC ‘wolf warrior’ diplomats boost Kremlin narratives by amplifying and reposting content from fringe media outlets and anti-NATO and anti-U.S. influencers who align with Beijing’s narratives. Frequently, this content appears in PRC, [Communist Party] and Kremlin propaganda.”
Even before Russian military forces invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, Chinese propaganda outlets joined with Russian state media in labeling reports of an impending military attack as “disinformation” and “information terrorism” — the same terms used earlier by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Maria Zakharova.
Since the invasion, Chinese media has conspicuously declined to label the unprovoked invasion as “war,” often echoing Mr. Putin’s preference for calling the conflict a “special military operation.” Chinese commentators also engage in what the State Department report called “what-aboutism” rhetoric designed to redirect animosity to the United States, NATO and the West.
In March, Chinese information operations targeted what the report called “heavy amplification” of Russian propaganda regarding U.S.-sponsored laboratories in Ukraine. Mr. Zhao, the Foreign Ministry deputy spokesman, began amplifying Russian charges that the laboratories were engaged in biological weapons work, which U.S. and Ukrainian officials staunchly denied.
The Chinese spokesman specifically cited as a source Dilyana Gaytandzhieva, described in the report as a frequent contributor to pro-Kremlin outlets South Front and News Front, that were hit with U.S. sanctions.
“These fabricated accusations build on years of previous opportunistic messaging both by Russia and the PRC,” the report said.
The Global Engagement Center called China’s spreading of disinformation regarding bioweapons laboratories in Ukraine “one of the PRC’s largest disinformation campaigns since 2018, with messaging targeting audiences in multiple languages and regions around the world.”
Chinese outlets have also echoed Russian denials regarding the massacre of Ukrainian civilians in the town of Bucha, near Kyiv, and blocked online and other public discussion of the Bucha events inside China.
Russia has called the Bucha charges a “staged provocation by the [Kyiv] regime,” and top Chinese officials “called for ‘all sides’ to refrain from ‘politicization’ and ‘unfounded accusations,’” the report said.
Chinese disinformation also avoided reporting on facts related to the Russian Tochka-U ballistic missile attack on the main railway station in Kramatorsk, Ukraine on April 8. The strike killed more than 50 people including children, while injuring hundreds. Russia’s Foreign Ministry denied responsibility and stated that Ukraine is known to have used the same missile — despite evidence the Russians had deployed the missile, the report said.
As with its backing of the Russians on the Bucha massacre, Chinese officials’ response to the Kramatorsk bombing was to call for an investigation and warn “all sides” against politicizing the controversy.
“PRC media and Consul General in Osaka, Japan, Xue Jian, went so far as to repost the Russian conspiracy theory that Ukraine is responsible for bombing its own civilians in Kramatorsk,” the report said.