Russia and China align on war disinformation, EU service says

While China has sought to paint itself as somewhat neutral and a potential mediator in the conflict, the country has so far refused to condemn Russia’s actions or support international sanctions.[Shutterstock / Photo Veterok]

China is pushing narratives about the war in Ukraine, in many cases amplifying Russian disinformation, according to the EU’s foreign policy body. 

China’s state-backed media frequently repeat dominant Kremlin rhetoric on the war, including denials of atrocities and the attribution of blame for the conflict to NATO and the US, says EUvsDisinfo, a disinformation analysis project run by the European External Action Service. 

While China has sought to position itself as somewhat neutral and a potential mediator in the conflict, the country has refused to condemn Russia’s actions or support international sanctions.

China’s messaging on the war, particularly its own relationship to it, is varied, Katja Drinhausen, senior analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), told EURACTIV. Still, she noted that there had been close alignment with Russian media from the start.

“The question at the beginning was ‘is this just opportunistic behaviour or falling into kind of predefined patterns of cooperation?'”, she said.

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EUvsDisinfo says China has sought to maintain a neutral role while refraining from condemning Russia’s actions and aligning itself with narratives that the project describes as “borrowed from the Kremlin’s playbook”.

Among the most prominent is the line that anti-China and anti-Russia sentiment from NATO and the US pushed Russia into confrontation. Other narratives have included conspiracy theories about US-run military biolabs and repetitions of the Kremlin’s justification of the invasion on the grounds of “de-nazifying” Ukraine. 

Contributing to the common narratives on the war that have emerged in recent weeks are links between Chinese and Russian state media outlets that long pre-date the crisis, including formal content-sharing agreements in place for several years.

Shortly before the invasion, domestic media organisations in China were instructed to only publish material from selected official outlets with such agreements in place. There has also been censorship of Ukraine-related discussions on social media.

“Chinese state media have been pretty much copy-pasting Russian media content”, Drinhausen said. “You have full segments of the Chinese evening news kind of parroting the Russian position.” 

“Sometimes they have very short intersections stating or giving summaries of what EU or US representatives, or Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian government have said, but then it’s 90%, not direct support for the Russian position, but essentially just reading out Russian Foreign Ministries’ statements”, she said.

Many Chinese state media have also refrained from using terms such as “invasion” in their coverage, EUvsDisinfo says, and have chosen to either not report on or publish Kremlin denials of events such as the mass killings discovered in Bucha in recent days. 

While it has continued to emphasise the “sovereignty and territorial integrity of all nations” in the context of Ukraine, China has also made a concerted effort to distinguish this from its position on Taiwan, maintaining that the two situations are not comparable. 

EU officials have called for a more proactive approach to disinformation and propaganda, explicitly linking the two countries approaches. In March, MEP Raphaël Glucksmann, chair of the Parliament’s foreign interference committee, warned that disinformation coming out of China, particularly on Taiwan, should be taken seriously before the onset of a similar crisis.

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There are, however, some critical divergences between Russian and Chinese coverage of the war. EUvsDisinfo notes that China has not amplified all the disinformation narratives coming out of Russia. Some outlets have reported on Russian losses and Chinese humanitarian assistance to civilians in Ukraine.

China’s media strategy also differs depending on the target audience. In Europe, Drinhausen said, Chinese media have not leaned into disinformation as heavily and, while still presenting a narrative that aligns closely with the Russian position, have included contrasting statements.

However, both domestically and in other regions, she added, there is a much more strident alignment with the Kremlin and much more frequent publication of disinformation. 

There are also limits to China’s censorship of content concerning the war. Drinhausen noted it is not the government’s highest priority compared to subjects that might prompt domestic pushback, such as events in Hong Kong or Xinjiang. She says that instead of outright censorship, the focus is often directed more towards high profile voices on Ukraine both in and outside of China. 

What is notable overall, however, she said, is that China has not yet pulled back from its alignment with Russian media and continues to give a strong voice to the Kremlin’s position.

“The big question is, will there be any shift, or will they continue to essentially play their Russian-aligned game at home while trying to keep up that veneer of supposed neutrality and rhetorical flexibility within Europe?”, Drinhausen said. “The answer, I guess, is still open.”

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[Edited by Luca Bertuzzi/Alice Taylor]

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