EU should launch a specialist team to investigate Chinese disinformation

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Chinese paramilitary police officers stand guard near Tiananmen Square ahead the opening of the third plenary session of the 13th National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in Beijing, China, 21 May 2020. [Pool/EPA/EFE]

The Chinese government has flooded the European information space with disinformation, in an effort to control the narrative around the pandemic and divert the blame. This poisonous environment created by Chinese info-war operations calls for resolute answers, write Jakub Janda and Nathalie Vogel.

Jakub Janda is the executive director of the Prague-based European Values Center for Security Policy.

Nathalie Vogel is a Berlin-based non-resident Senior Fellow of the European Values Center for Security Policy.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the Chinese government has made an extraordinary effort to control the narrative around the pandemic, flooding social media with disinformation. DHS reports have concluded that these efforts first aimed to belittle the severity of the virus, then to downplay its scope in order to gain time to purchase medical equipment worldwide.

The goal of Chinese state propaganda is to divert the blame for the outbreak to foreign entities while sowing discord among Western allies.

The EU’s main task force at the European External Actions Service (EEAS), working to counter disinformation, has been monitoring this massive wave of disinformation and came to a similar conclusion. It raised the alarm in a report that has been redacted out of fear it will anger the Chinese government.

European information space is currently flooded with Chinese disinformation. To understand how Chinese state propaganda for non-Chinese audiences works, a structured understanding is already available – leading sinologist Anne-Marie Brady calls it Magic Weapons.

The Chinese Communist Party is aware that it needs to subvert the media space of the free world in order to impose its ideology.  Running ads on Western internet platforms while promoting articles praising the Chinese response to the pandemic is part of the tactics applied by the Chinese government in the digital age. In fact, similarly to Russian media, Chinese media has widely covered the crisis in Europe and the United States. At the same time, like Russian state propaganda, it portrayed China as a savior while silencing the disastrous situation at home: shortages, lack of functioning infrastructure, toleration of wet markets, even blatant racism. Chinese propaganda also exacerbated tensions after false claims were made about the US allegedly diverting deliveries of masks to Europe. Chinese controlled media claimed Europe was on its own and the US was in fact an unreliable partner. It repeated these claims when similar groundless claims were made about the US allegedly diverting, then blocking, masks to Canada, again: blatant disinformation.

The poisonous environment created by Chinese info-war operations calls for resolute answers. More than ever, the competence, impartiality and efficiency of the indispensable EU task force fighting disinformation needs to be reinforced if the EU wants to have a voice, rather than remaining a passive victim in the battle currently raging. The EU, which advocates representing free nations and the values of liberal democracy, is miserably failing the test of standing up to its enemies.

By accepting, even repeating, Chinese narratives, reluctantly attributing the responsibility for the pandemic and its cover-up to the Chinese government, brushing off the outrageous behavior of Chinese diplomats in EU capitals as cultural differences and even accepting censorship, the EU presents itself as a weak paper tiger.  Its High Representative, Josep Borrell, has shown  weakness by pandering towards dictatorships. Nevertheless, the European Parliament has already warned of Chinese hostile operations and highlighted Chinese violations of human rights.

In 2015, a year after Russia invaded Ukraine and launched a massive disinformation campaign against European democracies, the European Council ordered the European External Action Service to launch a task force of specialists on Russian disinformation. This team – East Strategic Communications Task Force – has been one of the primary sources of knowledge and a driving force of response to this national security threat across the continent. Later, the EEAS set up two further task forces based on its own decision – one on the Western Balkans and one on the Southern neighbourhood.

Right now, the upcoming geo-strategic challenge is clear. The key agenda of the next decade will be what the relation between the EU and communist Chinese government should be. Since it is clear that the Chinese government is adopting much of the Russian disinformation toolkit, the EU needs to have a strong team of at least 15 well-trained specialists into Chinese disinformation methods who can inform the European decision-making in years to come.  The EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, should launch this EEAS task force immediately, as for example Jakub Kalenský of the Atlantic Council Digital Forensics Lab has proposed. Such a team of specialists should publish a weekly analysis of Chinese state and proxy disinformation trends and serve as a hub of expertise for the EU member states who do not have such information available nationally.

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