A new analysis indicates that, after a year of conflict in Ukraine, China and Russia have grown closer in the information realm, often parroting each other's talking points across state-owned media as part of a larger effort to weaken the West.
The German Marshall Fund's Alliance for Securing Democracy conducted a yearlong study and discovered that messaging by Chinese officials and media evolved following Moscow's February 2022 invasion to provide greater "rhetorical cover for the Kremlin," despite Beijing's official stance as a neutral party in the conflict.
"There has definitely been a pro-Russian convergence, and China has been repeating pro-Russian talking points since the beginning of the war while also downplaying Russian war crimes and giving prominence to Russian voices," said Etienne Soula, one of the report's authors and a research analyst with the Alliance for Securing Democracy.
Considering this rising overlap, the research, released on February 24, concludes that "China's capacity to deploy its own global influence network to weaken the West" gives it a particularly potent role to play in moulding sentiments among nonaligned nations in the Global South in the future.
"To weaken Western democracies and their allies, China also has tried to isolate those countries by appealing to the Global South," the report states. "In the context of the war in Ukraine, Chinese messaging has consistently argued that countries supporting Ukraine are hypocrites and indifferent to the rest of the world."
Qin Gang, China's New Foreign Minister
A Year of War
China's tightly controlled media has avoided using the phrase "invasion" and instead employed Moscow language, referring to the conflict as a "special military operation." At times, Chinese media outlets have promoted disinformation and conspiracy theories popularised on Russian state-run channels, such as the US having bioweapons labs in Ukraine and the extrajudicial killings of civilians by Russian forces in the town of Bucha being a hoax, and have suggested Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is controlled by US billionaire George Soros.
Chinese state-controlled outlets have helped spread the Kremlin's narrative of the war to their massive audiences at home and abroad, bolstered by nearly a decade of reports propagating against the West and deepening ties that the countries characterised as a "no limits" partnership prior to Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.
This viewpoint was borne up throughout social-media channels, according to the report's findings.
Between February 24, 2022, and January 23, 2023, Chinese diplomatic and state-affiliated media accounts on Twitter cited Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov "more than three times as frequently" as his Ukrainian colleague, Dmytro Kuleba. Russian President Vladimir Putin was also mentioned eight times more than Zelenskiy.
According to the research, the Chinese media's repetition of Russian narratives has also provided an opportunity to chastise the US and buttress Beijing's long-standing talking points regarding US foreign policy.
Throughout the first year of the war, Chinese diplomatic and state-affiliated media accounts on Twitter cited the US twice as often as Russia when the word "war" was spoken, and they have placed a larger emphasis on NATO, which "was not a regular element of Chinese [media] assaults prior to the war."
According to data provided by the Alliance for Securing Democracy, Chinese state media addressed "NATO" in over 1,200 tweets in 2021, with the alliance's "expansion" mentioned in only 52 tweets. Following Russia's invasion, the frequency of the terms "NATO" and "extension" increased by almost 540 and 1,700 per cent, respectively.
Taiwan is another issue that has experienced an increase in mentions since Russia's invasion last year, although in an awkward manner, given China's convergence with Russia in the media sphere.
The analysis states that Chinese accounts mentioned the self-governing island that Beijing claims as its own in the same tweet as Ukraine more than 500 times, albeit the great majority of them were Chinese authorities or media attempting to dismiss similarities between the two. Beijing regards Taiwan as a renegade province and frequently cites respect for its own "sovereignty and territorial integrity" as reasons for nations not engaging with Taipei as an independent entity.
"China's backing for Russia is not unambiguous. The red line is that Chinese interests must always come first, "Soula said. "That's fairly evident anytime Taiwan is mentioned, and the talking points are firm in separating that Ukraine and Taiwan are not the same, which kind of throws Russia's narrative under the bus."
People in a Hong Kong restaurant watch a broadcast as Russian troops invade Ukraine on February 24, 2022.
China And Russia in The Global South
The findings of the report echo comments made by James Rubin, a coordinator for the Global Engagement Center, a U.S. State Department body established to "expose and counter" foreign propaganda and disinformation, during a European tour in early March, in which he warned that the West has been slow to respond to China's rise in the information space and Beijing's close ties with Russia.
"We as a nation and the West have been slow to respond, and it is a fair judgment that we are facing a very, very large challenge," Rubin told reporters on February 28. "In the communication space, the alignment between China and Russia is near complete."
In the recent decade, China and Russia have made significant investments in pursuing new audiences in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia, with Rubin saying that both regimes have spent billions to extend their operations abroad.
Chinese state media has played a critical part in Beijing's efforts to exert influence over other nations, regulate information about the Communist Party, and enhance China's narratives about its policies and place in the world.
Against the backdrop of the Ukrainian conflict, those narratives appear to be gaining traction throughout the Global South. According to a late February poll conducted by the European Council on Foreign Relations, while strong majorities of Western countries support Ukraine, those polled in the Global South were less supportive of the ongoing conflict and more likely to sympathise with Moscow's grievances and be suspicious of Western leaders' motives.
According to Soula, this suggests that Beijing and Moscow's growing convergence will continue, even if the two nations do not agree on everything.
"Information space is the low-hanging fruit. No one says they will put sanctions on China for supporting Russia there," he said. "It keeps Russia happy, and it also serves Beijing's broader interests by accelerating a loss of Western influence in places like Africa, where only China really has the capacity to fill the void left by Western powers."
"Always Together!"; Soviet Propaganda Poster, Circa 1960s