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 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 counterdisinformation 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 Monday, also included an illustration highlighting the Beijing-Moscow coordination with tweets from the Russian Foreign Ministry repeated in the Communist Party-affiliated Global Times.
Party and government-controlled media are using 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 killings and bombings 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. It rejects Western condemnation that the Ukraine invasion was a “war of choice” for Mr. Putin, even while proclaiming official neutrality.
“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,’” said the report, using the acronym for the 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.”
Chinese Embassy spokesman Liu Pengyu said his government’s approach to the Ukraine war had been “impartial, objective and beyond reproach.”
“When it comes to spreading disinformation, the U.S. side should seriously reflect on itself,” he said in a statement. “It is the U.S. officials and media who have spread such rumors as China knew in advance and tacitly supported Russia’s military action, [that] China helped Russia evade sanctions and provided military support to Russia. These are disinformation in every sense of the word.”
According to the report, the Chinese disinformation campaign presents unverified information and claims 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 the Chinese government and state media, claiming Russia’s position is widely supported.
Chinese social media, such as the Twitter-like platform Weibo, and 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 reports of Russian military forces’ atrocities.
Key players in the disinformation operation are called “wolf warriors.” These Chinese government officials, diplomats and party spokespeople aggressively promote the government’s positions. Among the most well-known is Deputy Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian. Mr. Zhao was the first Chinese official in 2020 to begin spreading the unsubstantiated charge that the COVID-19 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.
“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.”
Before Russian military forces invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, Chinese propaganda outlets joined Russian state media in labeling reports of an impending military attack as “disinformation” and “information terrorism.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Foreign Affairs Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova had used the same terms.
Since the invasion, Chinese media have conspicuously declined to label the unprovoked invasion as “war” and often echo 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 toward the United States, NATO and the West.
In March, Chinese information operations targeted the report’s “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, which 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 spread 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 discussions 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 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, and injured hundreds. The Russian Foreign Ministry denied responsibility and said Ukraine is known to have used the same missile — despite evidence that 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.
• Bill Gertz can be reached at email@example.com.
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