Hong Kong, China – China may present itself as a neutral party in the war in Ukraine, but the message it conveys to its audience at home tells a different story.
The state news agency Xinhua calls the war “a special military operation” and “the Russia-Ukraine crisis”, but never refers to it as an invasion. CCTV, the state broadcaster, mentioned civilian casualties for the first time just three weeks after Russia’s invasion. More recently, state media doubled down on the Russian conspiracy theory that the US is funding the development of biological weapons in Ukraine, including migratory birds that could spread avian viruses in Russia.
The way the war has been framed in Chinese state media is a reflection of the government’s position.
China has not condemned Russia for invading a sovereign nation with which Beijing has strong economic ties, instead speaking of “legitimate security concerns” that need to be discussed by “all parties”. And while there has been outrage in the West over the discovery in recent days of civilians allegedly killed by Russian troops in Buchacoverage in Chinese state media has been briefdespite a recent subtle change of tone to acknowledge the human cost.
Since the start of hostilities more than a month ago, one theme has remained constant: the United States is the villain.
China’s relations with Russia have come under even closer scrutiny since the two countries declared a “unlimited” association in early February.
“We have to understand information as part of that,” said David Bandurski, co-director of the China Media Project, noting that there is a long history of cooperation between Chinese state media and Russian agencies such as Sputnik and Russia Today.
As the conflict continues, Chinese state media have lent their platforms to amplify Russian propaganda. State media cite Kremlin officials and Russian state media as their news sources, receiving regular state directives guiding their reporting, according to China Digital Times, a US-based bilingual news website.
America portrayed as instigator
Similarly, the few Chinese journalists reporting from the ground have tended to parrot Russia’s favorite news lines.
As one of the few foreign journalists attached to the Russian military, Lu Yuguang, the Moscow correspondent for state broadcaster Phoenix News, interviewed Russian soldiers and separatist leader Denis Pushilin. Lu also reported from the besieged city of Mariupol, where he was injured in shelling.
Lu likely took advantage of his personal connections to gain exclusive access, given his long history with the Russian military, according to Rose Luqiu, a former executive news editor at the outlet and now an associate professor at Hong Kong Baptist University. “I wouldn’t describe him as a professional journalist,” she added.
A former Navy officer in the People’s Liberation Army, Lu once revealed on a Chinese talk show that a Russian soldier saved his life when he was covering the Second Chechen War. He subsequently married the soldier’s widow, although the union ended in divorce. “Russian blood runs through my body,” Lu said on the 2019 show. However, his unquestioning focus has made him a convenient propaganda tool.
Another general theme of Chinese state media coverage is the depiction of the US as the instigator of the conflict, which is part of a larger narrative spread by Chinese diplomats and the government’s propaganda machine, according to analysts.
“This is one of the most consistent frames we’ve seen at any time. And the Chinese central leadership has really shown that they are dedicated to the disinformation campaign,” Bandurski said. “It is a proxy information war that China is waging here. In the long term, it is about undermining the credibility of the United States and the international system led by the United States.”
Interesting, the Chinese media embedded with Russian troops. pic.twitter.com/kXksZt9Z9c
— OSINTtécnico (@Osinttécnico) March 8, 2022
Wu Min Hsuan, a Chinese government disinformation expert, agrees.
“They are using this crisis as the perfect opportunity to reinforce their long-standing narrative inside China, attacking the US and NATO,” said the Taiwan-based Doublethink Lab co-founder.
The state tabloid Global Times, for example, has created the hashtag #UkraineCrisisInstigator to describe the US and NATO, and accused Washington of being the real aggressor working behind the scenes.
The biased coverage has contributed to a national public discourse that is largely pro-Russian. “A common view is that while war is bad, we should support Russia in this battle to defend China’s interests. Because without Russia to prop up the West, China will be the next target,” Hu Qingxin, a media veteran now based in Hong Kong, told Al Jazeera.
Such a vision was not formed in a day, but was instilled over time, he emphasized.
“State media may have fed the information, but public sentiment has always been there. People love Putin because he is aligned with Xi Jinping. They share the same strongman image and governing style,” said Hu, who admitted that she was surprised by some of the radical comments she saw online, particularly those that applauded the war and offered to take in Ukrainian women.
On the contrary, many Chinese netizens have mocked Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for his acting experience and alleged lack of political wisdom. The People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s flagship mouthpiece, has not once mentioned him despite his late-night addresses to the Ukrainian people and his regular speeches in Western parliaments, while some state-affiliated media have shared rumors that he had fled kyiv for his safety.
Where Zelenskyy has been quoted by state media, is when he has criticized the West.
“They are telling their own people that the Western media, government and organizations are not trustworthy. Those who trust them will meet the same fate as Ukraine,” added Doublethink Lab’s Wu.
Fact Check Challenge
China has one of the most restrictive media environments in the world and is dominated by state-backed media.
Its internet and social media platforms are also monitored by an extensive censorship apparatus that removes any information considered sensitive and the use of a VPN to escalate the great firewall without a license is illegal. While this gives the Chinese government significant control over the information its residents can access and consume, it does not mean that its population will always accommodate.
Wei Xing, an experienced journalist who founded China Fact Check on the belief that people need access to accurate international reports to form a rational and open view of the world, says there has been unprecedented interest in his work since the conflict began. .
It shows that among the Chinese public there is a growing awareness of disinformation and the need to verify what they see and read on the Internet, Wei said.
But his work has limitations.
For one thing, since the group is based in China, it must comply with rules governing the dissemination of information. “If the result of the fact check goes against the government’s position, it would cross the red line. We must also be careful when it comes to Putin and not vilify him in any way,” Wei said. “It’s unfortunate, but we’ve been censoring ourselves,” he admitted.
Meanwhile, disinformation campaigns are also becoming more sophisticated. Different parties are promoting their versions of the facts under the name of fact-checking, though few meet the standards of proper fact-checking, Wei noted.
“We are working under unfavorable conditions, but with every myth you debunk, there is more truth in this world,” Wei said. “The more people involved in this project, the more people you could influence.”
Bandurski also highlighted the importance of recognizing the work of a handful of professional publications, such as caixina privately funded business publication, which is pushing in directions state media won’t take and challenging the party line in its bid to report the conflict more accurately.
But as alternative sources of information have dwindled in recent years, the reach of state media has expanded, aided by social media platforms and algorithms that amplify their reporting.
In the past, “an attack on America’s bogus free speech might be in the People’s Daily editorial, but few people would read it. It’s just leadership noise,” Bandurski said. “Now it isn’t. It’s viral content. It’s fundamentally different.”
“The most worrying question,” he added, “is what is the long-term impact on relations between China and many other countries, since this type of foreign affairs coverage has become so prevalent and consumed on a daily basis.”