‘Special operation’: how the Chinese media entered the information war on the side of Russia

Xinmei Liu

China is a country that has taken an ambiguous position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Chinese officials have been appealing to both sides for peace, are not in a hurry to name the aggressor, and generally balance on the principle that ‘not everything is so unambiguous’. However, Chinese media, mostly state-owned, has frequently repeated Kremlin propaganda and fakes about the war against Ukraine. Ukrainian Moment analysed how and why this is happening.


Not a war but a special operation

On February 24, Russia invaded Ukraine. World leaders are calling it a full-scale invasion or a Russian-Ukrainian war. Meanwhile, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson makes a statement about Russia’s ‘special military operation in Ukraine’, repeating the Kremlin’s narrative. The Chinese Foreign Ministry repeatedly used this term in February and March. For some time, Chinese state media also used this term. The China Media Project examined how the country’s media called the war.

China Media Project

As we can see, the Chinese media space allows for the concepts of ‘special military operation’ and ‘Russian-Ukrainian conflict’.

The US provocation and brotherhood

Another Russian invention to justify its aggression against Ukraine: NATO and the United States provoked the invasion, and Russia is defending its geopolitical interests. This narrative is also popular in Chinese media. In particular, the state-owned tabloid Global Times published an article titled ‘Ukraine crisis instigator: US-led NATO reneges on ‘Not one inch eastward’ promise to compress Russia’s space to the extreme’. In this article, the journalists accuse Washington of provoking the war. Allegedly, NATO and the United States ignored Russia’s warnings not to expand the Alliance to the east.

Global Times

In addition, the material contains a narrative about ‘brotherly nations’:

‘Before the recent conflict erupted, a Global Times reporter asked the locals in Chernihiv, Ukraine, whether Russians or Ukrainians were to blame for the deterioration of relations between the two countries. An old man, who had worked in a local textile factory all his life, replied, “It is not the responsibility of Ukrainians or Russians. It is the responsibility of politicians, and [our] people are always brothers and sisters”.’

The journalists did not provide an opposing opinion on this ‘brotherhood’.

And here is another interesting article from the Global Times titled ‘Why EU’s reflection on Russia-Ukraine conflict has gone astray’. And once again, they relieve responsibility from the aggressor:

‘Fundamentally, Europe still hasn’t gotten rid of its arrogance and prejudice, nor has it given due respect to Russia, the “loser” of the Cold War. Not to mention NATO, which continues to expand and squeeze Russia’s security space under the instigation of the US military-industrial complex.’

Such messages are very similar to the speeches of Russian government officials, aren’t they? ‘Thesqueezing of Russia’s security space’. These lines imply that Ukraine is a legitimate sphere of Russian influence and has no subjectivity.

‘Dirty’ fakes about the ‘dirty bomb’ and bio laboratories

Another Russian fake that Chinese media like to disseminate is about American bio labs in Ukraine. The Chinese media spread these messages almost immediately after the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion, which is not surprising, as official Beijing has also supported the Kremlin’s lies about the alleged production of biological weapons in Ukraine. China even urged the United States to declassify information about the bio labs.

Global Times

China has not forgotten about the so-called ‘dirty bomb’ (a mixture of radioactive material and explosives – ed.), which Ukraine allegedly had to use on its territory and blame on Russia. Here, for example, is a Global Times article with the headline ‘Russia informs China of concerns over ‘dirty bomb’ in Ukraine’. It not only spreads Russian propaganda fake news but also assertions about the ‘bloodthirstiness’ of the West, which is interested in continuing the war:

‘A responsible stance would be to call for peace and to stop adding oil to the fire, but this is not what the West will do, as they want to see Russia and Ukraine continue to make each other bleed, experts said.’

Bucha staging

The massacre of Ukrainian civilians in the Kyiv region, which shocked the whole world, was interpreted in China according to Russian manuals. State media spread fake news that the tragedy in Bucha was a staged event directed by Ukrainians themselves. The evidence for this lie was also of Moscow origin. Later, they backed off a bit from this rhetoric and began to promote the message that ‘civilians always die in war.’ Unfortunately, they do, but not from shots in the back of the head while sitting with their hands tied simply because they have Ukrainian passports.

REUTERS/Volodymyr Petrov

And some Chinese journalists even found a way to accuse Ukrainians of genocide in the Kyiv region. In April, The Guardian published an article describing how residents of Bucha were killed by tiny metal arrows called fléchettes loaded with Russian artillery shells. However, the Chinese state media outlet South Review translated the article in its own way. It reported that the Ukrainian military allegedly fired these rounds. Journalists of The Guardian spotted this fake:

‘The UK Guardian published the first postmortem findings of the Bucha incidents: they were caused by Ukraine shelling Bucha.’

Translation difficulties or planned propaganda? There are too many such coincidences. The work of the Great Translation Movement team proves this. The Great Translation Movement is an association that exposes pro-Russian and anti-Western propaganda, as well as government disinformation in China. It was they who disproved the South Review’s fake about the shells. The Chinese state media criticised its members and supporters for their alleged ‘anti-Chinese sentiments.’

Why China is helping Russia on the information front

Firstly, such information support for the aggressor is primarily due to China’s main foreign policy interest – confrontation with the United States, which led the coalition to support Ukraine. By spreading narratives about the responsibility of the United States and NATO for provoking the invasion, Beijing is waging its information war.

Secondly, China is also pursuing its interests. It is about the so-called Taiwan issue. Democratic Taiwan openly supports Ukraine. For the Taiwanese, China is the same aggressor as Russia is for us. Therefore, by supporting Kremlin propaganda, Beijing is trying to make its people dislike democracy and Western values. And to portray Taiwan, like Ukraine, as a victim of U.S. manipulation. According to China’s manuals, Ukraine is as much a legitimate zone of Russian interests as Taiwan is a zone of Chinese.

Wilson Center

And third, the background for such cooperation was laid in 2015.  And recently, The Intercept journalists found direct evidence of collaboration between Russia and China in state propaganda at the official level:

‘In the propaganda agreement, the two sides pledged to “further cooperate in the field of information exchange, promoting objective, comprehensive and accurate coverage of the most important world events”. They also laid out plans to cooperate on online and social media, a space both countries have used to seed disinformation, pledging to strengthen ‘mutually beneficial cooperation in such issues as integration, the application of new technologies, and industry regulation.’

What can Ukraine do?

The Chinese media market is one of the largest in the world. Therefore, disinformation spread by the Chinese media affects not only the society of this country but also other countries that consume Chinese media products. Consequently, Ukraine needs to counteract these influences. However, as Katerzhyna Prokhazkova, an analyst at the Sinopsis project that studies the Chinese media environment, noted in an interview with Suspilne, the Chinese media market is lost for Ukraine. And it is unlikely that it can be regained in the foreseeable future:

‘I don’t think you have many options. Media cooperation between Russia and China is strong. It is difficult to target the Chinese audience. Perhaps I would focus on the Chinese diaspora, but there is not much of it in Ukraine now. I would try to inform about the Ukrainian war and spread the message in the Western media. Not to focus too much on the Chinese media market because they are lost for us.’

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