In public statements and at international summits, Chinese officials have attempted to stake out a seemingly neutral position on the war in Ukraine, neither condemning Russian actions nor ruling out the possibility Beijing could act as a mediator in a push for peace.
But while its international messaging has kept many guessing as to Beijing’s true intentions, much of its domestic media coverage of Russia’s invasion tells a wholly different story.
There, an alternate reality is playing out for China’s 1.4 billion people, one in which the invasion is nothing more than a “special military operation,” according to its national broadcaster CCTV; the United States may be funding a biological weapons program in Ukraine, and Russian President Vladimir Putin is a victim standing up for a beleaguered Russia.
To tell that story, major state-run news media outlets — which dominate China’s highly censored media space — have been largely echoing Russian state media stories or information from Russian officials.
A CNN analysis reviewed nearly 5,000 social media posts from 14 Chinese state media outlets during the first eight days of Russia’s invasion posted onto China’s Twitter-like platform, Weibo. The analysis found that of the more than 300 most-shared posts about the events in Ukraine — which were each shared more than 1,000 times — almost half, about 140, were what CNN classified as distinctly pro-Russian, often containing information attributed to a Russian official or picked up directly from Russia’s state media.
The analysis, which focused on stories that got the most play on social media, may not be representative of all posts shared by state media outlets on Weibo. But it provides a snapshot of the state media-produced information that is most visible to the more than half a billion monthly users on the popular platform.
It’s not clear the extent to which these posts may be explicitly the result of a coordinated propaganda campaign between the two countries, but it is consistent with an ongoing pattern in which Russian and Chinese media have amplified and reinforced their often-interchangeable talking points on issues such as the treatment of Russian dissidents, Hong Kong pro-democracy protests, the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, or the supposed American role in fomenting “color revolutions” against authoritarian regimes.
Such mutual reinforcement has also spilled over into the extensive overseas and English-language propaganda operations that both countries have built to promote their views globally — a route made more important with Russia’s state media outlets being banned on air and online in parts of the West.
In China’s top-down government-controlled media environment, all state-affiliated content is vetted and issued in accordance with government directives. That China has chosen to follow Russia’s lead in deliberately mischaracterizing the war only serves to underline Beijing’s closeness to Moscow — and almost makes a mockery of China’s self-proclaimed impartiality in helping to engage with Russia and bring an end to the violence.
Russian assurances that civilian sites will not be targeted — despite extensive evidence to the contrary, descriptions of Ukrainian soldiers using “Nazi” tactics, and misinformation regarding the whereabouts of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky are all stories that have been funneled from Russian sources into China’s enclosed social media ecosystem — where many Western news outlets are blocked — by its state media outlets in recent days.
That dynamic was at play on Monday morning, when China’s state broadcaster CCTV released a package in its morning newscast highlighting Moscow’s erroneous claim that Washington had funded the development of biological weapons in Ukrainian labs. That insinuation is used to support the narrative that Ukraine — characterized by Moscow as an American puppet state — threatens Russia, and not the other way around.
The source? Russian Defense Ministry Spokesman Igor Konashenkov, who on Sunday said Russian forces uncovered “evidence” of the “hasty measures to conceal any traces of the military biological program finance(d) by the US Department of Defense,” and referenced documents he said detailed the destruction of hazardous pathogens at these facilities on the order of the Ukrainian Health Ministry.
In a statement on Twitter Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki pushed back on “Russia’s false claims about alleged US biological weapons labs and chemical weapons development in Ukraine” and noted the “echoing” of those “conspiracy theories” by Chinese officials.
“This is preposterous. It’s the kind of disinformation operation we’ve seen repeatedly from the Russians over the years in Ukraine and in other countries, which have been debunked, and an example of the types of false pretexts we have been warning the Russians would invent,” Psaki said, adding that the US was “in full compliance” with its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Biological Weapons Convention and “does not develop or possess such weapons anywhere.”
“Now that Russia has made these false claims, and China has seemingly endorsed this propaganda, we should all be on the lookout for Russia to possibly use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine, or to create a false flag operation using them. It’s a clear pattern,” Psaki said.
The subject was also raised in a Senate hearing on Tuesday, when Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland, asked if Ukraine had biological weapons, said it has biological research facilities, which the US was concerned Russian forces may be seeking to control.
“We are working with the Ukrainians on how they can prevent any of those research materials from falling into the hands of Russian forces, should they approach,” Nuland said.