China on the map of information warfare: Russia’s disciple and “big brother”

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On June 14, the NATO summit identified two main threats facing the Alliance. These are Russia, which, according to Douglas D Jones, the US Chargé d’Affaires, is “the most immediate threat to the common security of the Allies,” and “the new threat” — China.

But so far these threats are of various types. “Russia is a rogue, not a peer; China is a peer, not a rogue.” This conclusion was reached in 2019 by the world’s oldest analytical center RAND Corporation.

According to it, Russia is not a peer, but rather a well-armed rogue state that seeks to subvert an international order it can never hope to dominate. In contrast, China is a peer competitor that wants to shape an international order that it can aspire to dominate.

Both countries seek to alter the status quo, but only Russia attacks neighboring states, annexes conquered territories and openly supports insurgent forces.

Russia assassinates its opponents at home and abroad, interferes in foreign elections, destabilizes foreign democracies and works to undermine European and Atlantic institutions. In contrast, China’s growing influence is based largely on more positive measures: trade, investment and development assistance.

Russia as a hurricane, China as climate change,” — that’s how intelligence experts Jean Baptiste Jeangene Vilmer and Paul Charon suggest viewing the two countries’ different approaches to information warfare, as quoted by the Jamestown Foundation.

They also point out that China has so far avoided hack-and-leak tactics and has built its international reputation primarily on image-centric positive messaging, while more narrowly targeting the so-called China’s “five poisons”: Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, Falun Gong, and pro-democracy activists.

However, there have been signs of “russianization” of Chinese information operations recently.

Chinese researchers carefully study Russian external propaganda. In particular — the success of Russia Today in disseminating “alternative” views among the world audience, and especially in developing countries.

In 2014, the People’s Daily (an official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party) described RT as an “external propaganda aircraft carrier” that could penetrate into foreign media and use social media to influence “people who are easily influenced.” It noted RT’s successful penetration on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and RT’s successful cooperation with foreign and private media.

In 2017, the Academy of Contemporary China and World Studies focused on Russian propaganda. In 2018, the “creative use of automated bots” for the dissemination of information on social media was noted by the “Military Correspondent” (Junshi jizhe).

For a model, the Chinese media took the whole complex — from the “external propaganda strategy” to RT’s structure, their approaches to funding, personnel, and daily operations.

After the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, China began to actively apply the Russian-style of spreading disinformation, “increasingly seeking to shape the global information environment beyond its borders,” the Jamestown Foundation said.

Following in the footsteps of RT, China moved to a play-away propaganda — penetrating and influencing foreign public opinion.

“History may not repeat itself, but it often rhymes today, a Crimea-like scenario could easily unfold in the South China Sea,” the World Politics Review writes. “China says it wants peaceful reunification, but does not rule out using force to gain control of Taiwan,” the Financial Times reported. “Will China turn Taiwan into another Crimea?” asks the British The Guardian.

Back in 2016, the Global Times claimed that China would try to “lebanize” (to liken something to Lebanon with its political and military confrontation, ongoing military conflict) Taiwan to “undermine stability.”

Today, a Taipei think tank and observers in Taiwan say China is waging “cognitive warfare” against the islanders. The goal is to reverse opposition to Chinese takeover so it can be accomplished without having to go to war.

These analysts say that China’s effort includes intimidation and misinformation spread by its army of online trolls to manipulate public opinion. According to them, the complexity and frequency of the effort puts Taiwan on a constant defensive.

“Its ultimate goal is to control what’s between the ears. That is, your brain or how you think, which Beijing hopes leads to a change of behavior,” said Tseng Yi-suo, director of the cybersecurity division at the Institute of National Defense and Security Research in Taipei.

“China learned Russian propaganda and disinformation operations in Ukraine and the US,” a case study of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs said. “Disinformation has become Beijing’s chosen weapon. Experts have registered a sharp increase in Chinese information operations aimed at Taiwan since the beginning of the pandemic,” the Financial Times reported.

“Negative stories or fake news about vaccines dominate among the most discussed issues,” said Yu Chih-hao, co-director of Information Operations Research Group (IORG), a non-governmental organization that tracks Chinese information manipulation aimed at Taiwan.

The narratives are exactly the same as those used by Russia in Ukraine and Europe.

For example, in late May, the dominant message was that the US, Taiwan’s unofficial defender, allegedly “does not sell a dose of vaccine to Taipei.” In early June, Beijing said tens of thousands of Taiwanese were allegedly flocking to China for vaccination. At the time, Chinese media reported that Taipei planned to vaccinate its diplomatic allies, although it did not have enough vaccines for its own population. Both claims were rejected by the Taiwanese government.

And after the Taiwanese vaccination campaign gained momentum, Chinese media spread stories about old people who died from injections. Since then, the level of vaccination in Taiwan has declined as many older people have become afraid of it.

China has taken full advantage of the pandemic to wage an information war. “The Kremlin’s disinformation playbook goes to Beijing. The coronavirus pandemic is laying bare a growing competition between democratic and authoritarian governments… Russia and China are seizing the moment to enhance their international influence through information operations. Moscow and Beijing have long aimed to weaken the United States, blunt the appeal of democratic institutions, and sow divisions across the West. Their goals in this crisis are no different,” the Brookings Institution wrote in 2020.

In 2021, the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) published a detailed study on the Russian and Chinese Information Operations During Covid-19.

Key Findings: China copied Russia’s tactics, spreading disinformation globally for the first time, and the Chinese Communist Party turned to destructive and conspiratorial narratives.

CEPA emphasizes that Russian and Chinese information operations pose a serious threat and require appropriate countermeasures involving civil society, media organizations, social media platforms, think tanks and government agencies.

One of China’s “soft power” tools is the Confucius Institute Network, launched in 2004 to create “non-profit government institutions to promote Chinese language and culture in foreign countries.”

The first Confucius Institute opened in November 2004 in Seoul, South Korea, after establishing a pilot institute in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Since then, hundreds more have opened in dozens of countries around the world. Most of them — in the United States, Japan, and South Korea.

There are 541 institutes and nearly 2,000 Confucius classrooms operating in 162 countries at the primary, secondary, and university levels.

From 2008 to 2016, Hanban (the headquarters) reported spending over $2 billion on Confucius Institutes worldwide. Starting from 2017, Hanban no longer reports spending on the program.

The centers are non-profit public organizations affiliated with China’s Ministry of Education, offer Mandarin language courses, cooking and calligraphy classes, and celebrations of Chinese national holidays.

Although these organizations resemble such respectable cultural associations as the British Council, the French Alliance Française, the German Goethe Institute, or the Spanish Cervantes Institute, they are often involved in scandals over censorship and distortion of history for geopolitical purposes.

In 2014, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) urged colleges to either scrutinize their relationships to ensure academic freedom or shut down their institutes.

Another report by the National Association of Scholars in 2017 revealed how the Chinese government infiltrates American colleges and universities to enhance its image. And in 2019, FBI director Christopher Wray testified to the U.S. Congress that the institutes “offer a platform to disseminate Chinese government or Chinese Communist Party propaganda, to encourage censorship, to restrict academic freedom.”

The criticism has led to the closure of 27 percent of the institutes in the United States since 2017.

The accusations against the Confucius Institutes range from interfering in the recruitment of teachers, determining curriculum to organizing protests, and choosing texts that distort history (especially related to Taiwan, Tiananmen, and Tibet). Critics also charge the institutes with pressuring universities to cancel conferences on Taiwan and visits by the Dalai Lama. The institutes have also been accused of monitoring and threatening Chinese studying abroad who stray from Beijing’s favored narratives.

This has led to the closure of the Confucius Institutes not only in the United States but also in Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden.

The Straits Times (Singapore) reports that “Japan is set to open a probe into the Beijing-funded Confucius Institutes in the country, following warnings from its security partners that the purported cultural centers may be a conduit for Chinese propaganda and even espionage.”

“The problem is that the Confucian institutes have become hotbeds for covert political machinations, funded to carry out Beijing’s propaganda activities and providing cover for how it conducts influence operations,” the Japanese newspaper Sankei wrote in September last year, calling the relevant governmental agencies to launch an investigation.

In South Korea, there is an organization called Citizens for Unveiling Confucius Institutes (CUCI), which insists that “Confucius Institutes are China’s propaganda arm in the guise of language and cultural institutes. Calling the institute China’s global network established for espionage and brainwashing locals to support China’s policies, the activists urged China to close the institutes on their own, before they are forced to leave,” The Korea Times reported.

“Despite its title, there are no Confucian ideas whatsoever in the institute…What’s in there is the ghost of Mao Zedong,” Han Min-ho, founder and president of the Citizens for Unveiling Confucius Institutes (CUCI), said

A study published last year in the journal Europe-Asia Studies drew parallels between the Confucius Institutes and Russkiy Mir Institutes. According to the researchers, China and Russia have operated their institutes in ways that go against the stated principles of cultural diplomacy. In practice they have created and operated their institutions as tools to promote political interests.

Despite the fact that China is learning to wage cognitive warfare in Russia, Russia in this tandem, in general, remains a “little brother.”

Russian media write about this clearly: “China ‘has grown’ from the status of Russia’s little brother to Russia’s big brother”, “Russia has changed from China’s big brother to its little brother,” and so on.

This is also true for relations in the field of political propaganda. “China is not really a Russia’s ally, but a senior partner with whom we are not equals at all. At least, from the viewpoint of the Chinese themselves. It is easy to see that Russia provides significantly more small- and large-scale services to China than vice versa. While our [Russian] propaganda has been diligently parroting the Beijing fables about the happy life of the Uyghurs under the leadership of the CCP, no one in Beijing hastens to recognize Crimea as Russian and broadcast large-scale Kremlin propaganda to its audience,” the Republic writes.

Earlier this year, it wrote that China would support the return of Russian “lost” lands only in exchange for the return of Chinese lands as “Crimea is yours, Siberia — ours“.

Chinese propaganda system can remain steadfast even when it comes to the text of the Russian president. For example, last year, a translation of Vladimir Putin’s article on World War II on the Chinese version of Sputnik was blocked in China on the day of publication without any explanation.

Although China and Russia are not equal in terms of propaganda, and the Russian rogue style stays unparalleled, they do become alarmingly alike.

Russia set an example of invading foreign information space by abusing democracy and freedom of speech. It became contagious for other authoritative regimes and multiplied threats for democracies.

Ukraine should stay vigilant.

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