Leaked documents from Russia exposed a pact between the two countries to spread propaganda.
Russian authorities initially promoted false propaganda. And when Russia had invaded Ukraine, a spokesperson from their defense ministry revived long-debunked claims that the US had been financing a bioweapons program in the area, alleging that Ukrainian laboratories had been conducting tests with bat coronaviruses to propagate the most lethal diseases secretly.
The technique of delivering false information was an age-old craft of the Russian government. Nevertheless, in the current situation, Russia found assistance from the Chinese. Within a brief period, Chinese officials and media outlets began to fabricate and repeat the story of biolabs.
“China jumped on the biolabs conspiracy theory,” said Katja Drinhausen, an analyst with the Mercator Institute of China Studies in Berlin. Chinese officials and media outlets had spent the preceding months pushing the notion that the pandemic might have originated in a lab accident outside China.
“It was like, here’s the perfect conspiracy theory coming out of Russia to support our ‘everywhere but China’ main talking point of the last year,” she said.
The Chinese Communist Party tabloid Global Times created two separate stories, one taking references from Sputnik News and the other containing a quote from Russian President Vladimir Putin saying, “What is the US hiding in the biolabs discovered in Ukraine?”
Since hostilities erupted at the beginning of the year, specialists have been astounded by a confluence of Russian and Chinese media accounts. Though some of the events probably happened by chance, with stories empowering both countries’ objectives, emails hacked from Russian state broadcaster VGTRK uncovered that China and Russia had committed to collaborating in media output by signing pacts at the ministerial level.
Apparently, an agreement was inked in July 2021, making it unmistakable that the two governments aimed to collaborate on news stories and narratives. During a virtual meeting that same month, high-ranking Russian and Chinese government and media representatives went over many news items and joint projects, which included swapping news material, trading digital media tactics, and creating television programs. The venture was led by Russia’s Ministry of Digital Development, Communication and Mass Media and China’s National Radio and Television Administration.
The agreement between the two parties included a pact to collaborate in the domain of information sharing and to spread impartial, complete, and precise reports on the most significant happenings in the world. They also set out strategies to partner on the internet and social media, which both countries have used to propagate false facts. Furthermore, they agreed to reinforce their beneficial cooperation in combination, implementing advanced technologies and industry management.
David Bandurski, the leader of the China Media Project, an unaffiliated research organization that studies Chinese-language media, declared that this is a primary collaboration agreement between the two countries in the media sector. The document also provides us with a glance at how the respective departments arrange and discuss the partnership.
In 2020, Meduza, a non-affiliated Russian news source, exposed the fact that numerous pro-Beijing articles had been distributed through propaganda contracts. This was the initial occasion when a comprehensive agreement was revealed. However, the Ministry of Digital Development did not reply to a request for a statement, and the Chinese embassy in Washington, DC, did not answer a request for a response.
In the aftermath of Russia’s intrusion into Ukraine, the electronic mail system of VGTRK was compromised when hackers targeted more than 50 Russian corporations and government departments. The Distributed Denial of Secrets, a transparency organization, has posted more than 13 terabytes of data, taken from the hacks, on its webpage. The Intercept and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project joined forces to investigate the stolen documents, from which stories concerning the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary group chaired by Putin associate Evgeny Prigozhin, active in Ukraine, were uncovered.
“The flood of Russian data has meant a lot of sleepless nights, and it’s truly overwhelming,” Emma Best, co-founder of DDoSecrets, told The Intercept via an encrypted messaging app. “In its first 10 years, WikiLeaks claimed to publish 10 million documents. In the less than two months since the invasion began, we’ve published over 6 million Russian documents — and it absolutely feels like it.”
From Animated Pandas to More Serious Propaganda Media
Numerous major state media outlets, online media companies, and private businesses agreed to the 2021 agreement. These signatories included the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei and its streaming service, the China Mobile-associated gaming firm Migu Video, and the Switzerland-based streaming service SPB TV owned by a Russian citizen.
JSC Bank PSCB, you are now controlled by Network Battalion 65. We're very thankful that you store so many credentials in Chrome. Well done.
— NB65 (@xxNB65) April 18, 2022
The contract contains 64 collaborative media endeavors that have either been initiated or are in progress. A few of these are lighthearted. For example, at the beginning of 2021, CCTV and Riki Group released an overly sweet animated series, “Panda and Krash,” about a panda and a rabbit in a toy shop who set out on expeditions with an elephant and robot in tow. “You support me, and I support you,” the characters sing.
Other ventures were more significant in scope. Russian news agency TASS and Chinese media outlet Xinhua committed to exchanging stories, and other state-run media sources agreed to produce additional publications that advertised the other country.
Reports from China and Russia indicate that the two countries have been engaging in annual media cooperation meetings since 2008, mainly targeting domestic audiences. During the last decade, these two countries have extensively broadened their media reach outside their borders, and this agreement includes well-known outlets with an international following such as BRICS TV, RT, and Sputnik (all based in Moscow), and the state-run Chinese networks China Daily, Global Times, and CGTN. According to Drinhausen, the objective is evidently worldwide; although their foreign policies are dissimilar, they are united in their effort to combat the United States.
It has been suggested that specific deals between Russia and China are made mainly for a public appearance and that China holds the upper hand in the relationship. An unnamed Russian who claims to be aware of the negotiations stated, “The Chinese have control over all the major ventures. They still haven’t even resolved some simpler matters such as allowing Russian TV channels to be broadcasted on Chinese cable.”
A few of the topics brought up were principal of relevance to China. As a result, TASS consented to feature interviews with Chinese presidents Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang and to plan events to honor the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party.
“What possible real interest can Russian audiences have in a photography exhibition to celebrate the CCP’s centennial?” said Bandurski. “What the Chinese government seems to be doing here is throwing a bunch of external propaganda products onto a giant wish list, hoping that Russia will help it tell its story.”
As per Meduza’s information, Russian state media, including Rossiyskaya Gazeta (the official government paper), was broadcasting more than 100 pieces of content each month that were sourced from China Media Group, a state-owned media firm. In addition, this same media group’s coverage has been mentioned on multiple occasions in the agreement.
Maria Repnikova, the head of the Center for Global Information Studies at Georgia State University, stated that articles defending the Chinese government’s deeds in Xinjiang are not typical of the Russian media environment. She continued, saying that Russian state media is less heavily censored in comparison to China and is often more sophisticated.
“The propaganda genre is more dynamic in Russian state media, especially on TV, with a sophisticated play on emotions and disinformation appealing to many average Russian viewers,” she wrote in an email.
Approximately 30 days after the 2021 contract was finalized, a journalist from China Media Group contacted VGTRK by emailing their general email address to propose a potential collaboration. The journalist, who composed the email in English, said they could do interviews or stories based on the company’s requirements and also change the content to be spread in China.
Details of the Hacked Documents
Hacked emails disclosed that correspondents of Russian state media were encouraging the Chinese point of view. In March 2021, Alexander Balitskiy, VGTRK’s international service’s Beijing bureau chief, sent a script of an upcoming report discussing the boycott of international brands that had taken a stand against the use of forced labor in Xinjiang.
The script stated: “Global companies were on the same page with Western politicians, blaming China for the genocide of Uyghurs.” (Then, there was a note for the production team to “ZOOM OUT TO BEAUTIFUL VIEWS OF COTTON FIELDS BEING HARVESTED”).
The script also suggested including a quote from Grayzone editor Max Blumenthal, who has denied Russian mistreatment in Ukraine and supported Chinese authority in Xinjiang; nevertheless, his quote did not make it to the final version of the news item on Vesti.ru.
In a message, Balitskiy shared that he could not make any remarks regarding the news broadcast as he has no power over how the segments are edited when broadcast in various regions.
Repnikova observed that the rewards for Russia might have become evident following the attack on Ukraine when Chinese media repeated the same statements as the Russian government regarding the conflict. She further noted that the reports rarely acknowledged that it was Russia who spearheaded the offensive, and instead, Chinese outlets adopted phrases taken directly from the Russian narrative.
The stolen emails finish in the early months of 2022. Recently, Russia has persistently requested the United Nations Security Council to create an investigative commission to examine the theory of biolabs. Moreover, China’s media has also contributed to increasing the significance of this request.
The biolabs narrative was beneficial for China’s objectives. However, the contract does not set out specific strategies for advanced information operations. As per Repnikova, these documents “are signed to publicly bolster the partnership, but the actual particulars are not worked out.”
“The vague wording might be deliberate, as it makes it harder to track the projects and to hold anyone accountable.”