Alexander Gabuev & Leonid Kovachich
Russia and China are increasingly u-sing similar tactics and strategies in the digital and information fields. Both countries seek to o-ppose Western policies, s-tir up divisions within the Western community as a whole and separately bet-ween the United States a-nd its allies, and at the sa-me time stifle Western cr-iticism of the policies of Moscow and Beijing and advance their own agenda.
China is increasingly resorting to techniques that were first used by Russia. But this does not mean that Moscow and Beijing are directly cooperating in the international information space. Rather, Chinese propaganda has mastered and creatively reworked Russian instruments. The similarity of the instruments is complemented by the commonality of views inherent in the two authoritarian regimes, the purpose of which is to criticize Western democracy and the concept of universal human rights, as well as to strengthen their own legitimacy.
Beijing has scrutinized Russia’s recent experience in digital propaganda, but it relies mainly on techniques it uses domestically, as well as on the principles of Western digital diplomacy. The same can be said for Russia – it combines its internal practice of suppressing dissent on the Internet with lessons from American “Twitter diplomacy.”
Like many other areas of Sino-Russian cooperation, strategic communication and information operations issues reflect the growing asymmetry between the two countries. Moscow publicly supports Beijing much more often than Beijing does Moscow. When it comes to Russia, China is usually cautious and slow to side with the Kremlin.
It can hardly be said that Beijing and Moscow are actively cooperating in information operations directed against the West – there is no such evidence yet. Chinese and Russian state propaganda media often appear on social media on similar topics, reprint each other’s materials and are not very active, but express support for each other. There are more and more official agreements on information cooperation between the media, but these agreements to a large extent remain purely symbolic and are focused mainly on the internal audience. Meanwhile, Russia’s dissatisfaction with China’s lack of reciprocity is only growing.
Russia and China are acting in parallel – they are increasing their influence and expanding information operations against the West, without creating a united front. And although deeper cooperation cannot be ruled out in the future, there are many obstacles to it. For example, the lack of trust between the secret services of both countries, differences in the models of work of state propagandists, deep-rooted great-power self-awareness and the confidence of the governments of both countries in their self-sufficiency.
CHINESE PROPAGANDA WITH A RUSSIAN FACE?
As the competition bet-ween the great powers inte-nsifies, the role of the information sphere in the confrontation between the West and its opponents (primarily China and Russia) is constantly growing.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the tone of Chinese officials and journalists on global social media platforms has become noticeably more aggressive. Chinese public figures have often attacked Western officials, academics and journalists who criticized Beijing’s behavior in the early days of the pandemic and advocated a transparent international investigation into the causes of the coronavirus. Their negative performances were picked up and disseminated by aggressive Chinese users. At the same time, Chinese media and officials accused the United States and its allies of being unable to cope with the pandemic, extolling its own effectiveness in this matter and Beijing’s readiness to provide assistance to other countries – mainly with medical supplies, but also in other ways.
The increasingly self-confident tone of the Chinese government, the tools and tactics it has used, are reminiscent of Russian information operations. The messages spread by Russian and Chinese propaganda are often difficult to distinguish. The media, especially the online media controlled by Moscow and Beijing, frankly repeat one after another, exchange content and help promote it on the world’s social networks. Some Western analysts and government officials fear: Does all this mean that China and Russia are strengthening cooperation in the digital sphere?
The number of information operations carried out by Russia and China is growing. At the same time, Moscow and Beijing have many common strategic goals. Both powers:
a. view the policies of the United States and its allies as a challenge to their national security and their national interests;
b. convinced that the United States is looking for opportunities to promote regime change in Russia and China;
c. seek to end what they regard as US hegemony in international affairs;
d. seek to weaken ties between the United States and its allies, including through information influence operations;
e. are aimed at weakening the West from the inside through the use of social and political differences that objectively exist within the Western countries, which they are trying to strengthen with the help of modern means of communication;
f. protect the political regimes of Moscow and Beijing from Western criticism;
g. promote ideas and theses beneficial to Russia and China.
Both Beijing and Moscow have many years of experience in confronting the West in the information field. Many of the methods that Russia uses are consistent not only with the Soviet practices of waging information war, but even with the strategy followed by the Bolsheviks in the early years of Soviet power. As for China, the current methods is largely inherited principles and methods of foreign propaganda that the Chinese Communist Party for the first time used in the time of Mao Zedong… But something has changed in recent years: both countries have a global agenda that has been able to unite them on the basis of their hostility to the West. This agenda and the similarity of tactics traditional for Russia and China in the field of information and propaganda can become the basis for cooperation.
But this moment has not yet come. A careful analysis of the recent actions of both countries in the information field reveals a more complex picture of their relationship. Such behavior in the global information space is more the result of Beijing’s careful study of the tools that the Kremlin operates and their creative adaptation, than evidence of the strengthening of cooperation between the two governments. Perhaps in the future, cooperation will become closer, but so far (and possibly in the medium term) there are quite significant obstacles to working together.
NOT JUST RUSSIA: CHINA’S SOURCES OF INSPIRATION
If you look at Russian and Chinese information operations, you will notice that Moscow and Beijing draw inspiration from two sources. The first is the methods of suppressing the manifestations of disagreement within the country and actively spreading the pro-government agenda. In recent years, to solve these problems, Moscow and Beijing have independently organized and launched “troll factories”. Recently, these “factories” have been more or less successfully reoriented to information and influence operations on the world stage. The second source of inspiration is the strategy of public diplomacy that emerged in the United States during the presidency of Barack Obama. In-depth interviews conducted as part of this study show that both Russia and China carefully studied the tools of American digital diplomacy and began to use them simultaneously and independently of each other.
Initially, the task of “troll factories” in Russia was to intimidate opponents of the authorities and neutralize online criticism of Vladimir Putin, today “troll factories” – and this is documented – are involved in information operations against foreign objects. The Internet Research Agency and similar “troll factories” have been attacking the Russian opposition for almost a decade and actively promoting the pro-Kremlin agenda on social media platforms. This tool of the Russian government has been used recently (after the 2016 US presidential campaign) and on numerous foreign platforms.
Likewise, in China, since the 1990s, pro-government Internet activists have been an integral part of Chinese online culture (the so-called “50 cent lot”)… Amid tightening Internet regulation and efforts to limit the online presence of dissidents, pro-government activists have promoted materials and statements extolling the country’s public policies. Some Chinese internet activists have engaged in controversies with Taiwan independence advocates and overseas Chinese activists on social media and online forums over a variety of issues, including the human rights situation in China. The flurry of pro-Beijing commentary that accompanies every China-related Twitter and Facebook discussion is the result of the evolution of these techniques with modern technology …. We emphasize that the Beijing-line troll army was created independently of Moscow and as a tool of criticism and attacks on appeared before his Russian counterpart dissent on the Internet .
A second source of inspiration for both Russia and China is the “digital diplomacy” of the Obama era, especially the behavior of American diplomats on Twitter and other social media. Russian officials scrutinized the ways in which American interests and views were promoted outside the United States through Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and other platforms, as well as how American embassies interact with the public and mass audiences abroad through social media. In the US, use of social networks as a public diplomacy tool took Alec Ross, while Advisor on Innovation Secretary of State Hillary Clinton… In the Russian Foreign Ministry, this approach was adopted by Alexander Yakovenko, who was then Russia’s ambassador to the UK and the main author of the caustic embassy Twitter; and Maria Zakharova, then Deputy Director of the Information and Press Department (she worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs under the direct supervision of Yakovenko in 2003-2005). Natalya Timakova, a spokesman for then-President Dmitry Medvedev (who also actively tweeted), also supported the “digitalization” of global information exchange and increased use of global social media.
In July 2012 at a meeting with Russian senior diplomats, Vladimir Putin, only returning to the Kremlin after four years as prime minister, he instructed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to explain Russia’s position on a variety of platforms with the help of modern technologies. The social media presence of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, embassies and senior diplomatic staff has since been greatly increased. A group of senior officials under the leadership of Dmitry Peskov, Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration of the Russian Federation, has developed a number of recommendations to strengthen Russian influence abroad, including thr-ough the active use of so-cial platforms by the diplomatic corps and Russian state-owned media companies targeting an international audience, such as RT and Sputnik.
China began using Twitter and Facebook in public diplomacy a few years later, in 2019. According to the BBC, individual Chinese diplomats and embassies have been setting up Twitter accounts since 2010, but until 2019 they could have been numbered… In 2019, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China created 32 accounts, including the account of its spokesman @MFA_China (with direct links to the ministry’s pages on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram). The decision to increase China’s official online presence so dramatically came amid growing concerns from Beijing that an era of all-round competition between China and the United States was beginning. A coordinated Chinese counter-attack against Washington and its allies on social media platforms was a reaction to the “twitter diplomacy” of then US President Donald Trump and his team’s leading politicians during the trade war with Beijing.
Some Chinese diplomats used Twitter until 2019 and behaved very confidently in it – they defended the ideological principles of China and widely used the tactics of WoTabautism. An example is the skirmish between former US National Security Adviser Susan Rice and Chinese Foreign Minister Zhao Lijian in 2019… However, the rhetoric of “wolf warriors” – the name is taken from a patriotic blockbuster – has never been used by the highest authorities. Until 2019, they followed more traditional diplomatic practices. The tone of the Chinese diplomats remained habitually reserved, while state-owned media outlets, especially English-speaking ones such as the Global Times, were allowed to speak up pathetically and assertively, and were extremely successful in spreading aggressive messages around the world.
Back in the pre-Trump era, Beijing appreciated the potential of the world’s social platforms as a platform for offensive operations. In addition to exploring Western models of public diplomacy and the role of the world’s leading media outlets such as the BBC or CNN, the Chinese leadership has also scrutinized the techniques of its Russian counterparts. Several closed studies are devoted to the modus operandi of Russian state TV channels and news agencies targeting foreign audiences. The research focused on international best practices and aims to improve interactions with the international audience of Xinhua News Agency, China Global Television Network (CGTN), and other state-owned media producing content in foreign languages. State research organizations under the leadership of the Ministry of State Security and the Propaganda Department of the Central Committee of the CPC participated in the preparation of analytical materials. They studied the experience of Russian international media, as well as the digitalization of the Russian diplomatic corps. The material for these studies was taken from open sources; in addition, Chi-nese researchers, journalists and government offici-als received material directly from Russian representatives – including at specialized events such as the Si-no-Russian media forums.
These internal documents are just the tip of the iceberg; the interest in Russian instruments of strategic communication in China (both on the part of the state and the analytical community) is actually much deeper. This can be seen from open sources. For example, a search on the National China Knowledge Infrastructure (CNKI), a database of mainland China scientific journals, yields 116 articles for the query “Russia Today” or “RT”. The first scientific article was published in 2013, and the number of articles on RT alone continues to grow. A significant amount of material on Russian information and influence operations has been published by Western governments, mainly by the team of Special Adviser Robert Mueller and the US Senate Special Committee on Intelligence. It is noteworthy that there are no publicly available materials about Russian interference in the US elections, written by Chinese scientists or found through the CNKI database.
The approach to information operations in China is still in its infancy. And the Chinese rely on various sources – not only on Russian (which, in turn, are full of creative borrowings from other countries, mainly from the United States), but also on the American strategy of “digital diplomacy” and its own tools that the Chinese Communist Party uses inside countries.
The main question remains. If an analysis of the Chinese approach to strategic communication over the past two years does not lead to a conclusion about active cooperation with Russia, is there a possibility that Beijing and Moscow will someday work together in a global digital space?
The dialogue between Russian and Chinese officials on cooperation in the information sphere has been going on for several years. Although the details of these negotiations are rarely made public, Russian officials periodically report them. So, in October 2019, the official representative of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, met in Beijing with her colleague Hua Chunying to exchange views on current global trends and practical cooperation between the two ministries in the field of news and media. Two months earlier, Zakharova told reporters that after the protests in Moscow and Hong Kong, Russia and China would hold consultations on the interference of Western intelligence services in their domestic politics… Zakharova told the press that he and his Chinese counterpart have exchanged the results of analytical work and came to the conclusion that the interference from the West, initiated by the United States and other NATO countries, actually took place.
Since 2014, Russian and Chinese state media have signed several agreements. The most notable and significant players in this field are the Russian news agency Rossiya Segodnya and the Chinese media corporation China Media Group (CMG). In 2018, Russia Segodnya and CMG entered into a cooperation agreement aimed at joint information projects and content exchange… Rossiya Segodnya had agreements with Chinese media companies (Xinhua, China Radio International and Global Times) before, but since CMG became the leading international media corporation in China, it has become the main partner on the Chinese side. The heads of Russia Today and CMG Dmitry Kiselev and Shen Haixiong (he is also the deputy director of the Propaganda Department of the CPC Central Comm-ittee) co-chair the Media Council of the Russian-Chinese Committee for Friendship, Peace and Development. Despite the general pathos, the 2018 agreement boils down to just a two-way exchange of content: materials about China prepared by CMG appear on Sputnik platforms in Russian, and vice versa… In interviews conducted for this study, government advocacy staff on both sides described the ag-reement as rather symbolic and formal. More importantly, these agreements mainly affect the internal information field of Russia and China and do not imply joint projects aimed at an international audience.
There is a governmental format of cooperation between national media: a subcommittee on media, part of the Russian-Chinese intergovernmental commission on humanitarian cooperation. The commission is chaired by officials at the level of deputy prime ministers, and the subcommittee is chaired by deputy ministers of communications. But this subcommittee also deals with bilateral cooperation between Russian and Chinese media with an eye to their own national audiences, and its success rates are determined by the number of joint events, seminars and publications.
Finally, since 2015, Russia and China have held annual media forums organized by the Propaganda Department of the CPC Central Committee and the Presidential Administration of the Russian Federation. The first forum was held in St. Petersburg on 25 , and the last, in 2020, was held online. Official reports from previous forums mostly repeat the official statements of cooperation. Joint global projects are never mentioned. Judging by interviews with forum participants, the workflow at these events is extremely formal and boils down to the exchange of duty theses of the bosses of state media companies. Discussion of practical steps for collaboration is kept to a minimum.
If the official platforms of the Sino-Russian media partnership focus more on form than content, and agreements between state-owned media only affect audiences in Russia and China, why then is the news leaked out by companies like RT and CGTN so similar? This is due to several factors. The first is that most of the stories about the West in a negative way are produced by the Russian and Chinese state media for the audience of their countries. It is part of a traditional strategy to show that the main adversaries of Moscow and Beijing are mired in their own problems, while the authoritarian regimes of Putin and Xi Jinping provide stability to their countries. Moreover, in the two main state-owned media corporations in Russia and China (Russia Segodnya and CMG), content for home audiences and foreign markets is produced by joint teams. The same leaders determine the editorial policy both domestically and internationally. Articles that focus on the problems and contradictions of the West, as well as on the successes of Russia and China, are simply designed differently for the domestic and foreign audiences, but they are selected by the same people according to the same criteria.
Finally, the similarity in the presentation of materials that both Russia and China promote in the global information field serves to achieve different, although sometimes complementary, political goals. For example, Moscow accuses the United States of being involved in the production of biological weapons and, possibly, in the creation of COVID-19 by American biological laboratories in the ex-Soviet republics . Certain aspects of this discourse have been in circulation for nearly ten years and have been actively promoted by the media within the country. Similar ideas are promoted by major political figures. For example, Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Russian Security Council, regularly expresses concern about American biological weapons laboratories. He dwelled on this topic in detail in an interview given before the pandemic to Rossiyskaya Gazeta on January 15, 2019., and also recently, in an interview with the Kommersant newspaper on April 18, 2021. During a pandemic, this idea was picked up by Chinese officials, including the Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijiang, as well as the English-language Chinese media. It turned out to be very useful – to divert attention from calls for a transparent investigation into the causes of the emergence of COVID-19. It is unlikely that the speeches of Patrushev and Zhao were coordinated: it is more likely that the Chinese side simply decided to borrow Russian rhetoric for its own purposes.
BARRIERS TO CLO-SER COLLABORATION
There are other examples of similarities and overlaps between the Russian and Chinese agendas targeted at foreign audiences, which are promoted by officials, state media and netizens (as it often turns out, by employees of the “troll factory” run by the government directly or through intermediaries). But it would be a mistake to oversimplify the situation and present it as the result of coordinated actions by the propaganda machines of Moscow and Beijing. And yet it is worth asking if these machines will be able to communicate more efficiently in the future. This cannot be completely ruled out, but there are, however, significant practical obstacles to closer Sino-Russian cooperation in this area.
The first deterrent is the level of trust between the security and intelligence services of both sides. Information about the planning, methodology and details of information and influence operations are by definition classified. Sharing such information requires a political decision, as does any movement towards joint planning and execution of operations. All of this implies a high degree of trust and unity of purpose – but this has not yet been observed.
In many ways, such joint action would mean that China and Russia are ready to create a de facto alliance, a prospect that both Moscow and Beijing invariably deny. After the 2004 agreement that finally settled the territorial disputes between Russia and China, both countries have diligently reduced the level of perception of mutual threat – both in the activities of intelligence services and elsewhere – which indicated an improvement in relations between the two countries. But since 2020, anxiety has begun to grow in the security services about the vigorous activity of Chinese intelligence in collecting information on Russian territory, and Beijing colleagues are receiving signals of discontent from Moscow… This suggests that it seems difficult for Moscow and Beijing to decide on closer interaction and active cooperation in areas such as disinformation and influence operations. Be that as it may, these are activities in which no country will ever be publicly recognized, so it will hardly ever be possible to say with certainty th-at sentiments have changed and a higher degree of unity and cooperation has been achieved, even if it really is. will happen.
Russia and China have practically no successful experience of working together in the field of state propaganda. So far, state-owned media have not developed mechanisms that would allow consistently releasing materials of decent quality for distribution in Russia or China. In interviews conducted for this study, Russian journalists working for Chinese companies such as Xinhua and CGTN said that one of the main problems is a fundamentally different internal culture. Chinese leaders do not look to their experience, even when it comes to preparing Chinese materials for a Russian audience. Lack of consensus on control and seniority is likely to prove to be a major problem in the Sino-Russian information operations team, if ever assembled.
As in many other aspects of Sino-Russian relations, it is becoming increasingly noticeable that countries support each other in the world information sphere asymmetrically. Since 2-019, Russian officials have regularly spoken out in support of China during its co-nfrontation with the United States. Thus, Russian Pres-ident Vladimir Putin said in 2019 that the US sanctions against Huawei were motivated by the desire to remove a strong competitor, this is an economic war. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov publicly endorsed China’s plan to combat pandemic at the Munich Security Conference in 2020 , and the Russian Foreign Ministry has criticized Western calls for an independent investigation of the outbreak of the epidemiological crisis in Wuhan more than 50 times.
Chinese officials, however, have been slow to show reciprocity. It is very rare for Beijing to openly and confidently support the Kremlin if it has no direct interest. More often than not, China is neutral. This was the case with questions about the status of Crimea, about the war in Donbass, about the poisoning of former GRU officer Sergei Skripal in Great Britain, etc. Even at press briefings when it comes to Russia, Chinese diplomats speak traditionally with restraint and rarely say anything in her support. In turn, Mo-scow does not publicly support Beijing on issues in which the interests of Ru-ssia and China do not coincide. For example, the Kr-emlin has not sided with China in its territorial disputes with India, Japan and Vietnam: each of these cou-ntries is an important regi-onal partner for Moscow.
In fact, the decisions m-ade by the leaders of Russia and China are determined by the self-consciousness of the great powers. The-refore, they are primarily interested in maintaining strategic independence, ev-en when it comes to confronting the United States and its allies. A declaration of support from like-minded people is, of course, a good thing, but not so necessary when it comes to the global information field – an area where international legal norms do not apply. And unlike the UN Security Council, where Moscow and Beijing often act in tandem (due to both the nature of this organization itself and their own unique position), they can – and this is how it happens – to conduct global operations of influence independently of each other.