Beijing’s Propaganda Support for Russian Biological Warfare Disinformation, Part 2: Historical Context and Contemporary Motivations

Publication: China Brief Volume: 22 Issue: 13

A screen shot from a September 2021 PRC state media news segment, which accused U.S. forces of employing germ warfare during the Korean War (source: CCTV, September 18, 2021)

Editor’s Note: This is the second part of a two-part article series that addresses both a prominent Russian Federation state disinformation campaign related to the war in Ukraine—namely, that the Russian invasion was justified due to the alleged presence of U.S.-sponsored biological warfare research facilities in Ukraine—as well as the ways in which this conspiracy theory has been supported and amplified by the state-controlled media system of the People’s Republic of China. The first article in this series (Part 1: Accusations Concerning the War in Ukraine), which appeared in the June 17 issue, provided details of this disinformation campaign, as well as examples of how Beijing’s diplomatic and media systems have backed up Russian narratives. This second article seeks to place this coordinated disinformation campaign in broader context—both by providing a historical case study of similar biological warfare disinformation dating back to the Korean War, as well as analyzing Beijing’s contemporary motivations for providing informational support for Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

Historical Context for Beijing’s Biological Warfare Accusations Against the United States

The Russian government’s current disinformation campaign to assert the use of covert biological warfare by the U.S. and Ukrainian governments is not a new innovation. Rather, this effort accords with a long history of Soviet-era “active measures” in the field of political warfare, which have been continued by the Russian Federation through the successor agencies to the former Soviet KGB. [1] As detailed in the first part of this series, these efforts have been amplified by the propaganda resources of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the context of the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War. This ongoing cooperative disinformation campaign between the two governments is bringing the relationship between Moscow and Beijing full-circle, back to the early days of the Cold War—when another biological warfare disinformation effort played a prominent role in Communist propaganda in the latter stages of the Korean War.

The “World Peace Council” and Accusations of U.S. Biological Warfare in the Korean War

In 1952, the World Peace Council (WPC), a Soviet-controlled front organization created under the auspices of the Cominform in the late 1940s, became the vehicle for a combined Soviet-Chinese disinformation campaign intended to spread the narrative that U.S. forces had employed biological warfare in the Korean War against civilian populations in both North Korea and northeastern China. [2] This propaganda campaign was exemplified by the speech made by Guo Moruo (郭沫若), a prominent Chinese poet and the vice-president of the WPC, before a meeting of the organization in Oslo in March 1952. Guo charged that U.S. forces were indiscriminately spreading infectious agents throughout vast areas of Manchuria, and that the primary means used for this was the aerial bombardment of insects and other vermin:

[T]he American aggressors have begun a constant dissemination of large quantities of germ-laden insects and other poisonous objects over key cities and important communication lines both at the front and in the rear in Korea [and] Northeast China… Of the more than 35 types of objects dropped by the American aggressors, the main types are flies, fleas, mosquitoes, lice, sandflies, crickets, springtails, locusts, rats, contaminated meat, [and] dead fish…. Results of scientific tests by bacteriologists and entomologists show that many of the insects carry lethal germs of highly infectious diseases: bubonic plague, cholera and typhoid. The enemy on occasion has spread germs at the front by firing specially designed shells. But generally the enemy has used aircraft to drop bacteriological bombs… and other objects carrying germs or infected with virus[es].” [3]

Chinese Communist propaganda posters from the Korean War era (circa 1952), which accused U.S. forces of employing biological warfare against civilians in Korea and northern China. Left Image: “Resolutely Cut Off the Bloody Criminal Hand of the American Aggressor Spreading Germs!” / Right Image: “Everyone Must Prevent Epidemics, Smash the Germ Warfare of American Imperialism!” (Images source: Chineseposters.net)

This effort was bolstered by other communist front organizations including the International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL), which issued a report in March 1952 stating that “[we] must reach the conclusion that insects infected with epidemic diseases have been dropped over Korea by American airplanes.” [4] The WPC-led disinformation campaign succeeded in drawing support from a limited number of international political figures, as well as sympathetic leftist intellectual fellow-travelers. Dr. John Burton, former Australian foreign minister, returned from a CCP-sponsored “peace conference” held in Beijing in spring 1952 claiming to possess “telling documents” pertaining to U.S. bacteriological warfare. [5] A second WPC-organized commission later that year, which was led by Dr. Joseph Needham—a renowned British biochemist and historian of science in China—concluded after a fact-finding trip to China hosted by CCP officials that “The peoples of Korea and China have indeed been the objective of bacteriological weapons. These have been employed by units of the U.S.A. armed forces, using a great variety of different methods for the purpose.” [6]

These claims have been extensively debunked by historians in subsequent decades—to include research in the 1990s, using documentation from then-opened former Soviet archives, that revealed the evidence of biological warfare in Korea and China to have been fabricated by the Chinese Communists. [7] Despite the fraudulent nature of the claims, they achieved wide currency at the time—and have had a lingering influence since, primarily online among smaller, left-leaning publications. [8] This long-discredited story also resurfaces from time to time in more mainstream media: one prime example is a 2010 article in the U.K.’s Telegraph newspaper that sympathetically cited accounts from North Korean villagers about disease-carrying insects dropped from American airplanes (The Telegraph, June 10, 2010). The persistence of this geopolitical urban legend, long after it has been debunked, illustrates the lasting psychological impact that can be achieved by disinformation when these narratives encounter a receptive target audience eager to believe them.

The Contemporary Significance of the Korean War Biological Warfare Accusations

This historical case study is more than simply academic: over the past year, the PRC state-controlled press—in both English and Chinese—has engaged in an ongoing and active effort to promulgate materials alleging U.S. germ warfare during the Korean War (China Daily, May 12; Shang Guan Xinwen, May 18). This revived propaganda campaign appears to date back to at least late summer 2021 (Xinhua, August 27, 2021; see also accompanying photo). The promotion of such material to both domestic and international audiences represents a likely effort to “seed” the information environment—and raises the possibility that the ongoing Russian-Chinese disinformation campaign regarding biological warfare labs in Ukraine was planned well in advance of the actual invasion.

The Russian and Chinese governments have even expanded this story beyond Ukraine. In mid-April, PRC press outlets began to echo and amplify Russian state media claims that at least some of the alleged U.S.-sponsored weapon labs in Ukraine were being relocated to South Korea and Mongolia, and that “the specifics of the research being performed are unknown, but thinking about it makes one shiver” (想想都让人后背发凉, xiangxiang dou rangren houbei fajing) (Hai-Lu-Kongtian Guanxing Shijie, April 17; China Economic Net, June 26). In reporting on the story, the nationalist Global Times sympathetically cited former Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ordzhonikidze to indicate that the alleged labs were likely working on gene weapons targeting ethnic Chinese; and further cited unnamed “experts” who indicated that “America’s primary research domain could be researching the effect of dangerous viruses on Asians” (美方的主要研究领域可能是研究危险病毒对亚洲人种的影响, Meifang de zhuyao yanjiu lingyu keneng shi yanjiu weixian bingdu dui Yazhouren de yingxiang) (Global Times, April 12). [9]

Beijing’s Motivations for Supporting Moscow’s Propaganda

All of this raises the question as to why the CCP leadership is reviving these stories again, in the context of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. The leaders of the CCP have many motivations for supporting this disinformation campaign, but a few stand out above the others. The first is the need to justify sustaining the PRC’s close cooperative relationship with Russia, which was upgraded to a “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era” in June 2019 during Xi Jinping’s visit to Russia (Xinhuanet, June 6, 2019). The Sino-Russian partnership, which in many ways is a de facto alliance, was further codified this year with a joint statement issued during Vladimir Putin’s early February visit to Beijing to attend the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics—very likely not coincidentally, just prior to the invasion of Ukraine (Xinhuanet, February 4). The joint statements made by the two governments on the occasion of these visits should not be viewed as throwaway diplomatic rhetoric: rather, the declaration of a “partnership without limits,” and the accompanying bitter denunciations of American “hegemony” (霸權, baquan) and U.S.-led military alliances, should be taken at face value (FMPRC, June 5, 2019; Guangming Ribao, February 4).

The bio-weapons disinformation story is only one component of a broader Sino-Russian propaganda campaign that blames the United States and the NATO alliance for starting the Ukraine War in the first place, with much of this taking the form of “expert” commentaries that blame NATO expansion for bringing about the crisis (Guangming Ribao, March 12; Xinhua, April 24). Much of this material identifies the United States as the sinister motivating force lurking behind the Ukraine crisis, in ways that are never explained in any cogent fashion; rather, emotive imagery and language are employed to depict the United States as a rapacious power bent on pursuing dominance and sowing chaos around the globe (see images below). In this narrative, the people and government of Ukraine are offered no agency, being mere pawns manipulated by the hegemonic U.S. puppet master. The PRC leadership has not wished to explicitly endorse the Russian invasion, but it has embraced propaganda support as a low-cost means of signaling continuing support for Moscow, while further indoctrinating Chinese-speaking audiences with anti-American sentiment.

Still images from a PRC state media animated music video titled “Look, There Is an Eagle Flying to Ukraine!” (有只老鹰盯着乌克兰, You Zhi Laoying Dingzhe Wukelan). The video, which was disseminated on social media, blames America for starting the war in Ukraine. (Image source: China Daily/Youtube, April 22)

Finally, for CCP officialdom, the biological warfare disinformation campaign may represent a further extension of efforts to engage in deflection regarding the origins of COVID-19. Since the outset of the pandemic, Beijing has displayed extreme sensitivity on this subject, and has reacted with particularly histrionic outrage to hitherto unverified foreign media speculation that the virus may have emerged from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. In spring 2020, both PRC state media and diplomatic spokespeople commenced a spaghetti-against-the-wall disinformation effort to insinuate that the SARS-CoV-2 virus had originated at the U.S. Army disease research center in Fort Detrick, Maryland (thereby echoing Soviet-era disinformation about the origins of the AIDS virus), and that it had been brought to Wuhan in October 2019 by U.S. military athletes competing in the Military World Games (Global Times, March 25, 2020; Twitter, May 8, 2020; CGTN, June 24). In this light, the Ukraine bio labs story may represent in part a further propaganda smokescreen, as well as payback for the CCP’s self-perceived victimization regarding speculative accounts of COVID-19’s origins.

Conclusion: How Effective Is This Disinformation?

To most observers from open societies, who possess basic media literacy, the Russian accusations of U.S.-sponsored biological warfare in Ukraine—accusations actively buttressed and amplified by the PRC state media apparatus—will likely seem patently absurd. This may lead many observers to discount the impact of such disinformation. However, such disinformation is deployed for a reason: because it works, at least among certain targeted audiences for certain specific purposes, and generates resulting political impacts.

For the Russian and Chinese governments, such propaganda is primarily directed at domestic audiences in order to shore up popular opinion in support of state policy, and to reinforce the demonization of the United States (and by further extension, Western countries and the NATO alliance). Even for persons inclined to be skeptical of such state-sponsored conspiracy theories, the strident and pervasive flooding of the information space serves the purpose of encouraging silence, and hence, fostering tacit concurrence. The reach of this material is pervasive: social media analysis by a Voice of America journalist indicated that, as of mid-March, the Ukraine bio labs story had received over 260 million views in hosting by the official People’s Daily, and that at one point, variations of the story held both the number one and number seven trending spots on Weibo (Twitter, March 10).

Even among developed democracies, such disinformation will find a certain purchase in the more sensationalist and conspiracy-minded corners of the media and internet. In past decades such Communist-generated, anti-American propaganda might have found greatest purchase on the political left, but in recent years audiences on the political right have also become increasingly receptive to such disinformation. This spring, Fox News talk show host Tucker Carlson highlighted the Ukraine biological warfare labs conspiracy theory, introducing the story to his millions of prime-time viewers (Fox News, March 9). Whether done so wittingly or not, such coverage serves to amplify Russian and Chinese state propaganda, and facilitate one of its goals, which is to erode political will and foster divisions within and among rival states in the West.

Although difficult to quantify, the greatest international impact of such disinformation will likely be found in the developing world, where the PRC has invested vast resources in establishing both a presence for its own media outlets and influence over native media organizations (IFJ, June 27, 2020; Deutsche Welle, January 29, 2021). In many countries of the Global South, both the receptivity to sinister conspiracy theories about former colonial powers, as well as the influence of PRC state agencies—to include the widespread direct insertion of Xinhua material into indigenous publications—ensures a loud megaphone for Chinese state-supported disinformation.

Those who have not been exposed to PRC state propaganda material on a regular basis might be taken aback to see how systematically and virulently anti-American (and by wider extension, anti-Western) it truly is. Now working in cooperation with the propaganda apparatus of the Russian Federation, it has become even more so. Expect to see more such conspiracy theories jointly promoted in the future—and expect as well to see the Ukrainian biological warfare labs story reappearing in circulation for many years to come.

John Dotson is the deputy director of the Global Taiwan Institute, a Washington DC-based think tank focused on Taiwan-related economic and security issues. He is a former editor of Jamestown’s China Brief.

Notes

[1] For a fuller discussion of the historical legacy of Communist Bloc “active measures,” see: Soviet Influence Activities: A Report on Active Measures and Propaganda, 1986-87 (U.S. Department of State, August 1987). https://www.globalsecurity.org/intell/library/reports/1987/soviet-influence-activities-1987.pdf.

[2] For background on the WPC, see: The World Peace Council: A Soviet-Sponsored International Front (Central Intelligence Agency, Dec. 1971) (declassified Aug. 1999). https://www.cia.gov/readingroom/docs/CIA-RDP78-02646R000600220001-7.pdf.

[3] Speech by Guo Moruo before the executive bureau meeting of the World Peace Council in Oslo, Norway, March 29, 1952. http://southmovement.alphalink.com.au/southnews/KUO-1952.htm.

[4] International Association of Democratic Lawyers, Report on U.S. Crimes in Korea (March 31, 1952), p. 28-10. For background on the IADL as a Soviet front organization, see: Under False Colours: A Report on the Character of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers (International Commission of Jurists, 1955).

[5] “Burton to Gov’t, ‘Investigate Germ Warfare Claim’,” Sydney Morning Herald, June 2, 1952, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/18267211?searchTerm=john%20burton%20germ%20warfare%20korea.

[6] Report of the International Scientific Commission for the Investigation of Bacterial Warfare in Korea and China, supplement to People’s China (Sep. 17, 1952). https://massline.org/PeoplesChina/PC1952/PC1952-18-Sup.pdf.

[7] Extensive research on this subject was performed in the late 1990s by scholars at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Cold War International History Project, employing original documents from Soviet archives. See: Kathryn Weathersby, “Deceiving the Deceivers: Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang, and the Allegations of Bacteriological Weapons Use in Korea;” and Milton Leitenberg, “New Russian Evidence on the Korean War Biological Warfare Allegations: Background and Analysis;” both in Cold War International History Project Bulletin, No. 11, 1998 (pp. 176-199). https://www.wilsoncenter.org/publication/bulletin-no-11-winter-1998.

[8] For two examples, see: Peter Schwartz, “German Documentary Charges US Used Biological Weapons in Korean War,” World Socialist Web Site (website of the International Committee of the Fourth International), Nov. 13, 2002, http://www.wsws.org/articles/2002/nov2002/arti-n13.shtml; and Jeffrey Kaye, “New Revelations on Germ Warfare: It’s Time for a Reckoning with Our History from the Korean War,” Counterpunch (April 9, 2021), https://www.counterpunch.org/2021/04/09/new-revelations-on-germ-warfare-its-time-for-a-reckoning-with-our-history-from-the-korean-war/.

[9] The Mongolian government, for its part, has firmly denied that any such laboratories exist in the country (Montsame, April 18).