The Sino-Russian Disinformation Axis During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Publication: China Brief Volume: 20 Issue: 14

Image: A screen shot from the Twitter account of the PRC’s official Xinhua News Agency (dated June 30, 2020). PRC and Russian sources have demonstrated cooperative and mutually-reinforcing efforts in propaganda throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. (Image source: Xinhua Twitter)


For the first time, the European Commission has identified the People’s Republic of China (PRC), along with Russia and other actors, as responsible for conducting “targeted influence operations and disinformation campaigns in the EU, its neighborhood, and globally” (European Commission, June 10). In the past, PRC media management normally focused on censoring undesirable narratives at home while employing positive messaging to promote favorable images of China’s policies abroad. This contrasted with the more combative international approach traditionally adopted by Moscow. During the current COVID-19 crisis, however, PRC propaganda has followed the Russian practice of not only advancing positive reviews of its own actions, but also promoting negative messages about other states.

The PRC and Russian foreign ministries have jointly complained that “certain [i.e., Western] countries, out of ideological bias and political needs, have been spreading disinformation, distorting history, attacking other countries’ social systems and development paths, politicizing the pandemic, pinning labels on the virus, and restrict[ing] and oppress[ing] foreign media for doing their job” (PRC Foreign Ministry, July 25). Their information departments have agreed to cooperate against the West’s media policies, including by executing joint digital media projects (Russian Foreign Ministry, July 24).

In addition to a corps of newly assertive diplomats, a powerful foundation for propelling PRC views has been provided by China’s rapidly growing and lavishly funded networks of state-controlled print, broadcast, and web-based media; as well as social media accounts using software platforms that are often prohibited from operating in mainland China. Western observers have identified several covert state-sponsored social media accounts and networks that push PRC talking points regarding the pandemic and other topics. The COVID-19 crisis has provided Beijing with an opportunity to refine and augment this potent disinformation toolkit, which will likely be a feature of future PRC global strategic information campaigns.

China’s New Information Operations During COVID-19

The PRC’s information operations during COVID-19 have seen several innovations. Traditionally, while Russian narratives regularly highlight the poor performance of others—particularly, Western governments—Beijing’s foreign messaging has normally been more positive, calling for “win-win” international cooperation in various speeches and government white papers. In its talking points on COVID, PRC messaging has sought to highlight China’s successes in countering the SARS-CoV-2 virus at home, thereby promoting a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) narrative about the ruling party’s effective stewardship of national affairs. A corollary theme has been that China’s success at home bought time for other countries to prepare for the pandemic.

To support this argument, a preferred technique has been to cite foreigners’ praise for PRC actions. For example, Xinhua published an interview in which Dmitry Novikov, the Deputy Chairman of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Russia, called China’s response to COVID-19, under the leadership of the CCP, an “outstanding example” for the international community. In Novikov’s words, “The people of China showed massive heroism … But an army needs not only brave soldiers but also wise commanders to win. The [CCP] has played a key role” in this victory (Xinhua, July 1). Russian official statements have regularly defended Beijing’s position that the Western democracies failed to take advantage of China’s effective response to the virus, and ineptly allowed COVID-19 to spread throughout the world (China Brief, June 24).

Chinese messaging has also proclaimed the PRC’s leading role in helping other countries to surmount their own COVID-related challenges. A favorite subject promoted to foreign audiences has been Beijing’s “mask diplomacy” of delivering medical equipment, sometimes donated but often sold, to international partners at high-profile eulogistic ceremonies (Xinhua, June 27). PRC diplomats have called on other countries to join with China in “upholding the vision of a community with a shared future for mankind and working together to address” the pandemic (PRC Foreign Ministry, April 13).

PRC representatives have also employed more negative messaging to counter foreign charges that the Chinese authorities covered up the origins of the virus and mismanaged its initial containment. Prominent PRC Foreign Ministry officials, reflecting the new “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy favored by the current regime, have led the rebuke of these allegations and the denunciation of those making them. For instance, on the sidelines of the third session of the 13th National People’s Congress, PRC State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi (王毅) castigated U.S. politicians for spreading “lies” and “prejudice” to attack and smear China (CGTN, May 24). Chinese diplomats have also lashed out at foreign media outlets that contested the PRC’s victory narrative (PRC Foreign Ministry, April 13). In general, the official state-run media was mobilized to push the narrative that:

China is the first country to have contained the pandemic through the concerted efforts of the nation. It acted promptly to protect the health and safety of its people, actively and unconditionally shared information with other countries, including the U.S., and verified and corrected its number of confirmed cases and fatalities with big data. It has also provided assistance for more than 120 countries around the world facing the challenges brought by the epidemic, and has donated money to the World Health Organization (WHO) to help with epidemic prevention efforts…. If anyone is to blame, it is the U.S. For a long time, it ignored warnings from the WHO and China, and just sat by and watched the epidemic spread in its own country. American officials refused to take preventive measures, despite suggestions from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and experts. They remained blindly optimistic until mid-March, oblivious to the lack of medical supplies and calls for help from local governments, which then led to the worsening situation in the country (People’s Daily Online, April 27).

Conspiracy Theories and “Message Flooding”

Just as Russian-linked propaganda has spread falsehoods about U.S. soldiers in Europe disseminating COVID-19 throughout the continent, so the PRC media has warned Japan and other countries hosting U.S. troops that these American bases contribute to contaminating their civilian neighborhoods with the virus. In late July, a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) publication deemed “U.S. military bases in Japan … a big loophole in Japan’s pandemic prevention” because “the U.S.–Japan Status of Forces Agreement puts Japan in a subordinate position” by excluding U.S. military personnel from Japanese entry and other virus-related prevention measures. Noting that the same conditions prevail in South Korea and Europe, the author argued that American “protection has become a burden” (China Military Online, July 28).

Furthermore, the PRC has followed the Russian technique of message flooding to cast doubt on any single truth, using multiple media channels to offer diverse alternative virus origin stories. These stories often cite non-PRC sources and experts to support the claim that the coronavirus could have originated “anywhere” (CGTN, March 22). WHO and U.S. experts have been frequently quoted denying the Chinese origin thesis (People’s Daily Online, April 24), and news stories and opinion pieces have cited PRC and foreign experts to refute the “conspiracy theory widely promoted by U.S. President Donald Trump” that the virus came from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (CGTN, July 25).

PRC sources have frequently insinuated that COVID-19 originated in the United States, either as a natural disease or as a weapon manufactured in a biowarfare laboratory. The U.S. military origin thesis began circulating in Chinese social media almost as soon as the virus first appeared in Wuhan (Stanford Cyber Policy Center, March 31). By March, it had become a recurring narrative in PRC government propaganda: for example, People’s Daily highlighted an online petition calling on U.S. officials to disclose more information about the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, which PRC sources have identified as a possible source of the coronavirus (People’s Daily, March 21).

That same month, PRC Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian (赵立坚), who has more than half a million Twitter followers, tweeted that U.S. soldiers might have brought COVID-19 to Wuhan when they competed in the October 2019 Military World Games (Twitter, March 12). Zhao subsequently referenced other conspiratorial stories profiled on Russian-linked websites, which claimed that the virus originated in the United States (SCMP, March 13). Testifying to the orchestrated nature of this conspiracy theory, presumably coordinated by the Foreign Ministry’s Information Department, dozens of PRC embassies and diplomats throughout the world retweeted Zhao’s comments (Global News, April 8). According to one count, Zhao’s tweet received more than 150 million views in a few hours (SCMP, April 4).

In early May People’s Daily chimed in, issuing provocative questions such as: “Why did Washington suddenly shut down its bioweapons lab in Fort Detrick, Maryland last July?,” and “What secret research is being carried out at the biolabs established by the U.S. in former Soviet states?” (People’s Daily, May 1). Despite criticism, Zhao returned to these accusations in July, insisting in a press conference that “if the US truly cares about global efforts against the pandemic, the first thing it needs to do is to fulfill its due international responsibilities and obligations and cooperate with the WHO in ways like inviting WHO experts to trace the source of the virus in the U.S.” (PRC Foreign Ministry, July 10). The PRC government also supported Russia in making suspension of Western economic sanctions and other trade restrictions on countries during the pandemic a major theme of its official messaging (Russian Foreign Ministry, May 13).

Image: A screen shot from the PRC state-controlled, English-language news website China Military Online. This article promotes the narrative that U.S. military servicemembers are spreading COVID-19 in Japan; Russian sources have promoted similar narratives regarding U.S. troops in Europe. (Image source: China Military Online, July 28, 2020)

Social Media Manipulation

The Chinese government has long employed both “trolls” (media accounts run by humans whose identity is obscured) and “bots” (social media accounts operated entirely by computer programs). However, whereas the Russian government has generally focused these covert digital media tools on external targets, until recently the PRC’s trolls and bots have been largely directed inward, to support the state’s all-embracing censorship of online discourse. Over the past year, however, there has been increasing evidence of what Twitter security personnel have called “significant state-sponsored information operations” and “coordinated inauthentic behavior” orchestrated by the PRC (Twitter, August 19, 2019; China Brief, September 6, 2019). Previous targets of such actions—when groups of fake or hijacked accounts interact with one another to raise the profile of certain messages––have included domestic Chinese netizens, Taiwan politicians considered hostile to Beijing, anti-administration protesters in Hong Kong, and the exiled Chinese business executive and CCP critic Guo Wengui (Australian Strategic Policy Institute, April 23; Bellingcat, May 5).

In the last few months, these covert accounts, with obscured ties to the Chinese government, have been mobilized to influence international audiences about pandemic-related issues—including by reiterating the conspiracy claims made by PRC diplomats about the U.S. origin of the virus (European External Action Service, May 20). Yet, one difference between the Chinese and Russian approach still persists: the PRC has a large number of quasi-independent “patriotic trolls” who promote Beijing’s national narratives as unpaid volunteers (Australian Strategic Policy Institute, April 23).They work in tandem with paid contractors (ProPublica, March 26) and national intelligence operatives, in a model that parallels Russian operations.

Conclusion: Explaining Beijing’s New Approach

Heightened criticism of the Chinese government during the ongoing pandemic has led Beijing’s propaganda to become more aggressive and multi-dimensional. The fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has presented a severe challenge to the PRC’s media managers. The genuine anger expressed by Chinese netizens regarding the secrecy and ineptitude of their government’s initial response threatened the Party’s stewardship claims at home. Furthermore, the failure of PRC authorities to contain the virus within China’s borders opened the country’s leadership to widespread international criticism. These pressures explain the PRC’s unusually aggressive and comprehensive counter-information operation. Within China, the government reinvigorated its social media censorship, expelled foreign journalists, and repressed independent Chinese journalists who questioned the approved narrative that the authorities quickly contained the pandemic (SCMP, April 25).

To counter Western criticisms that the Chinese government’s errors and coverup contributed to the global pandemic, PRC officials mobilized a combination of overt official propaganda and China’s growing portfolio of international covert disinformation tools. Thus far, this campaign, employing tools more commonly seen in Russian influence campaigns, has experienced only mixed success. The Chinese government’s massive communications infrastructure has ensured that domestic and foreign audiences are familiar with Beijing’s talking points regarding the pandemic; however, outside China the country’s media managers have proved unable to suppress counter-narratives about Chinese culpability for the pandemic. Furthermore, as noted above, Western governments and digital media companies have been able to identify and take down several Chinese state-sponsored inauthentic influence networks on Twitter and other social media platforms. Finally, the degree of overt Sino-Russian cooperation remains bounded: their assets have reiterated each other’s messages but they have also pursued separate influence operations, including those related to medical aid deliveries to Italy, Serbia, and other countries.

China’s growing role in the world, the PRC’s more assertive diplomatic posture, and the waning effectiveness of more traditional means of propaganda (such as government white papers), all mean that the Chinese government will seek out new means to influence international opinion. Given China’s prominent role in developing software apps like TikTok and exporting communications control technologies, Beijing has an ever-expanding network of foreign communication assets under its control. The future will likely see more PRC-orchestrated disinformation campaigns, to include those coordinated with Russia and other malign information actors.

Richard Weitz, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.