Europe has a problem: Ignoring Chinese propaganda

Tomáš Zdechovský MEP

Belgium (Brussels Morning Newspaper) The outbreak of war in Ukraine was a wake-up call for Europe, in many ways. The fight against the information threat coming from Russia was no exception. Unfortunately, it is often forgotten that China seeks to take advantage of the situations that arise, in the words of the catchphrase “Where two are fighting, the third wins.” 

Although Europe should be wary of China, its large part is still blind to how China intensified its efforts to influence politics and public opinion in the EU following the war in Ukraine. Beijing has long been targeting propaganda in European Union countries. Its goal is clear: Undermine transatlantic unity and promote Beijing’s perspective on global affairs, as recently highlighted by Ivana Karásková, a Czech academic who advises Vice-President of the European Commission Ms Věra Jourová and has long been dealing with the issue of the Chinese threat, as reported in Politico magazine.

Will new legislation be enough? 

According to her, the Chinese approach to the EU has “hardened,” since 2019, as China intensified direct propaganda through so-called “wolf warrior” diplomats. Another significant problem, according to the said advisor, is the secretive financing of think tanks, academic institutions, and non-profit organizations spreading Chinese influence. The most well-known are the so-called Confucius Institutes. Unfortunately, EU countries, especially outside Eastern Europe, are not fully aware of the extent of these Chinese operations or simply choose to ignore them.

Targeting this problem, the European Commission is already planning to propose a Defence of Democracy package. It involves legislation that would compel organizations throughout the EU to disclose their foreign funding sources. Unfortunately, Europe is significantly behind in this regard. Similar legislation already exists in other parts of the world. For example, the United States has the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), and Australia has the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act (FITSA). 

The European plan, which is informally referred to as transparency legislation, is defined more narrowly according to the currently available information. The proposal would focus more on organizations than individuals and would entail an undefined administrative penalty for anyone who fails to disclose their income sources.

Convergence of two propagandas

When talking about propaganda from China, we cannot omit to mention Russia’s support as well. At first glance, this may seem at least peculiar. Beijing presents its position in the Ukrainian conflict as neutral. The interests of the “Middle Kingdom” come first, regardless of what is happening and may not always align with those of Russia, as seen, for example, in Central Asian countries.

However, it is also becoming evident that Chinese propaganda is adopting many elements from its Russian counterparts. It is not surprising at all. China has an eminent interest in weakening the West, which led it to partially adopt Russian rhetoric by using state-owned media to spread information as part of its broader strategy. This was highlighted by a study from the American think tank Alliance for Securing Democracy, published when the open conflict broke out in Ukraine to examine the dissemination of false information by Russia and China.

“There has certainly been a pro-Russian convergence, and since the beginning of the war, China has been repeating pro-Russian themes while downplaying Russian war crimes and emphasizing Russian voices,” said Etienne Soula, a research analyst and one of the report’s authors, in a recent interview with Radio Free Europe. We can see a clear example of such rhetoric in Chinese reports which constantly claim that countries supporting Ukraine are hypocritical and indifferent to the rest of the world.

The adoption of Russian rhetoric is also evident in the fact that Chinese media do not use the word “invasion” in relation to the war in Ukraine, but rather use Kremlin terminology and refer to it as a “special military operation.” In addition, Chinese media have aided the dissemination of false information and conspiracy theories coming from Russian sources. 

For example, they claim that the United States has biological weapon laboratories in Ukraine and, to a lesser extent, they assert that the killing of civilians by Russian forces in Bucha was not intentional. Regarding the dissemination of reports denying Russian crimes against civilians, this is mainly the domain of a few more confrontational Chinese diplomats, the aforementioned “wolf warriors.” Otherwise, China officially takes a more reserved stance on Russian atrocities.

As the report also notes, the adoption of Russian narratives by Chinese media has provided China with an opportunity to mock the United States and its foreign policy. In the first year of the war, the Twitter accounts of Chinese diplomatic and state media mentioned the United States twice as often as Russia when discussing the “war” and focused more on NATO, which was not a common target of Chinese media before the war. 

Chinese state media mentioned “NATO” in over 1,200 tweets

However, in 2021, according to data compiled in the study, Chinese state media mentioned “NATO” in over 1,200 tweets, with “expansion of the alliance” included in only 52 tweets. After the Russian invasion, the frequency of expressions such as “NATO” and “expansion” increased significantly—by over 540 per cent and 1,700 per cent, respectively.

Peking is also using news related to Ukraine to create divisions in transatlantic relations. Over the past year, Chinese diplomats and state media have consistently portrayed the United States as a country profiting from the conflict and highlighted the alleged hardships that European countries had to endure for the benefit of the U.S. This included regular coverage of European protests against sanctions on Russia, with the sanctions being portrayed as directed by the United States.

The aforementioned repeated dissemination of disinformation about Kremlin-backed bio-labs in Ukraine by Chinese sources follows a years-long campaign led by Chinese official sources to spread similar false claims about American bio-research labs, which are alleged to be responsible for the outbreak of the Covid-19 virus. These two disinformation campaigns thus reinforce each other, and Chinese sources occasionally even explicitly link them. This is further evidence that China is heavily involved in Ukraine-related topics that strengthen its existing narratives.

Chinese media have also recently provided regular platforms for former and current commentators working for Russian state media. One example is former prominent British far-left politician George Galloway, who has his own show on Sputnik Radio and is a regular contributor to RT and RT UK. He now also contributes to CGTN, a Chinese television station that broadcasts in English and primarily targets Western audiences. During the war, he was repeatedly retweeted, quoted, and interviewed by Chinese state media.

Similarly, American commentator Lee Camp, who served as a host on the now-defunct RT America, was retweeted by Chinese state media and diplomats almost 60 times during the first 11 months of the war. This significant increase in reach allowed pro-Kremlin voices to get to an even wider global audience, considering that Chinese state media pages have over one billion followers on Facebook, roughly ten times the total number of followers of Russian state media pages.

Neglected but Important Global South

 In addition to that, Beijing is trying to weaken Western democracies and their allies by appealing to the so-called Global South, which includes countries in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America, whose (not only) economic significance is growing. China, as well as Russia, have invested significantly in strengthening their positions in these regions over the past decade. 

Against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, it seems that the stories spread by Russian and Chinese propaganda find fertile ground in the Global South. A survey by the European Council on Foreign Relations from the end of February showed that while the majority of Western countries support Ukraine, respondents from the Global South sympathized more with Moscow’s alleged grievances and were suspicious of the West.

Moreover, last year’s vote on Russia’s exclusion from the UN Human Rights Council showed that the West has a major problem in gaining support in the global south. The overall vote ratio was far from clear-cut: 93 UN member states were in favour, 24 were against, and 58 abstained. Looking at the map of countries based on voting speaks volumes about how weak the West’s position is in the world. Most countries in Africa and Asia either abstained or voted against it!

As the cited study summarizes, China provides a rhetorical cover for the Kremlin through the dissemination of its own propaganda, even though it outwardly presents itself as a neutral party. All of this, along with China’s ability to use its own global network of influence to undermine the West, especially in the Global South, represents a reason for serious concerns for European countries.

Chinese propaganda and the rise of media, NGOs, and think tanks funded by China, spreading Beijing’s influence is concerning. Unfortunately, the West is very slow to react to the Chinese threat in the information space and Beijing’s ties to Russia. This needs to change. Europe faces a huge challenge. It must, on the one hand, confront the spread of China’s propaganda in EU member countries and be capable of effectively responding to it. Furthermore, it must also defend against the spread of Chinese influence in the Global South, where its significance is growing.

There are several possible ways to counter the spread of Russian influence

Increased attention should be paid to donations to political parties or organizations operating in Europe that come from non-European sponsors. The promise in this regard lies in the creation of a legislative package for the protection of democracy, currently being prepared by the European Commission. Outwardly, we should make it an absolute necessity to cooperate with like-minded states, and we should not underestimate the deepening of relations with third countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

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Brussels Morning is a daily online newspaper based in Belgium. BM publishes unique and independent coverage on international and European affairs. With a Europe-wide perspective, BM covers policies and politics of the EU, significant Member State developments, and looks at the international agenda with a European perspective.
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Tomáš Zdechovský MEP is a Czech politician, crisis manager, and media analyst. He is a member of KDU-CSL (Christian-Democratic Party) and till April 2022 he was a Deputy Leader of the party.