Chinese censors losing control, Russian self-delusion and Ireland’s Holodomor dilemma

Natalia Antelava


“Pro-democracy protests in China” was not a phrase I expected to be writing this year but what can I say? 2022 just keeps on giving. Chinese state media is doing its absolute best to either ignore the largest and most widespread demonstrations in the country for decades, or blame them on (mostly banned) Western media. Government censors are working overtime to erase any mention of the mass protests which began in Urumqi, capital of the Uyghur heartland Xinjiang, before spreading to other major cities including Beijing and Shanghai. Al Jazeera reports that censors are frantically scrubbing search results, including for such seemingly innocuous phrases as “I saw it.” The latter phrase became popular after the Sitong Bridge protest in October as a way for people to express that they had seen the video despite the best efforts of Chinese censors and sympathized with the spirit of the protests.

The protests in China cannot be explained as “just pent up frustration from three years of Covid lockdowns,” writes Politico Europe’s editor-in-Chief Jamil Anderlini. Or as just the fruits of a decade of steadily worsening repression. The protests are “also the result of a propaganda and information control system that has been all too successful until now.” The emphasis on control, Anderlini argues, is working against “Xi and his minions.” Anderlini, who spent two decades reporting on China, writes that by “turning the Chinese internet into a giant, sanitized, intranet, and without the ultimate barometer of public opinion – elections – they deny themselves proper intelligence on the mood of the masses.” 

It’s not just in China, where authoritarians, as Anderlini puts it, “get high on their own supply.”  This year, Russia became a potent example of how a state’s propaganda efforts can lead to self-delusion. For the past decade, much of the Kremlin’s propaganda has been focused on building an image of a state-of-the-art Russian army. It helps sell Russian weapons. But maybe the Kremlin started to believe its own propaganda, the lies that have been shattered in Ukraine. Its response has been to pump out more lies, isolating itself from the public mood and hampering its own ability to acknowledge and learn from failure. 

“Between Iran, China and Russia, I am hoping for a better era,” a friend messaged me this morning from Beirut, looking for signs that the end of authoritarianism in these three countries is nigh. The message came just as I finished reading an opinion piece (link in Russian) that expressed a hopefulness that mirrored my friend’s — except from the polar opposite viewpoint. The author of the piece, a Kremlin-based analyst, saw signs in the protests in China and Iran of an end to “Western hegemony.” 

Worried about the prospects of a Russian victory in Ukraine, the author theorized, the West was playing the “pro-democracy protests” card in Iran and China. The author noted approvingly that Putin’s decision to crack down on dissent inside the country ensured that no foreign meddling would happen in Russia. This myth of protests being caused by outside meddling is a favorite trope of authoritarians because it is potent, playing on people’s innate suspicion of outsiders.  


By: Amanda Coakley

On November 24, Seanad Eireann, the upper house of Ireland’s parliament, moved to recognize the Holodomor “as a genocide of the Ukrainian people.” Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba was quick to link Ireland and Ukraine’s history of famine. “Having survived the Great Hunger in the past, Ireland knows the horror of starvation and shares our pain,” he said. Kuleba was echoing the Irish Taoiseach, or Prime Minister, Micheál Martin. During Martin’s first visit to Kyiv in July, he said Ukraine and Ireland “know the suffering and pain of famine.” Weeks later Martin said that Ireland should take a lead on food security in Europe and the United Nations. 

Earlier, in April, an Irish commentator wrote in the country’s national newspaper that the “Irish and Ukrainian experience of politically motivated famine under imperial rule” was a parallel between the two states almost a century apart. “Should Ukraine recognize the British orchestrated famine in Ireland as a genocide,” one Twitter user asked in a poll. Over 95% of his followers said “Yes.”

But this view omits several key differences. Ireland’s Great Hunger was mainly caused by a blight that gripped the country’s most dependable crop, the potato. In Ukraine, the Holodomor was a strictly man-made famine caused by Stalin’s forced collectivization policies. Across the island of Ireland throughout 1845-1851 forced evictions did occur but throughout 1932-1933 thousands of Ukrainians faced arrest, execution and deportation to the Gulag. 

Another difference put forward by historian Liam Kennedy is that in 19th century Ireland, London tried, if rather unsuccessfully, to fight hunger and provide aid, an approach very different to the Stalinist regime in Ukraine. Finally, although figures like Tim Pat Coogan have called for the Irish Famine to be labeled a genocide, there is no appetite among the Irish population for such a move, mainly due to the amount of rigorous scholarship that exists on the subject. 
For Ukraine though, the Holomodor, long repressed in the public memory, has become a rallying cry. “Once they wanted to destroy us with hunger,” wrote Ukrainian president Volodomyr Zelensky on Telegram, “now with darkness and cold.”

Disinfo Matters looks beyond fake news to examine how the manipulation of narratives and rewriting of history is reshaping our world.

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