China and Russia join forces to combat the West’s “coercive diplomacy”
In the week since the much-postponed release of a United Nations report on China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang, China has reserved its most aggressive rhetoric for the United States rather than UN or its outgoing High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet.
As the China Media Project pointed out, there has been little domestic coverage or even condemnation of the report in China. The domestic press has chosen the path of blissful ignorance. Instead, China’s responses have been outward facing, its calculated “fury” intended to send a message to the world.
Aynne Kokas, a professor at the University of Virginia, told me that the “The Chinese government either ignores or denies reports on human rights abuses in Xinjiang. In this case, likely due to the extremely high profile nature of the report and well-respected international source, the strategy appears to not give the report additional oxygen.”
But if silence was the policy within China, the Chinese response to the report in English-language media was swift and voluble. In a press conference the day after the report was released, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said the UN Human Rights Office “has been reduced to an enforcer and accomplice of the U.S. and some Western forces to force developing countries to fall in line with them.”
Following Wenbin’s lead, the state-backed tabloid the Global Times called the report “a patchwork of disinformation and a political tool.” A spokesperson for China’s UN mission said the report was “a perverse product of the United States and some other Western forces’ coercive diplomacy.”
When the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman told reporters that the U.S. and Western forces were weaponizing the UN report to “force developing countries to fall in line,” he was alluding to a battle for global opinion that has only intensified since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It is China’s response to what it calls U.S. propaganda, such as a state department report released on August 24 accusing China of attempting to “manipulate and dominate global discourse on Xinjiang and to discredit independent sources reporting ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity.”
Researchers at MapInfluenCE observed in a recent study that Russian and Chinese disinformation “have been previously analyzed separately, leaving the question of whether Russia and China coordinate in spreading narratives largely unanswered.” The researchers found that news outlets in Central Europe, their area of focus, often uncritically reported Russian and Chinese talking points, portraying the relationship between the two countries as “mutually beneficial and as a counterweight to the Western liberal world order.”
Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Russian president Vladimir Putin has played up Russia’s growing trade and diplomatic connections to China. He was at it again in an address to the Eastern Economic Forum, held in Vladivostok between September 5 and 8, in which he lambasted sanctions as a “threat to the whole world.” Putin claimed that US-led sanctions would have little effect given “the demand” for Russian resources “is so great on the world markets that we have no problem selling them.”
Western countries, like Canada, are increasingly beginning to recognize that their attempts to fight disinformation cannot focus on Russia and China separately but as a coordinated effort to garner sympathy for a worldview that is anti-West, that proposes a Sino-Russian counter to Western wealth and dominance.
Part of that effort is apparent in China’s response to the UN report of its crimes against humanity in Xinjiang — don’t respond to the findings; instead, accuse the U.S. of spreading disinformation as part of a geopolitical struggle for control.
IN GLOBAL NEWS
A new study by the U.S. government-funded research and advocacy organization Freedom House examines China’s attempt to influence the public conversation across 30 democracies. “In every country,” the researchers wrote, “Chinese diplomats or state media outlets openly promoted falsehoods or misleading content to news consumers — on topics including the origins of Covid-19, the efficacy of certain vaccines, and pro democracy protests in Hong Kong — in an apparent attempt to confuse foreign audiences and deflect criticism.”
Much of the considerable budget China devotes to such matters goes towards cyberbullying journalists, paying social media influencers to push narratives, and sowing doubt and confusion about democratic processes and functions. In as many as 16 of the 30 countries examined, China was using multiple disinformation techniques to spread preferred messages and the study found that the countries in question were relatively ill-prepared to resist.
China’s determination to control the narrative includes reviving British colonial laws in Hong Kong to silence speech. These British laws in Hong Kong — ironically, intended to suppress pro-Beijing voices — are now a crucial part of the arsenal China deploys to prevent accurate reporting and dissenting opinions. Later this week, a Hong Kong court will sentence five authors of a series of children’s books who were convicted of spreading seditious, pro-democracy messages through those books.
More absurdly, a pastor in Hong Kong is currently being tried for sedition. His “crime”? Applauding while he attended, as an online journalist, the trial of a pro-democracy activist who allegedly strayed into sedition while she defended herself and criticized the magistrate.
The irony of governments arresting and frequently jailing citizens for spreading so-called disinformation is that the worst offenders are nearly always governments. Research from Asia Center, a think tank based in Malaysia and Thailand, found that government agencies and political parties in Malaysia were the primary source for disinformation in the country. PR agencies and content providers are hired to package disinformation, often providing slick graphics and videos, which are then spread to promote particular political, often divisive storylines.
As if to pile irony upon irony, the response in countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and India to disinformation spread most often by figures in positions of authority is to cut off access to the internet. Perhaps the only reasonable long term solution is to invest in media literacy courses, but that might mean citizens will be equipped to see through their politicians’ lies and distortions.
And speaking of lies and distortions, Vladimir Putin said sanctions against Russia “threaten the whole world.” Speaking at an economic conference in Vladivostok, Putin spoke about Russia’s growing closeness to Asia and how American-led sanctions could never isolate Russia. He used the conference to argue that Russia could not be isolated. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke via video in Vladivostok and emphasized India’s closeness to Russia and the need to further strategic collaboration. China was also prominently represented at the conference, with news also emerging of a likely meeting between Putin and Chinese president Xi Jingping in Uzbekistan next week. As if choreographed, Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan also weighed in over the last day or two to back Putin’s claim in Vladivostok that exports of Ukrainian grain were going to rich rather than poor countries. Ukraine says two-thirds of its exports are going to the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Speaking in Belgrade, Erdogan added that the West was “leading a policy based on provocation” and that “other countries should not underestimate Russia.” It appears Russian disinformation is thriving outside the West.
This newsletter is curated by Coda’s senior editor Shougat Dasgupta. Rebekah Robinson contributed to this edition.