In recent months, China has come under fire from the European Commission, among others, for promoting disinformation about the origins and spread of the coronavirus. The campaign appears to mark a shift in Beijing’s tactics, as the government and its representatives have become more aggressive in pushing disinformation and conspiracy theories globally, a strategy more commonly associated with the Russian government. Indeed, new reports appear to demonstrate that the Chinese and Russian governments at times join forces to amplify and support each other’s disinformation campaigns. A recent New York Times report by Julian E. Barnes and David E. Sanger about Russian disinformation efforts around COVID noted that such efforts included “amplifying false Chinese arguments that the virus was created by the United States military.” In the midst of this, the Chinese and Russian governments have announced a joint effort to “combat” disinformation globally, noting that they will “strengthen communication, jointly combat disinformation, offer an accurate account of facts and truth, champion justice and legal principles, and uphold morality and conscience.”
ProPublica recently published a lengthy investigation into a video produced by Larry King, which turned out to be part of a disinformation campaign by the Chinese government with possible assistance from Moscow. Renee Dudley and Jeff Kao report on how King was “duped” into producing a video interview, in which he recorded the questions but was not present when the answers were recorded, about exiled billionaire Guo Wengui, who has long been the target of government propaganda and censorship:
[…] In the twilight of a remarkable radio and television career spanning more than six decades, battling health problems but determined to stay in the public eye, King was ensnared in an international disinformation scheme. Based on social media analysis and the retracing of a trail that wound through two Israeli entrepreneurs to Ora’s California studio, it appears that the Chinese government, possibly in concert with Russia, manipulated an American broadcasting icon.
“It’s unfortunate that Larry found himself unwittingly being exploited,” said Ora’s CEO, John Dickey. “I’ve seen it over the years. He’ll talk to anybody. He’ll give access to anybody, to a fault. He loves to mentor. He loves to be available. With a star that shines as bright as his, you’re going to have some people come into your orbit who are not positive. … This was obviously not right, and in hindsight, I wish it never would have happened. Larry didn’t know, and Jason [Rovou, King’s executive producer] could only protest so much.”
Posted on YouTube under the title “Larry King US China Special Conference 2019,” and quickly spread by social media accounts linked to Chinese government influence operations, the fake interview went viral across Chinese-language social media, likely reaching hundreds of thousands of users on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
As diplomatic tensions escalate between the U.S. and China, the video demonstrates how foreign disinformation campaigns are growing increasingly aggressive even as they conceal their origins to boost credibility. Social media is only one element of China’s far-ranging propaganda efforts. China also disseminates its message on university campuses, where its Confucius Institutes convey a whitewashed view of Chinese history and politics, and its Thousand Talents program aggressively woos top scientists.
The video has other implications as well. By conveying Chinese disinformation through a journalist for Russian media, it may exemplify the increasing media cooperation between the two countries. In addition, it raises questions about whether Niv — and King himself — should have registered as foreign agents on behalf of China. [Source]
In February, the State Department required five Chinese state-run media outlets to register as “foreign missions,” imposing restrictions on their actions in the U.S., which was followed by the Chinese government expelling several American journalists from China.
The full video with Larry King is on YouTube:
The U.S. government has also recently accused China, along with Russia and Iran, of using influence and propaganda campaigns to interfere with the upcoming U.S. election. From a New York Times report by David E. Sanger and Julian E. Barnes:
The warning came from William R. Evanina, the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, in a statement 100 days before Americans go to the polls. “We’re primarily concerned with China, Russia and Iran — although other nation-states and nonstate actors could also do harm to our electoral process,” the statement said.
The warning about China came at a moment of extraordinary tension between Beijing and Washington, only days after the United States indicted two Chinese hackers on charges of stealing intellectual property, including for the country’s main intelligence service, and evicted Chinese diplomats from their consulate in Houston.
The intelligence warning on Friday did not accuse the Chinese of trying to hack the vote; instead it said they were using their influence “to shape the policy environment in the United States” and to pressure politicians “it views as opposed to China’s interests.” [Source]
The Chinese government has also used widespread propaganda and disinformation in an effort to shape the global response to an ongoing crackdown in Xinjiang, including the internment of up to two million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims. A recent report by the Uyghur Human Rights Project looks at how these tactics in Xinjiang were scaled up following the leak of government documents about the mass detention program:
The Chinese government has deployed a multi-pronged and aggressive information control strategy to prevent access to accurate information on what is occurring in East Turkistan, to portray the success of government policies through a global propaganda campaign, and to attack individual activists, journalists and institutions reporting on the issue. Elements of the campaign include state media reports and public statements by officials that portray the camps in a positive light; reports and statements by international media outlets, foreign government officials, and international experts that highlight the “positive effects” of the camp system; and social-media posts that disseminate false stories on a variety of platforms inside and outside of China. The world beyond China’s borders is an increasingly important target of the Party’s public opinion work. [Source]
In the wake of worsening tensions between both their governments and Beijing, Australia and the U.S. have announced a joint initiative to counter disinformation from China and other countries, focusing especially of Chinese campaigns on social media by their diplomats and other government actors. From Anthony Galloway and Eryk Bagshaw of the Sydney Morning Herald:
Australia and the US will look to present a united front against disinformation by authoritarian states across the Indo-Pacific, with the two countries particularly concerned by the way in which China has used social media to undermine democracies across the region.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is already setting up a new taskforce to counter online disinformation, with Australia concerned about the effect on developing nations throughout the Indo-Pacific.
Twitter last month revealed it had removed more than 30,000 accounts after investigators found they had ties to state-run propaganda and disinformation operations in China, Russia and Turkey. [Source]