State Department working to debunk Chinese disinformation on Ukraine

State Department working to debunk Chinese disinformation on Ukraine

China’s global propaganda and disinformation operations are actively promoting pro-Russian narratives about the invasion of Ukraine, supporting Moscow‘s positions and blaming the United States for the conflict, according to the State Department center involved in trying to counter the operations.

The department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC) is leading U.S. government efforts to expose foreign propaganda efforts, including Chinese state media reports and official statements claiming that the Pentagon is developing biological and chemical weapons in Ukraine, a spokesman tells The Washington Times. 

The center is “leading the State Department‘s efforts to recognize and understand [Chinese] information manipulation related to Ukraine, and we are deeply engaged with colleagues across the department as well as international and interagency partners to raise awareness of PRC propaganda and disinformation,” the spokesman said.

In addition to rebutting Chinese state media claims about U.S. bioweapons research in Ukraine, the counter-disinformation operations aimed to expose Chinese amplification of Russian propaganda prior to the outbreak of the conflict in late February.

The laboratories located in Ukraine, Georgia and Armenia operate safely and securely and are not involved in any biological weapons research, according Jerry L. Mothershead, a medical doctor directly involved in the program from 2010 to 2016. The laboratories are part of the Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency that ran the Cooperative Biological Engagement Program to support research on local diseases. 

“The actual amount of pathogens at those central labs that can actually do any research wouldn’t even fill a broom closet, and there are rigorous biosafety and biosecurity controls over them, including destruction if need be,” Dr. Mothershead said. 

Chinese state media, echoing Russian government allegations, has regularly reported the laboratories were engaged in biological weapons work. The disinformation also has been repeated by some U.S. conservative media outlets. 

Kerry Gershaneck, a former Pentagon official and author of the book “Political Warfare,” said China’s professions of neutrality in the war are undercut by Beijing’s open sympathy for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reasons for invading, support shown through media warfare, psychological operations and cyber attacks.

“Beijing’s external narratives are designed to undermine NATO, [Ukraine] and the U.S., and to support Moscow’s disinformation and propaganda designed to confuse global reaction to Putin’s aggression,” Mr. Gershaneck said. “Internally, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is exploiting Russia’s war to hyper-nationalize the Chinese people.” 

U.S. officials say the laboratory program is typical of government programs that continue on autopilot, seemingly without end, under  legislation passed after the collapse of the Soviet Union that requires continued funding from a percentage of annual defense spending bills. 

Aside from the laboratory propaganda, Chinese disinformation efforts include support for Kremlin claims that Ukraine is a “core interest” for Moscow and that the military operation was a legitimate national security interest of Russia in the face of aggression from the U.S. and its NATO allies. 

“PRC propaganda and disinformation efforts have evolved since then and Beijing has increased its use of Russian false narratives and is now also introducing disinformation of its own to advance the PRC’s agenda,” the GEC spokesman said.

A pair of disinformation themes

The State Department center has identified what it says are two main disinformation themes promoted in Chinese narratives. The first is the claim that the United States and the NATO alliance ignored Russian security concerns through the expansion of the alliance in eastern Europe near the Russian border. This narrative also advances the argument that the United States is exploiting the Ukraine conflict to suppress Russia.

The line of Chinese disinformation centers on what the spokesman said is the baseless assertion that the United States is working behind the scenes to prolong the war that has already claimed thousands of lives.

For example, a recent editorial in the Chinese Communist Party-controlled People’s Daily claimed that U.S. “lobbyists, military corporations and Capitol Hill” held a champagne toast to celebrate the crisis.

“Obviously, we condemn such incendiary, meritless claims,” the GEC spokesman said.

To counter the disinformation, the GEC is helping promote the narrative that the conflict and ensuing humanitarian crisis in Ukraine are  the direct result of Mr. Putin’s unprovoked military aggression.

“The State Department will continue to raise awareness among partners and allies of the PRC’s propaganda efforts and call out Beijing’s attempts to shift blame while it continues to stand by Moscow and refuses to acknowledge Russian atrocities,” the spokesman said.

Through its information operations, the department will continue focusing its public diplomacy and related efforts to making sure world publics get accurate information on the Russian aggression.

China’s government, mainly through its Foreign Ministry spokesmen, insists that Beijing is strictly neutral toward the conflict. However, the Russian point of view on the crisis has been constantly promoted in China‘s state media.

Chinese narratives are controlled by the Propaganda Ministry, which exercises strict control over all media in China, including  newspapers, television and newer online social media.

The ministry recently produced a documentary film called “Historical Nihilism and the Soviet Collapse,” that is being shown to the 95 million members of Chinese Communist Party, reportedly portraying Mr. Putin as a hero for seeking to restore the Soviet Union and restore the image of brutal Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

While the Chinese government seeks to promote the view of Chinese neutrality and support for peace, Chinese information outlets internally create the impression that Russia is a victim of U.S. aggression.

The Chinese domestic propaganda is also promoting the recently strengthened close ties between Beijing and Moscow highlighted in the Feb. 4 cooperation agreement that says relations between the two states have “no limits.” Chinese students are being indoctrinated in the “correct” view of the Ukraine war, while state media blame Washington for the conflict, according to the New York Times, which first disclosed the documentary.

“The most powerful weapon possessed by the West is, aside from nuclear weapons, the methods they use in ideological struggle,” the documentary narrator states.

The documentary was labeled for internal party use, but video and a transcript of the film were circulating within China recently.

Under President Xi Jinping, who since coming to power in 2012 has pushed a return to hardline communist policies, Chinese propaganda has asserted the United States is secretly promoting “color revolutions” around the world aimed at regime change in authoritarian and communist regimes.

Retired Navy Capt. Stu Cvrk said China is trying to have it both ways — supporting Russia while offering to lead an effort to resolve the conflict. He noted the Chinese Foreign Ministry echoing of Russian claims about the U.S. labs in Ukraine

“Official Chinese comments have been propagated throughout independent media sympathetic to the Russians,” Capt. Cvrk said.

Chinese social media trolls on Twitter and other platforms also are engaged in promoting pro-Russian propaganda, often in collaboration with Russian online allies. 

“They backed the Ukraine biowarfare lab fake story to the max,” said Charles Smith, who closely monitors official Chinese social media activity disseminated by Wumao, or the “50 Cent Army” of Chinese government-linked propagandists. 

Recently, Chinese government online agents have challenged reports of Russian military war crimes in executing Ukrainian civilians as fake news. 

Another social media propaganda theme promoted by the Wumao is the idea that Ukraine’s government is “nothing but Nazis,” Mr. Smith said. 

“The Russian trolls work closely with the PLA-run Wumao and often post together,” Mr. Smith said, using the acronym for the Chinese military, the People’s Liberation Army. 

The State Department did not provide details on the GEC operations to counter Chinese disinformation. However, in the past the center has approached news media outlets and social media companies with intelligence identifying false narratives. 

In many cases, social media companies will shut down known foreign government disinformation social media accounts in response. 

The Global Engagement Center website lists several examples of Russian disinformation, but has no public material on Chinese propaganda and disinformation operations.