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  • China Information Operations Newsletter 6 April 2022

    6 April 2022

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    The China Information Operations Newsletter is edited by Hannah Bailey, a researcher at the Programme on Democracy and Technology (DemTech) at Oxford University. This newsletter is a 6 minute read.

    How China is manipulating Ukraine Discourse

    China is flooding both domestic and international social media with pro-Russia narratives. A report by Securing Democracy describes how China’s diplomats and state-backed media outlets are promoting pro-Kremlin narratives and amplifying Russian disinformation campaigns on Twitter. Miburo finds Chinese state media outlets are spreading false reports of US-funded biological weapons labs in Ukraine. An investigation by AP News reveals China has built a network of social media influencers to spread Beijing’s pro-Russian messages on international platforms.

    Behind the ‘Great Firewall,’ Beijing is desperate to control public opinion on Ukraine. According to a leaked censorship directive, Weibo (China’s equivalent to Twitter) posts are not allowed to contain any content that is “unfavourable to Russia or pro-Western.” For a deeper dive into Beijing’s domestic messaging, Doublethink Lab provides a continuously updated list of Mandarin-language information operations discussing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

    But Beijing’s messaging is not so much pro-Russia as it is anti-Western. The Atlantic writes that China is focussed on framing the war as the natural result of NATO aggression and US hegemony, with little regard for Ukrainian agency. Initial research by Jennifer Pan finds 50% of Weibo posts blame either the US, NATO, ‘the West’ or the Ukrainian government for the war.

    Both Chinese state-media and Western governments are buying social media advertisements to influence audiences. Axios reports China’s state broadcaster CGTN is running Facebook advertisements promoting pro-Russia and anti-Western messaging. In response to widespread amplification of Russia’s disinformation the UK Foreign Office has launched an “information warfare unit.” The unit will purchase advertisements on Russian and Mandarin speaking forums to “counter Kremlin disinformation.” But will these advertisements convince audiences? Research published in Political Behaviour finds Facebook advertisements can influence voter behaviour, but some messages are more effective than others.

    Signs of Domestic Discontent

    Within China, there are signs of online discontent as the economy slows and netizens fear Western sanctions. While most of China’s highly censored social media platforms are vocally pro-Russia, some netizens are expressing concern. Influential blogger Qin Quanyao criticised nationalist netizens for their support for a China-Russia led world order. More broadly, there are concerns that President Xi’s crackdown on private businesses and technology companies are hampering China’s economic growth. Others are also worried that China’s support for Russia could lead to harsh economic sanctions.

    Hacking and Smearing the US

    Unsealed court documents describe a campaign by the Chinese intelligence agency to “silence, harass, discredit and spy” on a US Congressional candidate. The documents describe a plot by agents working for the PRC’s Ministry of State Security (MSS) to harass the candidate, who was previously the leader of the 1989 Beijing pro-democracy demonstrations. In a separate incident, after a months-long campaign, a Chinese state-sponsored espionage group successfully compromised six US state government networks.

    More broadly, Beijing is attempting to discredit Western democracy, and instead promote its own form of “whole process democracy.”  The China Media Project unpacks China’s democracy discourse, which emphasises its government’s “level of trust” and criticises the sluggishness of Western democracies to “respond to the urgency of the people.” But are these narratives a reflection of Chinese public opinion? A recent article in The Chinese Journal of International Politics finds that there has been a significant decrease in positive views of the US since 2016. Most Chinese respondents believe China will play a greater role in global leadership than the US.

    Stifling Academia

    Beijing has banned at least five Chinese scholars from attending an Asia studies conference. The academics were prevented by security officials from attending virtual Zoom events. This is despite a recent report by CSET on China’s universities, which found that Chinese leaders view universities as the key to military development, economic growth, and the promotion of soft power vis-à-vis the US.

    Meanwhile, in Britain, two publishers are censoring books intended for Western audiences to appease Beijing. The publishers removed mentions of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and dissident artist Ai Weiwei so that the suppliers could print the books cheaply in China.

    China’s Technology Governance Strategy

     China has declared genetic data to be a national strategic resource. Axios reports that while the new guidelines issued by Chinese authorities claim to promote privacy, they also strengthen state control over the genetic information of Chinese citizens.

    To what extent is China setting global technology standards? ChinaFile explores how China’s push for “cyber sovereignty” and state control of the internet at the expense of free speech has impacted global technology norms. For a deeper dive, Rogier Creemers investigates the historical evolution of China’s cybersecurity policies, including the increasingly specialised regulations for online content and algorithms.


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