China is playing with fire: Disinformation campaigns in Ukraine

Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

As with all previous actions of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) when faced with crisis, whether of its own makings or otherwise, the natural inclination is to obfuscate the issue at hand with propaganda.  The CCP’s only goal is to maintain its grip on power and all else does not matter which can and will be sacrificed, including rule of law, economic progress, the truth and human decency, among others. 

Doing business in a country without the rule of law and where politics triumphs over everything else can be risky.  There are already known risks of dealing with the CCP.  Now, the perception of the CCP is much worse.  The world has witnessed Putin’s unjustified invasion of Ukraine, and the indiscriminate killing of civilians, including the bombing of a maternity hospital in Mariupol with the death of a pregnant woman and her baby.

And, Xi Jinping has openly said the relationship with Russia is “without limits”, refused to condemn Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, and showed openness to provide Russia with requested military and financial aid.  U.S. President Biden on March 17 stated that Putin is a “war criminal”.  By aligning so closely with Russia, the CCP may end up as a global pariah.  Therefore, the risk of associating with China just went up much higher for investors and CEOs.

No limits partnership between China, Russia

In the days and weeks after Russia first invaded Ukraine on February 24, the CCP did not condemn Putin, has echoed and amplified Russia’s disinformation campaigns, has censored the word “invasion” and used “Ukraine issue” and “special military operations” to describe Russia’s unprovoked invasion.  

The CCP’s hypocrisy is in full display in the “Ukraine issue”.  On one hand, the CCP opposed sanctions imposed on Russia but on the other hand, they themselves imposed trade sanctions on countries they have disputes with, for example, Australia, Lithuania and South Korea.  

Additionally, the CCP also ignored Russia’s bombings of civilian areas, attacks on humanitarian corridors and the potentially catastrophic terror attack against Chernobyl nuclear facility.

Instead, the CCP has condemned the U.S. and other countries who dared to stand up against Russia for imposing sanctions, providing weapons to Ukraine’s military and for “adding fuel to the fire”.  For three months before the invasion, U.S. officials shared intelligence on the imminent attacks with top CCP officials.  

However, rather than doing all they can to stop Putin, the CCP shared the intelligence with Moscow, saying the U.S. was trying to sow discord and that they would not impede Russian plans and actions.

According to western intelligence, CCP officials also knew beforehand of Russia’s invasion plan and had even told Russian officials in early February not to invade Ukraine before the end of the Winter Olympics in Beijing. 

In another disinformation campaign coming straight out of Putin’s playbook, in an apparent aim at misdirection, Russian officials claimed in early March without giving any evidence that biological weapons are being developed in laboratories in Ukraine with support from the U.S.  In an apparent attempt to solidify the “without limits” relationship, CCP Foreign Ministry officials and the Chinese state media helped propagate this inflammatory and unsubstantiated claim.

The U.S. was quick to refute Russia’s conspiracy theory, and the United Nations has said it found no evidence to back up Russia’s claim.

China is reaping strategic benefits in U.S.-Russia rivalry

In aligning with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and engaging in disinformation campaigns, the CCP’s calculus is to use the Russia-Ukraine war to divert the U.S.’s focus and resources away from the Indo-Pacific region where China is engaging in its own coercion and aggression of neighboring countries.  The CCP hopes to play Russia against the U.S. and reaps strategic benefits from the rivalry.  

On March 16, the UN’s international court of justice ordered Russia to stop its military operations in Ukraine, but the Chinese judge voted against the ruling.  As can be seen, the CCP is in fact helping to prolong a bloody war that is increasingly taking a toll on civilian lives.

It must be noted that China’s economy is currently struggling. The International Monetary Fund expected it to grow by just 4.8 percent this year, down from eight percent in 2021.  A real estate crisis, numerous Covid lockdowns, Xi Jinping’s crackdown on private enterprise and his push to steer the country away from capitalism to Maoism. 

This combination of factors dragged down industrial output, consumer spending and business confidence.  So, amid the hastening of China’s economic slowdown, it is really not wise and not in Chinese’s interest for Xi to be aligning with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.  Instead, the country’s resources and the leaders’ attention can best be directed at propping up the economy.

While the free and democratic world is trying hard, through sanctions and direct aid to Ukraine’s military, to stop Putin’s brutal war, the CCP under must no circumstances be allowed to provide financial support, whether directly or through a proxy or third party, to Putin to fund his war efforts and prolong human suffering.  

The tide of public opinion has turned against Russia and if the CCP is found to be supplying any kinds of support, China will be on the receiving end of the widening net of global sanctions, and judged to be on the wrong side of history. 

There will be implications and consequences if the CCP provides material support to Russia.  In this regard, CEOs and investors with businesses in China, governments and the rest of the free world would do well to take every opportunity available to make known to the CCP that they cannot sit on the face and in fact, they must proactively use their considerable economic leverage over Russia, to convince Putin to stop the war at once.

Photo credit: plavi011 / Shutterstock.com.  Xi Jinping (R) welcomes Vladimir Putin (L) at G20 summit in Hangzhou, September 4, 2016.

Lee Kok Leong

Lee Kok Leong

Kok Leong, executive editor, has overall editorial responsibility for the direction and focus of Maritime Fairtrade. He has two decades of working experiences, including holding senior regional roles in business-to-business (B2B) print and online publications. He enjoys his work as a journalist, and regards it as a calling.

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