China uses disinformation to discredit inconvenient truth

Xinjiang human rights abuse, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Covid-19 origins.

The Communist Party of China (CCP), using a whole-of-government approach, is engaging in massive disinformation campaigns globally to manipulate public opinion unfavorable to Xi Jinping.  Top of the agenda is to help burnish Xi’s reputation and political achievements to enable him to win an unprecedented third term in power during the mid-October party congress, at a time of deepening economic crisis at home and increased confrontations abroad.

Xi wants to be seen as a strong world leader who offers a governance system with Chinese characteristics to replace democracy.  He wants the world and a domestic audience to see the superiority of his totalitarian regime over free society.  Ultimately, Xi wants to upend the current rules-based international order, an order which has given prosperity and stability to the world for decades, and to displace the U.S. as the dominant world power.

The CCP’s propaganda machination is seen in recent watershed events like Xinjiang’s human rights abuses, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Covid-19 outbreak.  The CCP, through wolf-warrior diplomats, state media, online trolls and other actors, leads a coordinated effort to amplify false but preferred narratives to drown out and marginalize the truth, and harass those critical of China.  

The CCP’s playbook includes flooding the international news ecosystem, search engines and social media feeds with propaganda and conspiracy theories, blocking off access to content which contradicts party lines, and creating an artificial appearance of support which gives the illusion of widespread grassroots support for a policy, individual or viewpoint when no such widespread support exists.  

For certain foreign-language disinformation campaigns aim at a global audience, the CCP turns to private media companies and multilingual social media influencers for better reach and infiltration.  In addition, social media influencers can push false narratives to younger media consumers. 

Online trolls, numbering an estimated two million full-time CCP employees and another 20 million people working part-time, are also used to attack, stir controversies, insult and harass netizens.  Trolling frequently degenerates into threats of death, rape or assault; malicious cyber-attacks; cyberbullying and doxing, i.e., publishing an individual’s personal information online without permission, including full name, home address, or job. 

Therefore, by now the world is cleareyed and has woken up to the reality that the CCP is destabilizing the world and the fact that at this crossroad of history, a struggle is happening between two ideologies.  The clash between democracy and totalitarianism will be long, complicated, arduous and severe.  

Nonetheless, in this great power rivalry, the winner will determine the future world order.  Everyone, from CEOs and investors to the ordinary public, must ditch those rose-tinted glasses and play a part in determining whether we are ruled by a dictator, or we can live our lives and conduct our businesses freely.

Xinjiang’s human rights abuses

The CCP’s human rights violation is on full display in Xinjiang but communist officials actively manipulate global discourse, paint a rosy picture and discredit independent sources of reporting of ongoing crimes against humanity conducted against predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.  

In reality, officials are waging a targeted campaign against Uyghur women, men and children, and members of other Turkic Muslim minority groups, using forced disappearance, arbitrary detention in internment camps, coercive population control, torture, physical and sexual abuse, mass surveillance, family separation, and repression of cultural and religious expression.  

The CCP also systematically increased Han Chinese population to dilute Uyghur population concentrations.  Independent media outlets, academics, and human rights activists have published multiple eyewitness accounts and verifiable data of an estimated one million Uyghurs being imprisoned by the CCP.  There is credible evidence of torture, forced sterilization, and other abuses. Additionally, human rights violation also happened across China including in Hong Kong, Tibet and Inner Mongolia, among others.

According to the U.S. State Department, the CCP has engaged with at least 90 China-based private companies to design foreign-language disinformation campaigns to portray China positively.  For example, a CCP-related publishing organization paid a marketing company to create videos depicting Uyghurs supporting the CCP, after which a network of fake accounts then amplified the videos on Twitter and YouTube.

In mid-2021, more than 300 pro-CCP fake accounts posted thousands of videos of Uyghurs seeming to deny abuse and claiming they were very free. These videos claimed to show widespread disagreement with news in international media that Uyghurs were oppressed.  However, propaganda officials in Xinjiang created most of these videos, which first appeared on China-based platforms and then spread to YouTube and Twitter, in order to manipulate public opinion.

Fake social media accounts denied the CCP’s atrocities in Xinjiang, falsely asserting that the body of overwhelming and objective independent evidence of the atrocities is simply a fabrication of the U.S. and its allies.  The CCP also falsely claimed that the CIA was trying to foment unrest in Xinjiang in order to bring down the CCP.   

Russia’s unprovoked and illegal invasion of Ukraine

After Russia 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 and illegal invasion.  

The CCP has gone to great length to appear neutral but Xi Jinping has openly said the relationship with Russia is “without limits” and showed openness to provide Russia with requested military and financial aid.  

Chinese state media implied the U.S. and NATO were responsible for the war, that the U.S. funded and developed biological weapons in Ukraine, and shared a fake report claiming that Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky had fled the capital Kyiv, which was viewed 510 million times on Chinese platform Weibo and reproduced by 163 media outlets throughout the country.  

Chinese state media had also amplified false claims that Ukrainians staged the Bucha massacre, despite satellite evidence of the killing of at least 400 civilians by Russian troops, and repeated Putin’s false accusation that “Ukrainian neo-nazis” opened fire on Chinese students”.

Covid-19 origins

The Covid-19 virus was first detected at Hua An seafood market in the city of Wuhan in Dec 2019.  Zhao Lijian, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, tweeted that the virus was brought to China by U.S. soldiers attending the Army Games in Wuhan.  This false narrative was then amplified across social media by an army of wolf-warrior diplomats all over the world.

On December 30, 2019, Dr Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital, was one of the first people to recognize and warned about the outbreak of the virus in Wuhan.  However, in an ironic and cruel twist, he was summoned to a police station, reprimanded for “spreading rumors online”, and forced to sign a statement acknowledging his “misdemeanor” before he was allowed to leave.  Later, he contracted the illness himself and died on February 7. 

The fact is the CCP had delayed reporting the outbreak and then downplayed and covered up what they knew. China has been accused of disinformation, silencing doctors and failing to warn the public in the early days of the outbreak.  Questions have also been raised about whether the spread of the virus could have been stopped more effectively if the CCP had been more open and transparent.

Photo credit: iStock/ imtmphoto

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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