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China Adopts Kremlin's 'Information War' Tactics  

Chinese academics and government officials attend a press conference about a Chinese government-issued report on human rights in the United States at the State Council Information Office in Beijing, March 24, 2021.
Chinese academics and government officials attend a press conference about a Chinese government-issued report on human rights in the United States at the State Council Information Office in Beijing, March 24, 2021.

China is taking a page out of the Kremlin's playbook and is seeking to highlight America's faults and weaponize the culture wars and identity politics currently buffeting the West, according to disinformation analysts.

Much like the Kremlin and state-owned Russian media, Chinese propagandists are focusing on the problems of racial injustice and income inequality in the U.S. and Western Europe — a move to distract attention from Beijing's own rights abuses, including the internment of more than a million ethnic Muslim Uyghurs, analysts say.

"Civil unrest in the United States following police violence against African Americans has been used to counter criticism of police abuse against [pro-democracy] protesters in Hong Kong," according to a recent study by the Atlantic Council, a U.S.-based think tank.

"China's disinformation efforts are becoming more sophisticated," added Dexter Roberts, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Asia Security Initiative and author of the report, "China's Disinformation Strategy."

Sarah Cook, research director for China and Hong Kong at Freedom House, a New York-based institute that conducts research on democracy and human rights, has also noted in a column in the think tank’s latest "China Media Bulletin" that Beijing's disinformation tactics are maturing and becoming more sophisticated.

She said recent studies indicate collectively that "significant human and financial resources are being devoted to the disinformation effort, the overall sophistication and impact have increased, and linkages between official accounts and fake accounts are more evident, rendering plausible deniability by the Chinese government more difficult."

She added, "When China-linked networks of social media bots and trolls appeared on the global disinformation scene in 2019, most analysts concluded their impact and reach were fairly limited, particularly in terms of engagement by real users and relative to more sophisticated actors in this realm, like the Russian regime. As many China watchers anticipated, that assessment now seems to be changing."

Chinese messaging on social media sites reflects Beijing's growing focus on racial politics in the U.S.

Last month, Beijing published a report about human rights violations and the treatment of racial minorities in the United States, arguing that "racism exists in a comprehensive, systematic and continuous manner." Ethnic minorities in the U.S. have been "devastated by racial discrimination," the Chinese communist government said.

The report, issued by China's State Council Information Office, said the coronavirus epidemic in America had spun out of control, worsening inter-ethnic conflicts and social divisions, adding, "It further added to the human rights violations in the country."

For years, the Chinese government deflected most allegations of human rights abuses by saying outside powers, as well as the Western media, should stop meddling in China's "internal affairs."

Now, analysts say, Beijing's strategy is more confrontational and seeks to turn the tables on the West, copying the tactics of the Kremlin.

Just days before China's report was issued, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan sparred in Alaska with their Chinese counterparts at the first U.S.-China talks of Joe Biden's presidency.

In his opening remarks, Blinken raised Washington's "deep concerns with actions by China, including in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, cyberattacks on the United States, [and] economic coercion of our allies."

The U.S. officials said China's actions threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability.

"That's why they're not merely internal matters, and why we feel an obligation to raise these issues here today,” he added in his short opening remarks during a media photo opportunity.

Yang Jiechi, the Chinese Communist Party's foreign affairs chief, replied with a 17-minute lecture. He complained about "U.S. interference in China's internal affairs" but also raised rights issues in America.

"China has made steady progress in human rights. And the fact is that there are many problems within the United States regarding human rights," he said.

Blinken responded, "What we've done throughout our history is to confront those challenges openly, publicly, transparently. Not trying to ignore them. Not trying to pretend they don't exist. Not trying to sweep them under a rug."

The harsh Chinese rhetoric underscored Beijing's increasingly forward-leaning strategy in the information wars. It's in line with what has been termed China's "Wolf Warrior" diplomacy, which started to emerge in 2020 after Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi instructed his country's envoys to be more assertive in representing Beijing's interests overseas and vocal in defending the Chinese Communist government from criticism.

The tone and temper of Chinese diplomacy has sharpened dramatically, with Chinese envoys in Western capitals exhibiting a truculence that Western officials say is a far cry from what was seen during the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, who ruled as China’s paramount leader from 1978 until retirement in 1992.

Traditionally considered among the more reserved of the world's ambassadors, China's envoys have had a makeover, prompting an international backlash for what their critics say is an effort to spread fake news, doctored images and false equivalencies between Western failings and Chinese government policy.