The Chinese Foreign Ministry and state-controlled news outlets have dramatically ramped up efforts to echo Russian propaganda about the Ukraine war and promote Beijing’s own increasingly aggressive anti-U.S. narratives in recent months.
Analysts say the striking push is becoming a defining characteristic of “Cold War 2.0,” in which Beijing and Moscow have moved into full rhetorical alignment against the U.S. and the network of democracies that side with Washington with around the world.
The most recent example came last week via a special Chinese Foreign Ministry report blaming the U.S. and NATO for provoking Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, describing it as part of a pattern of political, military, economic, technological and cultural “coercion” to preserve America’s position as the globe’s dominant superpower
The report, published in English on the ministry’s website under the title “U.S. Hegemony and Its Perils,” more broadly claimed that Washington is ramping up “bloc politics” and stoking conflict in several regions to maintain American dominance.
“While a just cause wins its champion wide support, an unjust one condemns its pursuer to be an outcast,” the report concludes. “The hegemonic, domineering and bullying practices of using strength to intimidate the weak, taking from others by force and subterfuge, and playing zero-sum games are exerting grave harm.”
Such claims, which the State Department calls “propaganda,” reflect an increasingly visceral effort by the ruling Chinese Communist Party to shape the debate in a widening global information war being waged between Washington and Beijing.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and other senior officials have a long history of delivering anti-U.S. speeches and circulating white papers that attack Washington and its policies to a domestic Chinese audience. Beijing has also spent recent years — most notably during the COVID-19 era — aligning with and projecting Iranian and Russian anti-U.S. propaganda that pushed similar lines of attack.
What’s different now, according to regional experts, is that Beijing is taking the lead originating such propaganda, and Beijing is carefully doing it in English for consumption by an audience far beyond the Chinese mainland. Just in recent days, Chinese official spokesmen have attacked the U.S. on issues ranging from growing support for Taiwan and ‘overreacting” to the recent surveillance balloon incident to the campaign against TikTok and new speculation in Washington about a Chinese lab’s role in sparking the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The big picture is that the Chinese are not just parroting various narratives, they’re coming up with their own,” said Dan Blumenthal, a senior fellow focused on China, Taiwan, East Asia, and U.S.-China relations at the American Enterprise Institute.
“Their No. 1 narrative right now is that the U.S. is to blame for the conflict in Ukraine — that Ukraine is a pawn of U.S. plans for NATO expansion and what the Chinese refer to as ‘bloc politics,’ and that the U.S. is doing the same thing in the Indo-Pacific,” said Mr. Blumenthal.
“The Chinese are warning other countries to not be pawns, and they’re prosecuting this case quite intensely, both in Chinese and throughout the neutral world outside the West, and it probably is having some resonance with countries that exist beyond the West and America’s Asian alliances.”
In essence, China is pushing a message that the Russians have “done the right thing” by invading Ukraine, according to Mr. Blumenthal, who asserted that China and Russia have achieved “total strategic alignment” behind the view that the U.S.-oriented alliance system “has to be smashed.”
It’s an assessment that coincides with heightened concern and harsh rhetoric in Washington over the depths of China’s support for Russia’s war, as well as a growing chorus of warnings from U.S. intelligence that China may soon begin providing Russian military forces with weaponry for a widening offensive.
“We’re confident that the Chinese leadership is considering the provision of lethal equipment,” CIA Director Bill Burns said in an interview last week with CBS News, while cautioning there were no signs such transfers had taken place yet.
His comments come amid speculation over Beijing’s deeper strategic motivations in the Ukraine war, a conflict that has ruptured Russia’s once-vast energy ties to the European Union and found China importing record amounts of Russian natural gas at discounted rates.
The reach of China’s anti-U.S. influence campaign was on dramatic display at a hearing on Capitol Hill Tuesday, when Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz pressed Biden administration officials over reports that U.S. arms were being sent to a group of fighters in Ukraine that had been previously sanctioned by the U.S. for their far-right, ultranationalist views. It turned out the “source” for Mr. Gaetz’s inquiry was a story in the CCP-controlled Global Times, a prime outlet for the regime’s most anti-American messaging.
“I don’t have any evidence one way or the other” on the report, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl told the lawmaker. “As a general matter, I don’t take Beijing’s propaganda at face value.”
Former CIA officer Daniel Hoffman, who served as the agency’s station chief in Moscow and now writes a regular column for The Washington Times, argues the war increasingly finds Russia facing a future as a vassal state for China.
“For Beijing, Russia’s massive, unexpected reverses on the battlefield since invading Ukraine in February 2022 offer an opportunity to dominate the Kremlin and turbo-boost its own grand strategy of becoming the world’s dominant power by 2049,” Mr. Hoffman wrote in a recent column.
Mr. Blumenthal offered a different take in an interview with The Times, asserting that while Russian President Vladimir Putin has become dependent on the Chinese market for the sale of oil and gas, he has a history of reluctance toward being the “junior partner” in the China-Russia relationship.
“‘Vassal’ is probably too strong a word,” Mr. Hoffman said, adding that China is dependent on Russia’s battlefield success in Ukraine.
On the information warfare front, Chinese officials have expressed outrage in recent years at Washington’s characterization of Mr. Xi’s signature “Belt and Road” foreign policy strategy as a global system of “predatory” Chinese development lending. Mr. Xi has touted it as a way to use China’s vast financial reserves to re-establish ancient trade routes to the world and finance badly needed bridges, railroads, ports and other infrastructure across the developing world.
But U.S. officials and some private analysts have argued China’s loans to poorer nations are designed to win sweetheart deals for Chinese contractors and ensnare borrowers in a “debt trap” so Beijing can later wring political and natural resource concessions from them in exchange for debt relief.
Alignment between Beijing and Moscow, meanwhile, has intensified since the Feb. 4, 2022, inking between the two of a joint statement on “international relations entering a new era,” a document Mr. Blumenthal described as “the coming-out party of Cold War 2.0.”
Within weeks of the joint statement, which emphasized that the Sino-Russian friendship has “no limits,” Russian tanks were grinding violently across the border into Ukraine, while China began amplifying Kremlin propaganda about the war.
The first major example came in early March of last year, when the Chinese Foreign Ministry repeatedly and forcefully echoed Russian claims that the U.S. was financing a secret network of biological weapons labs in Ukraine — claims U.S. officials quickly rejected as unfounded conspiracy theories.
By early 2023, Beijing’s amplification operations had grown to include official foreign ministry projections of disinformation not only benefiting the Kremlin, but beleaguered Russian allies such as Syria.
During a daily briefing for Chinese and international journalists on Jan. 17, a ministry spokesman responded to what appeared to be a staged question from the government-controlled outlet China Central Television about a Syrian state media report alleging that U.S. “occupation forces” were stealing oil from the Mideast nation.
The ministry spokesman responded on cue: “We are struck by the blatancy and egregiousness of the U.S.’s plundering of Syria. According to Syrian government data, in the first half of 2022, over 80% of Syria’s daily oil output was smuggled out of the country by U.S. occupation troops. Earlier this month, U.S. forces used 60 tankers and trucks to ship oil and wheat they looted from Syria. … The Syrian people’s right to life is being ruthlessly trampled on by the U.S.”
American officials cringed at the Chinese allegations.
A subsequent “Fact Check” by Radio Free Asia, a U.S.-government-funded outlet, noted that the Assad government “has no control over the northeast area of [Syria], which is occupied by the anti-government coalition known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).”
The fact check went on to note U.S. and international media reports that “a U.S. company had secured an oil deal in the area, but it did so with the approval of the SDF, which helped to oust ISIS terrorist forces that previously controlled the oil production there. The U.S. currently authorizes non-governmental organizations to purchase petroleum in Syria, but the products have to stay in Syria for non-profit use.”
The competition between the West and Beijing for the global narrative reflects what some analysts describe as a growing alignment of the world’s top autocracies — China, Russia, Iran and North Korea — brought closer together by Moscow’s war in Ukraine and Washington’s success in rallying NATO and other allies to back Kyiv.
But political messaging coordination between China, Russia and Iran was accelerating prior to the war, most notably during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic to deflect attention from how the pandemic first took hold inside China. At the time, U.S. officials warned that the three nations were actively promoting false claims, including that the virus was a U.S. bioweapon brought to China by American Army personnel.
The head of a State Department counter-disinformation office told The Washington Times in March 2020 that Beijing, Moscow and Tehran were using a vast web of social media accounts, fake news outlets and state-controlled global satellite media to promote that and other false claims by academics and, at times, government officials to blame Washington for the pandemic.
Then-U.S. Special Envoy Lea Gabriel, who was heading the department’s Global Engagement Center, said U.S. officials had scrambled at the time to ramp up their own efforts to counter lies about the virus that were first seeded by Russia and that China had begun pushing in a bid to make Beijing appear as a superior global power to the United States.