Chinese propaganda on COVID-19: Eldorado in the Czech Cyber-Space
The COVID-19 pandemic harmed China’s image all around the world. Ever since the outbreak, China’s external propaganda has been working hard on the damage control, including enlisting the help of Chinese state entities’ social media accounts on international platforms. However, while at first Beijing’s propaganda focused on deflecting international criticism over its domestic response, it soon gained an offensive edge, spreading disinformation over the origin of the virus and attacking other countries’ responses.
China has capitalized on the cyberspace infrastructure it had been putting in place for some time. In April 2019, China MFA spokesperson Hua Chunying called for a more activist diplomacy on social media by Chinese diplomats to improve China’s “discourse power”. Several Chinese diplomats have gained notoriety thanks to their assertive presence on Twitter, the most visible being “wolf warrior” Zhao Lijian, former diplomat in Pakistan and currently spokesperson at Chinese MFA. The accounts of diplomats complemented already established accounts of Chinese state media, chief among them CGTN, China Daily, and Xinhua.
The “march” of Chinese diplomats to social media seems to have been motivated just as much by explicit instructions from above as by the bottom-up initiative to impress bosses at the MFA, realizing an assertive defense of Chinese positions has become a new pathway to career advancement.
Zooming in on Central Europe, Chinese state-backed entities have not been prominent actors in cyber space until last year. Until 2019, China’s modus operandi focused on largely passively boosting its image and spreading “positive energy” about China. The defense of Chinese positions has reached wider audience mainly thanks to local pro-China proxies rather than by China’s propaganda effectiveness. Yet, China is now increasingly reaching the local audience directly in the effort to rewrite narratives. Attempts to influence perception of Hong Kong protests in Central Europe laid foundations for a new approach, and propaganda efforts on COVID-19 have followed suit. In all four Visegrád countries, the Chinese Embassies set up accounts on both Twitter and Facebook in a short succession. Yet only a year ago, it was only the Chinese Embassy in the Czech Republic who had a Facebook account.
See who’s talking: China’s increased activity on Czech social networks
Currently three main official outlets spreading China’s external propaganda operate in the Czech cyberspace, chief among them China Radio International (CRI) broadcasting in local language. Its Facebook page has an incredible number of 850 thousand fans, a significant part of which are, however, obviously fake accounts. A vast majority of CRI posts consists of reposts of Chinese state media accompanied by Czech translations (often in broken Czech). Yet what is unique of CRI in Czechia is its effort to customize its content to the audience. In videos from “The Little Mole Studio” (a Czech cartoon character popular at home and also in China), Czech-speaking Chinese presenters talk about the domestic Chinese response to COVID-19, China-Czech cooperation on fighting the pandemic, etc.
In February, CRI offered Czech and Slovak students of Chinese language 20 EUR if they record a video supporting China during the epidemic, with clearly prescribed slogans that had to be included. The CRI page has also started to advertise its posts in order to reach a wider audience.
The Chinese Embassy Facebook page, founded already in 2015, was one of the early birds of this kind in Europe. Embassy’s Twitter account followed relatively late as it was set up after the COVID-19 outbreak in February 2020. During the pandemic, both accounts have exhibited similar content make-up. A vast majority of posts have consisted of retweets/reposts of Chinese state media or state institutions accounts that do not have any specific relation to Czechia. Apart from translations to Czech which accompany these posts, there is very little original content or a “personal touch” in comparison to the China Radio International Facebook page. Few posts, however, differ from the rest — all of them discuss Czech-China cooperation under COVID-19 pandemic and emphasize China’s supply or donations of medical material to Czechia by various Chinese entities.
What is perhaps more interesting, is the production regarding the domestic situation in China. Here, the propaganda stresses positive personal stories of ordinary people throughout the pandemic, resilience of Chinese economy, use of high-tech to fight the pandemic and the alleged transparent, open and responsible attitude of the Chinese authorities. Other entities — such as WHO, foreign countries’ representatives or even individuals — are widely quoted praising China in order to award more legitimacy to China’s stance. Czech President Zeman’s statements — such as his witticism comparing demands for compensation from China for spreading COVID-19 to asking compensation from the United Kingdom for causing the mad cow disease — were widely circulated in the Chinese media.
Apart from “mask diplomacy” achievements, Chinese social media accounts in Czechia have also targeted the US, including reposts of disinformation narrative on COVID-19 originating in the US. However, this content was not customized to the local audience, which points to a rather passive reposting of content created elsewhere. No content attacking the Czech COVID-19 response was identified.
From Moscow with love
A novel aspect of China’s propaganda efforts throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has been the usage of disinformation tactics copying Russian hybrid operations playbook. Globally, China seems to intentionally target the same audience which is disillusioned with the West, displaying strong similarities with Russian anti-West narratives.
The interplay of pro-China and pro-Russia narratives in cyberspace has been apparent in Central Europe too. The MapInfluenCE project uncovered that China has utilized — at least in Czechia and Slovakia — the same alternative media outlets which often spread Russian narratives, such as Parlamentní listy, an outlet often carrying Chinese Ambassador Zhang Jianmin’s op-eds. In his most recent interview for the outlet he repeated the official line about the unclear origin of the virus, pointing to COVID-19 cases in France from December unrelated to China.
It is, however, too early to say whether the Chinese and Russian disinformation operations work in parallel or in tandem.
The effectiveness of the Chinese external propaganda in Czechia is questionable, as it lacks broader customization and originality, often recycling the same themes as prevalent in domestic propaganda. These not only fall on deaf ears, but provide amusement to a number of Czechs who flood the comment section with negative posts, pictures of Tibetan or East Turkestan flags or the cartoon character Winnie the Pooh (who is said to bear likeness to Chinese leader Xi Jinping). The most powerful pro-China narratives are still communicated through the traditional media as well as local intermediaries, with Czech President Zeman, who reaches a much wider audience, being their champion. China has been, however, a fast learner in adapting its external propaganda in cyberspace to the changing environment. An intensification of its efforts to influence narratives is thus to be expected.
Digital Communication Network begins the series of publications on Digital Challenges in the Time of COVID-19 Crisis.
Ivana Karásková, Ph.D.(@ivana_karaskova), is a Research Fellow, Founder and Coordinator of MapInfluenCE and China Observers in Central and Eastern Europe (CHOICE) projects at Association for International Affairs (AMO), Czechia.
Filip Šebok (@FilipSebok) is a Project Manager of China Observers in Central and Eastern Europe (CHOICE) and Research Fellow at Association for International Affairs (AMO), Czechia. He focuses on Chinese diaspora, Chinese disinformation, China’s foreign policy rhetoric and relations between China and Central and Eastern European countries.