Beijing CNN  — 

In public statements and at international summits, Chinese officials have attempted to stake out a seemingly neutral position on the war in Ukraine, neither condemning Russian actions nor ruling out the possibility Beijing could act as a mediator in a push for peace.

But while its international messaging has kept many guessing as to Beijing’s true intentions, much of its domestic media coverage of Russia’s invasion tells a wholly different story.

There, an alternate reality is playing out for China’s 1.4 billion people, one in which the invasion is nothing more than a “special military operation,” according to its national broadcaster CCTV; the United States may be funding a biological weapons program in Ukraine, and Russian President Vladimir Putin is a victim standing up for a beleaguered Russia.

To tell that story, major state-run news media outlets – which dominate China’s highly censored media space – have been largely echoing Russian state media stories or information from Russian officials.

A CNN analysis reviewed nearly 5,000 social media posts from 14 Chinese state media outlets during the first eight days of Russia’s invasion posted onto China’s Twitter-like platform, Weibo. The analysis found that of the more than 300 most-shared posts about the events in Ukraine – which were each shared more than 1,000 times – almost half, about 140, were what CNN classified as distinctly pro-Russian, often containing information attributed to a Russian official or picked up directly from Russia’s state media.

The analysis, which focused on stories that got the most play on social media, may not be representative of all posts shared by state media outlets on Weibo. But it provides a snapshot of the state media-produced information that is most visible to the more than half a billion monthly users on the popular platform.

It’s not clear the extent to which these posts may be explicitly the result of a coordinated propaganda campaign between the two countries, but it is consistent with an ongoing pattern in which Russian and Chinese media have amplified and reinforced their often-interchangeable talking points on issues such as the treatment of Russian dissidents, Hong Kong pro-democracy protests, the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, or the supposed American role in fomenting “color revolutions” against authoritarian regimes.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping walk down the stairs as they arrive for a BRICS summit in Brasilia, Brazil in 2019.

Such mutual reinforcement has also spilled over into the extensive overseas and English-language propaganda operations that both countries have built to promote their views globally – a route made more important with Russia’s state media outlets being banned on air and online in parts of the West.

In China’s top-down government-controlled media environment, all state-affiliated content is vetted and issued in accordance with government directives. That China has chosen to follow Russia’s lead in deliberately mischaracterizing the war only serves to underline Beijing’s closeness to Moscow – and almost makes a mockery of China’s self-proclaimed impartiality in helping to engage with Russia and bring an end to the violence.

The playbook

Russian assurances that civilian sites will not be targeted – despite extensive evidence to the contrary, descriptions of Ukrainian soldiers using “Nazi” tactics, and misinformation regarding the whereabouts of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky are all stories that have been funneled from Russian sources into China’s enclosed social media ecosystem – where many Western news outlets are blocked – by its state media outlets in recent days.

That dynamic was at play on Monday morning, when China’s state broadcaster CCTV released a package in its morning newscast highlighting Moscow’s erroneous claim that Washington had funded the development of biological weapons in Ukrainian labs. That insinuation is used to support the narrative that Ukraine – characterized by Moscow as an American puppet state – threatens Russia, and not the other way around.

The source? Russian Defense Ministry Spokesman Igor Konashenkov, who on Sunday said Russian forces uncovered “evidence” of the “hasty measures to conceal any traces of the military biological program finance(d) by the US Department of Defense,” and referenced documents he said detailed the destruction of hazardous pathogens at these facilities on the order of the Ukrainian Health Ministry.

In a statement on Twitter Wednesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki pushed back on “Russia’s false claims about alleged US biological weapons labs and chemical weapons development in Ukraine” and noted the “echoing” of those “conspiracy theories” by Chinese officials.

“This is preposterous. It’s the kind of disinformation operation we’ve seen repeatedly from the Russians over the years in Ukraine and in other countries, which have been debunked, and an example of the types of false pretexts we have been warning the Russians would invent,” Psaki said, adding that the US was “in full compliance” with its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Biological Weapons Convention and “does not develop or possess such weapons anywhere.”

“Now that Russia has made these false claims, and China has seemingly endorsed this propaganda, we should all be on the lookout for Russia to possibly use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine, or to create a false flag operation using them. It’s a clear pattern,” Psaki said.

The subject was also raised in a Senate hearing on Tuesday, when Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland, asked if Ukraine had biological weapons, said it has biological research facilities, which the US was concerned Russian forces may be seeking to control.

“We are working with the Ukrainians on how they can prevent any of those research materials from falling into the hands of Russian forces, should they approach,” Nuland said.

Residents watch a TV screen showing news about Ukraine at a shopping mall in Hangzhou, in China's eastern Zhejiang province on February 25, 2022.

Minutes after the CCTV report aired, an affiliated news outlet released an online post repeating the claims from Russia’s Defense Ministry and started a related hashtag on Weibo, which began trending. The hashtag was viewed more than 45 million times over a period of hours that day.

The next day, after Russia doubled down on the biological weapons claims with further statements, without evidence, CCTV released a new television segment, which was again shared by prominent state media outlets on Weibo, gaining further traction.

The story then moved into the narrative of China’s officials when a state media reporter at a regular Foreign Ministry press briefing asked a question about the laboratories, prompting the spokesperson to read a lengthy prepared response that repeated Russian disinformation.

“We once again urge the US to fully clarify its biological militarization activities both inside and outside its borders and accept multilateral verification,” spokesperson Zhao Lijian said.

Within hours, at least 17 state media outlets, including CCTV, Xinhua, and the People’s Daily, posted Zhao’s response on Weibo, where the topic racked up more than 210 million views. A related hashtag rose to be the top trending topic on Weibo by the following afternoon.

The pattern is just one example of a playbook that enables China to cover the war through the lens of Russian rhetoric and disinformation. Other examples include stories, such as repeated false claims that Zelensky fled the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv – sourced to a single Russian lawmaker, which were picked up and amplified by both Chinese and Russian state media outlets on their domestic and international platforms.

A CNN analysis sought to understand how large a role such stories play in China’s tightly controlled media ecosystem, first by combing through nearly 5,000 social media posts from the Weibo accounts of 14 of China’s most influential state media outlets, focusing on the first eight days of the invasion and news about the events in Ukraine.

Next, CNN analyzed which of those posts were the most highly engaged with, identifying more than 300 posts shared on Weibo more than 1,000 times. Of those more than 300 posts, an analysis found that nearly half showed Russia in a positive light – a category CNN defined as news sourced solely from Russian officials or Russian media, content that describes Ukraine negatively, misinformation about Zelensky, or pro-Putin coverage.

While about 140 posts showed Russia in a positive light, the analysis identified fewer than 15 posts that portrayed Ukraine positively.

A look at other characterizations showed only around 90 of these posts were neutral – for example, purely factual reports from reliable sources, news about humanitarian aid or updates on the evacuation of Chinese citizens from Ukraine.

Just over a third were what CNN classified as anti-West or anti-US, for example: stories airing views that Russia was pushed to action in Ukraine by the expansion of NATO, or criticizing Western media coverage of the crisis.

CNN reporters classified some posts into more than one category. A look at the distribution shows posts that depicted Russia in a positive light were more frequent than any other category.

Because CNN only studied posts with high engagement, the findings may not be representative of all posts produced by state media.

In response to CNN’s request for comment, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said Thursday the country is a victim of disinformation.

“Some anti-China forces and media have fabricated too many lies, rumors and disinformation about China on issues that include the situation in Ukraine,” it said in a statement. “They have smeared the image of China, poisoned the media environment and misled public worldwide. Such actions are hypocritical and despicable.”

The backdrop

The findings contrast the apparent middle line that China has tried to walk in its international diplomacy.