Russia and China see the information environment as a critical domain of strategic competition with the United States. Beijing and Moscow present Washington as a bully that uses its power to impose Western values on other countries. While this core idea is consistent, there are also ways in which China’s and Russia’s narratives differ due to their unique objectives and positions within the global order.
These were some of the insights of CNA analysts at the organization’s annual Senior Fellows Meeting, which brings together senior fellows from across the organization for discussions and engagements with CNA researchers. As part of the recent event, CNA analysts Heidi Holz and Josiah Case from the China Studies Program and Dmitry Gorenburg and Julian Waller from the Russia Studies Program briefed the fellows on Russia’s and China’s information operations, the narratives each country is promoting, and their new strategies to reach audiences who might dismiss their state-run media channels as propaganda.
Russian Influence Operations to Evade Sanctions
Since Russia invaded Ukraine last year, the country has sought to counter US efforts to isolate Moscow with sanctions. Russia jump-started its efforts to build new partnerships in the Global South in its search for new trade routes and political support. In his briefing, Dmitry Gorenburg pointed to three critical narratives Russia puts forward in this effort.
First, there is the opposition to US and European domination. Gorenburg said, “The argument is that the US is trying to control the world and force countries in the Global South to act in its interest rather than in their own.” Russia’s second narrative is that the US and Europe are promoting “degenerate norms,” such as gay and transgender rights, and trying to force these values on the world. Their messaging claims that Russia supports traditional values more in line with those of the Global South. Russian President Vladimir Putin regularly brings up this theme in his speeches. Julian Waller observed that Putin often frames this issue using “anti-colonialist language.” He added, “If I printed out a statement from Putin’s speeches and handed it to you, you might think it was a Marxist professor at some New York university.”
Finally, Russia promotes the idea that it will not interfere in the internal affairs of its partner nations. According to Gorenburg, Moscow argues, "unlike the United States, Russia will never lecture them about democracy and human rights, and it will not make assistance, arms sales, etc., conditional on their actions.” Russia’s pitch to the leaders of potential partner nations is that they can feel more confident with Moscow than they could with Washington.
China Information Operations to Undercut Western Criticism
China’s objectives are broader than Russia’s, as they are not attempting to counter a specific policy like sanctions. Instead, Beijing aims to address what it sees as an unfair portrayal of China in Western media. Heidi Holz said, “They decided that the way to address this was to embark on a massive and ongoing effort to promote a positive image of China by proactively spreading good news stories about China around the world.”
To accomplish this, Beijing is pushing four critical narratives. First, China is inherently peaceful—to address criticism of the country’s growing militarism and regional assertiveness. Second, cooperation with China is a “win-win.” This is to counter the idea that China’s aid is exploitative or predatory. Third, China is a responsible member of the international community, countering the argument that China seeks to revise the international order. China’s fourth narrative is that its approach to international aid is different from that of the US, which, as Holz said, “it does to position China as a more desirable partner; it might suggest that there are no strings attached to their help.”
New Information Tactics for a New Era
Russia and China have state-run media companies that can help promote their talking points. However, recently both Beijing and Moscow have been trying new tactics to push their messages in countries where consumers might dismiss state media as propaganda. One tactic both countries have employed is using Western vloggers—video bloggers—who live in China or Russia. These vloggers create and share videos claiming to give their audience an unbiased look at life in these countries. In reality, Beijing and Moscow use tools like stipends and access to information to ensure that these vloggers toe the party line. China Studies analyst Josiah Case gave an example: "These vloggers will go to Xinjiang or Tibet and interview people on the street and say, ‘Look how happy they are. Hasn’t your life improved since the Chinese Communist Party started doing all these projects?’” Case also pointed to the spreading of satirical videos and political cartoons on Western social media platforms and the efforts of some Chinese government propagandists to obscure their association with Beijing.
Are Russia and China Coordinating Their Messaging?
Given the no-limits partnership China and Russia announced in February 2022 and their shared objectives, it is natural to wonder whether the two countries are coordinating their messaging. Analysts from both programs said they hadn’t observed coordination but didn’t think it was necessary. Holz said, “I don’t know to what extent there has been coordination, but we have seen that there are narratives that align very nicely and that they will borrow from each other’s official remarks on state media and amplify them with their own media or official remarks. We have seen this with their narratives about COVID and Ukraine.” Gorenburg agreed, saying, “I’m not sure it’s even necessary. You can see what’s being broadcast, and you can borrow, you can amplify, you can support.”