China syndromeHow China Ramped Up Disinformation Efforts During the Pandemic

By Joshua Kurlantzick

Published 10 September 2020

China once shied away from the aggressive, conspiratorial type of disinformation favored by Russia, but Beijing has increased its manipulation of information as well as disinformation efforts around COVID-19. The goal of manipulating factual information and spreading disinformation—or willfully false information— is to distract from the origins of the virus, highlight the failures of the United States, damage democracies, and promote China as a global leader. But its strategies have had mixed results.

Although China once shied away from the aggressive, conspiratorial type of disinformation favored by Russia, it has increasingly turned to this approach during the coronavirus pandemic. Beijing is both manipulating factual information and spreading disinformation—or willfully false information—to distract from the origins of the virus, highlight the failures of the United States, and promote China as a global leader.

Has Beijing Used Disinformation Before?
China has long utilized information and disinformation domestically and in regions close to the People’s Republic, such as Taiwan. In recent years, Beijing has expanded its activities globally, increasingly taking from the Russian playbook of stoking division in other countries, sowing public doubt about expertise, and spreading rumors.

Since the pandemic emerged, Beijing has relied even more on wielding information operations abroad. A study produced by the U.S. State Department’s Global Engagement Center, which tracks disinformation and propaganda, found that China, Iran, and Russia are increasingly converging on disinformation narratives about the United States and the pandemic.

What Does China’s Abuse of Information and Use of Disinformation Focus On?
Highlighting and misrepresenting democracies’ failures. Messaging from China, along with Iran and Russia, suggests that democratic countries’ responses to the spread of the COVID-19 disease have been disastrous and that autocratic states have managed their outbreaks well. (In reality, Iran mismanaged its horrendously, while China initially failed to notify its citizens and international health bodies of a worsening outbreak there.)

Some Chinese information has suggested, correctly, that the United States has not had an effective response. But Beijing also reportedly claimed that health-care workers in Europe left sick people to die and that President Donald J. Trump planned to lock down the entire United States, among other falsehoods. Moreover, diverting attention from COVID-19, Beijing has abused information and spread disinformation about issues unrelated to China, including promoting skewed stories about the U.S. protests over racial injustice.

Disputing the virus’s origins. Beijing has cast doubt on whether the virus actually came from China, suggesting without evidence that it could have come from the U.S. military.

Attacking specific countries and leaders. Chinese information and disinformation campaigns have targeted many countries, including Australia, France, and the United Kingdom. Matt Schrader, in a report for the Alliance for Securing Democracy, noted that the Chinese Communist Party has “attempted to tailor its messages while still promoting Beijing as a global leader—a message that will come through even more strongly if China produces the first effective COVID-19 vaccine.”

How Do Chinese Messaging Campaigns Work?
Beijing uses large numbers of fake social media accounts to push its messages. It has increasingly relied on the types of trolls and bots Russia has utilized. Chinese diplomats amplify spin and outright false messages, and big Chinese state media outlets push the government’s stories.

U.S. intelligence sources reportedly have found that Chinese intelligence agents, or people linked to them, appear to use text messaging and messaging apps to sow panic in the United States about COVID-19. U.S. officials had not previously noticed Chinese intelligence agents trying to spread disinformation by texting citizens’ mobile phones, a strategy that requires significant knowledge of U.S. infrastructure.

Meanwhile, Google has revealed it caught Chinese hackers trying to get access to email accounts from the presidential campaign of former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, possibly to influence the 2020 election.

Has China’s Messaging on COVID-19 Been Eeffective?
For now, its efforts on COVID-19 remain only modestly effective. Beijing has spread some COVID-19 rumors, but Chinese leaders appear wary of fully following Moscow’s path of outright trolling. Doing so could undermine China’s simultaneous efforts to portray itself as a responsible global leader.

China’s stepped-up efforts around COVID-19 are angering many countries. A recent Pew Research Center poll of Americans, for instance, found that unfavorable views of China have reached a historic high, possibly in part due to China’s COVID-19 messaging. Chinese disinformation still seems more simplistic than Russia’s. Chinese fake social media accounts spreading disinformation about COVID-19 often appear shoddier than Russian ones and thus easier to expose.

Still, some of Beijing’s disinformation punches are landing. And as China and Russia increase their cooperation on information and disinformation tools—they are sharing knowledge through exchanges and in other ways—more dangerous messaging almost surely will increase.

Joshua Kurlantzick is Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia at CFR. This article is published courtesy of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).