April 30, 2020 | Insight

China’s Coronavirus Disinformation Campaigns Are Integral to Its Global Information Warfare Strategy

April 30, 2020 | Insight

China’s Coronavirus Disinformation Campaigns Are Integral to Its Global Information Warfare Strategy

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) successfully coerced the European Union into toning down criticism of China in an April 24 report that documents disinformation operations related to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is one of many examples of Beijing’s attempts to dominate the international narrative surrounding COVID-19, an objective integral to its broader information warfare strategy.

A primary objective driving the CCP’s disinformation campaign is to push speculation that COVID-19 originated outside of China. The Taiwanese government reported last month that the CCP exploited proxy accounts and bots to disseminate false stories on numerous social media platforms around the world.

Chinese government officials have participated publicly in these campaigns. For example, Zhao Lijian, a Chinese diplomat, shared a conspiracy theory online accusing a U.S. Army service member of bringing the virus to China. The United States is not the only target of China’s blame-shifting. Earlier in the year, Chinese state-run media outlets falsely claimed that COVID-19 originated in South Korea and Italy.

The Chinese government’s disinformation operations also seek to suppress and disavow international criticism regarding Beijing’s early policy failures that likely magnified the scale of the crisis. CCP propaganda outlets shift the blame for the outbreak’s rapid escalation by pointing to the alleged mishandling of the crisis by the United States and other Western countries.

According to Lea Gabrielle of the U.S. State Department’s Global Engagement Center, which focuses on information warfare threats, the CCP is “unleashing a steady drumbeat of pro-PRC content” across its domestic and international media networks to project an image of China – in contrast to democratic countries such as the United States – as the responsible global health leader.

It is important to note, however, that the CCP’s disinformation efforts precede the current pandemic, as disinformation campaigns are only one component of Beijing’s broader three warfares strategy – psychological, legal, and media warfare. This multifaceted strategy, which the Chinese military explicitly outlined in its 2003 Political Work Guidelines, reflects Beijing’s constant efforts to influence domestic and international perception of the CCP and stifle its adversaries’ ability to respond.

This whole-of-government effort is evident in the Chinese government’s reliance on its diplomats to directly influence foreign governments and their reporting of COVID-19. For instance, the German Interior Ministry revealed that Chinese diplomats urged Berlin to report favorably on Beijing’s COVID-19 response efforts. The German government noted it will not comply with China’s demand. Nevertheless, Berlin has yet to publicly criticize Beijing for its disinformation operations, which certainly benefits Beijing. Similarly, the Chinese ambassador to Australia threatened Canberra with economic retaliation if Australia pursued an independent inquiry into the COVID-19 pandemic, which likely would reveal Beijing’s policy failures during the crisis.

Similarly, the Chinese government solidified its disproportionate influence over the World Health Organization (WHO) to shape and steer WHO messaging and policies in favor of China’s national interest. For example, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director general, has consistently praised Beijing’s “effective” response to this crisis. Yet Tedros never criticized the CCP for suppressing whistleblowers and ignoring the WHO’s recommendations regarding how to stop the spread of COVID-19. Tedros’ silence contrasts starkly with the response of former WHO Director General Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland during the SARS outbreak of 2003, when Brundtland publicly criticized the Chinese government for similar misdeeds.

Beijing has also increased humanitarian and medical aid worldwide, seeking both to validate its image as a generous benefactor and to establish dependent relationships with foreign governments. This has allowed Beijing to indirectly shape several foreign governments’ messaging regarding China and COVID-19. Most notably, as mentioned above, the European Union delayed and then toned down its report documenting China’s disinformation operations, after Beijing warned that such a report would “be very bad for cooperation” between the European Union and China. EU representatives noted their fear that the Chinese government would withhold future medical aid if they provided a more critical yet factually accurate report.

Beijing’s whole-of-government approach to shaping a global narrative of China’s indispensable leadership in the COVID-19 fight underscores Beijing’s ambition to upend the United States as a global leader even after this crisis passes. If the CCP’s persistent efforts remain unchecked, the United States indeed risks losing credibility in the eyes of governments worldwide. It is imperative that the United States counter the CCP’s disinformation and influence activities both at home and abroad.

Moving forward, the U.S. government should actively share public notices and advisories with its own populace that disclose facts and concrete evidence of CCP social media and disinformation schemes. To effectively accomplish this, Washington should exchange information with social media companies such as Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Twitter, which have regularly collected data regarding Beijing’s disinformation campaigns on their sites.

Finally, the United States should develop a comprehensive strategy to counter China’s efforts to dominate international organizations such as the WHO. The United States should coordinate with its allies and partners to unify their diplomatic messaging in order to challenge and disavow Beijing’s deception. While the COVID-19 pandemic is causing enough immediate problems and challenges for the world, ignoring Beijing’s disinformation efforts could haunt the United States and the world once this crisis ends.

Mathew Ha is a research analyst focused on North Korea and China at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Alice Cho is a research intern. Mathew and Alice both contribute to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from Mathew and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Mathew on Twitter @MatJunsuk. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


China COVID-19 Military and Political Power