It’s so hard to find good help Chinese broadcasters are making inroads in Russia, but Beijing has stumbled due to a shortage of capable propagandists
For the past two years, several major state news organizations in Russia have been working with the China Media Group, a conglomerate of the biggest state media outlets in the People’s Republic of China, formed in 2018 on orders from Xi Jinping. The leadership in Beijing has adopted a policy of aggressive publicity abroad, which has flooded Russia’s state media with hundreds of pro-China stories (including, for example, an unlistenable rap about Chinese politics with nods to opposition activist Alexey Navalny). Under the terms of a bilateral agreement, Russia’s state media is required to publish Chinese propaganda in exchange for the right to send content about Russia to China, though this reciprocity has proved elusive, even when it came to an article written by Vladimir Putin himself.
Chinese discursive power
On July 18, 2020, Rossiyskaya Gazeta published an article titled, “There Are No Human Rights Violations in Xinjiang.” The text reads like the transcript of an official speech delivered by a senior state official from center stage at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. Even sandwiched between the other wooden tracts of Russia’s official state newspaper of record, the article stood out for its brazen propaganda.
In the article, Rossiyskaya Gazeta cites an “information-service mobile application” called “Russia-China: Top News” — a joint project, it turns out, between the China Media Group and its Russian partners: Rossiyskaya Gazeta and the “Rossiya Segodnya” state media agency.
Compared to its Russian counterparts, the China Media Group is a relatively young institution. The conglomerate was created in 2018 through the merger of several predominant state radio and television broadcasters. The trade war between the United States and China initiated by Donald Trump was a major catalyst in these developments, convincing Beijing that its growing confrontation with Washington necessitated a more aggressive promotion of China’s interests and image internationally. The China Media Group embodies the concept of huayuquan (Chinese “discursive power”), which Xi Jinping first touted in 2013.
The media conglomerate was created in March 2018 and signed a strategic partnership with the Russian state news agency “Rossiya Segodnya” later that year, at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok. Dmitry Kiselyov, the pro-Kremlin television pundit who runs “Rossiya Segodnya,” said at the time that the collaboration was needed for diplomatic and technical reasons. “Relations between Russia and China have reached unprecedented highs in the past few years,” Kiselyov explained. “The Russian and Chinese media are tasked constantly with resupplying information, including through the intensification of information exchanges.”
A source familiar with the deal told Meduza: “The signed agreements contain obligations about the number of stories provided by the Chinese to be published. When signing, the Russians stipulated readiness to fulfill these requirements for publishing content, so long as their counterparts observed certain demands regarding style, content, and so on.”
Meduza’s source described the following example wherein Russia might influence the content of Chinese propaganda: “If the Chinese needed to publish something about a major event — such as a ‘Two Sessions’ — the Russians would reformat the text so it didn’t look like: at today’s opening, so-and-so attended, then five paragraphs about who was there, and then 10 paragraphs about what issues were discussed — all without any outcome.”
An unequal exchange
In practice, the “intensification of information exchanges” celebrated by Dmitry Kiselyov means the Russian state media regularly publishes texts like the one described above in Rossiyskaya Gazeta. Admittedly, the content isn’t always weighed down by such officialese. In fact, some of these texts about China demonstrate a spark of creativity. For example, on March 19, 2019, the news agency RIA Novosti published an online story in its Science Section, titled “Chinese Unveil ‘Wall-E’ Robot That Fights Terrorism in Xinjiang.”
Based on analysis carried out at Meduza’s request by the “Medialogia” monitoring firm, the Russian media is publishing more than 100 articles a month about China sourced from the China Media Group.
These materials include reports about cultural events and the strengthening of Russian-Chinese relations, as well as articles about China itself, including perspectives on sensitive issues, albeit from the Chinese government’s point of view, often sprinkled with “refutations of Western theories.” Texts directly address controversies like the situation in Hong Kong (usually identified by its Cantonese toponym “Xianggang”) and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, the China Media Group and Rossiya Segodnya launched a joint project called “Live From Wuhan,” publishing stories with headlines like “A Prefabricated Hospital: An Oasis of Care and Warmth.”
China reciprocates with stories about events in Russia. Maria Repnikova, an expert in the Chinese media politics and an assistant professor in Global Communication at Georgia State University, told Meduza: “I’ve never once seen a negative story [in the Chinese press] about the Russian state. [My sources] in the national media tell me openly that they’re not allowed to write negatively about Russia.”
This trend in reporting has particularly ingratiated the Chinese media to the pundits at “Rossiya Segodnya” who recently conducted a study, titled “Octopus-1,” devoted to how the foreign press covers Russia. “China delighted with a complete absence of any critical publications about Russia,” the study’s authors concluded, introducing the latest installment of their research series.
The “exchange” of information between the China Media Group and the Russian state media, however, is not built on an equal relationship. For example, it’s unlikely that Rossiyskaya Gazeta would be able to get a Chinese state outlet to publish an article about the Crimean Tatars’ prosperity, explains Sergey Radchenko, the director of research at Cardiff University's School of Law and Politics. “China has its position on Crimea, so if Russia wanted to publish something in defense of the annexation in the Chinese media, it would be totally impossible,” Radchenko told Meduza.
Chinese propaganda has stubbornly refused to publish even content bearing Vladimir Putin’s byline. Meduza learned that a translation of the Russian president’s WWII think piece published by the Chinese version of Sputnik (a Rossiya Segodnya subsidiary) was immediately blocked in China and, according to the service “WebSitePulse,” remains blocked to this day. Spokespeople for Sputnik and Rossiya Segodnya did not respond to Meduza’s questions about how this is possible.
Russia’s ability to influence Chinese public opinion through the mass media is quite limited, says Radchenko: “Individual scholars, not even state representatives, can get something published in Chinese newspapers. Like, for example, [Alexander] Lukin from the Higher School of Economics recently published an article in The Global Times that criticized America. As for the official state media, I’ve never heard about anything like, for example, The People's Daily publishing some piece of Russian propaganda.”
Maria Repnikova told Meduza why parity in the relationship between Russian and Chinese propaganda is ultimately unworkable: “It works more on a symbolic level; ties between Russia and China are improving and this exchange of articles contributes to that improvement. It creates a context — an atmosphere — that there’s a benevolent attitude on Russia’s part and that Russia is prepared to cooperate and show respect, while China will offer support at the UN, and so on. Of course, China is a much stronger partner than Russia and Russia depends far more on China than China on Russia. So you can hardly expect an equal partnership in the flow of information.”
The propaganda chief
In addition to publishing materials through partner outlets in the “Russia-China: Top News” joint project, the China Media Group often feeds content to other state-run or pro-government news outlets in Russia. This coverage usually comes in the form of comments from the China Media Group’s own president, Shen Haixiong, like his New Year’s greeting in 2020, published by Komsomolskaya Pravda, or his remarks to the news agency TASS about the publication of a book “exploring Xi Jinping’s ideas about reform and opening-up.”
In Russia, the name Shen Haixiong is known only to a narrow range of specialists, but back home in China he’s a significant figure, says a source who participated in the Russian-Chinese “Media Years” joint project: “He became a state official relatively recently, and before that he worked entirely in the field as a journalist. He’s from Shanghai originally and he worked his way to a post as the local head of The Xinhua News Agency. He was [in Shanghai] when Xi Jinping held senior positions there, which is why they have a good relationship. It’s not that they’re close friends, per se, but they know each other firsthand. If you’re looking for his Russian counterpart, it would probably be [Deputy Communications Minister Alexey] Volin.”
In addition to his job at the China Media Group, Shen Haixiong serves as a deputy minister of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee’s Publicity Department.
Ice ice baby
Though state news outlets and pro-government media in Russia publish roughly 100 Chinese propaganda stories a month, the efficacy of this publicity offensive is doubtful.
These materials generate little interest, attracting barely a few hundred views each. When it comes to downloads, the mobile app “Russia-China: Top News” (this is often the source for stories like “Opinion Poll: Bilateral Relations Between Russia and China Have a Solid Foundation,” which Rossiyskaya Gazeta cited in a text about Xinjiang) is no industry leader, either. According to the service “App Annie,” since the beginning of the year, “Russia-China: Top News” hasn’t cracked to top 200 news apps on the iOS AppStore (though it’s done slightly better on Android devices). Posts shared on its verified VKontakte account rarely get more than a dozen likes.
Chinese broadcasting content for the Russian media is typically written in the stiff and stilted language of state propaganda, and attempts to adjust this for Russian-speaking audiences have often failed miserably.
Alexander Gabuev, the chair of the “Russia in the Asia-Pacific Program” at the Carnegie Moscow Center, supplied Meduza with a few memorable examples of Chinese agitprop falling short in Russia. For the past three or four years, propagandists in China have tried to come up with more interesting ways to cover the annual Two Sessions. “Even Chinese viewers are hopelessly bored by these proceedings,” says Gabuev.
“In Shanghai, there’s this supposedly independent studio that’s actually getting money from the Propaganda Department and they’ve been trying to capture the Two Sessions and Xi Jinping’s new ideas in rhymes. They want something upbeat and youthful. The Russian-language service of CGTN [a China Media Group subsidiary] tried to do the same thing. The result was a rap written by a former Russia Today journalist who now works in the Chinese media. There’s an homage to Alexey Navalny, who’s mentioned in a line about how the Chinese Communist Party fights crooks and thieves. There’s a video with Russian and Chinese students singing, recruited on social media for some amount of money. It’s unwatchable and the intended audience is a complete mystery. My colleagues and I conducted a small, not very representative survey, but most of the respondents said the song elicited zero interest in learning more about the ‘Two Sessions’ and said generally that the whole thing is a giant fail,” says Gabuev.
China’s propaganda has stumbled in Russia for multiple reasons. First, the formal approach adopted by the publicists responsible for this content alienates Russian audiences. A source with experience working in cultural exchange programs with China told Meduza that tasks set by the leadership in Beijing are treated like life or death endeavors. “They spare no expense for propaganda abroad, but, as colleagues have said, they operate under the watchful eye of the anti-corruption authorities, who have flourished under Xi,” says Meduza’s source. “So what happens is that media organizations first and foremost need to reaffirm their loyalty constantly and impress the leadership with growing numbers of platforms where China is broadcasting its views. And they have to show that the state’s funding isn’t being wasted, which again necessitates even more reports about publications and events. Meanwhile, the efficacy of the work and the level of influence partners wield is of secondary importance. What matters is going through the motions and logging all the numbers.”
The second big obstacle Chinese propaganda faces in Russia is a shortage of qualified personnel. “[The China Media Group’s] English-language content seems to be of higher quality. They pour more money into it, they hire better-qualified anchors, and there is at least some attempt to learn something from CNN and Fox News,” says Alexander Gabuev. “But the content in Russian is translated bluntly in a format that makes sense to Chinese audiences. There’s no attempt whatsoever to adapt it, though it still suits [the Russian state television network] Pervyi Kanal quite well.”
Sergey Radchenko agrees that the shoddiness of China’s propaganda in Russia is due in part to a lack of manpower. “In the Chinese mediasphere, there’s a far wider selection of people with a good grasp of English than people who know Russian,” he says.
According to Radchenko, this shortage exists because China doesn’t consider Russia to be an important area of its foreign policy: “They simply aren’t training Russianists in sufficient numbers. In the priority scheme of China’s foreign policy, Russia is far from the top. For a long time now, China has prioritized its ties with the U.S. as a relationship between two great powers. China sees the United States as its main adversary and partner, with Russia playing roles that are secondary, albeit not totally irrelevant. The bulk of its resources, including its propaganda, are invested in relations with Western countries, primarily the United States of America.”
Meduza also spoke to a source familiar with Chinese foreign broadcasting intended for Russian audiences who disagrees with Radchenko’s assessment: “If you look at the number of China’s foreign broadcasting bureaus, you’ll see that the Russian-language bureaus are solidly in third place. First place is Chinese, second is English, and third is Russian. Even [broadcasters working for audiences in] China’s immediate neighbors barely match the number of Russian staff. If you combined the Japanese, Korean, and Indian newsrooms in China’s foreign broadcasting bureaus, you’d have roughly the personnel of everyone working on Russia.”
Meduza’s source acknowledges, however, that China’s Russian-language broadcasting is acutely understaffed. “Even when it comes to a happy, developing Xinjiang, it’s possible to write in such a way that audiences aren’t laughing and swearing as they read,” says Meduza’s source. “The problem is that China’s foreign broadcasting divisions lack specialized Russian editors. Professional Russian journalists make up between 10 and 20 percent of all staff there; most of those working in China’s Russian-language broadcasting are basically housewives who know where to put the commas but aren’t politically savvy and don’t have a strong grasp of life in China. But they’re married to Chinese men, so you don’t have to worry about them from a security perspective, because such housewives have nowhere to go. ‘She’s got a Chinese husband,’ they say. ‘She works here, and she won’t run away or exhibit any freethinking.’”
The China Media Group is aware of the problem, says Meduza’s source, and senior officials in China’s foreign broadcasting have reportedly held secret meetings to discuss the personnel shortage. A solution has proved difficult, however. “Professional journalists [in Russia] who speak Chinese and understand China don’t want to go [work in China’s Russian-language bureau],” says Meduza’s source. “Those who end up going are mostly people who are nuts for China but don’t know a thing about journalism. And that’s why China’s foreign broadcasters are hostages of the situation. Of course, they want to write better about Xinjiang, so people read it, but the result is something like Soviet propaganda from the ‘50s.”
Everyone who works in China’s Propaganda Department and foreign broadcasting media is very well versed in American politics and speaks English, says Maria Repnikova. “The level of Russian fluency and the general knowledge of Russia, however, is far lower,” she explains. “They don’t understand the Russian context, they don’t know what appeals to Russian readers, and they don’t get the information systems here, the level of free speech, and so on.”
A politically sensitive subject
Repnikova, who also studies China’s foreign broadcasting in other countries (especially in Africa), says the problem of insufficient audience feedback isn’t unique to China’s propaganda efforts in Russia: “For example, the national news agency in Ethiopia signed an agreement with The Xinhua News Agency stipulating that it can republish its articles for free. In other words, Reuters has to pay for Xinhua News Agency content, but this Ethiopian news agency gets it at no cost. In conversations with Ethiopian editors, however, I realized that this agreement wasn’t much help since any interesting stories from China can be found without any agreement. Basically, they didn’t really need this deal. And there wasn’t any exchange as such. Ethiopian journalists aren’t sending their reports to The Xinhua News Agency. So ultimately it’s a pretty symbolic pact.”
In these deals, Chinese broadcasters are fulfilling strict propaganda orders, a source familiar with the industry told Meduza. Answering directly to the government, the Chinese media is structured more rigidly than broadcasting in Russia. “If you compare them with their Russian counterparts, their target audience isn’t really their readers,” says Meduza’s source. “Their work is to convey information to the public, but not to engage or adjust to the public’s preferences and demands. Decisions about what to write and when are made in this environment.”
While the Chinese journalists involved in foreign broadcasting (especially those with experience reporting abroad) often question the nature and utility of their work, the main problem with China’s international propaganda is that it lacks a structured approach to engaging its audience, says Maria Repnikova. But if this is the biggest hurdle, why doesn’t China conduct research or turn to focus groups for a better understanding of its readers, listeners, and viewers? “I think it’s a very sensitive subject politically,” Repnikova says. “If they do a study and realize that nobody likes these materials, what do they do then? They’d have to change their whole approach to reporting and ‘quoting heroes.’ They’d need to change everything — the whole system.”