Wary Europe welcomes China’s help – but not its disinformation
In the video, strains of China’s national anthem swell as Italians under coronavirus quarantine offer raucous, emotional bravos from their balconies. They’re chanting “Grazie, China!” the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman wrote as he tweeted out the clip.
But the production was a ham-fisted fake, analysts say: the Italians were cheering local health care workers, not saying “Thanks, China.”
The video is part of a growing disinformation campaign within the European Union that, in contrast to allegations against the Kremlin, can be easily linked to the Chinese government.
Although the production values are questionable and the claims are handily disproven, the disinformation push has spurred European Union officials to warn member states to be on alert. In particular, they say, the campaign could force member states dependent on Chinese economic ties to weigh the costs and benefits of calling out Beijing’s misbehavior as the financial damage of the coronavirus lockdown compounds. NATO for its part says the problem “is high on our agenda,” and warns that it is an effort to “sow division and undermine our democracies.”
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Yet China’s disinformation campaign offers opportunities, too. Because some of the fabrications have been “so extreme, so offensive, and so obvious,” the matter is now firmly on the European radar as a problem. The EU for the first time has begun “to identify and expose this kind of manipulation,” even if the bloc’s response to Beijing is currently tempered by financial considerations, says Antoine Bondaz, research fellow at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris.
“Conspiracy narratives and disinformation”
Perhaps no case exemplifies this more than the Chinese Embassy in Paris publishing an article on its website leveling false charges – made by a Chinese diplomat – that French nursing-home workers had abandoned their posts amid the pandemic, “leaving their residents to die of starvation and illness.”
The article was amplified by dubious Twitter accounts expressing outrage at, among other things, the failure of the French government and the tragic plight of the French elderly. Most of these accounts had been created in the past couple of weeks, with “no followers at all, being re-tweeted and liked by the Chinese embassy” – sure signs of bot farms, Mr. Bondaz says.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian last month took the striking step of summoning China’s ambassador to express his displeasure with the disinformation effort. Just days later, the EU’s diplomatic service released a report charging Russia and “to a lesser extent, China” with disseminating “conspiracy narratives and disinformation.”
Taken at face value, all this seemed to put China on notice. But the pushback against China has been tempered.
Mr. Le Drian, in his response to the Chinese ambassador, emphasized good bilateral relations between France and China overall. “In the face of the virus and its consequences on our economies, there is no place for controversy,” he said.
And the published EU report on disinformation was less critical of China than earlier internal drafts, according to EU officials who voiced their concerns in news reports that the EU was engaging in “self-censorship.” While an early draft warned of a “continued and coordinated push by official Chinese sources to deflect any blame” for the coronavirus pandemic, for example, the published version noted a “continued and coordinated push by some actors, including Chinese sources, to deflect any blame” – stopping just short of linking the behavior directly to Beijing.
Still, while “maybe people would have wanted the report to hit harder, it testifies to a shift in thinking by the EU – it’s a sea change really – and also a realization that a lot of propaganda is raining down on us from authoritarian states,” says François Godement, senior advisor for Asia at the Institut Montaigne in Paris.
Managing the messaging
This is particularly important as some European nations warm to China and even sour on their bloc partners. A recent poll found 52% of Italians feel China is a friendly government and 36% want a “stronger future relationship” with it. By way of contrast, 45% of those surveyed say Germany is an “enemy country,” and 38% say the same of France. Polls found similar pro-China feelings in Spain, which has historically been one of the most pro-EU countries.
This endearment toward China stems from its aid efforts: Italy was short on face masks, and China donated 200,000 of them. And negativity toward other EU nations is the result of dissatisfaction with the bloc’s response to the pandemic, coupled in part with lingering resentments around 2008 austerity measures.
“We had face masks bought from the EU, and free masks from China,” said Lia Quartapelle, a member of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, in a briefing organized by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.
But that’s an incomplete picture, and underscores what the EU needs to do to counter the Chinese narrative. For example, Ms. Quartapelle noted that Germany donated even more masks to Italy, and NATO and the EU have come through with millions of euros in supplies and aid. “The fact that strategically we didn’t think about how to thank fellow EU members for help received was a problem.” In a later interview, she told the Monitor that such symbolism is important in a country “that’s confused, afraid, saddened by the crisis.”
Beijing knows this, and pushes hard for such symbols – particularly since it’s the first time China has come to European aid. Being seen as benevolent is better for business than being tagged as a producer of shoddy goods – or as the point of origin for the virus.
The problems come, analysts warn, when the lingering economic effects of the pandemic make EU member states more vulnerable to Chinese threats of both the veiled and unveiled variety. While Beijing “professes great respect” for the EU, it “goes through every bilateral channel it can adopt” in order to divide and conquer, Mr. Godement says, since China’s goal of strengthening its economic partnerships is often best accomplished by fighting EU cohesion.
EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell warned this month that up until recently, Europe has been “a little naive” in its relationship with Beijing. While China is an economic partner, it is also a ”systemic rival that seeks to promote an alternative model of governance.”
Who’s the target?
At the same time, much of the disinformation put out by China has up until recently been intended chiefly for internal consumption. The point is to please higher-ups back in Beijing, who have made it clear they want their ambassadors to push back aggressively on narratives that portray China as a coronavirus culprit – or in any negative light.
Accordingly, their credo tends to be that a good offense is the best defense. When the Chinese ambassador insulted France for letting its citizens die of hunger, “I don’t think he expected to be believed,” Mr. Godement says. Instead, he and other ambassadors want “to be able to tell their supreme leader that they just walked the extra mile for the boss.”
Yet the backlash to this aggression has curbed the goodwill that was a goal of China’s “mask diplomacy.” And so while the Chinese diplomats continue to be “very offensive” in their approach, they also appear to be learning from their mistakes, Mr. Bondaz says.
“Chinese officials are fully aware that one of their main problems is how to reconcile internal versus external propaganda,” he says. “They see now that to insult and criticize isn’t enough. In the EU, they have to convince – or at least add convincing to the criticizing and insulting part.”
To this end, the Chinese embassy recently posted a list of “16 fake news statements” that purports to identify untrue stories in the EU press. In terms of creating a more subtle disinformation campaign, “it’s actually quite well done,” Mr. Bondaz says. “They’re trying to do the ‘fact-checking’ stuff” with a mix of “good sources” and conspiracy web sites. “They’re not stupid. They’re trying to improve.”
As they do, the EU needs to take a page from the playbook of those who have long grappled with Chinese disinformation, analysts say. Taiwanese officials, for example, advise responding in less than 60 minutes to spurious charges made by China. They have also found that, “When you try to argue in an academic way, it doesn’t always work.” So Taiwan has hired comedians to push out quick-witted responses to particularly outlandish Chinese statements, which often go viral, Mr. Bondaz says. “It’s ‘humor over rumor.’”
The point, analysts add, is to call out the bad behavior. “Our friends in Asia warned us, ‘You only see the head of the bear, and not the head of the dragon,’” Mr. Bondaz says, referring to Russian and Chinese exploits. “But more and more, we see both.”
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