China adopting Russian tactics to sow disinformation and discord in the US

Christine Wormuth on increasing USA tensions with China

China is using tactics championed by Russia to sow discord and even disrupt elections in the US, according to officials and outside experts. In the past, Moscow has used cyberattacks and covert operations to disrupt US elections and denigrate rivals. Although China has long been seen by the US as a prolific source of anti-American propaganda, it appears Beijing may be stepping up it’s game.

Many in Washington now think China is increasingly adopting tactics associated with Russia – and there’s growing concern the US isn’t doing enough to respond.

US officials and outside experts cite recent examples of China-linked actors generating false news reports with artificial intelligence and posting large volumes of denigrating social media posts.

While many of the discovered efforts are amateurish, experts think they signal an apparent willingness from Beijing to try more influence campaigns as part of a broader embrace of covert operations, according to two people familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence.

“To us, the attempt is what stands out,” one US intelligence official said.

An increasingly pessimistic mood in Washington about Beijing’s expansive political and economic goals and the possibility of war over Taiwan is driving calls for the US to make a stronger effort to counter Chinese influence abroad.

“This should be a whole of government effort,” said Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, who is the top Democrat on a newly formed House committee focusing on the Chinese Communist Party.

“The CCP is going around the world bad-mouthing the US, bad-mouthing our institutions, bad-mouthing our form of government,” Krishnamoorthi said in an interview. “We have to counter this because ultimately it’s not in the best interests of the United States.”

Joe Biden and Xi Jinping.

China is adopting Russian tactics to disrupt the US. (Image: GETTY)

China’s embassy in Washington said in a statement that Beijing “opposes the fabrication and dissemination of false information” and blamed the US in turn for making social media “into its tool to manipulate international public opinion and its weapon to stigmatize and demonize other countries.”

“On this issue, it is for the US side to reflect on itself and stop shouting ‘catch a thief,'” said embassy spokesman Liu Pengyu.

Chinese state media and affiliated channels, as well as social media influencers with vast followings, routinely spread ideas the US labels exaggerated, false or misleading. In recent weeks, China’s foreign ministry has called attention to the train derailment that released toxic chemicals in Ohio as well as allegations the US may have sabotaged pipelines used to transport Russian gas.

The Biden administration has strongly rejected the allegations about the Nord Stream pipelines and defended its response in Ohio.

China has long been seen as less willing than Russia to take provocative steps that could be exposed and more concerned about being publicly blamed. US intelligence judged that Russia tried to support Donald Trump in the last two presidential elections, while China in 2020 considered but did not try to influence the election.

But some US officials believe China is now undertaking or considering operations it would not have in the past, according to the two people familiar with the matter. That’s partly due to fears in Beijing that they are losing a battle of narratives in many countries, one of the people said.

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A Taiwanese woman checks her mobile in front of a TV.

US-China relations have soured over Taiwan and Chinese surveillance efforts among other things. (Image: GETTY)

Taiwanese troops training.

Taiwanese troops prepare for an eventual Chinese invasion. (Image: GETTY)

Officials noted public examples identified in recent weeks by groups that track disinformation and influence.

The research firm Graphika recently identified AI-generated videos that it linked to a pro-Chinese influence operation. One video attacked the US approach to stopping gun violence; another “stressed the importance of China-US cooperation for the recovery of the global economy,” according to Graphika. And threat analysts at Google said they disrupted more than 50,000 instances of posts and other activity last year linked to a pro-China influence operation known as “Dragonbridge.”

The AI-generated videos are clearly fictitious and Graphika said none of them had more than 300 views. Most Dragonbridge posts, Google said, also reached a tiny audience.

The US intelligence official said Chinese tradecraft on social media was “uneven” and less sophisticated than what’s normally associated with the Kremlin. But that tradecraft – both in terms of social media operations and efforts to hide any linkage to Beijing – can be expected to improve over time and with practice, the official said.

In the event of a war over US-backed Taiwan, experts believe shaping global attitudes and narratives will be key in ensuring military and diplomatic support for either side.

Representative Mike Gallagher, the Wisconsin Republican who chairs the new congressional committee on China, said in a statement after recently visiting Taiwan that Chinese influence operations are part of a broader strategy of “cognitive warfare.” He added that the committee would “work to expose the truth about the [Chinese Communist Party’s] pattern of aggression against America and our friends.”

Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.

The US is alarmed at China and Russia’s relationship. (Image: GETTY)

The State Department’s Global Engagement Centre is charged with countering Chinese messaging outside of both the US and China. Speaking on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the department, a State Department official responded to concerns that the US doesn’t directly counter many lines of attack from Beijing.

“There was a decision made that we were not going to get in the business of playing whack-a-mole with specific lines of Chinese messaging,” the official said. “Frankly, there’s just too much of it. It would be like trying to put your finger in the dam to stop the leak.”

The State Department instead tries to fund programs exposing facts and ideas that China wants to suppress. The Global Engagement Centre has funded third-party research of China’s crackdown in Xinjiang province against Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim ethnic groups. Beijing has long tried to frame its operations in Xinjiang as countering terrorism and radicalism in the face of international criticism about its network of detention camps and its restrictions on movement and religious expression in the province.

State has also funded trainings for investigative journalists in countries that have received Chinese investment and a project that tracked Chinese dam construction along the Mekong River, which is a key source of water for Southeast Asian countries downstream from China.

The US also uses direct investment as a tool for countering Chinese influence, though critics have questioned whether some funded programs are effective.