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China, Russia, and the Flow of Information: A Bit of China Envy?

Image Credit: State Dept./D. Thompson

On May 11, the Financial Times published a report alleging that Russia’s coronavirus deaths are understated by as much as 70 percent after investigating the statistics in Moscow and St Petersburg. The New York Times published a similar story the same day, and the fiercely independent Latvia-based Russian-language outlet Meduza followed up on May 14 with a detailed investigation on how Russia is counting its COVID-19 deaths, concluding that, “Russia’s methodology [calculating COVID-19 deaths] actually allows state officials to conceal coronavirus deaths deliberately, in order to paper over what is actually happening in regions outside major metropolises.”

What followed was outrage and denial on the part of Russian officials. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and the Ministry’s Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova denounced the reports, the latter calling them “disinformation,” employing a favorite term of the West to refer to Russian and Chinese activities. Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova and Moscow health officials also joined the chorus of denial and condemnation.

And today, Russia’s communications watchdog Roskomnadzor wrote a letter to Google demanding that the search giant censor the articles in question, including a write-up in Russian from another outlet that covered the findings of the Financial Times and New York Times.

Much of the breathless writing about disinformation and censorship by Russia and China both at home and abroad are lumped together, most recently a report from the EU’s External Action Service which accused China and Russia of engaging in disinformation inside the bloc.

Indeed, both Russia and China engage in disinformation abroad and on Western social media channels, as anyone who has engaged in China or Russia-focused Twitter circles and has witnessed the hundreds of mysterious accounts retweeting near-identical pro-government messages can tell you.

But as the country battles with the coronavirus disaster and tries to control its narrative, Russia may be feeling a bit envious of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its all-encompassing “Great Firewall” of internet censorship, which gives the authorities the ability to make undesirable articles disappear from view at the click of a button.

For starters, China would never resort to desperate demands to Google to block an article from a foreign website. That’s because Google is blocked. Conveniently, so is the Financial Times, The New York Times, and just about every other international outlet that refuses to comply with censorship demands.

Russian authorities must also contend with overseas and start-up Russian-language outlets which represent one of the final frontiers of punchy investigations and authoritative reporting about the country. Meduza and The Bell – the former based outside of Russia but with journalists working in-country –  have hoovered up ex-Lenta.ru editors, ex-Vedomosti reporters and other journalists who fled or were fired from traditional Russian media.

China, by contrast, simply blocks overseas Chinese websites it does not find to its liking, and has even been arresting prominent Chinese Twitter users who have managed to use a virtual private network (VPN) to “jump the firewall” and post on the platform, while hacking the accounts of overseas Chinese Twitter users.

Russia, on the other hand, has not had such an easy time of it.

In 2018, Russia tried to block Telegram, a heavily encrypted messaging service which became the go-to news source for many Russians after the company refused to grant encryption keys to the state. The result has been so embarrassingly off the mark that last month the State Duma proposed an end to the (attempts at a) Telegram block because its transparent failure “damages the prestige of state power.” Weeks after the block was announced, the regulatormanaged to block pretty much everything but Telegram” as Telegram found ways around the block and many other web services were inadvertently caught up in it. At the same time, Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov even admitted he was still using Telegram and had no problems accessing it.

As the coronavirus pandemic has engulfed Russia, the country has said it will delete “fake news” about the virus, where the definition of “fake news” will presumably hinge on its palatability to the state.

In China, authorities have similarly been on a rampage of censorship and disinformation to control the narrative about the coronavirus. Even more so as much of the world pins the blame on China for covering up the outbreak in the crucial early weeks of the outbreak. All signs point to a successful outcome by the Chinese Communist Party in its fight to control the story of the coronavirus in China.

First came Dr Li Wenliang, a doctor in Wuhan who tried to alert his colleagues about the novel coronavirus in early January. On January 1, Wuhan police announced that Dr. Li – along with other “rumormongers” – had been rounded up and forced to sign confessions repenting their claims and admitting they were “spreading rumors.” In a terrible twist of fate, Dr. Li died of the virus he tried to warn the world about in February. The result was a highly unusual outpouring on China’s heavily censored social media outlets – “what amounts to an online revolt,” in the words of the New York Times. China reacted quickly and effectively, declaring Dr Li a martyr and quickly scrubbed the Chinese internet of the “online revolt” and resulting criticism of the authorities.

China has not stopped there. While the media landscape in China – even by Russia’s depressingly low standards – is controlled and censored by the authorities with an iron first, some media such as business outlet Caixin continue to push the limits, and the authorities appeared to grant more leeway to journalists reporting on the ground in Wuhan to keep local authorities honest and perhaps even to keep open another channel of information to the center in Bejing.

But now that China has – at least officially – won the war against the coronavirus and as life goes back to some semblance of normalcy, the authorities have gone the extra mile: hundreds of articles from January to March from Chinese media have been scrubbed from the internet. Think about that for a moment: a country that already censors every single one of its media outlets before publication has decided that even these carefully written articles were not in line with the official line once the virus had been conquered, so they simply pressed the delete button on an unfortunate chapter of The Party’s history. And of course, the original Chinese article that tracked these deletions (linked above) was swiftly “harmonized” – as Chinese internet users refer to the act of censorship – a few hours after it was posted to the social media platform WeChat.

Another case that might give Russian authorities more China envy is the case of Vedomosti. After two months of drama over the appointment of a new censor-happy editor just as the respected business outlet was supposed to be sold to new owners, an investigation spearheaded by Vedomosti itself along with Forbes Russia and those troublesome outlets Meduza and The Bell revealed that state-owned oil giant Rosneft appears to have weaseled its way into Vedomosti’s editorial decisions – and editor appointments – by taking on huge amounts of debt related to the sale of the paper to its current owner.

(On a side note, in a particularly Russian twist to this story, the late coal baron Dmitry Bosov, who died in an apparent suicide earlier this month, was at the center of setting up these debt arrangements, so a key participant was obviously no longer available for comment on the matter).

China, as this article has already outlined, does not need to engage in such complicated behind-the-scenes puppeteering to control its privately-owned media. Much of its media is already directly state-owned, but even the most daring and envelope-pushing private outlets know their limits and in the name of self-preservation must engage in self-censorship.

As we read about Chinese – and especially, Russian – “disinformation,” and there is more and more talk of Russia and China moving closer together in an alliance against the West, we should remember that China is the older sibling not only when it comes to economic matters; Russia also has some way to go before it can match China’s impressive censorship machine.