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A man walks past a TV screen with an image of Russia's President Vladimir Putin in Tokyo, on Feb. 24.Koji Sasahara/The Associated Press

False narratives advanced by Moscow about the war in Ukraine are spreading widely in China, where they are being boosted by Chinese officials and state media even as Beijing purports to remain neutral on the conflict.

As much of the world reacted in horror to Russia’s strikes on civilians, including its bombing of a maternity hospital in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol this week, Chinese media outlets have promoted dubious claims by the Russian Defence Ministry that it has discovered a “U.S.-financed military biological program” in Ukraine.

The U.S. State Department on Wednesday denounced Moscow’s claims as “outright lies,” accusing Russia of “inventing false pretexts in an attempt to justify its own horrific actions.”

According to a report from researchers at the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a Washington-based non-governmental organization, Kyiv began receiving funding from the U.S. in 2005 for “security upgrades at Ukrainian biological institutes where dangerous pathogens are kept,” but research at these facilities is not military in nature. “Since its independence in 1991, Ukraine has not engaged in offensive or defensive biological weapons activities,” the NTI said.

Such context has largely been missing from Chinese coverage, with major state-run outlets, including CCTV and the People’s Daily newspaper, continuing to push the story Friday. Bio-lab claims were among the most-read “super topics” on Weibo, China’s largest social-media platform, along with a defiant speech by Russian President Vladimir Putin in which he said his country would overcome all difficulties and not bow to “humiliation.”

Weibo super topics are a way of grouping users’ posts around particular subjects, similar to Twitter hashtags. They can be curated by individual users, who choose which posts are featured. Three of the top 10 most discussed super topics on Friday were related to Ukraine, and all three were managed by Chinese state media accounts. One, curated by the People’s Daily, promoted discussions about “Russia’s release of material about a U.S. military biological programme in Ukraine.”

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Justyna Szczudlik, a China analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, said Beijing may be promoting such claims as a way of retroactively justifying Moscow’s invasion, even as Chinese officials take pains to neither endorse nor condemn the war. Prior to this week, Beijing-controlled media were also repeating Russian claims about “denazifying” Ukraine, and uncritically sharing false reports about Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky having fled the country.

“It’s exactly the same message as Russia is presenting,” she said. “Beijing is looking for some rationale to support Russia and blame the U.S.”

Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Centre, contended that Chinese media’s approach to the war is part of a larger effort to maintain public support for Moscow. “Telling the truth about the atrocities of the war, or even neutral coverage, might mean the good people of China start to turn against Russia,” and question why Beijing is standing by the Kremlin, he said.

He added that most of the Chinese coverage of the war is being produced from within Russia rather than Ukraine, which he said helps create bias in favour of Russia, along with knee-jerk anti-Americanism in state media.

People stand by TV screens broadcasting the news of Russian troops that have launched their attack on Ukraine, in Hong Kong on Feb. 24.Vincent Yu/The Associated Press

The Ukraine bio-lab conspiracy theory may have been so readily adopted in China because it fits neatly into theories Beijing is already promoting about Fort Detrick and other U.S.-funded biological research institutes. Those claims were first advanced as China faced scrutiny over its mishandling of the initial COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan and questions about virology research done in the city.

No convincing evidence has emerged that COVID-19 spread from a lab, either in China or anywhere else – though conspiracy theories around the Wuhan Institute of Virology remain widespread online.

Claims that China intentionally caused the pandemic have been linked to an uptick in anti-Asian attacks in the West. Eric Liu, a former Weibo moderator who now lives in the U.S., expressed concern that the latest bio-lab claims could spark a similar backlash.

“Inciting hatred on this scale is extremely dangerous,” Mr. Liu said on Twitter. “Now that the whole of China knows the United States is a ‘rogue regime that manufactures and releases biological and chemical weapons in foreign countries,’ can Beijing turn this anger off like a switch?”

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He noted that Russian talking points have spread easily in China because of intense censorship of anti-war voices since the invasion began. A recent directive issued to Chinese media – and leaked to China Digital Times, a U.S.-based anti-censorship organization – warned outlets against disseminating “viewpoints that support or adulate” the U.S., or “harmful content such as public anti-war declarations.”

Since the invasion of Ukraine began, Russian state-run outlets such as Sputnik and RT have been blocked across Europe and restricted in other parts of the world. By uncritically repeating Russia’s claims, Chinese state media may – intentionally or otherwise – be filling a gap in the Kremlin’s global propaganda apparatus.

Public records show that in the past week alone, Chinese state broadcaster CGTN has bought multiple advertisements on Facebook pushing its Ukraine coverage, which often includes pro-Moscow talking points. On YouTube, CGTN’s channel, which has more than 2.4 million subscribers, features “exclusive” content, all of which appears to have been filmed in areas of eastern Ukraine controlled by Moscow. The videos focus on attacks by Ukrainian government troops rather than those by Russian forces.

CGTN has also promoted the bio-lab claim on Twitter, though unlike its domestic coverage the tweets have included U.S. denials. This has not been the case for all state-run outlets: the Global Times, a state-run tabloid under the People’s Daily, has posted many context-free tweets about the conspiracy theory, at times linking the bio-lab claims with COVID-19.

In a post Thursday, the paper said the “Russian military operation in Ukraine unexpectedly exposed a secret related to the pandemic.”

“Washington will definitely deny … many of the allegations the U.S. threw at others did turn out to be its own vicious deeds,” it added.

While China’s propaganda apparatus might be happy with merely making the West look bad, American officials have warned that Moscow’s motivation for pushing the Ukraine bio-lab conspiracy could be more sinister.

“Now that Russia has made these false claims, and China has seemingly endorsed this propaganda, we should all be on the lookout for Russia to possibly use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine, or to create a false flag operation using them,” White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said this week. “It’s a clear pattern.”

Researchers at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War reached a similar conclusion.

“The Kremlin has set informational conditions to blame Ukraine for a Russian-conducted or Russian-fabricated chemical or radiological false-flag attack against civilians as a pretext for further Russian escalation,” Katherine Lawlor and Kateryna Stepanenko wrote, pointing to past disinformation campaigns related to Syria.

“China’s parroting of Russia’s information operation likely also reassures the Kremlin that China would not oppose a false-flag chemical weapons attack in Ukraine.”

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