Last May, a Chinese cybersecurity center announced a bombshell revelation: definitive proof that the CIA was behind upwards of 50 coups and attempted coups in the past two decades alone. Outlets controlled by the party and government went into overdrive blasting the discovery of a “real-life version of the Matrix” and a “hacker empire”, according to data provided by Omelas, an intelligence firm where the author is chief technology officer.  

For Russian consumers of such news, this was hardly news at all. “CIA” involvement amounted to nothing more than activists’ use of American-developed tech tools like Tor, an encrypted web browser, and Twitter. The belief that American-made technology inevitably promotes American power to the detriment of all others has been a central narrative of Russian leaders seeking to deflect challenges abroad for a generation. But this recent episode does show how China, long a laggard in international propaganda, is attempting to adopt the Russian model in its bid to challenge the established liberal international order. 

In 2021, this author contrasted the celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party with Russia’s 75th annual Victory Day parade in 2021 and identified China’s systemic hurdles in replicating Russia’s deft hand in global media influence.  

Russia’s brief dalliance with press freedom in the 1990s had resulted in a highly competitive media landscape, in stark contrast to China’s tightly-controlled information environment. The media in Russia is subjugated to the Kremlin through intricate legal constraints and opaque acquisitions by state-owned entities, but responsibility for day-to-day operations is widely disbursed. Newspapers, television stations, and digital channels remain locked in vigorous competition for audience attention within boundaries set by the regime. This atmosphere fosters a fertile ground for provocative conspiracy narratives about Western villainy. Meanwhile, the Chinese media, predominantly a megaphone for party mandates from Beijing, faces no competition and often echoes Soviet-era, bureaucratic communist jargon — a style ill-suited for the digital era’s recommendation-engine-driven dynamics. 

However, China’s deep financial investment in its information apparatus, a cornerstone of its broader effort to challenge the supremacy of liberal internationalism, signals increasing efforts to replicate the Russian style. “Wolf Warrior” diplomats court outrage on Twitter with inflammatory remarks and clickbait commentary designed for virality. Global Times, the CCP’s English-language tabloid, has adopted sensationalist headlines, such as accusing the US of injecting a “toxic substance” into international affairs through its intervention to stop the Kosovar genocide and labeling the US as the “root cause of social security deterioration”. 

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Beyond style, China has also started parroting Russia’s conspiracies. During the COVID-19 pandemic, as China’s information crackdown and suppression of truth-tellers drew global criticism, the state media was quick to spread a Russian conspiracy theory suggesting the virus originated in a US facility in Maryland. Similarly, China echoed Russia’s baseless allegations that Ukraine was harboring American bioweapon labs in the lead-up to Russia’s invasion. 

What China primarily seeks to emulate, however, is the fundamental Russian worldview: one that posits the liberal democracies of the West as global oppressors, abusing their unipolar power for the past three decades. Human rights, free speech, and civil society are dismissed as smoke screens for neo-colonialism, with only China and Russia portrayed as saviors capable of upending this perceived global imbalance. 

Convincing the world of this perspective presents significant challenges for both nations. Though they dismiss the notion of objective truth as a mere power play, it remains a substantial hurdle. During the three decades of liberal hegemony, the world became a better place. The numbers show it — global poverty dropped by three-quarters, child mortality dropped by two-thirds, and the numbers of those suffering from illiteracy, or without access to electricity, and without access to clean water all dropped by half. 

This narrative discrepancy helps explain why so much of the world prefers American to Chinese global leadership (by 22 countries to three, according to a late 2022 poll.) However, China’s primary target audience isn’t the general populace, who hold little sway in political or economic affairs. Its focus is autocratic leaders. And for them, a global order in which all popular opposition can be chalked up to an omnipotent CIA may be all too appealing. 

Ben Dubow is a Nonresident Fellow at CEPA and the founder of Omelas, which specializes in data and analysis on how states manipulate the web.  

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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