By Thomas Grove
MOSCOW -- Russian state-controlled broadcaster RT aired a contentious documentary in English last month that accused the U.S. of directing and funding Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests, which have posed a stiff challenge to Chinese control of the semiautonomous city.
That show is just one of a number of recent programs on RT, a network American authorities regard as a propaganda tool for the Kremlin, that have pushed pro-Beijing views on a number of topics, from China's treatment of its ethnic-minority Uighur Muslims to the trade war with the U.S.
With the RT broadcasts, the Kremlin has stepped into the fray between the U.S. and Beijing and provided access to a tool of a sort that China's Communist Party is still working to perfect: a sleek, 24-hour news channel aimed abroad that blurs the lines between news and state propaganda.
Beijing-friendly content on RT and other Russian foreign-language news outlets underscores efforts by the governments and state media of China and Russia to foster cooperation in what Moscow sees as an information war against the U.S. Relations between Moscow and Beijing have blossomed as both countries' ties with Washington have wilted.
"Russia and China's interests align on a number of fronts and most often against the U.S.," said Alexander Gabuev, senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "It's only natural that they would fight back-to-back in what they see as a hostile media landscape populated by Western media outlets."
Twitter and Facebook last year removed pages they said were spreading Chinese disinformation about the Hong Kong protests, but Moscow is increasingly helping Beijing get its voice heard beyond its stodgy media steeped in loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party.
Russia's state-controlled news agency Sputnik, which has been accused by Western governments of deliberately spreading disinformation, has several agreements with Chinese outlets such as the Global Times and the Xinhua News Agency to regularly exchange personnel as well as content. Officials from the two countries held a forum in Russia's Pacific port city of Vladivostok to discuss their state-run media in September.
As a result of those deepening contacts, Chinese media have increasingly echoed Russian state media. Last year, Xinhua repeatedly quoted Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on the need to investigate the alleged role of the U.S. in the worst protests in years against Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In parallel, Russia has shifted from a relatively neutral tone to one backing China's stance on Hong Kong. Moscow has likewise echoed Beijing's line on detention camps for China's ethnic Uighurs and the country's continuing trade war with the U.S.
The documentary on RT, "Hong Kong Unmasked," hit a chord on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, where Chinese users praised it for airing allegations that the protesters are tied to the Central Intelligence Agency and U.S. nongovernmental organizations such as Freedom House and the National Endowment for Democracy.
"Thanks for your hard work! There are not many media that can help China, " wrote one account in Weibo, China's answer to Twitter, in response to a post from RT with a link to the video. Others said RT did a better job than Chinese state media.
RT says it has more than 350 million viewers world-wide, eclipsing China's equivalent, the China Global Television Network or CGTN, which reaches 85 million, according to TV.Chinese.net, a website that researches Chinese media. China has funneled billions of dollars into CGTN, the foreign arm of China Central Television, or CCTV, to change perceptions of a channel that is criticized outside of China for its wooden presentations and bland content.
While still in its infancy, CGTN is airing increasingly provocative reports modeled in part on the offerings of Russian media like RT, say longtime watchers of Russia-China relations. Last month, for example, the station presented a piece mocking President Trump and echoing ironic claims on Russian media that he is an agent of Moscow.
"Russian and Chinese state-run media surely cooperate and exchange delegations and have cooperation agreements," said Vasily Kashin, an expert on Russia-China relations at the Moscow Higher School of Economy. "And China's English-language media is increasingly following the Russian model."
Chinese officials have met with the press office of the Russian Foreign Ministry, run by Ms. Zakharova, who has actively used Western social-media platforms such as Twitter to convey the Kremlin's view, Mr. Gabuev said.
China's Foreign Ministry confirmed that its officials often hold talks with their Russian counterparts and that cooperation on information and media has deepened.
"Unlike some countries' 'information wars' against other countries, China-Russia cooperation in the media field does not target any third party, but [exists] to better clarify the truth, refute rumors and safeguard the common interests," the ministry said in a statement.
State-run news from China and Russia has limited appeal in the West, RT's traditional target. But both countries are increasingly looking to affect popular opinion -- and in some cases to sow disinformation about the West -- in places like the Middle East and Africa.
"The main battle is not about the opinions of the audience in the West, but the opinions of the people in the Middle East, Africa or South America," said Artyom Lukin, a professor at Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok and an expert in Russian-Chinese ties. "These TV stations believe it's possible to shift public opinion there, especially as a lot of people there are quite receptive to kinds of anti-American messaging."
In the U.S., CGTN registered as a foreign agent in February 2019 at the request of the Justice Department. RT was asked to register as a foreign agent in 2017 after a declassified U.S. intelligence assessment said the broadcaster contributed to Russia's attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election.
The Justice Department said it made the request of RT because the broadcaster consistently mirrored the views of the Kremlin. It didn't give a justification for its requirement that CGTN register.
Write to Thomas Grove at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
January 14, 2020 07:14 ET (12:14 GMT)
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