As China steps up its efforts to manage global opinions, it increasingly customizes its message to local audiences, including via cooperation with disinformation outlets.
Notably, as thoroughly explored by ASPI, Chinese media and officials have utilized the coverage of the far-left website Grayzone to discredit reporting on human rights abuses in Xinjiang, singling out German scholar Adrian Zenz for personal attacks.
A similar nexus seems to be present in Czechia. But here, developments hint at China’s direct cooperation with disinformation outlets, rather than just amplification of their narratives.
As covered by the recent report of Czech Denik N, there appears to be some form of cooperation between the Czech version of China Radio International (CRI) and a prominent Czech “alternative” website, AC24. Since at least October 2020, dozens of anonymous articles have appeared on the website of CRI, obviously written by local Czech authors.
In most cases, articles first appear on CRI, to be republished shortly after on the AC24 website itself, suggesting that they are primarily written for CRI use. While no author is identified on either of the sites, one can find the name of Ondrej Gersl, the founder and owner of AC24, under some of the articles that have subsequently been translated and published on the Chinese-language CRI website.
After a story on the issue was published in the Czech media, new author names suddenly appeared on CRI, listing them as “special commentators of CMG [China Media Group, which owns CRI] in Prague.” However, no information can be found about these authors and there is a possibility that they are fake personas. Gersl, the owner of the AC24 website, has claimed that he did not write the articles and denied any kind of formal cooperation with Chinese media.
The articles covered the usual topics of Chinese propaganda: highlighting China’s economic growth and technological achievements, lauding its fight against poverty, and positively reflecting on China’s role on the global stage, while attacking the United States and the West at large. A prominent topic has been the situation in Xinjiang, with articles dismissing criticism of China’s policy against Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities there.
The articles can be immediately distinguished by their style and language. Most of the CRI content in Czech consists of articles that have been mechanically translated from Chinese or another language in which CRI reports. These are often unintelligible to Czech native speakers or even unintentionally humorous. On the other hand, the aforementioned articles stand out for their rather sophisticated argumentation, which taps into the already existing web of anti-Western and conspiracy narratives that have long been nurtured in the Czech disinformation media environment, rather than just reusing Chinese domestic propaganda for external use.
By utilizing AC24, China also gains access to already established audiences consuming disinformation media, as the content is often reposted within the dense network of sites. The mutual intelligibility of Slovak and Czech and the close relationship between the two countries’ information ecosystems also enables targeting of the audience in Slovakia.
Ultimately, the AC24 articles also enable the Chinese Embassy to point at positive coverage in Czech media, hiding their origin as “ghost-written” Chinese propaganda. The articles on the AC24 website have been shared by the official accounts of Chinese Embassy in the Czech Republic on Facebook and Twitter. Finally, the translated articles published in Chinese also help Beijing to present the picture that China and its policies enjoy support abroad to the domestic audience.
From Necessity to Strategy
The cooperation of Chinese media and Chinese embassies with alternative media is not new. In Czechia, the ambassador has often published articles or given interviews to Halo Noviny, a fringe newspaper run by the CCP-friendly Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM) and Parlamentni Listy, another media outlet often accused of spreading disinformation. One of the reporters of Halo Noviny also frequently publishes for the local CRI.
Similar modes of cooperation can be found in neighboring Poland and Slovakia. For example, in Slovakia the Chinese ambassador has published in Dimenzie, Nove Slovo, and Hlavne Spravy. In Poland, the outlet of choice has been the marginal left-leaning Trybuna newspaper.
In Hungary, the local Chinese embassy has been the least active in terms of any kind of media presence out of the Central European Visegrád Group (V4) countries. This suggests that due to the positive environment toward China nurtured by the Orban government and the pro-government media, the embassy does not see a need to get directly engaged in shaping the media discourse.
So far, however, China’s preference for fringe media seems to have been more a necessity than a choice. Getting into mainstream media has been often difficult for the embassies, due to stricter editorial control or general unwillingness of the media to host official statements by Chinese diplomats, with some important exceptions (e.g. the case of an advertorial on Hong Kong in a Slovak economic weekly, Trend). Now, it appears to be shifting from improvisation into a strategy.
Yet, the affiliation with these alternative outlets may present a reputation cost for Chinese embassies, as the outlets provide low quality reporting and lack editorial standards. Often, they function mainly as business operations, motivated first and foremost to increase readership by sharing sensationalist content, as the owner of AC24 himself previously admitted. In some cases, these outlets even run anti-Chinese conspiracy theories. For example, AC24 has previously published articles on the association between 5G and the Wuhan outbreak of coronavirus. However, it seems that in the effort to take advantage of a potentially useful source of pro-China narratives these outlets can provide, the benefits outweigh the costs for Beijing.
The Czech case shows that the tactics of Chinese external propaganda are evolving. In some ways, this appears innocent. For example, CRI has launched its “Studio Krtecek” (“Little Mole Studio,” named after a popular Czech cartoon character), a video program where Czech-speaking young Chinese talk about life in China, largely avoiding political topics.
However, as exemplified by the AC24 case above, these efforts at localization have also a much sharper edge. In another peculiar case, a Swiss United Front-affiliated group unsuccessfully tried to disseminate disinformation about Czech Senate President Milos Vystrcil, accusing him of taking a bribe of $4 million to visit Taiwan last year. The visit caused a diplomatic row with Beijing, with China trying to isolate Vystrcil on the Czech political scene via China-friendly actors.
These cases are manifesting the growing toolbox of Chinese efforts to influence media and public opinion, on top of state media broadcasting and social media presence, content sharing agreements, paid inserts, or even direct acquisition of local media by Chinese companies – all of which have been reported in Czechia under the MapInfluenCE project. China’s efforts are thus increasingly starting to mirror Russian activities in the information space. These activities are set to intensify, just as Beijing faces growing scrutiny over its human rights abuses in Xinjiang and elsewhere, leading it to ramp up efforts to increase its “discourse power” and shape global narratives.
Filip Šebok is a China Research Fellow and Project Manager at the Association for International Affairs (AMO) in Prague, Czech Republic. He is also an individual member of the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats (Hybrid CoE) Expert Pool. His research interests include relations between China and the Central and Eastern European countries and China’s foreign policy rhetoric.