Russia and China agreed to coordinate and signal-boost each other's state propaganda: hacked emails
Xi Jinping (R), who has described Vladimir Putin as as 'old friend', invited the Russian leader to the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics in early February Alexei Druzhinin Sputnik/AFP/File

On Friday, The Intercept reported that hacked emails reveal Russia and China have had an agreement to coordinate and boost each other's state propaganda.

"Documents found in a trove of hacked emails from Russia state broadcaster VGTRK show that China and Russia have pledged to join forces in media content by inking cooperation agreements at the ministerial level," reported Mara Hvistendahl and Alexey Kovalev. "A bilateral agreement signed July 2021 makes clear that cooperating on news coverage and narratives is a big goal for both governments. At a virtual summit that month, leading Russian and Chinese government and media figures discussed dozens of news products and cooperative ventures, including exchanging news content, trading digital media strategies, and co-producing television shows. The effort was led by Russia’s Ministry of Digital Development, Communication and Mass Media, and by China’s National Radio and Television Administration."

According to the report, the hack was carried out by a collective known as Distributed Denial of Secrets, which targeted over 50 Russian state agencies and businesses, releasing "more than 13 terabytes of documents" and also exposing secrets of the Wagner Group, a mercenary business that Putin has used as a "shadow army" to recruit warriors from all over the world and exert Russian influence.

"Chinese and Russian news reports suggest that the two countries have held annual media cooperation meetings since 2008," said the report. "The partnership appears largely aimed at domestic audiences. But both China and Russia have massively expanded their overseas media presence in the past decade, and the agreement names outlets with a large international presence, including BRICS TV, RT, and Sputnik (all headquartered in Moscow), and the state-run Chinese outlets China Daily, Global Times, and CGTN."

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One of the key cases where this propaganda coordination happened was the Russian invasion of Ukraine — where Chinese state media promoted a Russian conspiracy theory that gave some pretext for the war crimes being committed against Ukrainians.

"Soon after Russia invaded Ukraine, a Russian defense ministry spokesperson resuscitated debunked claims about a U.S.-funded bioweapons program in the region, accusing Ukrainian labs of experimenting with bat coronaviruses in an attempt to spark 'the covert spread of deadliest pathogens,'" said the report. "Within days, Chinese officials and media outlets had picked up the lies and were amplifying and expanding on the biolabs yarn. The Chinese Communist Party tabloid Global Times created two splashy spreads, one sourced in part to Sputnik News, the other featuring a quote from Russian President Vladimir Putin. 'What is the U.S. hiding in the biolabs discovered in Ukraine?' it screamed."

That same conspiracy theory about biolabs ended up making its way to the United States, promoted by supporters of the far-right QAnon movement. Even Sean Hannity briefly promoted it on Fox News, but a reporter on the network swiftly debunked it.