Apartment building destroyed after the rocket attack by Russia, Pozniaky district, Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo by manhhai available at Flickr.com under CC license.
Two weeks ago CMP took a close look at two commentaries in the CCP’s official People’s Daily newspaper that hammered hard with allegations of US biological weapons programs in Ukraine, a claim based entirely on information provided by the Russian Defense Ministry and Russian government media in early March. Both People’s Daily commentaries were attributed to “Zhong Sheng” (钟声), an official pen name used routinely for important pieces on international affairs on which the leadership wishes to register its view.
While the biological weapons narrative has been widely discredited, it remains the focus of external propaganda and disinformation by the Chinese Party-state and official media. But beyond the direct and full airing of claims by Russian sources through “mainstream” Chinese outlets like China Central Television, China has organized features, interviews and reports on what it has called the “bio-military empire” (生物军事帝国) of the United States.
One week ago, CCTV.com and other outlets re-ran an interview by the overseas edition of the People’s Daily in which three Chinese international relations experts – including from the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS) directly under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – seriously addressed the question: “What exactly do US biolabs overseas do?” The experts repeatedly characterized the US labs as proof of US “hegemonism” (霸权主义), and they called for an international investigation into the Russian claims in the interests of a “new view of security” (新安全观).
The broader agenda behind this state media framing of the “bio-military empire” is a simple one. China’s government has seized on the bioweapons story as the most effective means of distraction and misdirection from the serious questions raised by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s deepening alliance with Putin. The wave of official coverage and commentary is an effort to reframe the war in Ukraine, so that the world sees beyond the aggressive actions of Russia and its dictator to the alleged threat posed to global security by the irresponsible and hegemonic behavior of the United States.
Once we are re-focused on the bogeyman of American hegemony, we become receptive to the alternative world view that Putin and Xi Jinping reaffirmed in their February joint statement, that a “transformation of the global governance architecture and world order” is entirely necessary. This is the conviction that underlies China’s information campaign on Ukraine, and the reason for its information alignment with Russia.
This also explains why Chinese state media have so determinedly gazed away from the material suffering of the Ukrainian people. Because that suffering, if not first focused through the lens of American threat and evil, is far too compelling a demonstration of Russia’s offenses and of the pretense of China’s neutrality. So long as we are focused on phantom labs, we can overlook real bombs and real sufferings, and Xi Jinping’s handshake with Putin back in February does not look like an act of extreme foolishness, but an important step toward a new world order. With a crucial Party congress just months away, this is an extremely fragile balance.
Perhaps nowhere to date has this official framing of the Ukraine war been so evident as in today’s “Zhong Sheng” column in the People’s Daily, appearing on page three, which bears the telling headline: “The ‘Bio-military Empire’ Will Not Come Clean on Its Own: Seeing American Hegemony Through the Ukraine Crisis” (生物军事帝国”不可能自证清白: 从乌克兰危机看美式霸权).
Quite transparently here, the Ukraine “crisis” is not about the violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty, or about the suffering of its people, of whom at least four million are now refugees outside the country. No, it is about the United States. The violator that has trampled on international rules and norms and sown destruction in our world is not Russia, which the column dignifies as a whistleblower informing the international community of the dangerous misdeeds of another power. No, it is the United States.
“In the face of Russia’s allegations and the concerns of the international community, the United States should, in a responsible manner, make a full clarification of its bio-military activities and cease its exclusive opposition to the establishment of an inspection mechanism,” the commentary says. “It is impossible to prove one’s innocence by clinging to one’s hegemony and running amok, and it is only by effectively complying with international rules and accepting international inspections that one can give the world an explanation and play the role a great power should play.”