For the hundreds of thousands of Chinese fans who flocked in recent weeks to the video channel of a Russian soldier identifying himself as “Paul Kotzatie,” the man’s first-hand account resonated with truths about the war in Ukraine many surely felt they knew. For more than a year, state media reports had claimed, Russia’s aggression notwithstanding, that it was the United States that was primarily to blame for the conflict. Here, speaking from the front lines, was Paul, claiming to have destroyed American tanks and “captured American soldiers alive.”
As proof, Paul displayed captured weapons and equipment to his viewers, and shared footage of what appeared to be live combat action against the backdrop of Ukraine. By early June, Paul’s online store on Kuaishou, one of China’s top short video platforms, had attracted more than 400,000 fans.
But Paul was not Russian, and he was not in Ukraine. The ruse unraveled earlier this month as social media users noted that while Paul’s Russian was halting, he spoke Chinese not just fluently, but with a distinctive Henan accent. Before long, suspicions were confirmed. It was established that his IP address was indeed in Henan province.
As the video account came under widespread scrutiny online, Paul suddenly deleted his previous videos, renaming his account “Wang Kangmei” (王抗美), a false name that translates as “Anti-American Wang.” Soon after, Kuaishou deleted the offending account, and other platforms followed suit.
China’s restrictions on information and content creation in the digital age are formidable, unmatched anywhere in the world. How was it, then, that a patently false account of life on Ukraine’s front lines, rendered with often cringingly poor CGI, was allowed to persist, and even to prosper, for two months?
Under the Cover of the Party’s Dogmatic Truths
A big part of the answer lies in the special powers and privileges enjoyed in China by state media in a tightly controlled media environment — and by the official narratives they peddle to domestic audiences. In China’s media environment, the fundamental core value is that power and its interests must be protected. Falsehood can endure, so long at it cleaves to the dogmatic truths of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
The Party’s notion of the truth provides a level of cover and protection, a kind of information camouflage. Paul’s falsehood could stand unopposed because it accommodated an official Chinese position, and an attitude toward the war in Ukraine. That position, including the notion that the US and its allies are to blame, has been promoted through the country’s most powerful media channels with a basic disregard for the facts, and with routine dishonesty — evidenced not least in the media’s insistence still on referring to the war as a “crisis.”
For the same reason, it is fair to say that Paul’s account was suspended not for committing fabrications per se, but because it was broadly and openly exposed as a fabrication, and because that fabrication also involved commercial profit.
In China’s media environment, truth is not a defense and offers no protection. If a video account from a real Ukrainian soldier on the front lines were to offer an entirely different vantage on Russia’s aggression through Kuaishou or another major Chinese platform, we can be certain the account would face swift removal before it could approach anything close to half a million fans. “Anti-American Wang” is acceptable. “Pro-Ukrainian Wang” is not.
The story of “Paul Kotzatie” is a reminder that in China the right to speak, and the right to be heard, is ultimately controlled by those in power, and by their agendas.
This is a fact whose ramifications we also witnessed last month as the Cyberspace Administration of China announced that it had shut down more than 100,000 fake accounts impersonating official Party-state media organizations and news anchors. Another 25,000 accounts, said the CAC, had impersonated public institutions, while some 13,000 had impersonated official military accounts, with names like “Chinese Red Army Command.”
Why would fraudsters pretend to be state media, public institutions, or the military?
The answer should be obvious. The Party, the government, and the military are the three manifestations of power in China, all ultimately under the leadership of Xi Jinping and the CCP. In this New Era, when the leadership has moved to re-consolidate its control over the channels of communication, association with the institutions of power is really the only way to ensure that what one says, however false and self-serving, will be heard, perpetuated — and protected.