The official visit of Xi Jinping to Russia in March attracted a lot of attention due to ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict, Russia’s international isolation, and China’s growing importance in international affairs. On Russia 24, a major state-owned Russian-language news channel, the visit was celebrated with the launch of the second season of TV program “Xi Jinping’s Favorite Classical Quotes.”
This program, jointly produced by China Media Group (CMG) and the Propaganda Department of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), appears to be an example of traditional and rather dull propaganda, whose influence and social impact is very limited. However, when considered in terms of the bigger picture, it is an instance of China’s increasing international media presence and attempts to shift international discourse about itself, which have recently attracted a lot of scholarly attention.
How does China approach Russia’s media market? And how is this increased engagement presented and assessed by Russians?
Russian Editions of the Big Three: Xinhua, People’s Daily, and CGTN
Just like in many other countries, China’s major media outlets, such as Xinhua, People’s Daily, and CGTN (the overseas arm of CCTV), have Russian-language websites and accounts on international and Russian social media platforms. As of last month, Xinhua’s account on VK, a social networking service based in St. Petersburg, had 1.1 million followers, more than the account of Russia’s leading news agency TASS (it has fewer than 1 million). Xinhua regularly posts news about Chinese culture, external relations, and domestic achievements, from an increase in per capita income to the opening of new gardens in Chongqing, and accompanies these reports with spectacular photos showing beautiful places in China.
However, despite their relatively active presence in Russian social media, Chinese state media accounts on VK seem to be less creative than their colleagues working in China. As demonstrated by Maria Repnikova and Fang Kecheng, the Chinese domestic audience is not only presented with information on social media, but also encouraged “to repost, share, and create content” and thus to participate in propaganda production and dissemination.
Institutionalization of Bilateral Media Cooperation
Chinese party- and state-owned media companies cooperate and exchange media content with their Russian counterparts. The bilateral media cooperation goes back to the era of Sino-Soviet alliance, when in 1956 news agencies Xinhua and TASS signed their first agreement.
The more recent institutionalization of China-Russia media partnership started in the early 2010s. For instance, in 2012 China Radio International (CRI) launched a monthly journal called “Breath of China” (Дыхание Китая) together with the newspaper Rossiskaya Gazeta, the official newspaper of the Russian government. CRI also signed a cooperation agreement with newly established MIA Rossiya Segodnya (also known as Russia Today), a state-controlled international news television network, in 2014.
In 2018, the CMG was set up as a state-owned media conglomerate by merging CCTV, CGTN, CRI, and China National Radio. The CMG then took on responsibilities for interacting with the Russian media market. For instance, in August 2022, the CMG reached an agreement with VGTRK, a broadcaster that operates multiple radio and TV channels, and Rossiskaya Gazeta to start a China-Russia Video Exchange Broadcasting project.
The development of connections between Russian and Chinese media outlets has been supported by the countries’ top leaders. In 2015, Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping agreed to hold China-Russia media exchange years in 2016 and 2017. The same year, the China-Russia media forum was launched and since then it has been held annually. During Xi’s recent visit to Russia, the CMG and Rossiskaya Gazeta signed a memorandum to further strengthen cooperation, while Xinhua and TASS renewed their cooperation agreement.
Chinese Content in Russian Media
Rossiskaya Gazeta seems to be one of the major outlets for Chinese propaganda in Russia. On its website, the publications supplied by the CMG are numerous and quite easy to detect. Not only do they have a special label, but also their style and language give away their origin as Chinese propaganda in Russian translation. The contents of these articles vary from the more politically sensitive essays (e.g. criticizing the United States for double standards in respect to human rights and democracy) to rather random stories about Chinese domestic politics, economy, and society (e.g. one describing Xi Jinping’s visit to a lychee farm in Guangdong).
As for new digital media, in 2017 CRI and MIA Rossiya Segodnya launched the mobile media platform “Russia-China: The Essentials” (Россия и Китай: Главное) to address the changing patterns of news consumption. The platform publishes both news and less serious content, including viral videos from Chinese social media, slogans of the day, etc. The app is ranked 155th in the news category in the Russian app store, and on VK its account has more than 660,000 followers. Its materials are often reposted on the websites of Rossiskaya Gazeta and Russian state-owned domestic news agency RIA Novosti, which demonstrates the interconnectedness of different channels used to disseminate Chinese messages.
Apart from the TV program “Xi Jinping’s Favorite Classical Quotes,” VGTRK also lists two documentaries as joint projects produced together with the CMG. The first documentary “Russia and China. The Heart of Eurasia,” which came out in 2015, talks about the joint struggle of the Soviet and Chinese peoples against German Nazism and Japanese militarism and features interviews with Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. Although listed on Kinopoisk, a Russian online database with information related to films, it does not have any ratings or comments, so its social impact seems to have been minimal.
It is worth emphasizing that, apart from the aforementioned major Russian state-owned media, the CMG also cooperates with smaller media outlets and experiments with different formats. For instance, together with St. Petersburg-based radio station Metro in 2020 it recorded a music video in Russian about Wuhan and its fight against COVID-19.
Are Russians Worried?
Given their active participation in China’s increased media engagement, Russia’s state-owned media outlets present China’s media presence in an extremely positive light. It is characterized as another step in bilateral cooperation and an opportunity for Chinese and Russian citizens to know more about each other. In 2017, Rossiskaya Gazeta explained that the decision of the two countries to cooperate in the media sphere was conditioned by the complicated international informational environment.
To cite a more critical view, in 2020, Alexei Kovalev from Meduza – a Russian-language news website based in Latvia and declared an “undesirable international organization” in Russia – wrote an investigative report about China’s media engagement in Russia. He described Chinese media as aggressive and questioned how equal the information exchange between the two countries actually is.
Moreover, Chinese internet trolls have become the subject of ridicule in Russian social media due to the absurdity of their comments in support of the CCP and poor knowledge of Russian.
Overall, people in Russia still have a very limited knowledge about China; there is a certain gap in mutual understanding that needs to be addressed. However, the quality and selection of information about China presented to the Russian audience, the aim of this exchange, and its impact are all questionable. The articles about China prepared by the CMG and inserted into Russia state-owned media copy the crude style of Chinese traditional propaganda, which could hardly appeal to the Russian audience. Content posted to Russian social media seems to be more appealing.
Despite their growing presence, it appears that China’s state media companies do not try hard enough to engage Russians. Kovalev explained this by pointing to the formal approach of China’s state-owned media and the lack of qualified specialists who could make content more entertaining and suitable for Russians.
Moreover, China already gets favorable enough media coverage in Russia, so it does not have to spend valuable resources to construct and popularize alternative narratives. In other countries and world regions China’s increased media engagement is seen as an attempt to counter the media influence of the United States. However, in Russia’s case this motivating factor is missing, as the Kremlin is successfully doing the job itself.
Two more observations seem important for understanding the case of China’s engagement with Russia’s media sector. First, close diplomatic relations and a similarity in media systems, where the major media outlets are owned by the state (or the CCP, in China’s case), allow China to get its message across not by negotiating and providing financial incentives to individual private media companies, but by striking deals with Russian state-owned outlets. Both sides are motivated by political goals and symbolic gestures rather than profit-seeking or attracting a wider audience. In 2021, Putin even awarded the Order of Friendship to the president of the CMG, Shen Haixiong.
Second, the current geopolitical situation, Russia’s domestic politics, and its highly restrictive media policy all facilitate a positive representation of China in Russian media. It is in the interest of the Russian state to avoid criticism and sensitive topics and to represent China in a positive light, portraying it as a stable and flawless state and as Russia’s faithful partner.