COVID-19: China and Russia Disinformation and Shenanigans

As we sit here at the beginning of April, it is sometimes hard to remember that it was Nov. 17, 2019, when China discovered a virus emanating from a central fish and wildlife market in the city of Wuhan. The virus has become known as Novel Coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19). Initial reports in China indicated that this virus resembled the SARS coronavirus.

This discovery wasn’t widely noted until Dec. 10, when Wei Guixian, 58 years old and a merchant at the market, fell ill. Within eight days she was barely conscious in a hospital bed.

It would take another few weeks, until Dec. 30, for the rest of the world to become aware, when Ai Fen, the director at Wuhan Central Hospital, shared information about COVID-19 on the Chinese social network WeChat. This earned her a reprimand.

Separately, doctor Li Wenliang shared information about COVID-19, comparing it to SARS. He, too, was reprimanded in late-December and called in for questioning. He subsequently was forced to sign a statement of apology and reprimand; however, the reprimand was rescinded in March following the doctor’s death in February due to COVID-19 and the publicity surrounding his “whistleblowing” via WeChat that COVID-19 was a serious issue.

With Fen and Wenliang’s social posts, the COVID-19 cat was effectively out of the bag and China’s attempt to squelch knowledge of COVID-19 until such time as officials could shape the narrative was severely hampered.

While China displayed its authoritarian capabilities and sequestered off more than 50 million of its population to stop the flow of COVID-19 within China—which caught the attention of the world—the country also apparently withheld key data points that would have facilitated other countries’ defensive actions. Key among them were the multiple times China changed the manner in which it counted its victims, always in an effort to reduce the overall number of infected and those who succumbed to the disease.

China’s intent was, and is, to project the notion that it acted quickly and appropriately to stem the spread. What Chinese officials failed to advise in January and February when countries were pulling their citizens out of Wuhan, was that they had discovered the virus spreads even if the individual is asymptomatic—i.e, displaying no signs of the virus. In addition, the day before the “lockdown” of Wuhan, there was a mass exodus of 5 million inhabitants from the city, abroad and throughout China.

While the world marveled at how China built multiple 1,000-bed hospitals in a short period of time, the country’s nation-state cyber teams were launching APT41 in a widespread effort to exploit the very tools that would be of utility by the millions of remote workers around the globe—those from Citrix, Cisco Systems, Zoho and FireEye. Such compromises would permit China a view into innumerable entities around the globe, as the compromises included entities in Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, India, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Philippines, Poland, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, UAE, UK and the United States.

So we have China digging into the global IT infrastructure and keeping at arm’s length the World Health Organization and the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which couldn’t get their personnel into the city and relied only on the statistics and information shared by the Chinese. WHO medical research personnel were eventually allowed into Wuhan and produced a comprehensive report based on information to which they were made privy.

China had begun shaping the narrative.

Officials knew that it would eventually be discovered they had used their expats abroad to purchase and ship to China vast quantities of personal protective equipment and other medical supplies.

As cases begin to be identified in the United States and Europe—all of which pointed back to Wuhan—China entered a tornado of negative publicity.

John Sipher, former head of Russian Operations within the CIA, commented:

“We are seeing clear evidence that the Chinese security services are learning from the Russians. In the past China focused on stealing commercial and military technology, but with their growing confidence and appetite, they are incorporating more aggressive efforts to steal political intelligence, spread disinformation and engage in subversion. They have seen how easy it has been for Russian covert operatives to turn Americans against each other. As China and the US commercial and political interests diverge, we can expect to see more efforts to use their security services to engage in a form of information warfare similar to the Russians – but with much more to spend.”

China did not disappoint.

On March 13, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Zhao Lijian posted on Twitter that a website, globalresearch.ca, claimed that COVID-19 originated in the United States, specifically at Fort Dietrich, where the U.S. bio-warfare lab is located. That website has long been associated as being an echo chamber and repeater for Russian disinformation—something that certainly was known to Zhao Lijian when the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs chose to make it a cornerstone of its disinformation effort.

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute reported on how the Chinese newspapers of record, the Global Times and People’s Daily Online, used the tweet as their basis for articles pointing the finger of blame for COVID-19 at the United States. It was a good bit of circular reporting, in which the same story is repackaged and retold by various entities all deriving from a singular source that happens to be dispensing false information.

Cindy Otis, former CIA analyst and author of soon-to-be-released “TRUE OR FALSE: A CIA Analyst’s Guide to Spotting Fake News” noted:

“The Chinese Communist Party has a well-established and experienced domestic propaganda apparatus they have now rallied to sow disinformation and fuel conspiracy theories around the world to cast doubt about the origins of the coronavirus, such as promoting the false claim that it was created in a US military lab, as a way to deflect blame and point the finger at the U.S.”

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang, like clockwork, joined in and said the origins of COVID-19 are still disputed, offering, “The international community has different views on the origins of COVID-19, and China always believes this is a science issue that requires scientific and professional opinions – that is Chinese stance.”

And while science raced to learn, the Chinese apparatus hit a new gear as they drove their disinformation train down the tracks.

As the situation in Italy deteriorated and northern Italy was locked down, the China disinformation machine decided to muddy the waters further by accusing Italy of bringing COVID-19 to China via an unexplained strain of pneumonia.

China is now going back and making changes within online media, as evidenced by the adjustment of the Global Times headline of Jan. 18: “Wuhan pneumonia: China confirms 4 new cases, 2 deaths,” on March 25 became, “Novel coronavirus related pneumonia: China confirms 4 new cases, 2 deaths.”

As if China and Russia were Mutt and Jeff, Russia jumped into the fray and got its hands slapped.

Russia was called on the carpet by the EU, which said a “significant disinformation campaign by Russian state media and pro-Kremlin outlets regarding COVD-19 is ongoing.” Indeed, multiple EU media outlets all cited a 19-page report from within the EU monitoring team that claimed to have collected 80 examples of disinformation between Jan. 1 and March 17. The Russian pieces pointed blame for a bio-weapon—COVID-19—that got loosed on China, the U.S. or the U.K., depending on the piece of disinformation.

All of which served to feed Russia’s interests.

Russia wasn’t taking its hand off the engine’s throttle, doubling down and pumping out more disinformation designed to sow distrust among the allies of the United States. This was exemplified by the find from the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which it shared on Twitter.

 

The tweet was prescient words indeed from Sipher, as China’s efforts with respect to COVID-19 are to cast dispersion and falsehoods, the classic counter-interrogation technique of deflection, denial and counter-accusations.

Sadly, the reality is with China cooking its books from the outset, China has set the world on fire.

Christopher Burgess

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Christopher Burgess

Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is a writer, speaker and commentator on security issues. He is a former Senior Security Advisor to Cisco and served 30+ years within the CIA which awarded him the Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal upon his retirement. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century”. He also founded the non-profit: Senior Online Safety.

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