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How Russia's Public Diplomacy Contributes to Its Propaganda toward China

Conspiracy theorists usually attribute harmful and tragic things to a small group of people whom they believe are powerful, covert, and ill-will. They also despise the mainstream narratives, argue that things are not “simple,” and believe that most people are hoodwinked. These are what many pro-Russia and anti-West Chinese netizens are doing now. While the international society is condemning Russia and expressing sympathy for Ukrainian war victims, the teases and defamations of the Ukrainian leadership are popular on the Chinese Internet. Chinese pro-Russia and anti-NATO conspiracy theorists believe that the Ukrainian leadership is a puppet of the West and renders Russia’s military failures as the necessary sacrifice for a larger tactical goal.

For example, lots of videos about Russia’s abandoned tanks appeared on social media in March. While the mainstream media thought this was evidence of Russian troops’ ineptitude, Chinese conspiracy theorists argued that this is the Russian army’s traditional tactics. The Soviet army had also abandoned a large number of tanks and gears to mobile rapidly to form an enclosure to Nazi Germany’s tanks. Hence, what Russian troops were doing today was to form an even larger enclosure for the Ukrainian military. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian military controlled by the West was ignorant to understand this “wonderful” tactic.

A Tank Abandoned by Russia

Conspiracy theories like this are groundless because the Russian Federation today is not the formidable Soviet Union in the past. The popularity of pro-Russia conspiracy theories on the Chinese Internet bears some critical and interesting questions. Why are these Chinese people willing to give more credit to Russia even if they may confront great pressure from the international society as well? How does Russia win “the hearts and minds” of the Chinese people? Russia’s enduring and successful public diplomacy toward China may be the answer to these questions.


What is Public Diplomacy?

Public diplomacy is a term coined by former U.S. diplomat Edmund Gullion in the mid-1960s. It has been partly developed to distance the government’s overseas information activities from the term propaganda, which had acquired pejorative connotations. The Center on Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California defines this notion as “a key mechanism through which nations foster mutual trust and productive relationships and has become crucial to building a secure global environment.” However, the fact is there is not a consensus about what public diplomacy is and it’s always hard to tell the differences between them by theories or by definitions. But in practice, scholars and diplomats can feel that they are different.

Studying real diplomatic cases is an important way to understand the differences between propaganda and public diplomacy. Generally speaking, they have at least three key differences. Firstly, whereas both propaganda and public diplomacy want to change certain groups of people’s thoughts towards something, propaganda usually seeks an instantaneous upside-down change while public diplomacy is usually soft and gradual, utilizing some vehicles to indirectly change target audiences’ thoughts. For example, Vladimir Putin’s speech On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians is a propaganda piece in which he entirely denies the reasonability of Ukraine as an independent state. In contrast, the former Soviet Union had done good public diplomacy by using Russian arts, science, and technology to attract the countries in the East Bloc.

Secondly, propaganda is usually state-to-state, but public diplomacy is usually “people-to-people.” The players of propaganda are all public sectors while both public and private sectors can engage in a public diplomacy activity. For example, the mutual attacks between the US government and the Soviet government during the Cold War are propaganda. But their public exhibitions in each other’s countries are public diplomacy. Propaganda pieces are usually simple and blunt texts and images that attack other states. However, public diplomacy usually contains cultural events that can resonate with foreign audiences.

The third difference is propaganda is usually fraught with sensational misinformation, while public diplomacy is largely based upon facts. For example, exaggerating the loss of Russian troops by the Ukrainian government is propaganda. But if the Ukraine government invites foreign journalists to talk with and report on Ukrainian war victims, it will be counted as a public diplomacy event.

Public diplomacy is usually related to cultural events. Public diplomats usually try to use public exhibitions, sports events, educational exchanges, music concerts, and many other cultural vehicles to transmit their mother countries’ values to foreign audiences. A classic example is the Jazz Ambassadors program by the U.S. Department of State during the Cold War in which several American Jazz musicians were sponsored by the U.S. government to do global performances and talk with local musicians. The program had successfully defended the United States against the Soviet’s accusation of the racial oppression of African Americans in American society. Also, it helped the United States establish a good image among external audiences.


Russia’s Presences in China’s History, Media and Education

Chinese people’s unusual support for Russia has been widely reported by international news outlets. But based on the previous discussions about propaganda and public diplomacy, I argue that most of these media are wrong in attributing this unusual support to Russia’s propaganda. Most of the time, Russia’s communication strategies toward China are soft, and Chinese people voluntarily accept Russia’s messages.

There are multiple reasons for Russia’s success in public diplomacy vis-à-vis China. But a successful public diplomacy campaign usually requires the implementer country and the target country to share some common historical memory. Due to the special Communist camaraderie between the former Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, a large number of Chinese mid-aged and elders were profoundly influenced by Russian arts, culture, science, and technology. Therefore, whereas they know the red empire has dissolved for over 30 years, they naturally migrate their affinity to the Russian Federation.

With that being said, the communications between the Russian Federation and modern China are closer to the range of public diplomacy. Since President Xi Jinping took the office in 2012 and opened the “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership of Coordination” with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the two countries have had broader and deeper collaborations in fields other than geopolitics, military, energy, agriculture, and other traditional “hard power” things.

In 2019, the Moscow State University and Beijing Institute of Technology established their first joint educational institute MSU-BIT University in Shenzhen, a young city famous for technology and innovation. For Moscow, this university is a very important financial income; for Beijing, this university can offer the high-quality mathematics and engineering talents that Beijing is longing for. Nonetheless, beyond these political pursuits, the university has also facilitated the people-to-people diplomacy between Russians and Chinese. The university has occasional open events for local high school students and parents to learn about Russian culture and education.

Shenzhen MSU-BIT University

More interestingly, Russians’ presence in Chinese media and the entertainment industry is increasing. Vladislav Ivanov, better known by his stage name “Lelush,” went viral in China over a night because of his handsome face and his “sulky” behaviors on the Chinese reality show Produce Camp 2021. He kept saying he wanted to quit the show and asked his fans not to show any support to him. On the other hand, he was enthusiastic about introducing Russian songs, dance, and food to his fans during the show. In his leisure time, he taught other foreigners in the show Chinese, which made him look generous to his Chinese fans. In addition, hundreds of Russians or Chinese in Russia have accounts on Bilibili, the most popular Chinese video platform among youngsters. They are sharing their stories in China or Russia every day and interact with their Chinese subscribers.



People hate propaganda but they may never realize that they have already assimilated some propaganda. Meanwhile, every country does propaganda, but the effects of their propaganda vary. This article has no intention to justify Russia’s military actions in Ukraine or its fallacious propaganda in China. However, the popularity of pro-Russia conspiracy theories, although look ridiculous, teaches us an important lesson that an enduring and effective public diplomacy toward a target country can create “a space of propaganda” in the future for the public diplomacy implementer country, namely making people in the target country more likely to give you more credits in the information war. Russia’s “people-to-people” diplomacy vis-à-vis China is frank and straightforward. But the most interesting point is that the frankness and straightness enable Russia to be unscrupulously hypocritical. In other words, even though Russia is conspicuously wrong, the good impression it left on the Chinese people before the war enable Chinese conspiracy theories more willing to accept Russia’s alternative truth.

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