China and Russia collaborate on internet censorship

Leaked documents reveal the depth of cooperation between Beijing and Moscow to silence critics and push propaganda

Leaked documents provided to Voice of America’s sister network Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty confirm reports that Russia and China collaborate on censorship and internet control tactics.

The recordings and documents are said to be from closed-door meetings in 2017 and 2019 between officials from the Chinese and Russian agencies charged with policing the internet.

Officials from both countries share strategies for tracking dissent and controlling the internet, according to Radio Free Europe and Radio Libery. They include requests for help to block “dangerous” news articles and advice on beating circumvention technology.

RFE and RL said its Russian Investigative Unit obtained the recordings and documents from a source who had access to the materials. DDoSecrets, a group that publishes leaked and hacked documents, provided software to search the files, which VOA has not seen.

While there have been previous reports about Moscow and Beijing collaborating on tactics related to censorship and other forms of repression, the content of these conversations had never been disclosed.

Popular dissent

Neither the Russian Embassy nor the Chinese Embassy in Washington responded to VOA’s emails requesting comment. In the leaked material, Chinese officials appear to ask Russia for advice on dealing with popular dissent and regulating media, the report revealed.

Meanwhile, Russian officials asked for advice from Beijing on issues such as how to impede circumvention tools like virtual private networks and how to regulate messaging platforms.

The revelations underscore how repression is much more sophisticated in China than Russia, according to Yaxue Cao, the founder of China Change, a website that covers human rights in the country.

Free speech has hit a Great Firewall in China and Russia. Image: Pixabay

“China’s censorship and China’s suppression of access to information is total. Russia has a lot more to learn from China,” Cao told VOA.

“The whole system is propped up by their narratives, their revisionist history, their total control of the media, their total control of the opinion field,” Cao added, referring to China.

Other documents and recordings showed that in 2017, Aleksandr Zharov, the former head of Russia’s internet regulator Roskomnadzor, asked China’s online watchdog to arrange a visit for Moscow officials.

The purpose was to study China’s Great Firewall censorship and surveillance system.

Two years later, Beijing officials from the Cyberspace Administration of China asked Russia to block links to a variety of Chinese-related news articles and interviews that they had deemed to be “of a dangerous nature and harmful to the public interest.”

Forbidden information

At the 2019 World Internet Conference in the Chinese city of Wuzhen, the Cyberspace Administration and Roskomnadzor signed a deal on counteracting the spread of “forbidden information.” 

Documents obtained by RFE and RL showed that requests made by China’s online regulator later that year to block information in Russia were made under that agreement.

In one request, Beijing officials asked Russia to censor a Chinese-language BBC story about a government campaign launched in 2015 to improve the country’s sanitation.

A blog post about Xi Jinping’s health was blocked. Photo: Courtesy Xinhua

In another move, China asked Moscow to block a blog post about rumors that President Xi Jinping had injured his back.

The Kremlin has grown even more restrictive since Russia invaded Ukraine last year, according to Eto Buziashvili, who researches Russian disinformation at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

“Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russia has been trying to double down on censorship, and the reason is to prevent factual information on the war from spreading in Russia,” Buziashvili told VOA.

The RFE and RL report on the leaked information confirms how Beijing and Moscow work together on censorship and propaganda, she pointed out.

Offline spheres

For example, Chinese state media representatives and outlets have previously amplified Russian propaganda narratives on social media. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Chinese state media have echoed Moscow’s disinformation about the war.

“This report just confirms the collaboration between the two states and their entities. If they are cooperating in offline spheres, why not cooperate online and have stronger narratives and reach broader audiences,” Buziashvili asked.

This article is republished courtesy of Voice of America. Read the original article here and the Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty report using this link.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.