Leaked documents provided to Voice of America’s (VOA) sister network RFE/RL confirm reports that Russia and China collaborate on censorship and internet control tactics.
The materials detail documents and recordings said to be from closed-door meetings in 2017 and 2019 between officials from the Chinese and Russian agencies charged with policing the internet in both countries.
In those documents and recordings — reported on by RFE/RL — officials from both countries share strategies for tracking dissent and controlling the internet, including requests for help to block “dangerous” news articles and advice on beating circumvention technology.
RFE/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.
VOA has not seen the files.
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 specific conversations had never before been reported.
Neither the Russian Embassy nor the Chinese Embassy in Washington responded to VOA’s emails requesting comment.
In some of the leaked materials, Chinese officials appear to ask Russia for advice on dealing with popular dissent and regulating media, the report said. 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, founder of China Change, a website that covers human rights in China.
“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 said, referring to China.
Other materials showed that in 2017, Aleksandr Zharov, the former head of Russia’s internet regulator Roskomnadzor, asked China’s internet regulator to arrange a visit for Russian officials to China to study China’s Great Firewall censorship and surveillance system.
Two years later, officials from the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), China’s internet regulator, asked Russia to block links to a variety of China-related news articles and interviews that they had deemed to be “of a dangerous nature and harmful to the public interest.”
At the 2019 World Internet Conference in the eastern Chinese city of Wuzhen, the CAC and Roskomnadzor signed a deal on counteracting the spread of “forbidden information.” Documents obtained by RFE/RL showed that some requests made by the CAC later that year to block information in Russia were made under that agreement.
In one request, Chinese officials asked Russia to censor a Chinese-language BBC story about a government campaign launched in 2015 to improve the country’s sanitation. In another request, Chinese officials asked Russia to block a blog post about rumors that President Xi Jinping had injured his back.
The Kremlin has grown even more restrictive over the past year since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, 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 in Russia, and the reason is to prevent factual information on the war from spreading in Russia,” Buziashvili told VOA.
The RFE/RL report on the leaked information confirms how Beijing and Moscow work together on censorship and propaganda, according to Buziashvili.
For example, she said, 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 Russian disinformation about the war.
“This report just confirms the collaboration between the two states and their entities,” Buziashvili said.
It makes sense that the two authoritarian states would work together on influence operations, she added, and the state-controlled media ecosystems in both countries naturally facilitate this kind of collaboration.
“If they are cooperating in offline spheres, why not cooperate online and have stronger narratives and reach broader audiences?” Buziashvili said.