Last week, Russian diplomats and state media launched a high-volume propaganda campaign around protests in Kazakhstan, which were started by anger over fuel prices and suppressed with the help of Russian troops. Kremlin-backed messengers referenced Kazakhstan more times than Russia itself last week. There were nearly as many tweets mentioning Kazakhstan from January 3 to 9 as there were mentioning Ukraine across all of December. Russian state media showcased protesters looting, setting police cars on fire, stealing fire trucks, beating officers, and exchanging gun shots with the Kazakh military. State-backed outlets reported on the president of Kazakhstan’s authorization for officers to “open fire and shoot-to-kill without warning.” The demonstrations resulted in 164 dead, more than 5,000 protesters detained, and $210 million in damage, according to Kremlin-linked media.
Early in the crisis, Russian officials argued that the unrest was an “outside-inspired attempt to undermine the security and integrity” of Kazakhstan. Russia’s Foreign Ministry claimed they’d seen repeated foreign interference attempts. State media picked up similar claims made by China of outside involvement. Kremlin-funded media shared videos and reports of Russian troops helping to restore order in Kazakhstan. One outlet circulated a video where a Kazakh person thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin. Meanwhile, Russia’s Foreign Ministry responded to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s criticism of Russian involvement in Kazakhstan by saying, “When Americans are in your house, it can be difficult to stay alive, not being robbed or raped.” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called U.S. commentary on the crisis “baby babble.”
Kazakhstan coverage took a significant amount of attention away from Ukraine last week. Limited commentary was aimed at lowering expectations for the U.S.-Russia and NATO-Russia talks happening this week. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov noted that “there is a good chance” that the United State and NATO are unwilling to listen to Russian demands, and he said it would be “naïve to assume rapid progress.” State media quoted NATO’s secretary general warning that talks could fail. Russian officials and state media pointed to NATO expansion and its mission in Libya to push back on claims that the alliance was defensive in nature. Russia’s UN ambassador tweeted, “NATO came to our borders and not vice versa. We simply demand that it goes back and deters itself.” Moscow-backed outlets also amplified French presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon’s calls for France to consider leaving NATO, and officials argued that the EU had ceded its sovereignty to the United States via NATO.
Russian state-backed outlets also covered the anniversary of the January 6 insurrection. RT live streamed U.S. President Joe Biden’s speech about the storming of the Capitol. The outlet also amplified a series of polls that showed that one in three Americans believe that violence against the government is sometimes justified and 40 percent of Americans believe that Biden was not legitimately elected. State media circulated an op-ed by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, which expressed concern that the United States is at “risk of a civil conflict.” At the same time, RT shared Republican talking points about the insurrection, including a claim by Representatives Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Green that the government could have set up the Capitol riot.
On January 6, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) spokesperson Wang Wenbin seized upon the anniversary of the storming of the U.S. capitol to attack the United States’ democratic decline, its hasty withdrawal from Kabul, and “the so-called Summit for Democracy.” He repeated his attacks, albeit more briefly, on January 7. Other diplomats in China, India, South Africa, and at the United Nations followed suit, connecting the events of January 6 with the deadly consequences of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States. Chinese state media also extensively covered the anniversary, with CGTN and its affiliate, T-House, highlighting U.S. society’s deepening polarization and declining morale, while the Global Times portrayed a fractured and “bleeding” country. Xinhua and CGTN translated those narratives into many languages.
The MFA’s initial reaction when asked about the unfolding unrest in Kazakhstan last week was to distance itself from its neighbor’s “domestic affairs.” It was similarly cautious when commenting on Russia’s intervention in the country, focusing on “violent terrorist acts” and avoiding mention of Moscow, while denouncing “acts by external forces to deliberately create social instability.” Nevertheless, Kazakhstan was the fifth most mentioned country by Chinese diplomats as well as the third most mentioned country by Chinese state media last week. However, after Xi Jinping called the uprising a “color revolution” fomented by “external forces,” Chinese diplomats and state media’s coverage intensified. Over the weekend, China’s Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs Hua Chunying accused protesters of being paid and implied that grants by “US-based NED” and NGOs “with Western background” were responsible for the unrest. A Chinese diplomat in Pakistan denounced “six waves of attacks” on the Kazakh capital conducted by “20,000 terrorists.” State media was less imaginative, with the head of China Daily’s Europe office calling out U.S. hypocrisy over its support for Kazakh demonstrators and alleged persecution of January 6 rioters.
For the third straight week, Lithuania was criticized in most of the Chinese MFA’s daily press conferences. On Tuesday, Wenbin minimized Taiwan’s decision to buy Lithuanian rum to help counter Beijing’s economic coercion and attacked the United States for enabling Vilnius’ challenge to the one China principle. On Wednesday, Wenbin said that the Lithuanian president’s remorse over the naming of the Taiwan representation was a good first step but did not redress the harm. And on Thursday, Wenbin pushed back against the idea that China was conducting economic coercion and repeated accusations that the United States was Lithuania’s puppet master. Chinese diplomats in the Czech Republic, South Africa, and the United Arab Emirates, along with state media, echoed the MFA’s messaging.
Despite the focus on Lithuania and Kazakhstan, Ethiopia–related content remained among the most engaged-with content, continuing a weeks-long trend that has been aided, in part, by China’s embrace of the #nomore hashtag campaign.
Finally, while Tesla earned plaudits from Chinese diplomats and state media over its decision to open a showroom in Xinjiang, 7-Eleven was fined for identifying Taiwan as a country on its website, showing, once again, the CCP’s efforts to influence Western businesses.
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