Chinese diplomats and prominent state media are parroting Russian disinformation reports about US-run biological laboratories in Ukraine, deepening tensions between Washington and Beijing ahead of a critical security meeting in Europe.
Yang Jiechi, China’s top foreign policy official, and Jake Sullivan, US national security adviser, will meet in Rome on Monday, the first face-to-face meeting between senior China and US officials since Vladimir Putin ordered troops into Ukraine.
The talks come against a backdrop of rising frustration in the west over China’s relationship with Russia and Beijing’s refusal to condemn the invasion.
The Financial Times reported on Monday that Russia has asked China for military equipment to support its invasion of Ukraine, sparking concern in the White House that Beijing could undermine western efforts to help Ukrainian forces defend their country.
However, China’s official rhetoric on Ukraine’s conflict over the weekend concentrated on wild allegations that the US was using Ukraine to research dangerous pathogens and biological weapons.
Xinhua, the official state news agency, on Sunday published a “satellite investigation”, posting satellite images of supposed US labs identified by Russia. Xinhua repeated Russian claims that the US was seeking to learn how to spread pathogens through animals.
The Global Times, a nationalist tabloid, ran a story based on an article published in the Russian daily newspaper Izvestia, in which an unnamed former Ukrainian official claimed that Ukraine had a network of military research facilities under the supervision of its security services and modernized by the US.
The reports appeared after Zhang Jun, China’s permanent envoy to the UN, on Friday dismissed the US assertion that the biological laboratories allegations were “groundless”. He said that the “concerns raised by Russia should be properly addressed”.
“The US always says they advocate transparency. If they believe the relevant information is fake, they can just provide us with relevant data for clarification, so that the international community can draw a conclusion by itself, ”Zhang said.
The Chinese foreign ministry has also backed up claims, with spokesperson Zhao Lijian telling reporters in Beijing that US “biological military activities” in Ukraine are “merely the tip of the iceberg”.
Ukrainian officials have expressed hope that China might play a role in mediating the conflict, with foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba saying the country “has sufficient tools to make a difference” in bringing an end to the war.
Beijing’s response to the invasion has sharpened criticism of the role of Chinese technology companies in spreading Kremlin talking points – as well as in silencing pro-Ukrainian voices.
Chinese media platforms were “absolutely complicit” in censoring information about Ukraine and spreading propaganda, said Yaqiu Wang, a China expert at Human Rights Watch, a US-based campaign group.
While Chinese companies have always facilitated state propaganda, a big difference over recent weeks has been the proliferation of Russian propaganda, including from broadcasters RT and Sputnik, Wang said.
“People within the Great Firewall and outside the Great Firewall, they’re living in an increasingly parallel information universe,” she added.
Additional reporting by Maiqi Ding in Beijing