China In Eurasia Briefing:  Xi, Putin, And A Battle Of Narratives Over The Moscow Concert Attack  

By: - April 2, 2024

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Welcome back to the China In Eurasia briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter tracking China’s resurgent influence from Eastern Europe to Central Asia.

Looking ahead, we’ll be changing up the newsletter format and will start sending it out every week. Until then, it would be great to hear more about what you like about the newsletter currently and would want more of moving forward. Send me an email to [email protected] with your thoughts. Don’t be shy! 🙂

I’m RFE/RL correspondent Reid Standish and here’s what I’m following right now.

Listen to the Talking China In Eurasia podcast.

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Xi, Putin, And A Battle Of Narratives Over The Moscow Concert Attack

Islamic State (IS) was quick to claim responsibility for the bloody Crocus City Hall attack in Moscow on March 22 that killed at least 143 people.

But despite that claim and graphic body cam footage from the attack later posted by the militant group, Russian officials and state media have said, without evidence, that Ukraine was involved in the attack. Those claims have also begun to find their way into some Chinese state media coverage.

Finding Perspective: When President Vladimir Putin first addressed Russia on March 23, the day after the attack, he made no mention of the group, whose Afghan-affiliate Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) is believed to have carried out the deadliest attack in Russia since the 2004 Beslan siege. In comments on March 25, he asserted again that the tragedy was likely ordered by Ukraine.

There’s been little reference to the IS attribution from Russian officials and state media, with the focus instead being on unsubstantiated claims about the assailants traveling to Ukraine before being caught. Ukrainian officials have staunchly denied any involvement in the attack.

In China, coverage has largely centered around Chinese nationals. Shortly after news broke of the incident, Chinese students studying in Russia — of which there are more than 44,000, according to official Russian figures — began to share their stories on online platforms and with various Chinese media. In the 24 hours after the attack, it generated more than 21 million views and 7 million comments on the prominent social media platform Weibo.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping also promptly offered his condolences to Putin, saying that “China is against terrorism of any form” and that Beijing “firmly [supports] the efforts of the Russian government in safeguarding national security and stability.”

Chinese state media, meanwhile, have given growing space for Russian officials to link the attack to Kyiv — and even American involvement despite U.S. warnings several weeks beforehand that an attack was likely — which Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova asserted in a statement on Telegram.

“Until the investigation into the terrorist attack at Crocus City Hall is completed, any phrase from Washington exonerating Kyiv should be considered as evidence,” she wrote. “After all, the financing of terrorist activities of the Kyiv organized criminal group by the American liberal democrats and participation in the corrupt schemes of the Biden family have been going on for many years.”

Why It Matters: The Moscow attack has quickly been wrapped up in a global disinformation campaign.

Russia’s NTV television channel aired a deepfake video following the attack that showed Oleksiy Danilov, Ukraine’s top security official, appearing to taunt Russia and take credit for the attack. The video was later debunked as an AI-altered fake by BBC Verify.

This has been followed by online bots across social media in multiple languages amplifying claims of Ukrainian involvement and Western intelligence agencies being part of the attack.

The Big Picture: As Etienne Soula, a research analyst with the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy, told me, Chinese state media exists on a spectrum and so far more nationalist outlets like the Global Times “seem to be supporting Russia’s allegations regarding Ukrainian involvement in the attacks,” and even quoted Chinese experts casting doubt that IS could pull off such an attack.

“Their framing of the attacks is very reminiscent of their early coverage of the war in Ukraine: quoting Russian current and former officials with no qualifiers, far more quotes of Russian officials than of Western voices (and almost no space for Ukrainian officials),” Soula wrote in an e-mail.

So far, the official line toward the attacks appears to be supportive of Russia, but comparatively reserved.

Sari Arho Havren, an associate fellow at London’s Royal United Services Institute, told me that China and Russia aligning in the information space is hardly new, but it appears to be growing as both governments’ global interests overlap.

“Whether China believes Putin’s version of the terrorist attack is irrelevant because China will use the version of the events that best serves its own interests and goals,” she said.

“Overall, China seems to boost the Russian narratives when they fit and advance China’s own goals. As with this case, Beijing appears to particularly amplify the option of U.S. involvement behind it all – at least for as long as it’s feasible.”

Three More Stories From Eurasia

1. Chinese Wind Energy Meets Bosnian Corruption

A monthslong investigation by my colleague Predrag Zvijerac from RFE/RL’s Balkan Service shows how well-connected individuals in Bosnia-Herzegovina are facilitating the influx of Chinese investment into the country so they can benefit through murky land-ownership schemes and convoluted legal loopholes.

The Details: The investigation centers on the Ivovik wind farm project, China’s largest and most expensive project in the Balkan country.

This flagship investment has been championed by Bosnian authorities as a job-creating endeavor that will give the country a foothold in Europe’s growing green-energy space and open the door for future investments in the local economy.

But the wind farm’s lofty ambitions are now caught up in a complex saga of land disputes, questionable concessions, and murky deals that highlight where Chinese state interests and shady local business practices collide.

At the heart of the controversy around the Ivovik wind-energy project is a dispute over land ownership, with the government of the canton — the administrative units that make up roughly half of Bosnia — granting land to Chinese companies under questionable and possibly illegal circumstances.

Predrag found how cantonal governments are awarding concessions to Chinese firms for land linked to the project that belongs to nearby residents, dispossessing them of their land and allowing officials to generate large profits in the process.

The wind-energy project is the most high-profile example of this in the country, but Predrag’s investigation also shows that this practice is becoming a growing trend across Bosnia when it comes to Chinese cash.

Read the full investigation here.

2. Workers Targeted In Pakistan

A suicide bomber drove an explosives-laden car into a bus carrying Chinese workers, killing at least five of them, along with their Pakistani driver, police said on March 26.

What You Need To Know: RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal reported that the attack in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province was the latest in a series targeting Chinese workers who are employed in major public infrastructure projects funded by the Chinese government.

The suicide bombing marks the third major attack on Chinese interests in Pakistan in a week. The first two attacks targeted a Pakistan naval air base and a strategic port used by China in the southwest province of Balochistan where Beijing is investing billions in infrastructure projects.

No group has claimed responsibility for the attack as of this writing.

The five Chinese who died were engineers at a key Chinese-funded hydropower project in Dasu, which is under construction by the China Gezhouba Group Company. In July 2021, a bomb placed on a bus carrying Chinese workers to the dam in Dasu killed nine Chinese citizens and four Pakistanis, while injuring 21 others.

3. The New Tightrope

On the same day that Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev met with a U.S. senator in Astana, he also welcomed Erkin Tuniyaz, the deputy secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in Xinjiang who is currently sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department.

What It Means: As RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service reported, Toqaev met Republican Senator Steve Daines on March 26 where the Kazakh president “underscored Kazakhstan’s focus on attracting investment, economic liberalization, and industrial development, outlining energy, mineral exploration and processing, and infrastructure modernization as key areas of mutual interest,” according an official press release.

Tuniyaz was sanctioned in 2021 for playing “a leading role in the persecution of the Uyghurs,” and other Muslim minorities in China’s western province, where Beijing led an expansive crackdown and internment camp system.

The dual meetings highlight Kazakhstan’s long-held balancing act between foreign partners. Amid an intensifying global competition between Beijing and Washington, Toqaev is looking to stay out of the fray and remain on good terms with both countries.

Across The Supercontinent

Huthi Deal: The Yemen-based Huthis have told China and Russia after talks with their diplomats that their ships can sail through the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden without being attacked, according to Bloomberg, citing “several people with knowledge of the militant group’s discussions.”

Railroad Plans: Amid months of behind-the-scenes talks, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov said “a common understanding on the mechanism for implementing” the much-discussed China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway has been reached, RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service reports.

Balkan Buddies: Speaking after a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic, who is also acting prime minister, said on March 21 that relations with Russia and China are in Belgrade’s “vital national interest.”

Hikvision And a NATO Base in Romania: A few weeks ago, RFE/RL journalists in Romania found Chinese-made surveillance equipment installed at some 28 military sites in the country — including the NATO base that is home to the Aegis Ashore missile-defense system.

Here’s a new video explainer breaking down the investigation.

One Thing To Watch

The U.S. and British governments accused hackers linked to the Chinese state on March 25 of being behind “malicious” cybercampaigns targeting political figures. London also alleged that China-affiliated hackers were behind an attack that saw the data of millions of voters accessed.

The Inter-Parliamentary Alliance On China (IPAC), a group of Western lawmakers, were also targeted by the group. My colleagues at RFE/RL’s Romanian Service spoke with local lawmakers affected.

While major powers are often looking to infiltrate each other’s networks and gain new information, the decision to so forcibly go public is likely to ramp up tensions with China.

The Chinese Embassy in London outright denied the allegations, calling them “completely fabricated and malicious slanders.”

That’s all from me for now. Don’t forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you might have.

Until next time,

Reid Standish

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