How Russia and China Use Disinformation to Justify Internment Camps

After failing to conquer Ukraine's capital city of Kyiv, Russia has turned its focus toward the east of the country, staging an offensive campaign against the strategically significant city of Mariupol, which lies between Russian-annexed Crimea and the contested Donbas region.

Part of Russia's strategy to exert dominance in this region has allegedly been to remove potential combatants from the area. Petro Andryushchenko, an advisor to the mayor of Mariupol, posted on Telegram that Vladimir Putin's forces have removed roughly 27,000 people from the area and forcibly placed them in "filtration camps."

In its past wars with Chechnya in the mid-1990s and early 2000s, Russian forces placed Chechens in mass internment centers, which they refer to as "filtration camps," where the U.S. State Department says the Russians "beat, tortured and executed" detainees.

In response to recent events, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov has denied the allegations, saying "such reports are lies." This represents the doubling down of a previous stance offered in late March by state authorities when they said that the almost 420,000 people evacuated from Ukraine at the time were transported to Russia for their own safety.

"What Russia does really well is they create just enough doubt to undermine a response," Todd Helmus, who researches Russian disinformation with the RAND Corporation, told Newsweek. "Even if [other nations] believe [reports], they're given just enough doubt to not act on them."

Russian President Vladimir Putin Visits China
: Chinese President Xi Jinping accompanies Russian President Vladimir Putin to view an honor guard during a welcoming ceremony outside the Great Hall of the People on June 25, 2016 in Beijing, China. Each leader's respective country faces allegations of placing individuals in internment camps. Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

Fielding allegations of human rights abuses and claims of starting an unprovoked war, Russia has wielded disinformation and the power of denial during its attack on Ukrainian sovereignty. Putin has falsely justified his invasion of Ukraine as a "denazification" effort, despite the fact that President Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish, while Russia's ambassador to the U.S. has accused NATO of commencing "a military exploration of Ukraine."

During the United Nations General Assembly vote on a resolution for Russia to withdraw from Ukraine, 35 countries, including India, South Africa, and Iran, abstained from voting against Putin's actions. By spreading disinformation, Helmus said Russia is able seeds of doubt around its transgressions and intelligence coming from the West, allowing these countries to save face when they take actions that directly or indirectly support Putin's regime.

Ian Johnson of the Council on Foreign Relations, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his work as a correspondent covering China, told Newsweek that Beijing follows a similar playbook when addressing its handling of the Uyghur ethnic minority. Western nations accuse Beijing of placing these predominantly Muslim people in internment camps in its Xinjiang province, where Human Rights Watch reports some have faced involuntary sterilization, torture, and forced labor.

The United Nations has estimated that approximately 1.5 million Uyghurs are imprisoned in the Xinjiang camps, about 13% of the total Uyghur population. Adrian Zenz, a senior fellow in China studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington D.C., told NPR that the facilities in Xinjiang, which are widely referred to as concentration camps, are "probably the largest incarceration of an ethnoreligious minority since the Holocaust."

China's responses to such allegations refer to the camps as "transformation through education centers," arguing that they teach "vocational skills," and are meant to "educate and transform" those Uyghur people that it claims are at risk of developing extremist views that could spark acts of terror.

"The United States and other Western countries started to support separatist and terrorist activities in Xinjiang out of geopolitical purposes in order to destabilize China," the state-run newspaper China Daily's think tank 'China Watch Institute' wrote in April of 2021.

"Practice has proved that vocational education and training in Xinjiang can effectively eradicate the conditions that enable terrorism and religious extremism to breed and spread," it said in a February 2021 report.

China's Uyghur Minority Marks Muslim Holiday In
A Uyghur family pray at the grave of a loved one on the morning of the Corban Festival on September 12, 2016 at a local shrine and cemetery in Turpan County, in the far western Xinjiang province, China. The group has allegedly faced torture, forced labor, and sterilization at the hands of Chinese state officials. Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Helmus said that while China generally takes a defensive posture with its disinformation campaigns by denying allegations of human rights abuse, Russia takes an offensive approach, working to create division and cast doubts by pumping out conflicting reports. However, Johnson notes that both draw on real concerns regarding the West to bolster their campaigns.

"The West doesn't have a blameless history in many parts of the world," Johnson told Newsweek. "The West justified the invasion of Iraq, and that all turned out to be kind of bogus."

One of the appeals used by the Bush administration to justify its invasion of Iraq was that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had developed an advanced chemical weapons program, yet later reports issued by the U.S. Senate determined it had misrepresented its intelligence around this threat.

For countries like India and South Africa, where the effects of Western imperialism can still be felt, Western military actions can provoke a unique form of skepticism. Knowing this, Russia often targets countries like India and Brazil, a former Portuguese colony, as objects of its disinformation campaigns, Helmus told Newsweek.

"Especially with the Western audience, we look at this stuff and say, 'What they're saying is absurd because who would believe that?'" he said. "But other audiences might be inclined to believe it."

While Russia may have expected a strong NATO reaction to its invasion and may be less concerned with its humanitarian reputation in Western Europe, by sowing seeds of doubt about its actions in countries like India and Brazil it allows these countries to save face, to a certain extent, when doing business with it.

And accordingly, while Brazil and India have expressed a certain level of disproval over Putin's invasion of Ukraine, with Brazil condemning the war outright, each has nonetheless continued doing business with Russia.

Johnson said that the West's own messaging may be an additional reason why it struggles to hold China accountable. While China's reported treatment of the Uyghurs constitutes genocide under the legal definition of the UN — "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group" — it has not conducted the mass murders the public largely associates with genocide.

China's efforts have primarily been to assimilate the group culturally, so the country's Foreign Minister Wang Yi has been able to dismiss genocide accusations as "slanderous attacks."

Johnson notes that given the West's history of influencing regime changes in South American countries and participating in wars like the one in Iraq, people are more willing to give credence to opposing views when it comes to the actions of major world powers, and that makes holding China and Russia accountable a challenge.

"People are often willing to give credence to everything to try to be fair," Johnson told Newsweek. "And so, people sort of accept everything, and I think that's part of the problem when trying to counter disinformation."