Allegations of doctored films fuel concerns about Beijing propaganda

Days after Beijing had announced it was sending urgent medical supplies to Italy in its hour of need, Chinese state media showed Italians on their balconies and in the streets applauding the Chinese national anthem.

“In this community with a shared future, we share weal and woe together,” wrote Hua Chunying, a senior Chinese government official and director-general of the country’s Department for Information on Twitter on March 15.

On the same day Zhao Lijian, spokesman for China’s foreign ministry and the man who suggested that the US military could have brought the Covid-19 virus to Wuhan, posted a second video of Italians applauding China from their balconies. “In Rome, with the Chinese anthem playing, some Italians chanted ‘Grazie, Cina!’ on their balconies, & their neighbors applauded along,” he wrote on Twitter.

A close analysis of the videos conducted by the FT alongside work by two Italian fact-checking and manipulation experts raise concerns about their authenticity, adding to wider anxiety about Chinese disinformation in Europe. Last month, Beijing warned the EU against publicly accusing it of spreading coronavirus crisis propaganda.

The images of regular Italians apparently cheering Beijing from their balconies fit with China’s efforts to reshape the world’s narrative around Covid-19 at a time when its government is sensitive to accusations that it covered up the outbreak in Wuhan, analysts say. 

“Italy has become a big prize for China,” said Nathalie Tocci, director of the Rome-based Institute of International Affairs think-tank, pointing to Italy’s decision to become the first G7 country to sign up to China’s Belt and Road infrastructure initiative.

“When Italy became the first country in Europe to be hit by Covid-19 there was a big opportunity for China to reverse some of the negative publicity it had got by being seen to come to the aid of Italy,” she said. 

Above, video footage posted by an Italian news outlet. Below, the same footage in a montage posted by a Chinese government spokesperson.

The aid, which featured heavily on Chinese state television, was warmly received by Italian politicians. But the videos shared by Ms Hua and Mr Zhao were not picked up by any mainstream Italian media and no independent reports emerged.

The first 15 seconds of the video posted by Ms Hua and produced by China’s People’s Daily show apartments in Rome with the Chinese national anthem playing in the background. It then shows Italians on their balconies clapping, while the national anthem continues to play.

But, this second scene is of Italian news footage of unrelated applause elsewhere in the country for Italian medical staff on March 14, as the state media subtitles point out in Chinese. Yet in the video posted by Ms Hua the Chinese anthem plays over the unrelated footage, potentially giving the impression that Italians are applauding China. 

The first 15 seconds may be a genuine, although isolated, case of someone playing the Chinese national anthem in Rome, said Alessandro Ciapetti, from the fact-checking website Pagella Politica, but the video is an “artfully created montage”. “Italy has become front and centre for disinformation in Chinese on social media,” he said.

Davide Puente, another Italian online communications expert, sourced what he believes to be the first online publication of the footage at the start of the video posted on Twitter by Ms Hua to a Facebook post made on March 14 by the Aula Radiofonica Confucio CRI-Uni-Italia, the Italian language division of the state-owned China Radio International service.

China’s donation of equipment, such as protective face masks, was warmly welcomed by Italian politicians © Nicola Fossella/EPA-EFE

The precise location of this footage, which features a man shouting “Grazie Cina!”, can be located using Google Street View to a building on Via Enna in Rome’s San Giovanni neighbourhood. 

Underneath this building is a pharmacy. Nino La Marchile, the owner, said that his pharmacy was shut when the neighbourhood began to clap that day, but he was working inside and did not hear the Chinese national anthem. He described the video as “fake news”.

Aula Radiofonica Confucio said via a Facebook message to the FT that the video was genuine. “This video was taken by a Chinese man living in Rome, and it’s definitely authentic,” it said. “Also in other areas someone else has taken a video of the Chinese national anthem playing on the same day,” it added, sending a link to the video posted on Twitter by Mr Zhao.

This video is filmed in Via Taranto. In multiple videos posted by Chinese state news groups, there is the same audio of a man shouting “Grazie Cina!” as can be heard in the video posted by Aula Radiofonica Confucio shot 1km away. In the video posted by Mr Zhao, the Chinese national anthem is playing but there is no man saying “Grazie Cina!”. 

Mr Puente said it was possible there was one isolated incident of the Chinese anthem being played in Rome, but it was then “enhanced” by China’s state media.

Mr Ciapetti agreed. “It is possible one person in Rome played the Chinese national anthem, but these videos are a bad attempt to make it look like something it was not. We see fake news every day, but it is surprising to see something this crude shared by Chinese government officials”. 

When contacted by the FT Ms Hua and Mr Zhao did not respond to requests for comment. People’s Daily also did not respond to a request for comment.