Years before Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin declared a "no-limits" partnership and the Kremlin launched a wide-ranging censorship campaign following its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Beijing and Moscow were sharing methods and tactics for monitoring dissent and controlling the Internet.
That growing cooperation between the two countries is shown in documents and recordings from closed door meetings in 2017 and 2019 between officials from the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), its chief Internet regulator, and Roskomnadzor, the government agency charged with policing Russia's Internet, that were obtained by RFE/RL's Russian Investigative Unit (known as Systema) from a source who had access to the materials. DDoSecrets, a group that publishes leaked and hacked documents, provided software to search the files.
Beijing and Moscow have been deepening their ties for the past decade and controlling the flow of information online has been a focal point of that cooperation since Xi's first trip to Russia as leader in 2013. Over the ensuing years that cooperation expanded through a number of agreements and high-level meetings in China and Russia between top officials driven by a shared vision for a tightly controlled Internet.
The files give a behind-the-scenes look at some of those discussions -- the content of which has not been previously reported -- and offer a window into the practical level of cooperation under way between China and Russia when it comes to monitoring and restricting their respective Internets.
Among those deliberations -- which are cataloged through meeting notes, audio recordings, written exchanges, and e-mails that have been verified by RFE/RL -- Russian officials are seen asking for advice and practical know-how from their Chinese counterparts on a range of topics, including how to disrupt circumvention tools like VPNs and Tor. They are also seeking ways to crack encrypted Internet traffic as well as seeking tips from China's experience in regulating messaging platforms.
In turn, Chinese officials sought Russian expertise on regulating media and dealing with popular dissent.
In a 2019 exchange, officials from the CAC also made requests to Roskomnadzor to block a variety of China-related links to news articles and interviews that they had deemed to be "of a dangerous nature and harmful to the public interest."
In another instance in July 2017, Aleksandr Zharov, who served as the head of Roskomnadzor until 2020, asks a Chinese delegation led by Ren Xianling, then-deputy minister of the CAC, to help arrange a visit for Russian specialists to China, where they could study the operations of the Golden Shield Project -- the all-encompassing Internet censorship and surveillance system that helps make up what is colloquially known as China's Great Firewall.
The outcome of that visit is not outlined in the files RFE/RL received and Roskomnadzor and the Chinese Foreign Ministry did not respond to questions about the contents of the material.
A Decisive Period
While not conclusive, that request highlights how Russia has sought to emulate China in exerting control over its people in the social-media age, says Andrei Soldatov, a Russian investigative journalist and co-author of the Red Web, a recent history of Moscow's attempts to control the Internet
"2017 was a crucial time that decided what direction to take Russia's Internet towards," Soldatov told RFE/RL. "It was this period when Russia was looking at how to build the more sophisticated system that it now has in place and it looks like the Russians learned something about how to do this from the Chinese."
For years, the Russian government has been putting in place the technological and legal infrastructure to smother freedom of speech online. Many of those measures have stumbled in practice, including a clumsy attempt to ban the Telegram messaging app in 2018, while other tools like VPNs and Tor also mostly eluded Russian censors.
But in 2019, those efforts reached a zenith when a controversial "sovereign Internet" law went into force that allowed Moscow to tighten control over the country's Internet by routing web traffic through state-controlled infrastructure and creating a national system of domain names.
While many of Russia's measures are still a far cry from those inside China, they have continued to be more technologically advanced and restrictive, a process that has accelerated since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.
Behind Closed Doors
The first closed-door meeting RFE/RL obtained records from is on July 4, 2017, in Moscow, where a Russian delegation led by Zharov met with a Chinese group led by Ren. Aleksandr Smirnov -- the head of the Kremlin's public relations department, which oversees information policy on behalf of the president -- invited Zharov to a Russian-Chinese media forum that took place in conjunction with an official visit by Xi.
In addition to attending the official part of the event, Smirnov told the Roskomnadzor chief in a letter to meet with CAC to "exchange experience in regulating the Internet sphere." The discussions, according to the letter, came about after a request from the Chinese.
According to documents and audio recordings examined by RFE/RL, the talks lasted more than two hours and involved Zharov with two deputies and one assistant, along with Ren and three CAC officials, plus translators for each side.
The discussions quickly turned to practical requests for expertise, with Zharov asking about Chinese "mechanisms for permitting and controlling" mass media, online media, and "individual bloggers," as well as Chinese experience regulating messenger apps, encryption services, and VPNs.
Zharov would go on to suggest that the CAC send a team of specialists to Russia to study the technical aspects of Russia's system for blocking content online, which he said took place with a "high efficiency" inside the country. The Roskomnadzor chief then requested that they be permitted to send a team to China to study the operations of China's vast Internet censorship and surveillance system, the so-called Great Firewall, because "more than 95 percent" of prohibited content in Russia is "foreign-produced."
The Chinese side asked for more details on the types of information blocked in Russia and how it monitors online discussions and processes personal data. Ren also asked for specifics and methods for Russia to use the Internet to "form a positive image" inside and outside the country. Zharov responded that image control was outside the purview of Roskomnadzor and that it should be raised with the Putin administration.
The Chinese delegation also asked about protests organized by opposition figure Aleksei Navalny a few months prior in March 2017 that coincided with the release of a documentary detailing alleged corruption by then-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and wanted to know what tools Roskomnadzor used to regulate media coverage of the nationwide rallies.
"These high-level exchanges have been going on for some time and they've always been focused on understanding what the other side is doing in one area, where they see the other falling short, and what they might learn from each other," Andrew Small, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, told RFE/RL. "Internet censorship has been a big part of it because it relates to political stability at home and the shared view that outside forces are meddling from abroad."
Zharov said that protests in some cities took place with proper permits from the authorities, so information about them was not restricted online, and that a decision to let them take place was made because they were deemed relatively small-scale and enthusiasm for them would fade within "a few days." He added that the decision to let the protests take place was influenced by Putin's "very high level" of support from the public, which he said "fluctuates at around 89 percent."
The Roskomnadzor chief may have misrepresented popular support for Putin at the time and downplayed the level of sustained interest inside Russia for the Navalny documentary to his Chinese counterparts. According to polling by the state-owned Russian Public Opinion Research Center at the time, Putin's trust or confidence rating had fallen to 49.9 percent, with his approval rating sitting at some 81 percent. Also, according to a previous RFE/RL investigation, the Main Radio Frequency Center (GRFC) -- a specialized unit within Roskomnadzor -- tracked online interest and discussion about the Navalny documentary and their internal metrics show that it only began to decline on the Russian Internet by July -- nearly four months after it was released.
Few follow-up details are offered in the files obtained by RFE/RL about the requests and enquiries raised in the meeting, but Roskomnadzor compiled and shared a summary of the discussions with the FSB, Russia's main domestic intelligence agency. In that document, Zharov strikes a positive note and calls for expediting joint efforts with China to improve the blocking of information and the need for the "exchange of experience at the level of technical specialists" between the two countries.
Pushing Ahead With Deeper Ties
The 2017 meeting came after a wider push in the preceding years for deeper cooperation between Beijing and Moscow when it came to monitoring and controlling information online and saw new agreements on increased collaboration signed by Xi and Putin.
A breakthrough was reached in April 2016, when the Safe Internet League, a censorship lobbying group funded by Konstantin Malofeyev, a conservative Russian oligarch with close links to the Kremlin and Russian Orthodox Church, organized a conference in Moscow that featured a large Chinese delegation led by Lu Wei, who at the time was the head of the CAC, and Fang Binxing, the architect of the Great Firewall.
Denis Davydov, the executive director of the Safe Internet League, told The Guardian in 2016 that the deal to hold the conference was reached in December 2015 in Beijing between Fang and Igor Shchyogolev, a university friend of Putin's and former communications minister who serves as a Kremlin aide on Internet issues.
Malofeyev and the Safe Internet League were part of a group pushing for closer cooperation in order to learn from China how to better tame the web and limit Western digital influence. Shchyogolev also played a key role, and Soldatov says he was one of the main figures pushing for a pivot to China at a time when some elements of the intelligence services were still suspicious of involving the Chinese more closely in Russian domestic affairs.
Following the July 2017 meeting, officials from Roskomnadzor and the CAC continued to meet and share expertise.
By 2019, Russia had introduced its own "sovereign Internet law" and Putin began to accelerate moves to bring foreign technology companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter to heel by imposing fines and introducing laws that required corporations to keep employees in Russia and thereby expose them to potential arrest.
During a June 2019 meeting in Moscow, Xi and Putin announced an upgrade in their ties to a "comprehensive strategic partnership," with cooperation on information and governing the Internet front and center. The two leaders said they shared a need for "peace and security in cyberspace on the basis of equal participation of all countries" and vowed to "promote the construction of a global order for the governance of information and cyberspace."
More Practical Cooperation
One month later, Zharov and a team from Roskomnadzor met with a Chinese delegation in Moscow led by Zhuang Rongwen, who was appointed to head the CAC in 2018.
According to readouts and recordings from the July 17, 2019, meeting, Roskomnadzor's representatives asked about Chinese expertise in being able to counteract attempts to bypass blocking, with Zharov citing the agency's failed attempts to block Telegram in 2018 as an example.
The Russian side also said it wanted to learn how China uses artificial intelligence to identify and block "prohibited content." A response from the Chinese delegation is not in the files, but a 2023 RFE/RL investigation revealed that Roskomnadzor has begun to use artificial neural networks to track Russians online, particularly searching for posts that insult Putin or call for protests.
On the sidelines of the World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, China, in October 2019, Roskomnadzor and the CAC signed a cooperation agreement on counteracting the spread of "forbidden information" and the obtained documents show select requests from the CAC in December 2019 to block information inside Russia under the guise of that deal.
Among those requests, which were laid out in three separate letters containing links to articles and sites, Chinese officials asked to censor a Chinese-language BBC story about China's "toilet revolution," a government campaign launched in 2015 to improve the country's sanitation; a blog post that discusses rumors of Xi suffering a back injury that received less than 4,000 pageviews; and links on GitHub, the software development website, that describe ways to bypass China's firewall inside the country.
Other requests include the homepage of The Epoch Times, a newspaper affiliated with the Falun Gong religious movement that is persecuted inside China, and links to profiles on the Russian social-media site VKontakte. In one instance, a user shared a video of an apparent ethnic Uyghur couple dancing that is titled "Rustam and Zumrad (Uighurs rock)." Beijing launched a sweeping crackdown and internment system against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang that the United Nations described as committing "serious human rights violations" and some Western countries have designated as genocide.
Another request features the VKontakte profile of a Chinese university student that contains a video interview of former Chinese President Jiang Zemin in 2000 with CBS's 60 Minutes that is archived on the nonprofit U.S. network C-SPAN. The interview touches on human rights issues, U.S.-China relations, and religious freedom in China.
"The scope of these requests is quite sweeping and it's interesting that it extends beyond Beijing's classic set of issues like Xinjiang, Taiwan, or Tibet," Small said.
RFE/RL does not know Roskomnadzor's response to the Chinese requests, but at the time of publication the links are still accessible inside Russia.
"It's a wide-ranging approach to image management and it's interesting that Beijing thinks they can make these broad requests from Russia," Small said. "It's an externalization of how these issues are handled inside China and perhaps a hint of where this cooperation is headed."