Washington, DC – Before the world could take its eyes off China’s continued exploitation in Myanmar of rare earth materials such as dysprosium and terbium—cited as among critical reasons for Beijing’s brazen support to the Junta in the Southeast Asian country — the Middle Kingdom created headlines in Western and US newspapers for its targeted disinformation campaigns.
In sync with its strategy to make its rivals confused and distracted from their objectives, Beijing funded pro-China groups in the US and Canada, impersonated environmental enthusiasts on social media platforms, and attacked rare earth producers in these countries. Though the US government has begun a probe into the issue, the pro-China groups in the US, Canada, and other countries have become a source of headache for the governments across North America.
The US-based cyber security consultancy firm, Mandiant has exposed the modus operandi of pro-China groups’ activity on Twitter and Facebook. It has revealed China’s disinformation campaign against the US and other countries earlier. As per Mandiant, pro-China groups known as ‘Dragonbridge’ used fake Twitter and Facebook accounts to launch disinformation campaigns against Lynas Rare Earths, an Australian group that is seeking to establish production capacity in the US and other countries, as well as other rare earth mining companies.
It is noteworthy that China is the leading producer of rare earth materials. In 2019, it was responsible for 80 percent of global supplies of dysprosium, Neodymium, Praseodymium, and other rare earth elements. Rare earth materials are crucial for the production of high-tech consumer products such as mobile phones, computer hard drives, electric and hybrid vehicles, flat-screen monitors, and televisions. They are equally crucial for the production of defense applications, including electronic displays, guidance systems, lasers, radar, and sonar systems. They are also used in health and medical applications, such as antitumor agents, kidney dialysis medicine, and surgical equipment. They are well known for their use in medical applications such as computed tomography scans, magnetic resonance images (MRI), positron emission tomography, imaging, and X-rays.
Before 2008, the US was a dominant player in producing and supplying rare earth materials. After Joe Biden became the US President, the US infused a new life in its plan to re-emerge as a significant producer of rare earth materials, which are also very important for the semiconductor industry.
In November 2021, Joe Biden introduced a $2 trillion plan to upgrade the US infrastructure and semiconductor industry. It was followed by his signing of an executive order to review gaps in the domestic supply chains of rare earth materials, medical devices, and chips. Months before this development, Lynas Rare Earths Ltd, the largest rare earth element mining and processing firm in Australia, was awarded a contract by the US Department of Defense to establish domestic processing capabilities for light rare earth elements (LREE). LREEs are critical to numerous defense and commercial applications, including petroleum refining, glass additives, and magnets used in electric vehicles and precision-guided missiles.
China saw this as the US’ attempt to overshadow Beijing’s dominance in the rare earth material market and activated its pro-China ‘Dragonbridge’ group in America and Canada to launch a disinformation campaign against Lynas Rare Earths Ltd through fake Facebook and Twitter accounts.
Experts say this is not the first time the ‘Dragonbridge’ group came under the observation of the cyber security consultancy firm, Mandiant. In 2019, the group was responsible for campaigning against those opposing anti-government protests in Hong Kong. According to the Financial Times, the group has branched out into various areas in the last three years, including the Covid-19 pandemic and US politics. It had earlier launched propaganda against US President Biden’s Defense Production Act, USA Rare Earth.
China has denied its involvement in any disinformation campaign or any attempt to spark protests on social media with the help of “so-called pro-Chinese agents,” posing as concerned local residents over the opening of rare earth mines in the US and Canada.
Responding to accusations against his country’s involvement in disinformation campaigns against the US on the rare earth material issue, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian said, “The report you mentioned reflects deep-seated ideological bias and double standards. What I want to say is that China is a victim of disinformation campaigns. It is quite clear to the international community who exactly is propagating and spreading disinformation. From “genocide” to “Wuhan virus,” from “hackers attacks” to “overseas military bases”—there have been too many false accusations against China.”
This is a matter of deep concern for the US government. Last week the Department of Defense announced an investigation into a Chinese disinformation campaign against rare earth mining and processing companies, including one targeting Rare Earths, which has a $30 million contract with the Pentagon to build a plant in Texas.
The bigger question is: How strong are pro-China groups in the US and Canada that they can spark protests and create problems in the way of these countries’ developmental programs?
In her article in a daily, Cleo Paskal, a non-resident senior fellow for Indo-Pacific at the Washington DC-based think tank ‘Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ said there is an entrenched presence of pro-Chinese lobbies in Canada. Such presence she marked through the activities of three groups: One led by children of Christian missionaries who went from Canada to China at the end of the 19th century; second, the Leftists, who grew in numbers by the 1960s, and especially with the advent of the Vietnam War and the election of Pierre Elliot Trudeau (father of the present Canadian PM Justin Trudeau) as the Prime of Canada in 1968; third, Canadian business people who tried to do business with China even before the Middle Kingdom’s diplomatic recognition. It is said that Canadian business people had lent Beijing hundreds of millions of dollars to buy wheat and barley in the early 1960s.
These groups, it is said, have, over the years, smoothened the process of the Chinese Communist Party’s infiltration in Canada and other parts of North America. Whenever they see Chinese interests being hit in these countries, they raise their voices and try to create obstacles in the way of the US, Canada, or other countries’ diplomatic, military, and business activities. In 2019, when Canada canceled PLA soldiers’ request to observe the Canadian winter warfare training, the pro-China groups in civil society and bureaucracy raised their heckle against the government’s decision.
Pro-China groups launched a similar protest through social media platforms when the Canadian government blocked a Chinese company’s attempt to invest in a Canadian gold mine in the far north of the country. These incidents show that Canada and the US will have to act decisively against these groups before they become threats to their national interests.