The Chinese government has been linked to an online disinformation campaign trying to undermine the investment plans of Western companies developing rare earth mineral (rare earth) deposits, as Beijing seemingly resorts to cyber warfare to defend the country’s leadership in strategic sectors. 

According to cyber security firm Mandiant, the online influence campaign Dragonbridge spread fake news about Australian rare earths mining and processing firm Lynas and other rare earth companies. Dragonbridge comprises a network of thousands of inauthentic accounts across numerous social media platforms, websites and forums that promote narratives to support Chinese political interests, Mandiant argues. 

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Albert Zhang, a researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) labelled Dragonbridge as a “Chinese Communist party-backed network” in a report on June 29, where he added that it is the first time such an entity “has targeted a commercial entity for strategic purposes”. The ASPI has tracked Dragonbridge’s information operation since 2019.

Experts believe that these recent developments suggest that Beijing is willing to widen the array of tools it leverages to protect its interests in strategic sectors, going as far as causing possible business or reputational harm to commercial entities.

Lynas under attack 

Rare earths are essential to making the magnets used in a wide range of modern technologies, including electric vehicles, wind turbines and jet fighters. These materials currently provide strategic importance to China, which accounted for nearly 90% of rare earth processing and 71.5% of rare earth extraction globally in 2019, according to the International Energy Agency’s report in 2021. 

Lynas is among the few Western companies mining and processing rare earths outside China. It has two major operations: a rare earths mining and concentration plant at Mount Weld, Western Australia, and a refining facility in Kuatan, Malaysia. In June, the company signed a $120m deal with the US Department of Defense to build a heavy rare earths separation facility in Texas, as the US tries to loosen its dependence on Chinese imports for strategic raw materials. 

In the wake of this deal, Dragonbridge utilised fake social media accounts to voice concerns over its allegedly poor environmental track record and the adverse health effects of its mining operations, such as cancer risks and gene mutation, argues Mandiant. 

Lynas defended its alleged environmental records, saying the UN International Atomic Energy Agency found its business operation compliant with regulations in 2014. However, its plant in Malaysia has stirred controversy over its toxic waste management since operations began in 2012. Greenpeace argued in 2014 that Lynas’s facility “poses a host of intractable environmental and social problems”.  

Beijing’s involvement 

Alden Wahlstrom, senior analyst at Mandiant, tells fDi that Dragonbridge’s campaign targeting such strategic industries demonstrates an interest in and willingness to take aim at industries of strategic importance to the Chinese government. 

While it is the first time a commercial enterprise such as Lynas has become the main target of such a disinformation campaign, Beijing has repeatedly been linked to similar endeavours in the past. Previous campaigns have focused on denying human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, the ASPI argues.

In 2019, Twitter unveiled “a significant state-backed information operation focused on the situation in Hong Kong — specifically the protest movement and their calls for political change”, the company said in a statement. The US-based media firm disclosed 936 accounts originating from within China that were deliberately and specifically attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong, including undermining the legitimacy and political positions of the protest movement on the ground.

“Based on our intensive investigations, we have reliable evidence to support that this is a coordinated state-backed operation,” the company said. 

Following the campaign against Lynas's project in Texas, Mandiant says other rare earth companies have become Dragonbridge targets. This includes USA Rare Earth and Canada's Appia Rare Earths & Uranium Corp.

Emily Harding, deputy director and senior fellow with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, tells fDi that this information operation is “to distract the targets and force them to defend themselves against allegations” and ultimately “undermine competitors to Chinese businesses”.

Targeting Europe

While the methods of disinformation operation using inauthentic social media accounts are “not new”, “they are becoming more refined and targeting a more specific audience”, Ms Sarah Lohmann, acting assistant professor for international studies at the University of Washington and a visiting professor at the US Army War College, tells fDi.

“A Beijing-linked influence campaign [is expected] to target Europe next,” she adds, arguing that the mining sectors in Sweden and Norway are potentially in the crosshairs, as the EU intends to use these two Nordic countries as its alternative to Chinese raw materials.

The EU currently relies on 10 different critical materials from China, including 98% of its rare earth elements demand. However, the EU is changing the tide. It launched the European raw material alliance in 2020 to mobilise investments and to wean itself from Chinese critical materials. Norway and the EU released the joint statement for co-operation on the strategic value chains batteries and raw materials on June 28.

According to the Geological Survey of Sweden’s report published in 2021, Nordic bedrock has the potential to supply almost the full range of the key raw materials needed for the green energy transition. Norway has the largest potential for graphite in north-western Europe and a significant potential resource for rare earths, and Sweden has the potential for byproduct extraction of rare earths in the near term. 

The Chinese government’s continued emphasis on national security goals, including information and resource security, will entail “further information operations activity targeting specific industries or companies, including global competitors to Chinese firms, that the Chinese government views as pertinent to its strategic interests,” says Mandiant’s Mr Wahlstrom. 

Targets can be variable depending on what China deems as a strategic sector in the future, but “information operations can be certainly expected” when the Western-backed investment consortium develops a strategic sector against Chinese interests, Herb Lin, a senior researcher at the Centre for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, tells fDi. He adds that such disinformation operations would “work as a tool” to discourage investment decisions. 

This article first appeared in the August/September 2022 print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here.