Footage of a brutal late March attack on a 65-year-old Asian American woman in Manhattan drew widespread outrage on social media. It also made for a productive afternoon for Zhao Lijian. From his Beijing office, the Chinese government spokesman retweeted 20 posts and shared the video 12 times on his official Twitter account. ‘We can’t help but wonder, who will be the next victim? When will it all end?’ he asked his almost 900,000 followers.
Zhao isn’t the only one who’s been busy. In the wake of the Atlanta spa shootings on March 16, Chinese state media used Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to stoke a narrative of American racism and hatred. One Twitter post from Global Times, a Communist party tabloid, shows the Statue of Liberty, gun in hand, towering over a tiny cardboard cut-out figure marked ‘Asian’, with a target on its chest. Another cartoon, shared by CGTN, the international arm of China’s state broadcaster, shows an American Covid-19 vaccination centre, and a young Asian asking the doctor, ‘By the way, is there also a vaccine for racism?’
Two years ago, China had almost no diplomatic presence on western social media. Now around 200 diplomats growl and troll their way around these platforms — the vanguard of a concerted push by party-controlled organisations, working in concert with a vast and shifting array of bogus accounts, to sow disinformation and discord.
They cut their teeth early in the Covid-19 pandemic, promoting conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus. Beijing pumped out propaganda and disinformation internationally through thousands of fake and hijacked Twitter accounts. It sought to portray itself as a leader and benefactor in public health, at the same time trashing the faltering efforts of Western democracies.
The EU accused China of running ‘a global disinformation campaign to deflect blame for the outbreak of the pandemic’. In June last year, Twitter shut down 170,000 accounts linked to the Chinese government, citing ‘a range of manipulative and coordinated activities’. YouTube banned almost 2,600 Chinese channels in the second quarter of 2020 alone, as part of what YouTube calls ‘our ongoing investigation into coordinated influence operations linked to China’.
CGTN was accused of spreading disinformation and propaganda on Twitter about the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. State media manipulated images and videos, and depicted protesters as violent tools of the West, practicing ‘terrorism’. In response, Twitter removed nearly 1,000 accounts and suspended thousands of others, which were part of what it described as a ‘significant state-backed information operation’. Facebook and YouTube also removed accounts.
Last summer, Chinese diplomats revelled in American protests over policing and race, embracing the Black Lives Matter movement with relish and accusing the US government of hypocrisy and double standards on human rights. When it came to the presidential election campaign and its messy aftermath, Beijing largely avoided showing a preference for either Trump or Biden. Instead, a government that would never dream of allowing free elections in its own country mocked America’s democratic process. Party-controlled media stoked a narrative of US national decline, highlighting chaos, dysfunction and the threat of violence — all amplified by social media.
China has pursued this theme in its coverage of the recent anti-Asian violence, using it to deflect attention from the persecution of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang and the coordinated response, sanctions against Chinese officials by the US, UK, Canada and the EU. With western companies under pressure over the use of forced labour in Xinjiang, spokesman Zhao Lijian tweeted, ‘It is a historical fact that the #UnitedStates forced black slaves to collect cotton. Who on earth engaged in forced labour?’ Later he tweeted: ‘Shocking conspiracy of the US & West: destabilise #Xinjiang & contain China’s development. The cotton smears are just part of the bigger plot.’
China’s state-controlled news outlets appear to be among the highest ranked accounts on Twitter and Facebook. CGTN has 13.6 million Twitter followers and 116 million on Facebook. Global Times has 1.8 million on Twitter and 62 million on Facebook. Xinhua, a state news agency, has 12.4 million on Twitter and 89 million on Facebook. Obscure diplomats have quickly built followings to rival Hollywood celebrities.
Can there really be such an audience for stultifying propaganda? Perhaps, but there are many dark social media arts, which China has quickly learned. The figures are almost certainly false, inflated by automated programs (bots) that generate fake followers and fake likes. The idea is to give the pages more credibility and reach, and thereby pull in legitimate users. Bogus or hijacked accounts are used as ‘amplifiers’ to push posts and tweets and get them trending.
There used to be a distinction between Russian and Chinese activities in cyberspace. While China concentrated on cyber-espionage, plundering secrets from Western corporate and government systems, the Russians were the vandals. They launched destructive cyberattacks while engaging in disinformation and hack-and-leak operations, tactics with their roots in the Cold War heyday of ‘active measures’. Their aim was to sow division, doubt and distrust, spotting and exploiting cracks to weaken the target. Those aims have not changed.
Now Russian and Chinese tactics are converging. Both use social media to peddle disinformation and toxic content, amplifying fringe media, obscure ‘experts’ and conspiracy theorists.
The aim of both is not only to obscure facts but to disorient and depress: when Zhao Lijian pumped out tweets after the Manhattan attack, the content was carefully chosen. The posts he shared were not the angriest, but they were full of despair: ‘What the hell is wrong with people?’, ‘This is incredibly difficult to watch’, ‘Oh my God, what is happening to this country?’ ‘This is a state of emergency.’
And China has a wider policy goal — framing hate crime as a consequence of the US government’s more assertive recent stance against Beijing. ‘Experts say [hate crime] results from US politicians’ smearing of China as culprit of Covid-19. Worsening bilateral ties play part in discrimination surge,’ Global Timessaid in a recent tweet, without naming the ‘experts’.
The Communist party also has formidable weapons in the form of TikTok and WeChat.
The TikTok app, popular among 16- to 24-year-olds, is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance. TikTok is a platform for catchy short videos, with an estimated 100 million users in the US. It has been criticized for its zealous collection of personal data and intrusions on the data security of users, and recently agreed to pay $92 million (£66 million) to settle a class-action lawsuit alleging it illegally tracked users and shared biometric data from photos and videos. The data, which included face scans, was allegedly shared with third parties, some in China. The company denies any wrongdoing.
More invidious is TikTok’s opaque algorithm that determines what a user sees. On Twitter and Facebook, users are mostly served content from accounts they subscribe to. On TikTok the videos can come from anywhere, and the app takes account of a range of information. This includes the type of videos you look at, the duration, your likes, comments and sharing, as well as user data such as age, gender and location. The precise recipe is unknown, since it has been designated a state secret. Last year, when it looked like ByteDance might be forced to sell its US operations, the Chinese government imposed export controls on the algorithm. While the company does employ engineers in the US, control is firmly in the hands of secretive China-based teams, which have been experimenting with advanced inputs including facial and voice recognition and sentiment analysis. In China the company deploys this tech to censor content and promote CCP propaganda. It claims it does not censor in the US, but all Chinese companies must by law cooperate with the Communist party on ‘national security’, a very elastic concept. While the US algorithm might not be massaged as blatantly as in China, there is ample room for subtle manipulation.
WeChat presents a different sort of challenge. It is aimed at Chinese speakers, with an estimated 19 million regular users in the US. For immigrants it has become a vital way of keeping in touch with friends, family and developments in China, where it is known as the ‘app for everything’, such is the range of its services. This has made it an important component of the surveillance state, a weapon of social control, censorship and disinformation. Overseas, it has been used to intimidate Uyghurs, Tibetans and other dissidents, often with threats relayed via relatives at home. But the broader danger is that by pumping nationalist propaganda into Chinese-speaking communities, shaping what they read and see, it is creating bubbles and magnifying divisions within America.
The Trump administration sought to ban both TikTok and WeChat on national security grounds. Both have fought back in the courts, and President Biden has paused the action against them while his staff becomes ‘familiar with the issues in this case’.
China has been quick to take advantage of this opening, presenting itself as the champion of Asian American communities in the wake of the recent anti-Asian violence. Older established migrants and political exiles have little time for Communist propaganda, but newer communities, particularly those drawn to the US by economic and educational opportunities, may be more receptive to WeChat-enabled propaganda and nationalist blandishments.
China’s use of social media can at times be clunky and crude. The irony is that the reach of its increasingly toxic and combative message, its ability to reach a Western audience, is being enabled by American social media platforms — platforms that are blocked in China, where trying to access them can lead to interrogation and jail.
Twitter, Facebook and YouTube do crack down on Chinese disinformation when it becomes impossible to ignore, as with Covid and Hong Kong, but their actions are inconsistent and patchy. Twitter and Facebook have now started labelling Chinese accounts as ‘state-affiliated’ but that has not dampened unease, even among Facebook’s own employees. Staff there are reportedly concerned the company is being used as a conduit for state propaganda, with a wave of sponsored posts of happy Uyghurs, dancing, singing and generally thriving under Chinese rule.
Still, the Chinese embassy in Washington is having to do without its Twitter account, which was suspended in January after diplomats responded to evidence of forced sterilisations with a tweet claiming Uyghur women had been ‘emancipated’ from extremism and were no longer ‘baby-making machines’. It was typical of China’s approach to try to whitewash an atrocity by appealing to feminism. In this case they misjudged their audience and overstepped the mark.
In targeting identity politics, China is stoking the most difficult and divisive issues in America. The absurd part is that Xi Jinping’s rule is built on an increasingly virulent ethnic nationalism. This fuels the CCP’s combative stances internationally — see, for instance, China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi unashamedly berating secretary of state Antony Blinken for America’s record on human rights.
At home, meanwhile, the Communist party crushes human rights and regards any cultural and religious difference as a threat. This is what drives the appalling repression in Xinjiang, where the party is seeking to neuter Uyghur culture and subjugate it to the Han Chinese. China’s Communist leadership is no position to lecture anybody about racism. Yet they do.
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This article was originally published in The Spectator’s May 2021 World edition.