Asia

How China's ultra-loyal Web army can silence Beijing's critics

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) – Chinese virologist Zhang Wenhong, is among a slew of recent high-profile targets in a campaign by nationalist Web users to harass anyone they deem critical of China’s government and pressure officials and websites to censor them.

They say Mr Zhang undermined Beijing’s Covid-zero strategy by suggesting that China must learn to live with the virus. Internet users dug up his 20-year-old thesis and accused him of plagiarism. His alma mater, Fudan University in Shanghai, later said the allegation was false.

Mr Zhang’s case shows the widening scope of China’s keyboard nationalists who scour the Web for posts or individuals they deem unpatriotic or subject to foreign influence. Among their targets are celebrities, scientists, feminists and public figures, who can suffer censorship, blacklisting or loss of income. Frequently, the irate netizens are backed by government agencies that endorse the extrajudicial shaming.

“To some extent it is a cyber-Cultural Revolution – mass mobilisation, abusive language, ‘conviction’ by the mob without any proper evidence or logic, canceling people’s right to speech just because they have been labeled by the mob as bad guys,” said Dr Fang Kecheng, an assistant professor at the school of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

But there is also a commercial interest: “Many nationalistic social media accounts gain traffic by participating in these kinds of attacks.” As with Western platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, Chinese social media is very much polarised, but the nationalists are increasingly gaining the upper hand.

This Chinese take on cancel culture has been fueled by growing national pride – showcased this year as the Communist Party celebrates its centennial – and by increasing hostility towards criticism from abroad, fueled by the pandemic and the trade war with the United States.

Yet it runs counter to President Xi Jinping’s stated aim that China should portray a “lovable and respectable” image abroad. “Encouraging expressions of anti-foreign nationalism at home undercuts the CCP’s efforts to cultivate a benign international image,” said Dr Kacie Kieko Miura, an assistant professor of political science and international relations at the University of San Diego. “But the CCP doesn’t really have a choice. Nationalism is a critical pillar of the CCP’s domestic legitimacy. On the other hand, stability in China’s foreign relations is essential to its continued rise.”

Negative views of China remain near record highs across the developed world, according to the latest Pew survey. That polarisation is likely to get worse as nationalists in China marginalise individuals and organisations that are trying to find common ground.

“The CCP legitimates its policies by promising its population a strong China, and many nationalists now demand hawkish foreign policy from their leaders as a consequence,” said Dr Florian Schneider, senior lecturer in the politics of modern China and director of the Leiden Asia Centre. “Chinese officials cannot afford to look weak.” Social media platforms such as Weibo or Wechat have been quick to close accounts of those being criticised. Often the reasons for the censorship are unclear.

Last month, WeChat shut accounts for LGBTQ associations at top universities including Tsinghua and Peking for violating unspecified rules. Web users praised the removals, suggesting the groups were being hijacked by foreign countries and were anti-China.

Like the anti-communist political witch hunt of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the US in the 1940s and ’50s, the underlying justification for many of the attacks is the broad allegation of being anti-China.

“We can easily understand why China would become more nationalistic as it succeeds economically,” said Mr Frank Tsai, a lecturer at the Emlyon Business School’s Shanghai Campus and founder of Shanghai-based consulting firm China Crossroads. “The danger is that China overreaches. China’s economy may end up suffering from the hubris of a regime that thinks it really can go it alone, when figures show that any economic bloc that China leads is still much smaller than the West’s.”

Foreign celebrities like NBA general manager Daryl Morey and American actor John Cena, and businesses such as Dolce & Gabbana Srl and Hennes & Mauritz AB, are familiar with such “cyber expedition”. Increasingly, so are journalists. After floods caused the deaths of more than 300 people in Henan province last month, the local Communist Youth League’s Weibo account encouraged viewers to record the behaviour of a BBC journalist reporting on the event, and a correspondent for German broadcaster Deutsche Welle was confronted by a crowd of people for “smearing China”.

But it is China’s own citizens and organisations that are increasingly under the microscope. Even Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the nationalist tabloid Global Times, and some of his subordinates were labeled “traitors” by Internet users after the paper criticised a photo comparing China’s rocket launch to funeral pyres in India.

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In other cases, even association with someone deemed unpatriotic is enough to start a tirade as the Beijing-based Centre for China & Globalisation (CCG) discovered. Founded by Mr Wang Huiyao, a former adviser to China’s cabinet, the CCG was set up to act as a bridge between China and the rest of the world, explaining Beijing’s position on everything from alleged forced labour in Xinjiang to the national security law for Hong Kong. But during a CCG forum in Beijing last month, Chu Yin, a professor at the University of International Relations, criticised Chinese scholars and diplomats for communication methods that might not be readily understood by an overseas audience. Some online commentators targeted both Prof Chu and the CCG. Soon, media posts related to the event began to disappear as well as from accounts of prominent commentators.

Mr Wang said the “very extreme opinions” that appear online were the work of irrelevant small-time players. “We don’t want to amplify that. They are really too low to look at,” he said in an interview. “We get pushback in China saying we’re pro-Western, and pushback from some in the West.”

Sometimes the evidence used against a target is years old. China’s top anti-graft body, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, criticised actor Zhang Zhehan this month for photographs taken years ago in front of Japan’s Yasukuni shrine, a symbol to the Chinese of Japan’s past military aggression.

The Ministry of Culture’s China Association of Performing Arts called for a boycott of the actor, dozens of brands said they would stop working with him and Weibo and ByteDance’s Douyin erased his personal social media accounts.

US hostility to China, made worse under the Trump administration, was partly to blame, Mr Wang said. “There’s nationalism in the US that’s at an all-time high and that in turn has pushed Chinese nationalism, as well,” he said.

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