Tag Archives: propaganda

China Fires Back Fast Over Disinformation

AN EXAMPLE OF Beijing giving as good as it gets over Western accusations of China running disinformation campaigns has arrived quickly. Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying (above) dismissed the EU accusations, saying:

Anyone with no bias can see clearly who is the biggest perpetrator to make and spread disinformation about the pandemic. There are many media reports on that across the globe. The EU should be well aware if anyone has disseminated disinformation within the EU.

She also criticised Twitter for shutting down 170,000 accounts the social media platform said were linked to a disinformation campaign orchestrated by the Chinese government. She called for Twitter to shut down accounts that smear China overseas.

As with her remarks on disinformation in the EU, the unnamed elephant in the room was from the United States. However, there was less need to read between the lines of her comments about Twitter:

At the same time, as you can see, since the outbreak of the pandemic, some people and forces in the international community have been almost crazy and hysterical in slandering and badmouthing China with rumors. You must have known that as exposed by the Politico website, the US National Republican Senatorial Committee has sent campaigns a 57-page memo advising GOP candidates to address the coronavirus crisis by “aggressively attacking China”. A few days ago, the same news website reported that in late March, 2.6 million tweets related to coronavirus were retweeted 25.5 million times within 10 days, and a lot of them spread rumors like “the coronavirus was a bioweapon created in China”. According to the report, an analysis of these Twitter accounts found that many of them are linked to supporters of the GOP and the right wing in the US, and had the hallmarks of “bots”.

Separately, Zoom, the video meeting app that has blossomed during the Covid-19 pandemic, acknowledged that Beijing had told it to suspend the accounts of three (non-mainland based), Chinese activists, for organising virtual June 4 anniversary meetings. The company justified its compliance as the cost of doing business in China.

That is a line that this Bystander expects to return to haunt Zoom in the United States, where there is already concern about its connections to China and attitudes towards corporate postures towards Beijing are changing.

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Let A Hundred Tweets Bloom

Beijing’s propaganda playbook on social media is changing, influenced by US President Donald Trump’s combat tweeting and Russia’s holistic infowar strategy of sowing doubt, distrust and distraction.

This Bystander has been mulling the lessons that might have been learned from Trump’s realization earlier than most populist politicians that repeating a lie often enough makes it true is an outdated concept.

Perhaps because of his experience with reality television, Trump grasped that reality is an artifice that can be created. And if created once, why not multiple times? In such a world, if anything can be true, nothing needs to be.

Alternative and multiple versions of reality can be created by the simple mechanism of hypothetical questions that are impossible to refute absolutely, no matter how incredible their premise. More importantly, they provide an envelope in which to carry that premise in the direction of plausibility. For the politician, there is an additional attraction: any idea can be floated and promoted without responsibility having to be taken for holding or endorsing it.

The controversy over the tweet in which Zhao Lijian, deputy director of the foreign ministry’s Information Department, said “it might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan” is a case in point. It is just as hypothetical a suggestion as that of US senator Tom Cotton that there was a need to investigate whether the virus escaped from a Chinese bioweapons lab in Wuhan.

Zhao’s tweet was not the first time that China has pushed the narrative that the SARS-CoV-2 virus originated outside of China. The implication is that it is the United States that has to offer China the explanation for what has become a global pandemic; that the responsibility lies elsewhere than China’s wet markets.

This is being continued by the Global Times, the stridently nationalistic English-language publication of the People’s Daily. It is highlighting an online petition to the US government that speculatively connects the SARS-CoV 2 virus to the US Army’s medical research centre for infectious diseases at Ft. Detrick that was closed last year. US citizens have a constitutional right to petition their government and do so on a variety of issues profound and quixotic. The Ft. Detrick petition has attracted barely 450 signatures, well short of the 100,000 needed for the White House to respond.

The conclusion of all this is that while once the rest of the world could expect a unified line from China on any issue, in future, it will have to cope with multiple lines, some conflicting, many false, others partially true, but all undermining the credibility of the fundamental truth.

In the information age, pre-emption in the world of ideas becomes a pillar of national security. As Russia’s information warriors have shown, just sowing confusion and uncertainty can be enough. The creation and dissemination of misinformation and disinformation are at the heart of Russia’s offensive infowar strategy.

An example of this came in the foreign ministry’s daily briefing for foreign correspondents. In response to a question asking for a response to Zhao’s suggestion that the US Army brought the epidemic to Wuhan, spokesman Geng Shuang said:

In recent days we noticed many discussions on the origin of the COVID-19. We firmly oppose the unfounded and irresponsible comments made by certain high-level US officials and Congress members on this issue to smear and attack China. The fact is, there are different opinions in the US and among the larger international community on the origin of the virus. China believes it’s a matter of science which requires professional and science-based assessment.

Even though Twitter is banned within China, Chinese officials have taken to the platform fulsomely of late, with Zhao prominent among them, as Beijing’s intensifies its policy to control the international narrative about China. This is a sophisticated and well-funded operation, already being pushed back against by Washington, that includes owning foreign media, sponsoring journalistic coverage and a cadre of ‘talking heads’ around the world who can be relied upon to ‘tell China’s story well’ whenever local media outlets come calling.

Febrile social media offers the perfect environment for such a strategy to flourish, as Trump has so deftly proved with his combat tweeting. We should expect more and more of the same from China’s diplomats.

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Protest, Party And Propaganda

Given the authorities’ dousing of any inflammatory news about civil uprisings against long-standing leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, this Bystander is not surprised that the full fire hose of state propaganda and security was directed at the putative protests called in 13 Chinese cities this weekend. They were in any event damp squibs, seemingly occurring only in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou–if gatherings where police and onlookers believing a crowd was gathering because of the presence of a celebrity heavily outnumbers demonstrators can be called a protest. Even the arrests were in single figures.

It is no secret that the Party leadership has long been concerned about threats to its legitimacy to rule coming from the tens of thousands of protests that break out every year across the country. These are born of grievances over a myriad of local complaints about everything from corrupt officialdom to land disputes and environmental degradation. President Hu Jintao’s drive to create a harmonious society and to close the growing wealth gap in the country is an attempt to nip in the bud the potential civil unrest–and political groups–that could grow from all these.

So longstanding has been this concern that Beijing has already put in place the propaganda and security tools to control the information war. Like the telecoms and cable companies in the U.S. it understands that it is the sovereign of the Internet infrastructure that rules the Internet’s content. Within the Great Firewall, Google, Twitter and Facebook can’t help grass roots activists get around official censorship in China in the way they have facilitated in the Middle East with new software services such as Speak To Tweet. The companies aren’t present in China or in Google’s case, are heavily controlled. Local equivalents, particularly the microblog services, have patriotic obligations put upon them. Independent blogs and news sites get closed down in short order. An army of official posters and censors puts up pro-governement posts and takes down any deviating from the Party line. Mainstream media is overwhelming state run and, where not, expected to follow the guidance of Xinhua, especially when it comes to news reporting and commentary. The Politburo has reinforced the rules since Hosni Murbarak was forced to resign as president of Egypt earlier this month, and the Propaganda Department stepped up enforcement, including guidance to tone down reporting of any local incidents of disturbances.

This weekend, President Hu Jintao outlined eight points for strengthening the Party’s management over social order. The reemergence of the term social management indicates some sort of compromise, or stand-off, between the Party’s hardliners and reformers. Among the eight was one calling for tighter management over what is being said over the Internet, though Harmonious Hu also stressed the need to address the underlying problems causing the societal issues:

Further strengthen and improve controls on the information web, raising our level of control over virtual society, and perfecting our mechanisms for the channeling of public opinion online.

The goal is not anything as crude and easily criticized as shutting down the Internet or even to shut down the online conversation, but to cower and control it, with the hard and well practiced power of preemptive rounding up of dissidents providing the steel within the velvet glove.

Gene Sharp, the American nonagenarian academic who wrote the handbook on the non-violent overthrow of dictators, From Dictatorship to Democracy, a pamphlet that has been used by activists from Indonesia to Serbia to oust governments, but which, equally, provides a readymade excuse for any dictator that the U.S. is behind attempts to unseat them, argues that the power of dictatorships comes from the willing obedience of the people they govern, and that regimes don’t fall until the people withhold that consent. The Party understands that and is determined not to let itself get pushed to anywhere near that point.

Beijing has got ahead of this in a way that no authoritarian ruler in the Middle East had even begun to think about until recently. In China, the outbreak of the unrest in the Middle East, and particularly the toppling of leaders in Tunisia and Egypt, has sharpened Beijing’s need to be on top of its game. But it is one that it has been playing for a long time. Sharp’s argument for not taking the violent path to revolution is that that means taking on a regime’s best weapons. In many countries where social media have helped force regime change, the authorities were not just outgunned on the Internet, they didn’t know how to fight there or even that it was a theatre of war. It is far from clear that that is the case with China. We have even heard suggestions that the calls for his weekend’s protests were no more than an elaborate official fire drill.

Authoritarian regimes don’t fall because a few activists have read a pamphlet and put out a few Tweets. Conditions within a society have to be ripe. Uprisings to overthrow the Tsars in Russia failed in 1905-06 but succeeded in 1917; Murbarak was able to put down protests against his regime in 2006 but not this year. In both cases conditions on the ground had changed. We don’t believe conditions are ripe in China at this point to support a popular uprising that could overthrow the Party non-violently. We do believe the seeds for such conditions exist. Whether they flourish of wither is as much in the hands of the Party as it is in those of the people.

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Revolt In Egypt. Who Knew?

Two days of street protests in Egypt calling for the ousting of President Hosni Murbarak are proving troubling for Beijing’s propaganda meisters. They follow a similar popular revolt in Tunisia that overthrew the government. Our man in London reports that the situation in Egypt is dominating the news broadcasts there. Ditto in the U.S., according to our man in New York. Not so in China, where reports of  thousands of people taking to the streets in the country’s three most important cities in a popular uprising against a dictatorial and repressive government, and one in which the army has for the most part stood benignly by, have been scant, to say the least.  A search for Egypt on the Sina microblogging service returns the information that “according to relevant laws, regulations and policies, the search results are not shown”. Hear no evil, see no evil, do no evil?

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China To Come Into Americans’ Living Rooms

Beijing is planning an ad blitz in the U.S. to accompany President Hu Jintao’s state visit to Washington next week. Familiar faces to Americans such as basketball player Yao Ming and film star Jackie Chan will be deployed as will less familiar ones such as pianist Lang Lang and astronaut Yang Liwei. In all 50 Chinese celebrities have been recruited to the cause, according to the Guangming Daily. There are to be a couple of TV spots and a 12 minute film showcasing China’s achievements. It is not clear what the tone or content will be (though we can guess, and the good people who brought you the Beijing Olympics and the Shanghai Expo know how to put on a show).

Political advertising, as propaganda is known in the U.S., is pretty slick. Wooing let alone wowing America’s media-drenched public will be a hard task for this exercise in soft power. That said, with a new survey from the Pew Research Center showing most American’s now think China has displaced their own country as the world’s no. 1 economic power the ads, as propaganda is known in the U.S., may be preying on vulnerable minds.

Update: A 60-second version of the film has started showing in New York City’s Times Square.

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China’s World Service, An Al-Jazeera Of Its Own

Modeling a proposed 24-hour cable news channel on Al-Jazeera is bound to be taken the wrong way in the U.S. and set false expectations elsewhere. But that is the model that Beijing reportedly has at the heart of a 45 billion yuan ($6.6 billion) investment in its three main state media, Xinhua, CCTV and the People’s Daily, expanding their services to give China a global media voice commensurate with its emerging superpower status.

Beyond the 24-hour cable channel, CCTV will add Arabic and Russian language services to the Mandarin, English, French and Spanish ones it already has, and from May the People’s Daily will publish an English-language version of its tabloid Global Times.

The expansion comes when Western commercial media are scaling down their own international coverage so there is a vacuum to fill. Beijing’s plan calls for more reporters, more bureaux and more outlets, but not necessarily more freedom to report. China’s press has increasingly been feeling if only occasionally pressing the edges of the envelope within which it operates, but three organziations getting the money are still state-run media in a country where propaganda is a term, as Variety puts it, “used without negative connotations”.

The primary task, though, is to present China to the world, not the other way round. The melamine tainted milk and other recent food and product safety scandals have shown Beijing that it needs to do more in that regard, and is a further sign of the country’s confidence in stepping out into the world on its own terms.

And those terms must be true, because we’ll have seen them on TV.

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Fact Checking Two Views Of Tibet

Xinhua annotates screen shots from Western TV and websites to show up reporting errors in their coverage of Tibet.

This follows Sunday’s apology by German TV station RTL for using a picture of Tibetan protestors in Katmandu in a report on the recent disturbances in Lhasa.

More Xinhua excoriation of the CNN, BBC and the Berliner Morgenpost here.

Pick at the little errors to unravel the greater truth.

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Managing The News Of Tibetan Dissent

With the trouble in Lhasa spreading to the parts of the former eastern provinces of Tibet that were incorporated into China after 1951, Beijing is facing its most serious dissent since Tiananmen Square in 1989.

It will be put down firmly, and as out of sight of the rest of the world as possible. Media coverage will be tightly controlled, with one message for domestic audiences (“us” Han under violent attack from “them” Tibetans) and another for the rest of the world (see, the Dalai Lama and his monks are far from non-political and peace loving).

TV footage and web video will be high value propaganda both inwards and outwards; so far the Great Firewall is holding fast. Chinese are seeing footage of monks burning cars and shops. No one anywhere is seeing the sorts of images of monks being cracked down in the way that happened in Burma last year.

The authorities will do all they can to prevent a defining image of defiance. There will be no equivalent this time of the lone man in the white shirt standing in the road bringing a line of tanks to a halt.

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