Chinese diaspora communities continue to be a “major target” of the Chinese government’s social media manipulation that is taking place around the world. Chinese state-affiliated accounts are running a multilingual, cross-platform campaign aimed at fueling fears in these communities by drawing false equivalences between anti-Asian racism and increased speculation about Covid-19 laboratory leak theories. This campaign illustrates the Chinese Communist Party’s usual tactics of countering criticism with allegations of racism.
The hashtag #StopAsianHate was launched by Asian Americans in March to end racially motivated attacks and discrimination. It’s been trendy ever since. There is no doubt that this hashtag is a legitimate movement to raise awareness on the issue of anti-Asian violence. The Covid-19 pandemic has led to an increase in anti-Asian violence both in Australia and internationally. One of the most prominent incidents was the fatal shooting of six Asian American women in an Atlanta spa investigated as a hate crime.
However, the rapidly changing nature of social media makes even legitimate online movements vulnerable to co-optation. The same hashtag is now used to slander Hong Kong doctor Li-Meng Yan, who published three controversial articles claiming that the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 was man-made in a Chinese laboratory.
Yan’s case is complicated. Her claims have been widely criticized as misleading, and Harvard social media researchers have described her work as an example of “science in disguise” aimed at manipulating the media. At the same time, prominent American right-wing figures have stepped up their claims, including Republican strategist Stephen Bannon and Chinese dissident Guo Wengui, who has been targeted by Chinese state information operations in the past but also runs his own extensive network that spreads disinformation.
A search of the hashtags #StopAsianHate and #LiMengYan returns over 30,000 tweets and retweets from more than 6,000 suspicious accounts on Twitter between April and June 2021. All posted the same hashtags, memes, English phrases (like “Stop Discrimination in Asia”, “Yan Limeng is the Rumor That Discriminated Americans in Asia” and “Make Yan Limeng Get Out of America”) and Mandarin Phrases (like “闫 丽 梦 公开 承认“ 亚裔 歧视 “是 由于 其 造谣 病毒 来源于 中国 实验室 而 引发 的! ‘, Which roughly translates to:“ Yan Limeng publicly admitted that the rumor caused “Asian discrimination” the virus came from a Chinese laboratory! ‘).
While accounts representing a variety of different ideologies have reinforced these hashtags, several features of this network suggest that these accounts are operated by actors based in the People’s Republic of China, where Twitter is banned. For example, the posting patterns for these accounts match exactly across Beijing business hours.
In addition, there was less campaign activity on the weekends and almost none during the Chinese National Labor Day, May 1-5.
Similar behavioral traits were observed in a 2020 Chinese state takedown record associated with Twitter.
Like other information operations related to the Chinese state, the campaign has worked on multiple US-based platforms including Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Reddit, Google Groups, and Medium. Images and phrases used in the campaign have also appeared on non-US platforms such as TikTok, VK, and a Russian amateur blog site.
The volume of publication on new multilingual platforms indicates a significant development in skills and coordination. And the use of racism indicates that attempts are being made to use topics with which the target group is already emotionally preoccupied. After rallies against racially motivated attacks by Asian diaspora communities held in March 2021, contributions to this disinformation campaign called for similar real-world demonstrations at Guo’s residence in New York City to “protect grandmother,” alluding to a 76-year-old Chinese Grandmother fending off an unprovoked attack. It is unclear whether these demonstrations targeted by Guo took place.
President Xi Jinping emphasized the importance of the Chinese diaspora as part of the fulfillment of the “China Dream”. China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi has similarly written that maintaining the support and mood of these communities and countering perceived threats is an “urgent need” for the CCP. Even if theories about the origins of laboratories remain unsubstantiated, assuming that Beijing may have withheld evidence of a laboratory leak would threaten the CCP’s reputation abroad and affect domestic opinions in China.
If the goal of this new social media campaign is to deny these laboratory leak theories or convince audiences that the mounting anti-Asian violence is due to Yan and her alleged co-conspirators Guo and Bannon, then this network is not particularly sophisticated. or convincing. Alternatively, by criticizing the trio’s efforts to spread narratives about the origins of Covid-19, the network could intentionally reinforce Yan’s claims and divert attention from more informed and balanced voices. This would benefit Beijing’s interests by associating laboratory origins theories with fringe conspiracy theorists and undermining those hypotheses with mainstream audiences.
The origin of Covid-19 is a highly politicized issue for the Chinese government, and the state propaganda machine is using all its statecraft to influence international opinion on the issue. Chinese diplomats and state media have openly promoted conspiracies stemming from the United States’ Covid-19, and those claims have been reinforced on social media by patriotic individuals and bogus accounts.
Removal of inauthentic Chinese state-related assets from social media platforms can limit the reach and impact of CCP propaganda, but these disinformation campaigns have stood out in terms of their ability to have a consistent presence on mainstream platforms based in the USA proved extremely resilient. The lack of accessible and credible Chinese-language information on US social media networks leaves a vacuum that can fill disinformation. For example, searching for #LiMengYan and #UnrestrictedBioleapon on Twitter between April and June 2021 also resulted in a separate anti-vaccine and anti-CCP campaign targeting the Chinese diaspora run by accounts linked to Guo , based on its logos ‘GNews’ and ‘GTV’ appears on pictures.
In Australia, in February the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defense and Trade published a list of recommendations to assist diaspora communities, including a review of the government’s approach to providing critical information to those communities. The government should consider developing anti-disinformation initiatives and forums for consultation with community leaders as part of a broader strategy to combat foreign interference.
Previous ASPI studies recommended greater funding for Chinese-language media in Australia to provide alternatives to the Chinese state-influenced media and the heavily controlled WeChat messaging app. New funding and support could facilitate partnerships between Chinese-speaking fact-checkers at national broadcasters and emerging Chinese community media.
Chinese diaspora communities find themselves caught between increasingly well-equipped CCP propaganda and disinformation campaigns and the specter of systemic racism that is still widespread in their host countries. One of the ongoing challenges for all governments around the world will be to find ways to protect and support Asian communities from the simultaneous threats of ingrained racism and foreign interference.