China's Outsourcing Its Propaganda War Against Hong Kong to Online Soldiers

Protesters occupy a street demanding Hong Kong’s leader step down after a rally against the now-suspended extradition bill outside the Chief Executive Office on June 17, 2019, in Hong Kong.
SourceAnthony Kwan/Getty

China's Outsourcing Its Propaganda War Against Hong Kong to Online Soldiers

By Sue-Lin Wong, Christian Shephard and Qianer Liu


From a nationalist diaspora to quirky memes, Beijing is using old and new propaganda tactics to counter the Hong Kong protests.

By Sue-Lin Wong, Christian Shephard and Qianer Liu

As anti-government protests have erupted on the streets of the Chinese territory of Hong Kong, Mack Chen, a mainland Chinese postgraduate student in the U.S., was outraged by what he saw as biased Western media coverage of the events. He turned to the social media platforms Instagram and Twitter, posting patriotic messages defending Beijing. “Our voices haven’t been represented in Hong Kong or Western media, so we’ve taken the matter into our own hands,” says Chen. “I think a lot of young people like me are angry about the violence in Hong Kong and are for the first time realizing that we are [Chinese] nationalists.” 

As the protests have intensified, Chen and others like him have been given direct encouragement by the Chinese Communist Party, which faces the biggest uprising on Chinese soil since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. They face the extra challenge of trying to capture the narrative from a protest movement that has been creative and sophisticated in its messaging, crafting well-produced content that has gone viral worldwide.

The Chinese government has embarked on an aggressive, multipronged propaganda campaign to portray Hong Kong’s protesters as extreme, violent and sponsored by foreign actors — using novel tools and approaches. That includes calling on China’s youth like Chen to help spread its line, relying on communities of volunteer keyboard warriors.

China’s propaganda department now wants to wage a fully-fledged war.

Fang Kecheng, Chinese University of Hong Kong

Two groups have answered the rallying cry. “Fangirls” are mostly young women who mobilize online in support of their favorite actors and pop idols. In recent weeks, they have come up with a new idol: a-zhong ge, their term of endearment for “handsome older brother China.” Diba is a nationalistic internet community that goes after individuals they deem to have offended the feelings of the Chinese people, flooding social media pages with patriotic — and often abusive — messages and memes. State broadcasters, newspapers and the Communist Youth League have all offered endorsements for these activities. “From fangirls to diba to Chinese students studying abroad, everyone who loves Hong Kong and China has recently united to support and safeguard the city,” Gang Qiang, an anchor for China Central Television (CCTV), said on the nightly news in a very public sign of endorsement from the state.

“China’s propaganda department now wants to wage a fully-fledged war, so they are taking advantage of anything that can help them,” says Fang Kecheng, an assistant professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “What is new is [the diba and fangirls] are receiving formal recognition and explicit endorsement from the party.” 

Some diba are driven less by nationalism than by the thrill of flooding social media accounts with comments, according to Ocean Huang, who became a diba in his first year of university in 2013. Others, including fangirl Samantha Zou, fear they are being used by the state. “Chinese state media used to make very negative comments about fangirls like us, so why have they started encouraging us?” she asks.


Overseas mainland Chinese — often students studying abroad — have been encouraged by Chinese state media to support Beijing through counterdemonstrations against the Hong Kong protests. In cities from Sydney to London, a number of these dueling rallies have resulted in clashes, but they have still received full support from Beijing.  

Established state outlets have launched social media accounts on which they are encouraged to experiment with more accessible — and sometimes conspiratorial — content. These efforts are paying off. On Aug. 24, the nightly news show of state broadcaster CCTV opened an account on Kuaishou, a popular Chinese short video app. The account amassed more than 20 million followers within 10 days. “Old-fashioned party propaganda has been super-fueled with the accelerant of viral propaganda, often toxic and hateful toward Hong Kong,” says David Bandurski, co-director of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong. Normally staid state news readers are also adapting to the new approach. Some are channeling the styles of satirists such as John Oliver or Trevor Noah, hosts of popular U.S. television shows, to praise the patriotic protests of mainland Chinese. 

Some state entities are using pop culture tropes in video content for platforms like YouTube. CCTV released a rap music video that calls out “American hypocrisy” on Hong Kong. The country’s highest law enforcement body also released a rap in support of the Hong Kong police force, including lyrics such as “We are the Chinese police, and the Hong Kong police are part of our family.” 

Despite experimenting with new formats, Beijing still relies heavily on its traditional propaganda outlets. Since the start of July, the agenda-setting People’s Daily and other state newspapers have released a number of front-page editorials castigating the Hong Kong protesters.

These publications have adopted highly politicized language reminiscent of messaging in the time of Mao Zedong. Hong Kong’s protesters have been attacked as “separatists” attempting to foment a “color revolution” backed by the “black hand” of foreign forces. The strident articles set the tone for new media. Anger over an August attack by Hong Kong protesters on a reporter for the nationalist Global Times — which was widely covered in China’s official news — sparked a flood of posts on popular microblog Weibo.  

Controlling the narrative on Hong Kong means the Chinese leadership has had to reach beyond the “Great Firewall,” the system Beijing uses to censor the domestic internet and block Western media and social media platforms. State media has paid for its content to be promoted on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, all of which are barred in China. In July, Bejing’s foreign ministry also gave $480,000 to media outlets including the Global Times to monitor and analyze foreign media coverage of China.

Cybersecurity research firm Recorded Future has found that China’s state media outlets have ramped up English-language social media posts condemning protesters and supporting the Hong Kong government through July and August. Western social media companies are beginning to clamp down. In August, Twitter banned “state-controlled news media,” including China’s, from advertising on its platform, while YouTube began flagging similar content on its site. Twitter also announced that it had suspended 936 accounts for “deliberately and specifically attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong” and a further 200,000 spam accounts linked to the mainland’s propaganda campaign. YouTube and Facebook took similar actions.  

China’s state media and nationalist internet users have cast the ban as proof that Western platforms are hypocritical when they lecture China about freedom of speech. Twitter believes the accounts were backed by the Chinese state. However, it is difficult to be sure whether these accounts were operated by grassroots groups, like diba, or whether they were directly coordinated by Beijing, according to Fu King-wa at Hong Kong University. “If the attribution to state-backed actors made by Twitter is correct, it indicates that actors linked to the Chinese government may have been running covert information operations on Western social media platforms for at least two years,” a report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute think tank has concluded. 


OZY partners with the U.K.'s Financial Times to bring you premium analysis and features. © The Financial Times Limited 2020.