TOPSHOT - Protesters walk along a street during a rally in Hong Kong on August 18, 2019, in the latest opposition to a planned extradition law that has since morphed into a wider call for democratic rights in the semi-autonomous city. - Hong Kong democracy activists gathered August 18 for a major rally to show the city's leaders their protest movement still attracts wide public support despite mounting violence and increasingly stark warnings from Beijing. (Photo by Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP)        (Photo credit should read LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA/AFP/Getty Images)
© FT montage / Getty

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 US, 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,” said Mr Chen. “I think a lot of young people like me are angry about the violence in Hong Kong and are for the first time realising that we are [Chinese] nationalists.” 

As the protests intensified, Mr 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.

An online army

Beijing has used state media to call on China’s youth like Mr Chen to help spread its line, relying on communities of volunteer keyboard warriors.

Two groups have answered the rallying cry. “Fangirls” are mostly young women who mobilise online in support of their favourite 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 are 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,” said Gang Qiang, an anchor for China Central Television (CCTV), on the nightly news in a very public sign of endorsement from the state.

China’s Communist Youth League has praised ‘diba’ and ‘fangirls’ in post on Weibo, a popular Chinese social media site, for “ripping into” the Hong Kong protesters and protecting China's image. © Communist Youth League/Weibo

“China’s propaganda department now wants to wage a fully-fledged war so they are taking advantage of anything that can help them,” said 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,” he added. 

Screenshot of an internet meme which reads "We 'fangirls' are here to tell you about real rules and actual legitimacy!" It is an allusion to tropes from popular Chinese costume dramas about feudal life and the absolute power of the emperor.  © Douban
Screenshot from Douban, a popular Chinese forum, where volunteers have translated Chinese posts into English for ‘diba' and ‘fangirls’ to repost on Instagram and other western social media sites. © Douban

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 said.

Modernising party propaganda

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 duelling rallies have resulted in clashes but they have still received full-fledged support from Beijing. 

Below are two clips from a rally in Melbourne that took place on August 16. Here is how China Global Television Network, a Chinese state broadcaster, portrayed the event:

But below is footage from the same protest published by a Western media outlet, the Daily Mail: 

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 August 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 20m followers within 10 days.

“Old-fashioned party propaganda has been super-fuelled with the accelerant of viral propaganda, often toxic and hateful toward Hong Kong,” said 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 channelling the styles of satirists such as John Oliver or Trevor Noah, hosts of popular US television shows, to praise the patriotic protests of mainland Chinese.

Left: Popular CCTV host Kang Hui uses a Chinese internet meme to send a message to airline Cathay Pacific: “If you do stupid things, they will come back to bite you”. Right: CCTV host Gang Qiang has praised the “patriotic” protests of mainland Chinese students studying around the world for participating in pro-Beijing protests. © Weibo/CCTV

Some state entities are using pop culture tropes in video content for platforms including 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.” 

In the clip below, CCTV dramatises what the People’s Liberation Army taking over Hong Kong might look like, interspersed with excerpts from famous Hong Kong movies:

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.

A man and a woman reads a newspaper with the headlines "Millions against Communist China shock the world" distributed in a shopping district popular with mainland Chinese tourists in Hong Kong Sunday, July 7, 2019. A march was to go through a popular shopping area for Chinese tourists and end at a high-speed rail station that connects the city to the mainland. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)
A man and a woman reads a newspaper with the headlines "Millions against Communist China shock the world" distributed in a shopping district popular with mainland Chinese tourists in Hong Kong. © AP

These publications have adopted highly politicised language reminiscent of messaging in the time of Mao Zedong. Hong Kong’s protesters have been attacked as “separatists” attempting to foment a “colour 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. 

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Beyond the Great Firewall

Controlling the narrative on Hong Kong means the Chinese leadership have 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 Rmb3.4m to media outlets including the Global Times to monitor and analyse 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.

An example of a post from a China-linked account that was suspended by Twitter in August. © Twitter
Another post from a China-linked account suspended by Twitter. The post is critical of the Hong Kong protests. © Twitter

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 co-ordinated 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 concluded.

Additional reporting by Nian Liu in Beijing

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