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China wages overseas information war on Hong Kong, while clamping down at home

YouTube website screenshot (Spencer E Holtaway/Flickr)
August 25, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Google says it has taken down more than 200 YouTube channels that were linked to the Chinese Communist Party’s disinformation campaign targeting the Hong Kong protests.

“Earlier this week, as part of our ongoing efforts to combat coordinated influence operations, we disabled 210 channels on YouTube when we discovered channels in this network behaved in a coordinated manner while uploading videos related to the ongoing protests in Hong Kong,” the company, which owns YouTube, said in a post on its official blog.

It said the discovery was “consistent with recent observations” made by Facebook and Twitter, which also shuttered a number of China-linked accounts.

“We found use of VPNs and other methods to disguise the origin of these accounts and other activity commonly associated with coordinated influence operations,” Google said.

Google said it cooperates with “industry partners and law enforcement”when carrying out investigations into influence campaigns using its platforms, as well as making use of third-party intelligence.

“These actions are part of our continuing efforts to protect the integrity of our platforms and the security and privacy of our users,” it said.

In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said he didn’t know the specific details of Google’s action.

“But everyone should know what 1.4 billion Chinese people think about the current situation in Hong Kong,” he said.

‘Deceptive tactics, including the use of fake accounts’

Earlier this week, Facebook and Twitter both said they had taken steps to remove coordinated posts they had linked to the ruling Chinese Communist Party, after the accounts had engaged in “deceptive tactics, including the use of fake accounts.”

Meanwhile, in London, the U.K.’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office issued a warning to travelers that their devices could be searched while crossing the border from Hong Kong to mainland China.

“In light of ongoing protests and demonstrations in Hong Kong, there are reports of greater scrutiny from mainland authorities at border crossings between the mainland and Hong Kong,” the travel warning said.

“This includes reports that travellers’ electronic devices have been checked at border crossings,” it said.

The checks are believed to be part of a concerted campaign to ensure that no unedited news of the Hong Kong anti-extradition protests is able to reach residents of mainland China, as Beijing tries to promote its view of the protests as an attempt by foreign powers to stage a “color revolution” in China far beyond its borders.

U.S.-based legal scholar Teng Biao said the administration of President Xi Jinping has succeeded in suppressing any form of free speech in mainland China in recent years.

“The Chinese government completely suppresses freedom of speech by shutting down accounts and deleting posts for the slightest thing,” Teng said.

“Many people have been detained for something they posted online,sentenced to prison on trumped-up charges like incitement to subversion or picking quarrels and stirring up trouble, or have just ‘disappeared’,” he said. “Meanwhile, the 50-cent army cooks up fake news online.”

Spending to boost followers

And mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter Xu Xiaodong said he had been reported on social media and threatened by the authorities after speaking out in support of the Hong Kong anti-extradition movement.

“Hong Kong people are Chinese and I am also Chinese. That’s why I love Hong Kong people,” he said in a YouTube broadcast for which he was later forced to apologize.

“Someone asked me if I know what’s going on in Hong Kong and queried my right to make any comment. They may be right, but I want to ask why we don’t know what’s exactly happening in Hong Kong. Why?” he said in the video.

He told RFA that he had since come to an arrangement with the authorities.

“My attitude is very good right now,” he said. “My attitude is great. Any of you people monitoring the internet, anyone who is listening in, I can tell you that Xu Xiaodong hasn’t broken any laws.”

“They wanted me to describe [the Hong Kong protesters] as a rebellious mob, but I wouldn’t, and I refused to leave YouTube as well,” he said. “I’m still doing live streams, but I know where the lines are drawn. I’m not going to mention anything to do with Hong Kong any more.”

RFA’s Cantonese Service reported earlier this week that a top news organization run by the ruling Chinese Communist Party has hired two specialist social media and data management firms to boost their Facebook fans and followers on Twitter.

The China News Service, the second largest state-owned news agency in China after Xinhua, is run by the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, which was absorbed into the United Front Work Department—the external influence and outreach agency—of the Chinese Communist Party in 2018.

Two official procurement documents seen by RFA for Twitter and Facebook specialists respectively offered contracts worth up to 1.3 million yuan each to companies that can boost their follower counts on those platforms by more than half a million.