Well-educated women of Asian descent, who primarily work as journalists and human rights activists, were the number one target of recent global online repression campaigns by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), according to a recent study by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).
In 2019, Twitter linked the Chinese government to a network of inauthentic pro-CCP accounts on the platform that harassed groups who discussed protests against increasing Chinese authority over the territory of Hong Kong. The 2019 network of pro-CCP accounts was dubbed “Spamouflage Dragon” by the social network analysis firm Graphika.
A recent ASPI analysis assessed these “Spamouflage Dragon” methods have been repeated in recent years and the available data from these pro-CCP harassment campaigns found that journalists and human rights activists were the primary targets of these efforts. The ASPI analysis further determined “the most malicious and sophisticated aspects of this information campaign are focused on women of Asian descent.”
Some of the most prominent targets of these Chinese campaigns included Asian women journalists at media outlets like the New Yorker, The Economist, the New York Times, The Guardian, Quartz and other prominent western outlets.
ASPI reported the New Yorker’s Jiayang Fan, the Economist’s Alice Su, the New York Times’ Muyi Xiao and the Wall Street Journal’s Lingling Wei were among several of the mostly female and mostly-ethnic Chinese journalists who recently began receiving floods of messages calling them “traitors” and accusing them of “smearing” China. Activists like former Human Rights Watch’s Mei Fong have also been targeted.
The ASPI report said some of the harassment efforts have been “highly personal,” with some of the inauthentic accounts tailoring their messages to the individual circumstances of their targets, including specifics of the work and personal lives of their targets.
The #TraitorJiayangFan hashtag was specifically started to target Fan and, according to ASPI, was amplified by at least 367 inauthentic Twitter accounts starting on April 19.
Xiao was another prominent target, with 112 different accounts posting more than 500 tweets targeting her within a 24-hour period last week.
The Chinese government has denied any involvement in the harassment tactics alleged by the ASPI report.
“To accuse the Chinese government of using Twitter accounts to target dissidents is totally groundless and malicious speculation,” Chinese embassy spokesperson Liu Pengyu told Axios.
Liu also said ASPI “has been making a living by churning out all kinds of disinformation about China. It has long been notorious in China and a laughing stock in the international community.”
Despite Liu’s denial of the specific allegations raised by ASPI, China has been accused of other efforts to quiet dissidents of the CCP-controlled government. According to Pro Publica, China has tracked down and repatriated around 8,000 dissidents living abroad since 2014, through a program called Operation Fox Hunt. The Chinese repatriation program is billed by its government as an effort to track down corrupt Chinese nationals to face criminal charges, but this may instead be a pretext to excuse its efforts to silence dissidents. Chinese agents have been accused of coercing ex-pats to return to China by conveying threats against their family members still living in the country.
Last year, the Department of Justice charged nine suspected agents of the Chinese government with using threatening and coercive tactics to carry out extralegal repatriations from the U.S.