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China’s spy-handlers tried to ‘turn’ outspoken Hong Kong radio host

Hong Kong flag (Unsplash)
October 20, 2023

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

A former Hong Kong radio host jailed in an ongoing crackdown on public dissent was approached by Chinese state security police, who wanted him to return to broadcasting after his release, this time with a mandate to promote the Chinese Communist Party’s agenda, he told Radio Free Asia in a recent interview.

Edmund Wan, known by his show host nickname “Giggs,” said he was encouraged by the state security police officer to set up a YouTube channel “to tell good stories about China” after his release from a 32-month jail term for “sedition” and “money-laundering.”

As a State Department report warned last week that Beijing is waging an “information war” to spread its propaganda online – Wan’s account sheds light on the tactics that are used by Chinese authorities to recruit individuals on the ground.

“My interpretation is that Chinese state security were trying to co-opt me – to bring me onto their side,” Wan, who moved to Canada following his release, told RFA Cantonese. 

If he had accepted, Wan said he would likely have been expected to show Hong Kong as transitioning “from chaos to order,” in the wake of the 2019 protest movement, and to sing the praises of a draconian security law banning public criticism of the authorities as a necessary step to restore stability in the city.

Pushing the party line on Hong Kong

And he wouldn’t have been alone. YouTube and Facebook have a wide selection of people willing to create pro-Beijing content in return for the rewards they reap from those platforms.

“They don’t pass up any opportunity,” Wan said. “If you are willing to turn, they will probably welcome you.”

“They can significantly reduce their costs by picking up ready-made weapons from the free world,” said Wan, who was jailed in September 2022 after pleading guilty to one charge of “seditious intent” over comments he made during online radio shows he hosted from August to October 2020, and three charges of “money-laundering” linked to his crowd-funding transactions.

The Taiwan-based pro-democracy think tank Doublethink Lab said in a recent report titled “Whitewashing Hong Kong” that most pro-Beijing propaganda targeting Hong Kong revolves around a handful of set phrases and narratives, including blaming “traitors and saboteurs” for any opposition to the government, using “law and order” to justify the crackdown on free speech and attacking alleged foreign interference and “Western hegemony” that the government says is behind popular support for democracy.

In an analysis of more than 5,700 pro-China posts on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, the report concluded that there are large numbers of active accounts that cooperate with state media, including those run by online influencers and celebrities, to keep churning out the party line on Hong Kong.

Most of the tweets were posted during office hours in Beijing, the report said.

‘Vigilance is really needed’

Taiwanese national security researcher Shih Chien-yu said China is now pulling out all the stops to counter a wave of increasingly negative coverage in the Western media, and that its efforts are gaining international traction, particularly among people of Chinese descent overseas.

“Not all Chinese overseas can understand what’s being reported in English,” Shih said. “It’s likely to be somewhat effective, because social media emphasizes interaction.”

“In the long term, [such tactics] could make people forget about the re-education camps, the forced labor, about the people being persecuted, and about the 2019 protest movement in Hong Kong,” he said. “So vigilance is really needed.”

Exiled former pro-democracy lawmaker Ted Hui said he once had a microphone snatched from his hand at a Hong Kong demonstration in Australia by a person of Chinese descent who hailed from Malaysia.

“I believe that such people have mostly been brainwashed by the Chinese Communist Party’s online tools, and so they hate those who fight for freedom and democracy in Hong Kong,” Hui said in a recent interview. 

“The United Front [outreach and influence operation] has been successful in isolating local Hong Kong movements and communities.”

Current affairs commentator Sang Pu said Beijing has allocated “substantial” resources to infiltrating overseas social media platforms, often starting out with groups formed to discuss innocent-looking topics like food, music and fashion, but which then start drip-feeding Beijing’s propaganda message to unwary participants.

“This is a growing problem I have observed,” he said, suggesting that people avoid Chinese platforms like Tik Tok, WeChat and Weibo, and seek out news penned by exiled Hong Kongers instead.