Chinese political operations in Australia: a popular pro-CCP reading

“You said what?!”: foreign donations to political parties are legal in Australia

Hua Daodao, a deputy editor in the Huanqiu Shibao‘s commentary department, has written a piece offering useful insights into how the Australian media’s latest exposés of CCP overseas political activities looks from within China.

Being a good patriot, Hua summarily brushes aside all the allegations (which incidentally i tend to think are more an indictment of Australian complacency than anything else) but the article seems to have struck a chord with many politically-engaged Chinese young people, being passed around quite widely on WeChat.

One highlight is the extensive comments from Lei Xiying, an energetic pro-CCP activist who says the Australian media have subjected him to “Cultural Revolution style persecution.”

Specifically, he complains about the labels “nationalist” and “ultranationalist” being used in previous Australian coverage of his public activities and works.

Given the prominence of various kinds of enemies of China in Lei’s work, i think it’s fair to call him a “nationalist.” But “ultranationalist” isn’t accurate, as there are many far more extreme, even outright militaristic, participants in Chinese national identity and foreign policy discourse.

In fact, last year in the wake of the unfavourable South China Sea arbitration result, when the government made clear that it did not want street protests or KFC boycotts, Lei worked to discredit this type of nationalist action as anti-China false-flag troublemaking.

What Lei really is, openly and proudly, is a pro-CCP ideological warrior, who views China as beset by foreign plots to infiltrate its government and manipulate public opinion — a near-perfect mirror image of what the CCP and its “agents” now stand accused of in Australia. This grim irony will presumably pass unnoticed by nationalists on all sides of the ideological war.

Hua Daodao’s article is presented in a similar style to many of Lei’s online pieces: full of GIF memes, splashes of coloured text, plenty of online slang, and even a “high-level smear” (高级黑). I’ve tried to replicate that vibe as best i can below.

 

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The things you see if you live long enough! A day when a Western country demands China ‘respect sovereignty’?

Hua Daodao

Huanqiu Shibao public WeChat, June 7, 2017

  • “China infiltrates Australian institutions and cultivates politicians”;
  • “Chinese government has network of spies in Australia, harming Australia’s national security”;
  • “Chinese government supports Chinese students to harass and intimidate other students…”

Say whaat?!

This is not just a rant thrown out there by some tiny media outlet, it’s a program broadcast on Monday by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).

An investigatory program with mysterious logic!

The program supposedly took “5 months” to investigate and produce, and the ABC put out a short preview clip on social media several days earlier to promote and build it up. On June 4 they even put out spoilers in the media.

Yet, those who’ve watched the program feel cheated…….

Post-viewing sentiments are that the program is full of incautious speculation and conclusions with no evidence, leaving people “deeply disappointed” in this five-month “masterpiece.”

But Australian Prime Minister Turnbull said today (apparently in response to the program), with a stern face, “China should respect Australia’s sovereignty!”

OMG!

Is this Prime Ministerial big man really this gullible, and also this suspicious?

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A FANTASY FILM

So what did this film actually say?

Titled Power and Influence: how the Chinese Communist Party is infiltrating Australia, and running for 47 minutes, the program begins with a re-enactment [of an Australian intelligence raid on the home] of Sheri Yan (严雪瑞), a 60-year-old American Chinese woman jailed last year for bribery of former UN General Assembly President John Ashe. This had nothing to do with China, and yet speculation about a “possible Chinese-Australian spy” proliferated, merely because a secret Western [government] document on Chinese intelligence work was found in her home.

ABC claims the Australian intelligence agencies’ investigation confirmed that “Australia and the United Nations’ internal data are targets of China’s intelligence operations,” and further that “China is now infiltrating Australian agencies and cultivating political figures,” even though the Australian official investigation has not reached any conclusions.

“What can I say, you guys are frying this to death”

Regarding the Australian intelligence agencies’ accusations of Yan being a suspected “Chinese spy”, her husband Roger Uren said in an interview that this “complete fantasy”, and “reflects some people’s mental derangement.” He said that the claims may originate with the US FBI, “It’s the American prejudice that thinks all chinese people are spies.”

The program warned Australia’s mainstream political parties to be aware of donations from two Australian Chinese [businessmen Chau Chak Wing and Huang Xiangmo, who actually isn’t a citizen], “because they may be channels for CCP interference in Australian politics.”

Students have also become a “high-risk group” for the Australian media — The ABC report claims China is very active in many areas, from directing Chinese student organizations and menacing dissidents in Australia, to influencing Australian academic research, capturing community organizations and controlling Chinese-language media.

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NOT A LONE CASE

What the ABC says will probably appear odd to Chinese people, but in the Australian media it is fully representative. The highly influential Sydney Morning Herald began to embellish the “mass-scale activities” of “Chinese spies” in Australia in 2014.

I contacted one of the Chinese students targeted as a “Chinese government agent of public opinion manipulation.”

The student’s name is Lei Xiying, and he is currently a PhD student at ANU, while also being on the committee of the All China Youth Federation, a winner of the May Fourth Youth Award, and the maker of such online video productions as Me and My Country’s Engine and You Want to Turn China Into This? Over My Dead Body, which won strong plaudits from netizens. This also attracted the attention of some ill-intentioned Australians. 

“The real manipulators of public opinion are the Australian media. Besides slapping labels on people, they take things out of context, and use fuzzy concepts to do public opinion guidance from an extremely clear standpoint.”

Lei Xiying angrily recounted his experience in Australia:

“In 2014 I started the #MeAndTheFlag selfie initiative on Sina Weibo, which won support from students and ethnic Chinese all over the world. That actually was a spontaneous heartfelt patriotic action from masses of overseas students, and I believe many overseas students and scholars understand this feeling. But then the Australian media slapped on the ‘nationalist’ label without explanation.

“By 2016 when i started the #BewareColorRevolution initiative, Australian media as respresented by the SMH immediately tagged me with the ‘ultranationalist’ label, and through extremely subjective and malicious editing, ignoring the large volume of objective facts I recounted in an interview with them, did all they could to seize on a few words to create the ‘ultranationalist’ image they wanted.

“For example, they wheeled out the ‘ultranationalist’ and ‘propaganda tool’ labels at the beginning of the article, and only then introduced some of the content of the interview. Even as they quoted me in some parts, they made sure to take me out of context — I talked about my revulsion towards colour revolutions coming from my concerns about the current situation in the Middle East, but this was deliberately deleted. In its place, some stuff about ‘the Chinese government uses nationalism to brainwash the masses,’ and ‘youth chauvinism’ that the journalist and editors had wracked their brains to come up with. Later, when a Chinese journalist asked to interview the [Australian] journalist, they chose not to reply.

“These techniques of manipulation of words spoken is very common in Australian media reporting. Besides the above, when Chinese leaders have visited Australia, I have organized student actions to welcome the leader and resist anti-China noise [i.e. protests by the CCP’s opponents]. When the Australian media interviewed me, the article only used two sentences of what I said, and crucially, they deliberately took an important point and placed it right before the opposition’s quote, so unless readers were attentive, many would get the wrong impression that what I said was actually said by the opposition. This type of deliberate muddying of the context and manufacturing ambiguity in order to dilute the voice of pro-China forces is very common. [NOTE: the image below, provided by Lei himself as evidence of this plot, actually shows just the opposite.]

“This type of Cultural Revolution-style suppression put great pressure on my individual life. From August last year onwards this type of directed public opinion made me not dare to return to Australia and continue my studies, and just write my thesis back at home.

“As overseas students we love China and also like Australia, but this doesn’t mean we have to like Australian politics and politicians. We despise the political kidnapping and political persecution that media like SMH practice via manipulation of public opinion. As a media outlet only daring to biasedly show one side’s voice, this is lamentable, and makes a mockery of the ‘diversity’, ‘internationalism’ and ‘tolerance’ that Australia thinks it can be proud of.”

NOTE: to a native English speaker at least, the report doesn’t suggest that Lei’s line was spoken by a Falun Gong source at all. And if the reporter had been deliberately trying to “dilute the voice of pro-China forces,” as he claims, why would they quote him first, before his dissident opponents?

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AUSTRALIAN MEDIA HIGH-LEVEL SMEAR

Where do the Australian media’s associative powers to invent this so-called “Chinese spy network” come from?

Ms. Dao understands the following to be the background: the leaders of public opinion this time are two organizations, one is ABC TV, the other is the SMH. The latter has recently been embroiled in uncertainty over its possible acquisition, with capital selloffs and many journalists and editors worried about their jobs. The ABC is also facing restructuring with the government unhappy with them, and major controversy in political circles over funding cuts.

So it’s like that then!

A friend in Australia said: “The security threat facing Australia at present is clearly terrorism, the government has endlessly reiterated the importance with which it views relations with China, and people are friendly towards China. Last year Sydney University ran an opinion poll that showed friendly attitudes towards China were even higher than towards the US. These two media outlets’ embellishment of the China threat doesn’t represent the Australian public’s views, and ignores Australia’s interests. It doesn’t really hurt China that much, but it is playing games with Australia’s future.”

“It’s not cos you’re poor”

However, Ms. Dao thinks a high-level smear is a high-level smear, at the end of the day that’s Australia’s problem. Australia is not an isolated case, the whole of Western society harbours a deep psychological sense of loss and anxiety.

One scholar points out that we need to be mentally prepared for the process of China’s emergence into the world, for when we do, encountering wariness and doubt, encountering a rebound or even worsening of nationalist sentiments, is a matter of probability.

“We need have a bit more of a balanced mind. We think of ourselves as very well-intentioned, but that doesn’t mean others will naturally open their arms and welcome us. China’s influence is constantly growing, our business people are increasingly present abroad and this will create all kinds of effects that we can’t avoid. This is an issue that a great power must consider on the road to its rise. Our attitude should be a bit calmer and we should stand a bit taller, there’s no need to get worried over every little gain and loss.”

Makes sense!

“I read a lot of books, I wouldn’t fool you”

However, since my self-knowledge and consciousness are inadequate, I still want to express my contempt for those Australian media.

 

 


The “next level smearing” of Chinese patriotism: a view from the Communist Youth League

“There’s the door”: one of many Communist Youth League-approved “memes” on the South China Sea issue

The first weekend after the July 12 Philippines vs China arbitration ruling — the “7.12 Incident” — has passed without reports of major anti-foreign protests.

There were, however, scattered cases of nationalist mobilization. There was at least one case of picketing outside a KFC in Hebei province (video), some smashing of iPhones (footage of which was often shared via iPhones), and a bunch of online dried mango retailers claiming to have switched their suppliers away from the Philippines.

Together with the various patriotic outpourings online, this was probably the largest set of collective actions by Chinese citizens on the South China Sea issue yet seen in China — bigger than Scarborough Shoal in 2012, or the peak of tensions in 2011, though still probably smaller and less intense than the demonstrations that would likely have occurred during the 2001 Sino-American EP-3 incident, had authorities had not prevented them.

While the Global Times hailed the “new wave of patriotism,” it was clear that, like in 2001, the party-state did not want real-world demonstrations. Municipal and university authorities were reportedly instructed to stay vigilantly on guard against potential mass gatherings. Nor, it seems, was online warmongering particularly desirable from the party’s perspective, with jingoistic Weibos encountering censorship.

An article published on the Communist Youth League’s Weibo illuminates some of the reasoning behind this desire to keep the patriotic outbursts relatively mild. It argues that much of the extreme nationalist outbursts are in fact “next-level smearing” (高级黑, referred to below as gaojihei) of China’s good patriots by anti-party elements posing as extreme nationalists.

Just how much of China’s ultra-nationalist output this actually accounts for is a wide open question. But the article offers evidence that it does explain at least some of the most visible and intense cases of what the outside world commonly understands as Chinese nationalism. In this way, it’s another illustration of how much more lurks behind shows of apparently anti-foreign mobilization besides simple “nationalist” ideology.

The examples cited suggest at least 4 distinct kinds of anti-regime motivation for extreme nationalist speech and actions:

  1. Critiquing the party’s ideological policies through parody;
  2. Giving patriotism negative associations;
  3. Fomenting domestic chaos that would destabilize party rule;
  4. Pushing for a war that would likely be disastrous for the party.

The article is written by one of the Communist Youth League’s most energetic proponents of pro-party “positive energy” in both China and Australia. Besides being on the committee of the All-China Youth Federation, Lei Xiying is a PhD student at Australian National University, whose previous projects include the “take a selfie with the flag,” setting up an Association for PhD Students and Outstanding Youth Scholars, and heavy promotion of last year’s military parade. He’s a prolific political commentator in the PRC state media, as well as in the Chinese-language media in Australia.

The author is, in short, a very worthy recipient of his Positive Energy Youth award bestowed on him by the Cyberspace Administration of China for being an “outstanding youth representative of online ideological construction.” As such, the article is illustrative of some of the issues facing the state’s leadership of popular nationalism on contentious foreign policy issues in the internet era, which i’ll return to briefly at the end.

 

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Life’s-a-game memes and the hijacking of youth patriotism by “crazy uncles”
游戏人生的表情包与当代青年被“怪蜀黍”绑架的“爱国”

Communist Youth League Weibo, July 16, 2016
Lei Xiying

“A gift for American President Putin”

This afternoon a post-1995 netizen sent me a “patriotic” photograph that he found confusing.

At a glance, with the slogan “violators of my China, however distant, must be punished” it’s a hot-blooded emotional “patriot.” But look a bit closer . . . Excuse me? [The calligraphic banner] is “a gift for US President Putin” . . . look again, a bald, bespectacled, half-naked, very inelegant “crazy uncle” with bad posture hits your eye . . .

“Bro, his patriotic expression is weird, how could he say the American President is Putin…”

I replied to this post-95’s doubts in three decisive words: next! level! smear! (高!级!黑!)

Is this surprising? Actually no, it’s commonplace. Whenever big things happen in China, whenever the whole population’s patriotic sentiments rise, these kinds of gaojihei are sprayed out everywhere.

For example, the author says, during the Diaoyu crisis, a person who had once burned the 5-star red flag suddenly became a patriotic Diaoyu defender, inciting the masses to take to the streets. Other suspect “patriots” had bragged about using the occasion to help themselves to a free meal or Rolex watch. “As for those among the peaceful patriotic marchers who urged violence and looting, their shouting of patriotic slogans was the loudest, but what was their objective?”

In one common gaojihei, Lei notes, netizens purported to blame actress Zhao Wei, who has again been the target of nationalist criticism of late, for masterminding the South China Sea arbitration decision, the Turkish coup attempt, and the Nice terror attack in order to divert attention from her sins.

Satirical posts blaming recent events, including the South China Sea arbitration, on Zhao Wei

Lei makes an important distinction between those who initiate extreme nationalist actions and those who join in later:

The initiators of this type of information are generally troublemakers, while those who forward it on are overwhelmingly ordinary netizens with naive patriotic sentiments — their heart is good, but due to their unfamiliarity with the internet’s complex public opinion environment, they are used by people with a purpose.

Besides these, some groups who are normally very dissatisfied with the state, the current system and the present state of affairs, suddenly become interested in patriotism, and urge everyone to take to the streets, and take to the battlefield.

The author then provides several examples of such suspects.

Another concern is the attempts to link party-sactioned patriotism with the sickening violence seen in the anti-Japan demonstrations over the Diaoyu Islands in 2012.

Some people take the opportunity to smear and exaggerate the behaviour of “extremist elements,” and use this to “represent” and “denounce” the rational behaviour of the overwhelming majority of patriotic youth, enacting maximum distortion on patriotism.

Have we taken to the streets and smashed things? Committed violence? We are just playing with memes (表情包), OK?

Weibo post on July 14 recalling protester Cai Yang’s horrific hammer attack on Toyota driver Li Jianli during the 2012 anti-Japan protests in Xi’an

The author then takes the opportunity to address some other criticisms of South China Sea patriotism. A comment observing two main types of nationalists, “very smart swindlers” and “very emotional idiots,” comes remarkably close to Lei’s own analysis of the initiators and followers noted above. Not surprisingly, his rebuttal does not acknowledge any such parallel:

Please do not force these meaningless labels on us, OK? If you must label us, we are the ‘party of memes’ (表情包党), OK?

In response to a middle-aged Weibo user’s observation that outbursts of patriotism tend to involve the denouncing of race-traitors:

We love the country but we do not arrest traitors, that was your generation’s hobby, our hobby is memes, OK?

“What you’re doing is moral hijacking”: one of the Communist Youth League patriotic meme gang’s responses to the critics

In the words of noted scholar Liu Yang 刘仰: “If you trace the patriotic demonstrations over the past few years, you find that every time patriotic enthusiasm is ignited, a succession of acts of sabotage follow. Strong voices immediately appear afterwards, saying patriots are ‘angry youth,’ patriots are criminals, patriots are extremist terrorists, patriots are ignorant brain-dead! . . . Time after time patriotic enthusiasm has ended in farce. This may be the behind-the-scenes manipulators’ objective: [keep this pattern repeating] until one day when China really needs the power of patriotism no one will appear, like the villagers in the Boy Who Cried Wolf or King You’s generals after he played with the fire beacons (‘烽火戏诸侯’故事里的勤王之师).”

Thankfully, according to the author, the plot was thwarted thanks to the Communist Youth League sending out articles such as his own, discouraging any boycotts of any country’s products, and designating memes as the “patriotic form” of choice for today’s youth.

“I’m not giving you a single fish from my South China Sea”

In conclusion Lei notes that critics of patriotism had different motivations corresponding to their generations. In contrast to the post-1970 and post-1980 generations (who presumably act on the basis of their westernised values), post-1950 and post-1960 critics of contemporary youth patriotism are often driven by their disillusionment with “the current system, road, and theory.” The article finishes with a rousing affirmation of the current generation:

Our understanding of history, of China, and of the world is inevitably more complete, more objective, more rational than that ‘historically burdened’ generation

. . .

this is why, after the 7.12 arbitration incident, we did not take to streets, scream protests, or even smash things up as some people had hoped . . . on the contrary we initiated a form of ‘mocking and scolding’ (嬉笑怒骂) unique to this generation.

“Your ignorance pains me”

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Not sure if the summary above hangs together at all — the article itself is similarly disjointed — but it does raise a couple of issues facing the state’s leadership of popular nationalism on contentious foreign policy issues in the internet era.

First, as the Liu Yang quote suggests, the CCP state’s ability to tap into the power of popular nationalist mobilizations is significantly compromised by the moderate backlash their extreme elements generate. This point, borne out in Chris Cairns and Allen Carlson’s recent study of the 2012 wave of nationalism, has been recognized by other smart minds within the propaganda system. In a research interview in 2013, a state media employee familiar with audience costs theory observed that any international leverage China may gain from allowing domestic protests is greatly diminished when violence ensues. Not only does protest violence require suppression, thereby foregrounding the state’s ability to control nationalist outrage. It also brings forth strong anti-nationalist voices from across society, suggesting popular support for defiance of nationalist demands for escalatory foreign policy choices.

Second, perhaps reflecting the need to protect trade ties in a time of economic uncertainty, the CYL was clearly keen to specifically discourage boycotts among the youth, and substitute them with online “memes” (表情包). For the party-state to adopt these particular forms of internet-era youth expression as a vehicle for its propaganda makes perfect sense. But as a substitute for real political action it’s so openly inconsequential (and, due to the need for political correctness, humourless) that i wonder how this could possibly satisfy any genuine nationalist anger about the South China Sea issue — let alone the kind of general dissatisfaction with life that underpins at least part of it. This might be why some of the approved “memes” contained nods in the direction of slightly more violent Cultural Revolution-esque imagery (e.g. the one below).

What else is going on here? What am i missing about this “meme” strategy? As always, thoughts, suggestions, corrections etc. most welcome.

 

“You, a banana seller, dare to scramble with daddy for the South China Sea!”