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Original illustration by Tse Yuet Ching. 

07:40 am | 3. September 2020

Stigmatizing Europe

As China reveled in its “victory” over COVID-19, internet users in the country seemed to relish finding fault with the rest of the world – and Europe was no exception.

By Jasper Jia

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues across the world, different countries are responding to the crisis in different ways. In China, the first country to experience the virus, mandatory quarantines and other measures seem to have stabilized the situation. Nevertheless, in lieu of a vaccine, the prospect of a resurgence is always a real fear. In June there was talk of a possible “second wave,” which China seems now to have tamed. Meanwhile, debate has continued internationally over how to assess the responses of various governments -- and China, which faced criticism early on for its handling of the outbreak, has tried to turn the narrative around. 

In March, once China had a handle on the pandemic, with official numbers taking a turn for the better,  Chinese state media dialed up the volume on their praise of the government response in controlling the epidemic. They lauded on China’s governance model, reporting that the “clear superiority of China’s system” had been made evident by the government’s successes in dealing with COVID-19. In some media reports there was a clear patronizing tone, with suggestions that foreign countries could or should “copy [China’s] homework,” learning from its pandemic response. 

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Coverage from China’s official Xinhua News Agency in June touts the “superiority” of China’s system in dealing with the epidemic.

Two narratives in particular have been heard on the Chinese internet since March about foreign news of the pandemic. The first criticizes and ridicules foreign governments, stressing their dependence on Chinese aid to fight the pandemic. Insufficient control measures, many Chinese internet users say, have caused the rapid spread of the virus, and such accounts have been exacerbated by reports circulating on social media platforms like WeChat from so-called “self-media” or “we-media,” referring to digital accounts or platforms. Some of these media are private accounts operated by individuals or companies, but they are not “civic media” as the name might suggest, and some are also operated by government organs.  

The second narrative prevalent since March claims, or strongly implies, that the virus originated in some country other than China.

Sacrificing the Weak

One country that became a focus of the narrative of government incompetence on the Chinese internet in March was the UK. On March 12, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson issued a statement on the coronavirus epidemic from his office at 10 Downing Street, in which said that the government’s goal was “not just to attempt to contain the disease as far as possible, but to delay its spread and thereby minimize the suffering.” Seeking to clarify the government’s policy during an interview with Sky News the next day, March 13, Sir Patrick Valence, the government’s chief scientific adviser, seemed to suggest that about 60 percent of the UK’s population would have to become infected with the virus for the society to build up immunity.

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The headline of this March 14, 2020, post made to Sina Weibo, with an image of Sir Patrick Valence appearing on Sky News, reads: “Britain’s herd immunity means: we have decided to give up on our citizens.”

This and other failures of communication on the part of the Johnson government quickly led to the perception that the UK’s policy for dealing with the epidemic was one of “herd immunity.” Just days later, a double headline in the Atlantic read: “The U.K.’s Coronavirus ‘Herd Immunity’ Debacle:  The country is not aiming for 60 percent of the populace to get COVID-19, but you’d be forgiven for thinking so based on how badly the actual plan has been explained.”

While the UK’s plan was never “herd immunity,” this idea quickly exploded across the Chinese internet. The headlines proliferating across Chinese “self-media” were often appalling: “Is the British government gambling with the lives of 60 percent of the population?”; “Britain deliberately sacrifices 60 percent of its people to achieve herd immunity," and so on. A common refrain found across the internet and on social media went: “Britain’s herd immunity means: we have decided to give up on our citizens.”

When British media reported in early April that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had been admitted to intensive care after his health had “worsened,” Chinese internet users responded strongly to the news, and one related post gained 415,000 “likes” on social media.

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A March post to China’s Weibo platform reporting that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been admitted to the ICU receives more than 415,000 likes.

By early March, China’s foreign ministry and state media were talking of a deepening friendship between China and Italy as the latter struggled under the onslaught of the virus. A March 10 release from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that “the Italian government is following closely and drawing on China's successful experience and taking strong measures to prevent the spread of the disease.” But online, Italy was fair game.

On March 24, a top trending topics on Weibo, one of China’s most popular social media platforms, was titled, “Italian doctors say they are restricting intubation for patients over 60 years of age.” The post referred to a subtitled video in which Gal Peleg, an “Italian doctor,” was quoted as saying that because his hospital had an insufficient number of respirators, they had now “set a threshold so that people over 60 years of age would no longer get help." This Weibo post, which cited as its source a March 22 report from the Daily Mail, was read more than 80 million times. But it was patently false. In fact, Peleg was an Israeli doctor working in Parma, Italy. His suggestion that a policy limited access to respirators was in place was denied by other doctors in Italy, and in a Facebook post he subsequently rejected the statements attributed to him, calling them “fake news.” “I share my experience with you because the whole world wants to know about Italy,” he wrote, “but journalists sometimes change things.”

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Screenshot of an April post on Weibo showing a video of Israeli doctor Gal Peleg, mistakenly identified as an “Italian doctor,” and his remarks misrepresented.

The rumor about Peleg’s remarks has persisted. Headlines like, "Cruel! Italy gives up patients over 60 years old!” still abound on the Chinese internet. They portray the West as a cruel place, where societies had a complete disregard for the rights of the elderly.

In another article appearing online, “European and American Human Rights? Let the Old People Die!”,  the author claimed that Spain had "directly” given up on the treatment of people over 65 years of age, that the UK had "introduced a scoring system and started to eliminate the infected elderly." France, the article said, refused to treat elderly people over 70 owing to "insufficient medical resources.” As for Italy, which the article said had “attacked China” early on in the pandemic, it had received no support from any G7 nation. The European Union had not only failed to come to its aid, but had snatched away its resources. Only China – China that had been senselessly attacked – had come to Italy’s aid.

[The web comments] portray the West as a cruel place, where societies had a complete disregard for the rights of the elderly.

 

Origin Rumors

On March 21, the Global Times, a newspaper published by the Chinese Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, promoted an article through its official Weibo account called, “Renowned Italian Expert: The Virus May Have Spread in Italy Before the Outbreak in China.” The article was republished and promoted my many official newspapers and online across the country, fueling the narrative that COVID-19 might have originated in Europe or somewhere else.

According to the Global Times, the Italian expert claiming that the virus had spread in Italy before the outbreak in China was Giuseppe Remuzzi, the director of the prestigious Mario Negri Institute for Pharmacological Research. But Remuzzi had said no such thing. In an interview with The Times newspaper, Remuzzi said that Chinese reports had distorted his words, leading people to believe Italy was the source of the virus. The expert called the Global Times report a “textbook example of propaganda.”

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In a March 2020 interview with The Times, Italian doctor Giuseppe Remuzzi calls a Chinese report quoting him on the origins of COVID-19 a “textbook example of propaganda.”

Next it was France’s turn. As the virus spread rapidly in the country in March and April, the topic, "France is the source of the virus," trended on the Chinese Internet. On April 18, International Finance News, another newspaper under the umbrella of the People’s Daily, ran the following story: "The Origin is Nailed Down! Earlier in France than in China!" The article suggested that when the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle had departed from the Toulon Naval Base in January, several of its crew members had already tested positive for COVID-19. This meant, it said, that "viral infection should have occurred sometime in December last year, prior to its departure!” On the basis of this speculative timeline, the article concluded that the virus had appeared in France before it emerged in China. “Once again, this confirms that COVID-19 was started in the West, and so China was the first victim!” it said.

Several weeks later, on May 5, the People’s Daily newspaper published another article with the headline, “The French Epidemic was Caused by Local Virus Strains.” The article claimed that France’s Pasteur Institute had come to this conclusion. The headline on the paper’s Weibo account was blunter still: “Wuhan’s Pneumonia Comes From France!”

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An article in the People’s Daily on May 5, 2020, at left, claims that research from France’s Pasteur Institute has shown COVID-19 originated in France.

This news was widely disseminated in Chinese official media and online media. Etienne Simon-Loriere, a junior group leader at the Pasteur Institute, criticized the People’s Daily article in an interview with Radio France on May 7. "The purpose of our research was to find the path of the spread of the virus inside France, and to study how the virus was introduced into France from other countries,” he said. “The ultimate source of the virus is of course China. There is no doubt about this.”

The "Truman Show" of China’s Internet

These distinct network environments have resulted in the distinct pairing of internet products, meaning that international internet platforms or tools (like Twitter or Facebook, which cannot operate inside China) will have their Chinese counterparts. Here is a list of these pairings:

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This is just a glimpse of the many pairings that have resulted from the splintering of the internet under China’s domestic controls. The full universe of Chinese counterparts means that China who are active  online within the “inner-net” can be fully self-sufficient in terms of services, not requiring use of global services. This distinct internet, relatively isolated from the outside world, is like the construction of a world not unlike that of the fictional world depicted in the 1998 film “The Truman Show.”

Owing to the China’s massive 1.4 billion population, of which 900 million now actively use the internet, China’s closed internet space has given birth to many internet giants – Baidu, Tencent and Alibaba being three of the most prominent. In terms of how these internet giants relate to China’s internet population, we can say that Baidu deals with the relationship between people and information (providing search functions), while Tencent deals with interpersonal relationships (through its essential WeChat platform), and Alibaba deals with the relationship between people and products (serving as China’s Amazon).

Aside from these giants, there is an array of smaller-scale internet companies, two of which deserve special mention. These are Sina Weibo (in fact, 31 percent owned by Alibaba), which is one of the most important platforms for sharing of user-generated information, and Toutiao (owned by Bytedance), a news and information aggregator and distributor. Together with Tencent’s WeChat, these two services can be said to constitute the main public opinion space in China. Almost all official organizations and state media have verified accounts on each these three content platforms. Many well-known writers, journalists and columnists also have their own registered accounts.

WeChat public accounts provide a good example of how this public opinion space operates. Readers not familiar with the “public account,” or gongzhonghao (公众号), can think of them as similar to open Facebook Pages operated by businesses, brands, organizations or public figures. Just as Facebook users can follow various Facebook Pages, so do individual WeChat users in China follow public accounts. By the end of 2018, China had registered more than 30 million WeChat public accounts, each with their own groups of followers.

Party-state media and commercialized media (those that are linked to the party-state, as all media must be, but are not directly funded by the state) are extremely competitive across all three of these content platforms, and accounts often try to position themselves in unique ways that will attract users with similar values, beliefs and interests. These accounts compete for followers and page views, which are taken as measures of influence and commercial success. If article surpasses 100,000 page views, the specific number of views will no longer be displayed. But Chinese users will refer to these extremely popular posts as “100,000+ articles.” More page views means more readers, and this translates into higher advertising fees for these accounts.

Meanwhile, small private companies, writers and journalists in China may set up “reward” functions on their WeChat public accounts, which allow readers to provide small amounts of money when they enjoy articles.  Higher page views translate into higher reward amounts from readers. To provide an example, “Today’s Ping Talk”, a public account established by the nationalist writer Zhou Xiaoping, can receive tens of thousands of “rewards” from readers, meaning a single article can generally earn several thousand euro. Zhou’s articles are often rife with misrepresentations and untruths. But they receive a chorus of applause from readers nonetheless.

This atmosphere of extreme competition and the pursuit of numbers-driven profit encourages public account editors to set aside the standards of ethical journalism, and even blatantly manufacture fake news, selling articles with clickbait headlines and provocative content. I often describe this phenomenon with a simple phrase: “Traffic is the root of evil.” This motive, now built directly into China’s information environment, means information is constantly pushed toward users without consideration for its value as information. Even Autonavi Navigation, a popular navigation service for automobiles in China, bombards users with information having nothing to do with transportation.

Traffic, Ideology and Business

On Chinese social media, Sina Weibo, WeChat Official Accounts (public accounts that require registration with a Chinese business license) and Toutiao together form an important set of public opinion fields, and they are also the chief sources of information for the vast majority of Chinese people. I classify these accounts into the following categories.

[1] Marketized and Private “Self-Media”

One good example of marketized and private “self-media” accounts  sharing information about the pandemic is the account “Ten O’clock Reading” (十点读书), which on March 16 published an article under the lengthy headline: “Italy has shut down, Britain has given up fighting . . . . That world is in a pandemic, but China has not stood idly by!” The article claimed that Italians had sung the Chinese national anthem, “March of the Volunteers,” from their balconies to express their gratitude for the COVID-19 aid rendered by China. A video circulating widely on the Chinese internet claimed that the Chinese anthem was blared out over the streets of Rome. However, subsequent verification by the Taiwan Factcheck Center and other fact-checking initiatives, revealed that the video had been faked from actual footage of Italian citizens applauding Italian healthcare workers from their balconies on March 14.

“Ten O’clock Reading” is a WeChat public account registered in the city of Xiamen, in China’s coastal Fujian province. The account, which is generally devoted to the promotion of fine writing and books, has a following of more than 10 million. But the Italy article was a radical departure from the account’s usual style. The article quickly achieved pages views exceeding 100,000 – after which, as previously mentioned, WeChat stops counting. WeChat public accounts like this one often lack a consistent tone and point of view, instead pursuing the greatest level of traffic possible. 

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An online post in March claims that Italians shouted “Grazie Cina!” (“Thank you, China!”) in gratitude for medical aid shipments.  

Accounts like these care even less for the opinions of foreigners than they do about the truth. Their content rarely even reaches foreign audiences. Often they will manufacture or repackage rumors about foreign countries in a naked bid to increase page views. A March 20 report from The Beijing News, a commercial newspaper published by the Beijing municipal committee of the Chinese Communist Party, traced articles appearing on more than 50 WeChat public accounts, all bearing astonishingly similar headlines disparaging foreign countries and their handling of the epidemic, stressing how Chinese businesses in these places were having a difficult time, and so on. The newspaper found that all of these WeChat accounts were operated by just three large companies based in the city of Fuqing, in Fujian province. China’s internet has become inundated with rough, mass-produced garbage content of this kind.

[2] Overseas Accounts

Nearly every European country has at least 10 dedicated public WeChat public accounts, catering to Chinese readers who are interested in that country. In North America there are more than 70 such accounts. Generally, they are used for business purposes, and popular business models include overseas tourism, immigration, study abroad and overseas asset allocation. For these accounts, the most important thing is to ensure that the account is not deleted – meaning that it falls afoul of censors in China for content violations – and maintains a high level of popularity.

One good example of an overseas WeChat public account is "China College Daily" (北美留学生日报). This account, which has received investment from Tencent, is operated by a company registered in Beijing, with offices in Beijing and New York. "China College Daily" claims to serve Chinese students in North America, and its founder, Lin Guoyu, first registered the account from New York in 2013. In recent years, however, many domestic readers have criticized it because of its frequent fabrication of false news on major events.

On May 3, “China College Daily” claimed that French-Moroccan writer Leïla Slimani had published her epidemic diary in the French newspaper Le Monde, but that it had been "banned" because of criticism from readers. The post likened Slimani to Fang Fang, a Chinese writer based in Wuhan whose online diary during the lockdown had been published by the Chinese news site Caixin.  The post said that “Fang Fang should feel thankful to live in a freer and more tolerant country like China,” and found it odd that “France, so lacking in freedom, should want to publish [a French edition] of Fang Fang’s Wuhan Diary.”

In fact, Fang Fang was already facing harsh criticism inside China and had been labeled a “traitor” by some for publishing her critical account overseas. Two academics expressing support for her work had been formally placed under investigation and punished.  These facts were not mentioned by the author of the “China College Daily” post, who also quoted Lu Shaye, China’s ambassador to France, as saying in an interview with l’Opinion that the French tended to emphasize positive news in times of difficulty: “In the process of fighting the epidemic, French media always report positive news stories that can lift people’s spirits and encourage solidarity.”

To claim that China's media environment is freer than that of France beggars the imagination, but of course this suits the goals of Chinese government propaganda.

Using the domestic WeChat platform means one has to appeal to domestic censorship, so these overseas public numbers usually hold firm nationalist standpoints. As immigrants or overseas Chinese, they need to meet the needs of both oversea Chinese and domestic readers, as domestic readers are likely to be their potential customers. To attract these two kinds of people, taking the nationalist line is their best choice.

To claim that China's media environment is freer than that of France beggars the imagination, but of course this suits the goals of Chinese government propaganda.

 

[3] Government Propaganda 

WeChat public accounts operated by the state are easy enough to recognize. Examples include the official account of the Global Times newspaper, and Guancha Syndicate (观察者网), a website associated with the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences (SASS). Generally, these are accounts formed by party-state media in an effort to gain fans, and to leverage their government support to become voices of influence on these social media platforms. They can be regarded as part of China’s official ideological system (意识形态体系).

One article posted to Guancha Syndicate on March 12 was headlined, “Germany Has Given Up, I Plan to Go Home.” The article was written by a Chinese student attending Aachen University of Technology in Germany, who is also a columnist at the website. The author wrote at the outset of the article: “People always say western societies are democratic and free, and that they prioritize human rights over everything else. But now the [German] government is depriving people of their most basic right, the right to life, because of its slack attitude.”

The article goes on to suggest that Germany has been incapable of decisive action, and is therefore far from capable of grappling with the pandemic: “The German government has done nothing. . . . The whole country’s decision-making process is shockingly slow.”

Guancha Syndicate is hosted by the Shanghai Chunqiu Institute for Development and Strategic Studies, a  think-tank under the Shanghai Federation of Social Science Associations. The founder of the institute, Jin Zhongwei, was previously deputy editor of the Oriental Morning Post, a commercial newspaper that was published under Shanghai’s state-owned Shanghai United Media Group (SUMG) until it was shuttered on January 1, 2017. Jin has deep connections with the government. Most of Guancha Syndicate’s readers are new nationalists, interested in demonstrating the superiority of the Chinese model through examples of the government’s efficiency. However, Guangcha Syndicate does not rely commercially on its readership. The website is supported instead by Shanghai venture capitalist Eric X. Li, founder and managing director of Chengwei Capital, who has argued in numerous international forums that China’s political model is in many respects superior to Western democratic systems

More widely known is the Chinese-language edition of the Global Times newspaper, a subsidiary of the CCP’s official People's Daily. With a circulation nationally of more than five million, the Global Times mainly reports international news, and is well known for the strong nationalist tone and standpoint of its coverage. The Global Times maintains official accounts on every major social media platform. These accounts advocate the China model and strive to make their readers feel proud of China. The goal is also achieved by misinterpreting and fabricating foreign news and information – like the case mentioned above of Italy being singled out as the origin of COVID-19.

Generally speaking, fake news or rumors about the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia can more easily be clarified in the Chinese environment because many Chinese are able to read English well and access more authoritative information. Getting accurate news and information about European countries, however, can be complicated by language barriers. Generally speaking, the study of languages like Italian, Spanish and French is not popular in China, making it a challenge to verify news from these places.

[4] Censorship and Self-censorship

In 1997, just three years after the introduction of the internet to China, the government passed its first regulations to govern the new medium, followed shortly after in 1998 by the introduction of the Golden Shield project, the beginnings of what later became known as the “Great Firewall.”  China now has nearly a quarter century of experience in developing its own system of internet content management. Today, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) is in charge of reviewing and censoring content.

But the CAC works in concert with around 50 national departments to achieve the government’s internet management goals. These include the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), and the National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA). When it comes to decisions about how content should be produced, and when it should be removed, many government departments have the right to assert themselves.

Take for example the rapid development of online films in recent years. In February 2019, the NRTA released a “Notice” outlining new regulations governing online audio and video programming. The regulations brought the process of review for online video much closer to the stringent process already in place for traditional film productions. Censorship of content was not just the priority of  the NRTA alone. If the plot of an online video production involved the police, for example, touching on the question of public perceptions of the MPS, the script first had to be reported to the MPS for approval. If the plot also included students or teachers, well then – you first needed script approval from the Ministry of Education.

Under internet content restrictions in place since the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008, major Beijing-based news portals – including QQ.com (Tencent), Netease, Sina and Sohu – are given five headline topics each day by the Beijing Municipal News Office. Of these, online editors must choose three to serve as the top headlines of the day. Among editors, these headlines have come to be known as “Olympic package meals.” Because this package system has continued to the present day, the headlines on China’s major portal sites everything are astonishingly similar.

Since 1998, when the Golden Shield project was first implemented, internet sites in China have reviewed articles and other content (including comments from users) using systems of keyword filtering. These system define “blacklists” of words that cannot be mentioned, which will change over time. Once banned keywords are triggered, an article containing that keyword will be automatically deleted or enter a manual review stage.

Internet users respond to keyword filtering by using words that are homophones or sound similar, allowing them to work around blacklists. After the COVID-19 epidemic worsened in the United States, for example, Chinese internet users found that they could not post the phrase, “Cheer up, America, on social platforms such as Sina Weibo.

Technology for the censoring of images is also developing rapidly. Back in March, I registered an account on Douyin, the domestic Chinese version of Tiktok, and posted just one simple video of myself at home, remaining completely silent for the duration of the clip. My account was deleted within five minutes? Even as a veteran of the media industry, quite familiar with points of sensitivity, I could not understand why I had been banned. Finally, I learned that the problem had been a book sitting on the shelf behind me, a book about Hong Kong that was prohibited in China.

But despite the sophistication of technological controls on information and speech, the most effective form of censorship remains self-censorship. These days, almost everyone on the internet bears the CAC in mind. Some Chinese writers do their utmost to use language that is light on directness but heavy on implications, one way to work around censorship to some degree. Others simply don’t write at all. Meanwhile, the high-spirited writings of those with strongly nationalistic views are allowed to thrive and command attention.

Over the past two decades, the ideological climate in China has strengthened in stride with internet content management. For both companies and individuals trying to maintain a strong presence on the internet, avoiding deletion of their accounts requires creativity. The surest means of surviving and profiting is to keep to those positions that appeal to the government. This atmosphere of high-intensity speech controls combined with the relative acceptability of certain nationalistic themes has contributed to a new phenomenon on China’s internet – the rise of a younger generation of cyber-nationalists known as the “little pinks,” or xiaofenhong (小粉红).

Despite the sophistication of technological controls on information and speech, the most effective form of censorship remains self-censorship.

 

The “Little Pinks” and Political Correctness

The growing market for rumors and fake news about the West has been created partly as a result of changes in the nature of the overseas Chinese population and the communication tools available to them. Those Chinese who left China in the 1990s could not get by without a sufficient working knowledge of the local language and the local media, and this meant they were more connected to the foreign country where they  were studying or working. But the mobile internet now allows later  generations of overseas students and immigrant Chinese to rely on Chinese social media such as WeChat and Weibo. Rather than struggle with local-language media, they can live in their WeChat moments and feel connected.

During the COVID-19 epidemic this year, the voices of Chinese students overseas were particularly prominent. On the one hand, they expressed their approval of the methods China’s used to contain the virus. On the other hand, they strongly criticized the way the epidemic was being handled in their host countries. Some wrote articles on official public accounts in China describing the dangerousness of their experiences abroad, "showing" through first-hand accounts the brutal and cruel nature of western countries that paid lip service to human rights. Naturally, such reports prompted concern from Chinese parents.

China's “Great Firewall” has been in operation already for more than 18 years. It has also been ten years since Google exited China, shutting down its Chinese search engine services over censorship concerns. For more than a decade, younger Chinese, mainly those born after 1990, have been using a sanitized Chinese internet since they were old enough to be digital. There are only a very few young Chinese who use virtual private networks (VPNs) to access the world beyond the “Great Firewall.”

This generation of young Chinese content with the enclosed world of the Chinese internet, and often strongly nationalistic, are often referred to as the “little pinks,” a term that emerged from the pink forum design of an online literature platform where many young web users previously gathered. In more recent years, the term has been used in a more general way to talk about the broader population of nationalistic youth online in China.

These days, every time there is a politically sensitive event, these “little pinks” mobilize to take action against those who dare to express views not in line with the CCP’s official line or narrative. When they report such slights committed by others, these “little pinks” often mention, or tag, the official accounts of organizations such as the Central Committee of the Communist Youth League, or the Beijing Public Security Bureau, drawing the attention of the authorities. In some cases they directly call government or police hotlines to make reports.

In this way, the “little pinks” have created a chilling atmosphere of political correctness, in which anyone who crosses the line – for example, by sympathizing with students demonstrating in Hong Kong or Taiwan, or expressing agreement with the democratic political systems of western countries – might be singled out for collective retribution.

Examples of such cases abound. In July 2019, for example, a young Chinese scholar from Shenzhen named Chen Chun went out shopping while on a trip across the border to Hong Kong. He posted a picture of himself to his WeChat “moments” in which people were demonstrating in the background. After being labeled an advocate of Kong Kong independence and reported to the authorities through social media, Chen Chun was investigated by local police in Shenzhen upon his return.

Many similar cases occurred this year during the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan. The prevailing mood of nationalism on social media has bred intolerance for any news or information that might show China in a less than favorable light. In February, one young woman posted the news online that her mother had died of the virus after being refused treatment. Rather than voicing sympathy, the “little pinks” piled on with criticism, demanding that the woman present evidence, including her mother’s identity certificate and death certificate, as well as documentation that the hospital had refused to admit her. How dare she smear the reputation of the country if she could not publicly present such proof! It should go without saying that such demands are cruel and inhumane, but this is par for the course on China’s internet.

The intersection of these trends, an increasingly restricted media environment combined with a bull market for pro-China cheering and political correctness, has invited a flood of distorted and fake information tailor made to feed the sense that China is victorious while western countries are in hopeless decline. This atmosphere is a reflection of China’s steadily shrinking public space, where diverse voices are shut out. But as China becomes enmeshed with the globalized world, that limited domestic space now has more far-reaching implications. There can no doubt that China's distorted vision of the world beyond its digital borders creates a serious challenge to the world.

3. September 2020
Author
Jasper Jia

The author is a Chinese writer based in Shenzhen.