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Angela Merkel CC.jpg

German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Photo by EU2017EE Estonian Presidency, available at Flickr.com under Creative Commons license

10:30 pm | 18. July 2019

What Makes Angela Merkel Cry?

When it comes to Europe’s relationship with China, perceptions in the Chinese social media space could be too important to ignore.

By Zhu Yi

The language used on Chinese social media to describe events in Europe, and China’s relationship with the continent, is nothing if not colorful. Germany’s chancellor is sarcastically referred to as “Holy Mother Merkel,” the most prominent face of the “white left.” There is talk of “face slapping,” the “Thucydides trap,” and “mosques springing up like mushrooms.”

But beyond the colorful rhetoric — what does it all mean? What dominant themes and frames construct China’s image of Europe? And what implications do these have for Europe’s relationship with China? Based on a dataset of more than 11,000 social media posts for Europe obtained from WeChat public accounts over the full year 2018, Echowall sought to answer these questions.

 

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Here are some basic findings of our social media study of Chinese perceptions of Europe: 

  • In light of tensions between global powers, Europe is often portrayed as having a secondary, sideline role, either suffering indignity in the shadow of U.S. hegemony, or standing up against the United States — alongside China. This overarching narrative is deployed to legitimate China’s position against the U.S, or as a counter-balance to its interests.
  • Where Europe-specific issues are concerned, there is a deep polarization of perception on the Chinese side. On the one hand, Europe is perceived as being in the midst of a prolonged disaster owing to the refugee crisis and its imagined fallout. Simultaneously, however, it is portrayed as an ideal destination for immigration.
  • A substantial proportion of social media content referring to Europe in the Chinese social media space can be classified as “junk news,” often adopted or adapted from unreliable sources outside China.

Both European and Chinese decision-makers should take these gaps in perception seriously, as a distorted perception does not serve to build a rational relationship.

THE POWER OF JUNK

There is increasing awareness among Western politicians and academics that social media have become the center stage of information consumption and are shaping public opinion on political issues. Research has shown convincingly, for example, that junk news dominated Twitter and Facebook in the lead-up to the US midterm elections in 2018. International far-right networks and Kremlin-sponsored media have also been linked to a concerted smear campaign targeting Sweden’s reputation around the 2018 Swedish elections.

Both European and Chinese decision-makers should take these gaps in perception seriously, as a distorted perception does not serve to build a rational relationship.

While there are a growing number of studies exploring the use of platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to engage in “smearing” campaigns and other forms of interference, less attention has been paid to the framing of international issues and national politics in the Chinese social media space. What kind of information do people receive concerning Europe and Sino-Europe relations?

This is Echowall’s first exploration into the picture of Europe in Chinese social media using data derived from WeChat public accounts.

Both European and Chinese decision-makers should take these gaps in perception seriously, as a distorted perception does not serve to build a rational relationship.

 
WeChat Lin Sinchen.jpg

Since 2015, WeChat has been China’s most important social media platform for chatting, information sharing and much else. Photo by Lin Sinchen available at Flickr.com under Creative Commons license

WHY WECHAT?

WeChat is the dominant social media service in China with more than one billion active users in 2018 (according to data from its parent company, Tencent). As a “super app” that integrates a broad range of functions — everything from private and group messaging to online shopping, gaming, e-learning, food delivery and bill payment — WeChat has become an indispensable part of everyday life for Chinese internet users.

Aside from individual user accounts, WeChat provides a “public account” service (公众号) for traditional media, corporations, government institutions, and private persons operating so-called self-media, or zimeiti (自媒体). While individual accounts are used for communication within one’s personal network of friends, family and acquaintances, public accounts provide content to a broader audience.

Normally, WeChat permits each public account to post just one to three articles per day. In 2018, there were around 500,000 public accounts actively competing for readers attention in China, with roughly five billion daily page views. Over 80 percent of Chinese internet users are consuming news and information through social media. Therefore, WeChat public accounts provide a virtual arena crucial for public discussion and the formation of public opinion in today’s China.

Working in partnership with the Journalism & Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong and its WeChatscope Project, Echowall isolated a database of posts on WeChat public accounts dealing with Europe. Through a technical web “scraping” system, the WeChatscope Project studies censorship on WeChat’s publicly accessible pages. In 2018, the project tracked more than 4,000 accounts to yield a database of more than one million articles. This formed the basis of our study.

WHAT IS EUROPE?

To study Chinese perceptions of Europe, one first has to define Europe — a question that can prove difficult even for Europeans.

Echowall and WeChatscope began by conducting a keyword search to collect relevant data by using the Chinese characters for “Europe” (欧洲) and the “EU” (欧盟), as well as names of each member state of the Council of Europe plus Belarus and the Vatican. We then excluded from our “Perception of Europe” dataset any data focusing chiefly on Russia and Turkey. (We plan in the future to devote separate studies to Chinas relationship with each of these countries).

In order to attract clicks from as many potential readers as possible, public accounts on WeChat have developed the strategy of using lengthy headlines to include as much information as possible. With this in mind, we conducted a keyword search within the headlines of our body of one million WeChat public account posts to isolate a data set of more than 11,000 posts dealing with Europe or various European countries. Of the total posts, roughly 2,000 refer either to “Europe” or the “EU.”

Given the huge diversity of content on the internet, it is not possible to capture all relevant data. The purpose of our study was first to highlight important trends and identify important frames applied in Chinese cyberspace for perceiving Europe, then to look more closely at relevant case studies.

But the first question we sought to answer was: Which user accounts are creating and sharing information about Europe on WeChat?

WHO'S TALKING ABOUT EUROPE?

A key finding that may or may not surprise readers is that one of the most important groups of accounts consists of commercial entities, often registered outside China and by overseas Chinese, whose primary motivation is to promote immigration and real estate investment in Europe, as well as the sale of European products.

One of the most productive accounts within our dataset, for example, was European Homebuyer Web (欧洲购房网) , which accounted for a total of 397 WeChat articles referring to various European countries. The account is operated by a company headquartered in Seattle that provides real estate consulting services to Chinese investors. Their posts do not necessarily make explicit reference to their own business, but they always describe Europe as an ideal destination for prospective real estate buyers, with a “dreamlike” environment, plentiful cultural resources and good education systems for families with children.

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A large banner across the front of the homepage of the European Homebuyer website alerts Chinese that a home purchase in Cyprus can directly get the buyer a Cypriot passport with visa-free access to 171 countries. 

Another main group consists of public accounts operated by traditional Chinese media outlets such as the Chinese-language edition of the Global Times (环球时报), a tabloid spin-off of the Chinese Communist Party’s official People’s Daily newspaper, and Reference News (参考消息), a mass-circulation daily digest of selected foreign news that is published by China’s official news agency, Xinhua. The accounts of these two media ranked second and third respectively in terms of the total number of posts in our dataset, each with more than 200.

Both the Global Times and Reference News are Chinese dailies focusing on international news. Founded in 1931, Reference News was for many decades in China the only media institution officially permitted to translate and publish news articles from foreign media. While published by the People’s Daily and often clearly reflecting the policies and agenda of the leadership, the Global Times is also commercially driven, with a wide readership. Some Chinese media experts have praised the newspaper’s ability to “combine the function of guiding public opinion with readability,” while others have criticized it as an egregious example of “commercial-nationalism”, lacking professionalism and credibility.

The third group of accounts in our dataset are so-called “self-media” entities — or WeChat-based publications not operated by traditional media — dealing specifically with military-related topics from a clearly nationalistic point of view. In contrast to Europe, military themes are quite popular in China, and some of these self-media accounts can gain massive audiences as news accounts, even something attracting venture capital. One such example is Tiexue.net (铁血军事), whose name translates literally as “Blood and Iron Military Affairs.” The account, which has two million subscribers, is now listed on China’s over-the-counter exchange. Another account in this group is Jinri Pingshuo (今日平说), which is operated by influential internet writer Zhou Xiaoping (周小平), whose penchant for populist, anti-American comments brought him to the attention of propaganda officials in 2014, when Zhou was singled out for praise at the Party’s “Forum for Literature and Art.” During that forum, using a CCP phrase for patriotic and non-critical language, Xi Jinping encouraged Zhou to continue “carrying forward positive energy” online

WHAT ARE THEY SAYING?

When social media accounts in the dataset discussed “Europe” or the “EU,” the most widely used keyword was in fact the “U.S.” (美国) — quite a telling detail about how Europe’s role is perceived. Likewise, in our Europe-related posts, the leader with the highest profile is not German Chancellor Angela Merkel or French President Emmanuel Macron, but rather U.S. President Donald Trump. “Trump” (特朗普) appears in the dataset with at least ten times the frequency of either Merkel or Macron.

And what of Xi Jinping? It is interesting to note that Xi is scarcely mentioned at all in social media posts about Europe, in quite striking contrast to his dominance in related reports in traditional Chinese media.

Aside from terms referring to general economic topics, discussions around Europe in the Chinese social media space frequently touch on “refugees” (难民) and “immigration” (移民) as issues specific to Europe.

Before going more in depth into two interesting case studies specific to European countries and leaders, let’s look a bit more depth into three prevailing themes regarding Europe in the Chinese social media space: 1) Europe and the U.S., 2) the European refugee crisis and 3) Europe as a top migration choice.

Theme: Europe Should Unite with China in Defending Globalization

In the dataset, nearly 400 posts deal in the headline with both Europe (or the “EU”) and either the U.S. or Trump, indicating an interest in constructing or defining Europe in terms of international power relations. These posts suggest a strong tendency toward dramatization of events as conflict, with terms like “drawing the sword” (拔剑), “opening fire!” (开打!), “face slapping” (”(打脸), “a tooth for a tooth”(以牙还牙) and “turncoat” (倒戈). Terms like these lend an air of drama to world affairs.

In this drama, Europe is generally cast as the “little brother”(小弟) subjected to bullying by the hegemonic United States, but “too foolish and naïve” to resist or fight back. Or, alternatively, Europe is seen as the betrayer who finally stands up against the hegemonic power — alongside China.

The accounts most actively contributing to this narrative are Reference News and the Global Times, along with Zhou Xiaoping’s Jinri Pingshuo. Neglecting to provide any sourcing whatsoever for his arguments, Zhou gives free rein to his imagination as he interprets global events: “When the EU set up the eurozone with the aim of becoming economically independent of the United States, the latter reacted with fury and unleashed war in Kosovo and in Ukraine through NATO, upsetting the growth of the Euro.” At another point, he writes: “Without military independence, Europe is like a flock of sheep without fences and unprotected from the attack of the wolf — the United States.” “The best strategy for Europe,” Zhou adds, “is to cooperate with the mysterious great nation in the East.”

In contrast to the fact-free and often fictional style of self-media on WeChat, the content of Reference News appears to be more credible, apart from its often-sensational headlines. But the account, like its parent newspaper, makes generous use of a method called “selective editing,” or zhaibian (摘编), in which elements from foreign media are picked out and reorganized in such a way that they support China’s official position on foreign affairs, often falling into established Chinese state narratives.

For example, in a July 2018 essay for Foreign Policy called “The World Order Is Starting to Crack”, Stewart Patrick, director of the International Institutions and Global Governance (IIGG) Program at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), criticized Trump’s trade protectionism for having “allowed mercantilist China — which flagrantly steals intellectual property, restricts foreign investment, and protects entire sectors from foreign competition — to portray itself as a bastion of multilateral trade.” Patrick argued that Trump’s actions had pushed the European Union into China’s arms. In the Chinese version of this article appearing at Reference News, emerging in the dataset, all remarks critical of China are removed, leaving the apparent suggestion from an American foreign relations expert that the European Union should cooperate with China in order to defend globalization.

Generally speaking, in China’s social media sphere, the interpretation of international power relations is firmly in the hands of official state media and self-media like Jinri Pingshou that have a nationalistic perspective. In the global affairs landscape they construct, Europe plays only a supporting role — bolstering Chinas position against the United States.

Theme: “Europe-stan is Burning!”

About 200 posts discussing Europe in the dataset make reference to the issue of refugees and immigration. It is perhaps not surprising, given the intensity of discussion of these issues within Europe, that these are framed by Chinese accounts as issues dividing Europe and precipitating the rise of far-right movements across the continent. But at least a third of these articles can be classified as heavily biased — relying on opaque or untrustworthy sources, showing manipulation of content, or prone to false generalizations, abusive language or conspiracy theories.

As a rule, the distortion of information begins with sensational headlines for the posts. Headlines like: “History Will Remember Merkel As the Destroyer of Europe!”; “Breaking: Refugee Riots Are Sweeping Across Sweden, Europe-stan is Burning!”; “Authoritative Report: Europe is Islamizing at a Speed of 230%, France Has Already Passed Critical Point!”

In these posts within the dataset, there are two principal targets of blame for the perceived “disaster” facing Europe, which generally follow the explanatory logic of conspiracy and naivete, as follows:

1. Conspiracy: The Arab Spring uprisings and the NATO-led military intervention in Libya in 2011 were instigated and orchestrated by the U.S. with the hidden objective of sowing chaos in Europe by uprooting millions of people in the Middle East from their homes. American motives are explained through the notion of Thucydides Trap (修昔底德陷阱) — Harvard University political scientist Graham Allison’s notion that war can be precipitated when an established power fears a rising power. Interestingly, this term is applied almost uniformly in the ongoing discourse — both in the U.S. and China –when the trade war is discussed. This narrative in the Chinese social media space has little to do with Europe, but rather serves to support the framing of the U.S. as an evil, hegemonic power that creates chaos everywhere.

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2. Naivete: A separate, more Europe-focused narrative in the Chinese social space suggests that the naivety and hypocrisy of left-wing political forces in Europe have encouraged the Islamization of the continent with their refugee-friendly policies. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, is clearly the primary target of such accusations, and two derogatory Chinese phrases in particular have become prevalent in the context of the debate around the refugee issue since 2015 in Chinese cyberspace. These are: “White Left,” or baizuo (白左), and “Holy Mother,” shenmu (圣母), which is sometimes rendered even more viciously as “Holy Mother Bitch” (圣母婊). These phrases frequently appear alongside Islamophobic rhetoric. The first phrase, the “White Left,” targets Western liberal values such as tolerance, pluralism and equal rights for minorities, and it echoes pejoratives like “regressive liberals” or “libtards” that can be found in the West — a connection noted by some Chinese scholars, who have remarked the term’s popularity in Chinese cyberspace since the 2016 U.S. presidential election, pushed in many cases by overseas Chinese who claim an understanding of the West’s ailments.

The phrase “White Left” is a broad smear, never applied with specific reference to the policies of leaders or politicians. Merkel’s characterization as a preeminent figure of the “White Left” is made despite the fact that she was the leader of Germany’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU). 

Merkel is also made out to be the archetype of the so-called “Holy Mother,” or “Holy Mother Bitch,” terms that in Chinese bring accusations of pseudo-morality and excessive empathy for Islam. One post appearing in the dataset makes reference to a 2015 cover story in the German magazine Spiegel, which it claims criticized Merkel’s refugee policies. The post claimed that the magazine story had been called “Holy Mother Merkel,” making clear reference to the Chinese-language “Holy Mother” meme. The post even suggested that “extreme German netizens had called Merkel “Holy Mother Bitch” — the latter being a claim for which there is no evidence. In fact, the cover story of Spiegel, published in the midst of the 2015 refugee crisis, was called “Mother Angela” (Mutter Angela), the cover illustration depicting Merkel in a white sari with three blue stripes, clearly referencing Mother Theresa. The Chinese term “Holy Mother Bitch,” which shows an obvious lack of sensitivity toward the Christian religion, cannot be found in the German language and is most probably a unique invention from Chinese cyberspace.

A separate, more Europe-focused narrative in the Chinese social space suggests that the naivety and hypocrisy of left-wing political forces in Europe have encouraged the Islamization of the continent with their refugee-friendly policies.

 

The prevalence in Chinese social media of the “White Left” meme and related language is at least one reason contributing to the prevalence in the 2018 dataset of Sweden alongside Germany within the context of the refugee issue. Known for its progressive values, and with the highest number of asylum seekers in Europe per capita, Sweden is viewed by many internet users in the Chinese social media space as another stronghold of the “White Left.”

But another clear factor in the prevalence of Sweden in the 2018 data was the September incident concerning a family of three Chinese tourists in Stockholm who faced off with local police in a dispute over their hotel reservations. For some Chinese netizens, the perceived mistreatment of these Chinese tourists contrasted with Sweden’s tolerant treatment of refugees, and they voice anger that, as one user wrote, “Sweden treats refugees even better than Chinese tourists (who bring in money).” We deal with the tourist case in more detail below.

Finally, a third factor in Sweden’s prevalence within the 2018 dataset is the rise in Sweden-directed social media content globally in 2018 as international far-right networks and Russian state-sponsored media sought to support far-right groups in the Swedish elections, as documented by a study from LSE’s Institute of Global Affairs. Much of the content sourced from Russia media outlets such as RT and Sputnik has made its way into the Chinese social space through WeChat public accounts.

A number of Wechat accounts in the dataset shared the RT-produced documentary “Testing Tolerance,” which gives full license to Swedish anti-immigration parties and activists as it addresses the immigration issue in Sweden. For example, the documentary features “the Angry Foreigner,” a Swedish far-right who blames refugees for turning the country to the “European capital of rape.” The false link between immigration and the incidence of rape is widespread on Chinese social media, with 60 of 700 posts in the dataset dealing with Sweden mentioning the “rape problem in Sweden.” Of these posts, only two attempted to provide facts on the issue.

The prevalence of Western far-right rhetoric in the Chinese social media space is a critical issue in terms of shaping perceptions of Europe.

Aside from Russian sources, the footprints of other Western populist sources of junk information can also be readily. One widely circulated article appearing in the dataset makes the spurious claim: “In Europe, one church after another is being forced to close, while mosques are springing up like mushrooms!” (在欧洲,一个个教堂被迫关闭,一个个清真寺建起来. This false assertion can be traced to the Gatestone Institute, an anti-Muslim group based in London that describes itself as an “international policy council and think tank is dedicated to educating the public about what the mainstream media fails to report in promoting.”

It is not yet clear what specific mechanisms have led to the proliferation of far-right junk information in the Chinese social space — whether, for example, Western sources of such information have attempted to influence the Chinese space, or whether public accounts in China have simply recognized the viral potential of such information. But we can draw clear parallels between far-right ideology in the West and expressions of more extreme nationalist sentiment on the Chinese internet. Both share a penchant for xenophobia, chauvinism, militarism, and social Darwinism (as glimpsed in criticisms of Europe, for example, in the claim that Europe’s social welfare systems nurture “lazy bones”).

Theme: The European Dream

As mentioned previously, a second prevailing theme in China’s social media space — somewhat in tension with the theme of Europe in crisis as a result of an immigrant tide and the failed policies of the “White Left” — is the idea of Europe as a prime destination for Chinese emigration and investment.

In the subset of articles whose headlines contain “Europe” or “EU”, 148 advertise the attractiveness of investment in European real estate projects. The most hyped destinations are Greece, Malta and the UK, though France, Germany, Cyprus, Spain and Ireland are also frequently cited. In the 412 total posts in the dataset mentioning “Greece” in the title, 270 have emigration through property purchase as their identifiable focal point. All but two of the the 64 articles mentioning “Malta” in the title also have a primary focus on investment immigration. 

There are also roughly 200 posts dealing with the housing market in the UK. But these account for only a fraction, about 10 percent, of the total number of UK-related posts. 

word cloud-01 (1).jpg

The language on the immigration topic in the dataset in many respects echoes the Hurun Research Institute’s report on the Immigration and the Chinese High-net-worth individuals (HNWIs) 2018. That report, based on a survey with 224 wealthy Chinese, suggests that while the United States remains the country of choice for about 80 percent of survey respondents, the UK ranks as the second most popular destination, with Ireland and Greece rocketing to the third and sixth places respectively in 2018 as “dark horses.” Perhaps not surprisingly, many public accounts maintained by real estate agencies cite the Hurun report quite readily.

Topping the list of concerns and draws for Chinese emigration to Europe is education, with jiaoyu (教育) a term frequently appearing in related WeChat posts — ahead of other concerns, which include “enjoying life” (享受), “healthcare” (医疗) or “elderly care” (养老). This again mirrors the results of the Hurun survey, which found 83 percent of respondents listing education as their primary driver in considering emigration.

Generally in China, the British education system is often characterized as “elitist” and inaccessible to many, while the benefits of schooling in other European countries are highlighted with terms like “free of charge” (免费), “relaxed [in approach]” (轻松) and “internationalized”(国际化), with contrasts often made with the rigidity of the Chinese education system. For example, one article praises the “profound historical heritage” of Greek education. The article suggests that, unlike China’s exam-oriented teaching approach, which places far too much pressure on students, Greek education “pays more attention to fostering abilities like independent thinking, leadership, logical thinking, and especially character education.” The article makes the further claim that “Greece stands up against the U.S. and the UK when it comes to education, and many famous American and British schools have already set up campuses in Greece.”

According to the World Migration Report 2018 released by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Chinese-born international migrants were the fourth largest foreign-born population in the world, with nearly 10 million Chinese migrants living outside of China in 2015. A Chinese-language research paper on the topic estimates that around 3 million Chinese migrants were living in Europe by 2013. Other studies have observed a surge in the business of immigration-by-investment in recent years. While the United States and the UK set rather high financial thresholds in their immigration policies, European destination countries like Greece or Malta can be relatively cost-effective alternatives for smaller Chinese investors — or so goes the narrative in the Chinese social space.

“For just 80,000 Euros,” read one post, “four generations can become immigrants!” Headlines like this try to draw interest from China’s growing middle-class. So-called “golden visas,” those offered through investment, can offer permanent residency or even citizenship through the purchase of property. Family members of investors (in the case of Malta, even including grandparents) can also enjoy related benefits, offering attractive alternatives for Chinese aspiring to lead different lives.

Through the lens of the WeChat public accounts dealing with immigration and property investment, an entirely different Europe emerges. The smog hanging over China’s cities is contrasted with the blue skies and “heavenlike” environment in Europe. China’s overheating property market — where only 70-year leases are possible rather than full and protected property rights — is contrasted with relatively low prices for European properties that come with the right to stay indefinitely.

Included in our WeChat dataset are posts referencing a short online video called “3AM and Not Going Home” (凌晨3点不回家) that went viral in China. The video depicted Chinese working overtime late into the night, sacrificing their personal lives and relationships under the constant demands of the workplace. The video was subsequently used to promote an alternative lifestyle in Greece. One post sharing the video said that people in Greece “always put their jobs behind their lives, and you can scarcely find anyone working hard. Instead of staying at the office until 3AM as in China, here you can party all night (after a long nap at lunchtime).”

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Screenshot from “3AM and Not Going Home,” from Youtube

These two competing narratives in the Chinese social space — between the horrors of a Europe suffering under failed immigration policies and the threat of Islam, and Europe as a place of peace and promise — reveal the deep polarization of China’s perception of Europe in cyberspace.

So inconsistent is the logic behind this polarization that even a single issue such as the social welfare system can serve to throw either light or darkness on the picture, standing as proof of either failure or promise. The social welfare system can be portrayed, and often is, as precipitating the decline of Europe, and tempting millions of refugees to its cities; or it can stand as testament to how Europe offers balance and security.

While 58 percent of golden visas issued by Greece through to the end of 2018 were issued to Chinese nationals, the total number of such cases is quite small — with just 2,316 visas issued in total by Greece during the period. This of course represents only the slightest fraction of China’s large and growing middle class. But more significant is the way the discussion of immigration potential and perceptions of Europe on WeChat intersects with concerns over problems domestically in China.

SWEDEN AND HUMAN RIGHTS

Distorted and patently false narratives emerging on social media can sometimes have a clear and substantial impact on the perception in China of various European countries. In 2018, this was illustrated in particular in two cases, involving first Sweden and later Germany.

The Swedish case, touched on briefly at the start of this article, involved a Chinese family traveling to Stockholm on the night of September 2, 2018. The family had a dispute with hotel management and were forcibly removed by police when they refused to leave. The story entered the Chinese social media space after the Global Times published a report over the case based on claims of the family on September 15, while the Chinese embassy in Sweden publicly condemned what it called the “brutal abuse of Chinese Tourists by Swedish Police.” Local media in Sweden told a very different story, and video taken by a passer-by showed Swedish police acting with apparent calm, without resorting to violence, as the Chinese tourists behaved in a manner many found extreme and irrational.

Many Chinese were clearly infuriated by the perceived mistreatment of the tourists. Others found their behavior strange and embarrassing, and felt that the state media like the Global Times had showed clear bias in pushing a narrative of national grievance. Intensifying the sense of national outrage in China, however, a comedy program aired by the Swedish national broadcaster SVT ran a satirical sketch that purported to teach Chinese how to conduct themselves when traveling abroad. As the video was uploaded to the Chinese video hosting service Youku, it unleashed fierce protests from the Chinese side and a call for a boycott of Swedish goods.

Looking at the timeline of WeChat posts mentioning “Sweden” within the 2018 dataset, a dramatic peak corresponding to the tourism incident is clearly visible.

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The September incident explains Sweden’s disproportionate representation within the total number of WeChat posts. For most European countries, searches within the WeChat data yielded about 100 relevant posts for the year. In the case of Sweden, the number was 716.

What does the dataset say about how the incident framed in the Chinese social media space? Several political and culture frames are clearly in evidence in the Sweden related subset of WeChat posts.

The Graveyard

First, aside from terms like “police” (警察), “tourists” (游客), “ambassador” (大使) and “[TV] program” (节目) that serve to indicate the main actors in the unfolding drama, the word “graveyard” (坟场) is one that occurs frequently — present in about 25 percent of the Sweden-related posts.

QQ_Huanqiu on Swedish incident and %22graveyard%22.png

Coverage from China’s Global Times on September 15, 2018, of the incident involving Chinese tourists. The report claims that the tourists threatened by police and asked if they were refugees. The report also erroneously suggests the tourists were left “at a graveyard dozens of miles from the city of Stockholm.”

In fact, this keyword initially appeared in the headline of the first Global Times report on the incident, which was widely shared on China’s internet and social media, and claimed that the Chinese family had been abandoned by Swedish police at a graveyard “dozens of kilometers from the city of Stockholm.” In a Chinese cultural context, cemeteries are associated not only with death and horror but also are thought to portend bad fortune. For this reason, positioning a graveyard within an urban area is something unthinkable. This detail in the Global Times report was for many Chinese extremely suggestive, indicating an unacceptable level of heartlessness on the part of Swedish police. As the discussion progressed in China, however, some WeChat accounts sought to introduce a clarification based on accounts of Chinese living in Sweden. In fact, they said, the police had dropped the tourists off at Skogskyrkogården, a major subway station located right near the cemetery of the same name, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and popular tourist attraction.

Despite this fact, the salience of the keyword “graveyard” for Chinese meant that it had an inexorable effect in framing the case of the Chinese tourists, resulting in a sense of moral shock and casting the Chinese as pitiful victims.

Human Rights

Another word readily found in the Sweden-related posts in our dataset is “human rights” (人权), which also points to a frame encouraged in the midst of the September 2018 tourist incident. The word, which appeared in more than 200 posts, accounting for more than 25 percent, was introduced into the incident on September 15 by the Global Times, which snidely referred to Sweden as having the “highest-sounding language” when it comes to criticizing China’s human rights record over cases like that of Hong Kong book publisher Gui Minhai (though the paper made no mention of Gui’s Swedish citizenship).

“Human rights” was also invoked on September 15 by the Chinese Embassy in Sweden, which said that the actions of police had “severely endangered the life and violated the basic human rights of the Chinese citizens.” China’s ambassador to Sweden, Gui Congyou (桂从友), repeated this claim in an interview the next day, in which he accused Sweden of hypocrisy in its frequent criticisms of China’s human rights record: “We find it shocking and hard to understand that the three Chinese tourists were treated in such a brutal manner in a country that always talks about human rights and justice.”

In the Sweden-related Chinese social media posts in the dataset, “human rights” generally occurs in direct reference to the remarks of the Chinese embassy and related coverage in state media. The goal in using the “human rights” frame in the case of the Chinese tourists seems to have been to discredit accusations of human rights violations against China. Whatever the case, it certainly figures prominently in the discussion of Sweden on social media in 2018.

Insulting China

The third clear frame that emerges in social media discussions of Sweden in 2018 is that of “insulting China,” or ruhua (辱华). The term appears in more than 300 posts, roughly 40 percent of the total, and these refer almost entirely to the sketch that appeared on Swedish television in the wake of the tourist incident.

This frame, emerging from deep historical events that have shaped China’s collective consciousness, is powerful and laden with emotion. The frame was already being utilized by left-wing Chinese intellectuals and filmmakers in the early 1930s, when they called for a boycott of the 1929 Hollywood film “Welcome Danger,” which perpetuated stereotypes of overseas Chinese as thugs and criminals.In the present day, “insulting China” is used not just in matters genuinely offending the feelings or sensibilities of Chinese, but also as a deeply political term to signal official displeasure. The term was frequently used in 2008 as China faced international criticism in the run up to the Beijing Olympic Games. Our 2018 social media data also shows that the term figured strongly in discussions of Italy, stemming from an incident in which a series of videos released by the luxury fashion brand Dolce & Gabbana, showing a Chinese model eating Italian food with chopsticks, prompted a public outcry in China.

MAKING MERKEL CRY

The German case involves Chancellor Angela Merkel’s December 2018 farewell speech to a party conference of the CDU, held at the Messehallen convention center in the city of Hamburg, during which she stepped down as the party’s leader, following an announcement the previous October that she would not seek a fifth term as chancellor.

News coverage of Merkel’s speech in Germany and elsewhere in the West noted that the moment had been “emotional.” But in the Chinese social media space, that emotion was transformed into melodrama and bizarre theatricality with a purported translation of the Merkel speech appearing the next day on a number of public accounts on WeChat that quickly flooded across social media.

The Chinese-language version was not just embellished or mistranslated but outright invented. Merkel had delivered her speech not in a Hamburg conference space, but in front of the Berlin Wall as she burst into tears. The text of the speech itself was so replete with bizarre statements and strange sentimentality that its logic was difficult to follow. She is made out to have quoted at least four female poets, and at one point recites the “great national anthem of Germany.” She even refers to herself at one point as a “helpless, weak woman,” disillusioned by the world. “Why is my throat choked with emotion?” asks the fictional Chinese Merkel. “Why can I not be the ‘Iron Lady,’ remaining strong . . . but rather become a helpless, weak woman, my tears pouring down?”

The answer is utter despair: “This is because I long ago came to feel an incomparable loathing and hatred for this world so full of hypocrisy.”

The Chinese story of Merkel’s speech is full of unintentionally comic moments, but its distortion of international affairs was real and almost certainly influential. Chinese readers enthusiastically read the story, and shared it more than one million times.

Among its distortions and is the suggestion that it was Merkel’s position during the crisis in Ukraine that enabled Russia to seize control of Crimea; that it was the hegemonic behavior of the United States that ignited nationalism in today’s Germany. As for Merkel’s resignation as leader of the CDU — this was happening, according to the post, not just because of her failures in dealing with the refugee crisis, but because her “friendship” with China had angered the United States.

It remains unclear what the intentions the creators of the Chinese-language Merkel speech were. But in its complete fictionalization of Merkel’s words and record as German chancellor, the WeChat post actually created an image of Merkel many Chinese found sympathetic — and the post’s more than one million shares testify to just how compelling readers found it to be. They were apparently moved by Merkel’s patriotism, by her courage in standing up against American bullying, and by her friendliness toward China.

The fake speech went viral with such intensity that some mainstream media in China felt compelled to clear the air. For example, Reference News made some effort to discover where the text had originated. But all of the WeChat public accounts that had originally published the speech claimed to have discovered it on the internet and simply reposted it.

Another newspaper, The Beijing News, made its own critical analysis of some of the basic tactics employed by the fabricated speech to draw the attention of readers:

  • As the Berlin Wall is regarded as deeply symbolic of Germany, moving Merkel there made the speech more compelling;
  • The dramatizing of the emotions of a female politician introduced familiar elements that can be found in popular Chinese soap operas about ancient palace intrigues;
  • Portraying Merkel as a leading advocate for removing the post-1989 arms embargo against China had played to the nationalistic sentiment permeating Chinese cyberspace.

Finally, it is crucial to note that the fictional Merkel speech still exists on the internet today. Despite clear signaling of concern over “fake news” in the official Chinese discourse on internet regulation and content controls, censorship authorities never attempted to forestall these posts — in clear contrast to the previously-mentioned Swedish case, in which 29 posts critical of China’s official position were removed, according to data from the WeChatscope Project.

empresses.jpg

A Beijing newspaper argued that a fictitious speech attributed to German Chancellor Angela Merkel had been crafted to suit the popular aesthetics of imperial dramas like the above. 

The implicit message to WeChat public accounts stemming from the Merkel speech case is that fake news is fair game — and potentially very lucrative as clickbait — so long as it is presented in the garb of patriotism. Interestingly, The Beijing News piece does note this with a clear tone of criticism, in what amounts to a rare rebuke of the pushing of nationalistic narratives in the Chinese information space. After discussing the Merkel post, which he calls “noxious,” the author, Xu Lifan, says that it “wears the bulletproof vest of nationalism.”

CONCLUSION

Xu Lifan’s criticism of the fake Merkel speech at The Beijing News is in fact applicable to the entire ecosystem of China’s social media space as it pertains to the discussion of global affairs. China’s propaganda authorities exercise quite extreme controls on internet and traditional media content in order to exercise social and political control and defend regime legitimacy, and social media providers are under intense pressure to meet government demands that they monitor and censor content posted by their users. However, as the overriding objective is regime stability, no consideration is given at the government or company level to whether content has been fact-checked or is otherwise reliable.

Given this situation, massive amounts of junk information relating to international issues is allowed to circulate in the Chinese social media space, much of it adopted from unreliable sources outside China. Like much junk information from the political right proliferating on platforms like Facebook and Twitter — which are both, unlike Chinese platforms, under pressure to take the spread of misinformation seriously — this information serves to discredit universal values and to spread xenophobia.

Distorted public perceptions can have a very real impact on foreign relations in today’s globalized world. For this reason, decision-makers in both China and Europe should take the phenomenon of junk information seriously.

 

Cultural and linguistic barriers, on top of the aforementioned controls on domestic access to information through such means as China’s Great Firewall, mean it is extremely difficult for Chinese to recognize junk news about European countries and other regions of the world, and virtually impossible to access accurate information. There are Chinese individuals making noteworthy efforts to provide facts and debunk lies about Europe; however, they are working out of a sense of civic responsibility, without sufficient resources — and their efforts cannot compete with institutional media or commercial organizations and accounts that seek to drive traffic and attention through sensationalism.  

Distorted public perceptions can have a very real impact on foreign relations in today’s globalized world. For this reason, decision-makers in both China and Europe should take the phenomenon of junk information seriously — and Europe in particular should pay closer attention to public discussion in China’s social media space, such as WeChat accounts, which can potentially enable early identification of damaging black-swan events affecting relations. 

We offer our heartfelt thanks to Professor Fu King-wa and Coco Yang of the University of Hong Kong’s WeChatscope Project for their assistance with data processing for this study.

18. July 2019
Author
Zhu Yi

Currently a researcher at the Institute of China Studies at the University of Heidelberg, Ms. Zhu has her research focus on political communication, media perceptions and China’s social changes. With a close examination of data from Chinese social media, she is completing her PhD project on how Chinese lawyers, intellectuals and journalists initiated public debate on abolition of the re-education through labor system​.