Dozens of companies over the past three years have announced boycotts of Xinjiang cotton given widespread reports of detention, imprisonment and forced labor among the region's Uyghurs. It's the result of a brutal Chinese policy aimed at repressing a population Beijing considers inherently dangerous, and the subsequent, predictable reaction from Western governments and corporations. But according to Chinese nationalists, the boycott has another cause: a young Chinese woman in Australia named Vicky Xu.
Over the last two weeks, Xu, a China-born journalist and researcher working for the Canberra-based think tank Australian Strategic Policy Institute, has become the target of an elaborate online harassment campaign. Countless social media accounts have accused her of being the "mastermind" behind the Xinjiang boycott. Videos discrediting Xu's work, especially one uploaded by a local propaganda official, have played millions of times on Kuaishou and Douyin; infuriated "patriots" called her "a race traitor," "a female demon" and "a slut," and have threatened to dox her parents in China.
Xu's the victim du jour, but her treatment is part of a broader, years-long pattern in which Chinese state media and their fervent online followers descend on a target together. Before Xu, the victims have included Hong Kong pro-democracy protestors, Wuhan novelist Fang Fang, New Yorker journalist Jiayang Fan and Tzu-i Chuang, the wife of an American diplomat in China, whose story was told in a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal. (Xu declined a Protocol interview request.)
In today's China, a nationalist campaign involves something far more complex than paying people to post scripted messages parroting Beijing's line. The government has mastered the craft of influencing people's genuine emotions and having these ordinary users do the trolling and doxxing — for free.
Oftentimes, this means appealing to misogyny or chauvinism, something that virtually guarantees more clicks. Many videos and articles attacking Xu have tried to paint her personal life as promiscuous and delinquent. Web users have frequently called Xu a "female Han traitor," a dog whistle that conflates concepts of chastity and national loyalty.
It's common both for women to be the targets of state-driven harassment campaigns on Chinese social media, and for their gender to be a relentless focus of criticism. This has happened to Tzu-i Chuang, Jiayang Fan and to many feminist activists inside China. To web users, calling a target a "slut" is the easiest way to attack their reputation.
"The [Chinese Communist] Party's propaganda apparatus has really figured out how to deftly move people on these nationalist issues," Daniel Mattingly, an assistant professor who studies Chinese authoritarian politics at Yale University, told Protocol. "And they do it by packaging this online messaging in a pretty slick way that is appealing to people. They've figured out how to write the kind of posts that go viral and [that] people actually want to forward to their friends."
Because of that, it's increasingly difficult to discern what's state-sponsored and what's spontaneous. Popular video platforms, including Kuaishou and the ByteDance-owned Douyin, have become live online laboratories where grassroots nationalists and state media collaborate seamlessly and speedily to create propaganda tailored for young audiences.
Tracing how Xu's story was told and distorted on Chinese social media illustrates a convoluted development path, one where videos on Kuaishou and Douyin play a significant role and both state and non-state actors are involved. In the new mobile era, this is the story of how a mass harassment campaign actually takes place.
The evolution of a harassment campaign
By Thursday, Xu's Chinese name had been turned into a hashtag and viewed over 8 million times on Weibo. But it didn't start overnight; it was the fourth, largest wave in a pattern of harassment dating back five months. According to Baidu Index, which tracks search activity on China's largest search engine, interest in Xu's name surged in three prior, if lesser, waves, twice in October 2020 and once in February.
The scrutiny of Xu started back in March 2020 after Xu authored an ASPI report called "Uyghurs for sale" that detailed the mass transfer of Uyghur labor from Xinjiang to factories across China. Outlets like the New York Times and CNN picked up the report, along with Xu's name, which made its way into Chinese state media articles and resulted in sporadic social media attacks.
Things worsened on Oct. 4, 2020, when an account named 凡尘君 (Fanchen Jun) posted a video simultaneously to Douyin and Kuaishou, China's two most popular short-video platforms, titled "The Degenerate Who Betrayed Her Motherland." In the two-minute video, Fanchen Jun characterized Xu's discoveries as "completely made up" and castigated Australian media for giving her findings attention. It ended with what sounded like a threat to Xu: "A shameful life awaits her."
At first glance, Fanchen Jun's account doesn't directly link to the Chinese state. It's labeled as independent media and its name sounds erudite, translating to "a gentleman in the mortal world."
In fact, according to an October 2020 post by a local court in the southwest city of Chongqing, the account of "Fanchen Jun" is operated by Lu Yang, a low-level propaganda official working at a prison in the municipality.
With 10 million followers combined on Douyin and Kuaishou, Fanchen Jun's social media influence has far exceeded its hyperlocal background. According to the latest official ranking of government-operated Kuaishou accounts, in February 2021 alone, Fanchen Jun posted 292 videos on Kuaishou and garnered 391 million views, making it the sixth most influential Kuaishou account operated by the legal affairs system and surpassing national institutions like the Supreme People's Procuratorate and China Police Daily. Today, Fanchen Jun's video about Xu has 19 million views on Kuaishou.
China's changing social media strategy
The traditional perception of pro-China disinformation is that it is powered by people paid to post on social media: the famous "fifty-centers," or wumao. But in recent years, that kind of awkward messaging has been increasingly replaced by unpaid grassroots users who generally believe what they're writing.
"In China, one really interesting piece of context ... is the large base of human capital, human patriotic users who will be very willing to message on these things on their own," Nick Monaco, director of China research at disinformation research company Miburo Solutions, told Protocol.
Often, all these "patriots" need is a signal from above.
In July 2020, after the Chinese government ordered the U.S. consulate in Chengdu shuttered, Tzu-i Chuang, the wife of the then-U.S. consul general, experienced months of harassment on social media. In an investigation of how the harassment campaign was engineered, the Taipei-based nonprofit Doublethink Lab found that it began with a signal from media outlets with state backgrounds like Global Times, Guancha News or the Communist Youth League. Some were simple: On July 25, 2020, Guancha News reposted an article on WeChat from its popular readers' forum, which quoted social media posts of Chuang's and called her "full of malice."
They were later amplified by prominent "patriot" accounts including Sima Nan (司马南) and Shangdizhiying (上帝之鹰, or "eagle of God"), many of whom have made nationalist messaging core to their lucrative influencer businesses. They pop out every time a fresh target is identified, including Xu.
When social media posts published by the state reach ordinary users and inspire them to voice their nationalist tendencies, the user-generated content, in return, gives the state a wide variety of "real material," from which it can choose what to amplify. This has turned Chinese propaganda "into a system where everyone is feeding everyone [else] content," Wu Min Hsuan, co-founder and CEO of Doublethink Lab, told Protocol.
"The emotions of these 'patriots' are genuine, but they are not always backed by facts," Wu said.
Chuang has always suspected state actors were involved in her case. "It was not an ordinary bullying incident," Tzu-i Chuang told Protocol. She believes the scale of the harassment was too big, and its frequency too persistent, to be spontaneous. "If not [for state involvement], it wouldn't have reached this level where no different opinion could exist," Chuang said.
Chuang's attorney later sent legal letters to Tencent and Sina, asking them to delete posts that her attorney said defamed her. "Tencent only deleted the few articles we raised as examples and didn't do anything to the rest. Sina didn't respond at all," Chuang said. Tencent declined to comment for this story, while Sina Weibo didn't respond to Protocol's request for comment.
The state doesn't always win
Chinese state-sponsored trolling, whatever form it takes and whatever platform it's on, has two goals.
First, within China, the state wishes to keep its believers enthusiastic and ready to fight, while continuing to feed them a fixed narrative about what being a patriotic Chinese person entails. On this front, the state is winning.
Second, the tremendous scale of such harassment campaigns aims to overwhelm and silence those who dare speak out against the state, thus discouraging others from doing so in the future. In this regard, at least in the case of Chuang and Xu, the state is not getting what it wanted.
"Now that their masks are off, I don't have any reservations anymore," Chuang told Protocol. Moving back to the United States also means she doesn't have to fear for her children's safety. "I can speak to what I believe in."
On April 1, Xu wrote a Twitter thread about all the harassment she has received in recent years. "Had the party not used their propaganda amplifier to call me a 'female demon,' I would never [have tried to] write anything in Chinese. It was the party that pushed me to work," she wrote.
A few days later, Xu said a family member advised her to change her name, which at that point had been paired with just about every profanity available in Chinese on social media. Instead, Xu added her Chinese name back to her Twitter profile.