Jan 12, 2021 - World

Harassment of Chinese dissidents was warning signal on disinformation

Illustration of a mob of protestors holding signs shaped like text bubbles
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

In the weeks leading up to the November presidential election, Chinese dissidents across the U.S. and at least five other countries found their homes blockaded by dozens of angry and sometimes violent protesters accusing them, without evidence, of being spies for China.

Why it matters: The protesters were mobilized through a disinformation ecosystem that overlaps with the one that led to violence in the U.S. Capitol last week. The harassment targeting the global Chinese diaspora was an early warning sign.

What happened: In September, Guo Wengui, a Chinese billionaire media mogul living in the U.S. who has links to Steve Bannon and other Trump allies, made a video denouncing a long list of well-known Chinese dissidents living outside China, labeling them Chinese Communist Party spies.

  • Over the next few weeks, people who called themselves Guo's supporters began to show up at the houses of the people Guo had denounced, holding signs, shouting verbal abuse, and in some cases physically assaulting them.
  • These events have divided and frightened the Chinese dissident community, especially since the people being denounced as CCP spies are prominent CCP critics who have faced repression in China. Guo's motives are unknown.
  • Axios was able to confirm that Guo's supporters protested outside the homes or otherwise harassed Chinese dissidents in at least six countries — the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Germany.

Guo is closely connected to the right-wing information ecosystem that has buoyed Trump and amplified claims of election fraud.

  • Bannon and Guo amplified conspiracy theories relating to the coronavirus and to Hunter Biden's ties to China, in both English and Chinese-language media ahead of the election. Bannon has received at least $1 million from Guo for "strategic consulting services."

Between the lines: The Trump administration's embrace of tough China policies has divided the Chinese dissident community, with some supporting him and others opposed to his authoritarian style.

  • The alignment of the pro-Trump anti-CCP camp and pro-Trump election fraud narratives has enabled these views to proliferate alongside each other.
  • A pro-Trump YouTube network that launched after Election Day actively spread far-right disinformation meant to keep Trump in office, but a BuzzFeed report found that the network was backed by The Epoch Times, a vehemently anti-CCP newspaper banned in China and linked to the spiritual group Falun Gong.

The big picture: While the majority of attacks on Chinese dissidents have been in the U.S., people abroad were harassed as well.

  • New Zealand: Protesters showed up to the home of Zhu Wanli's home in Hamilton, New Zealand, four times before police issued a restraining order. Each time, they accused her of being a CCP spy who helped the CCP kill dissidents. The flyer they handed out to her neighbors asked them to visit Bannon War Room — Bannon's podcast channel that YouTube banned after the Capitol riots, per CNET — to find out more about her "evil."
  • Germany: About 30 people from all over Europe traveled to Percy Fookes' home in Berlin, Germany, with similar intentions. She quickly called the police, who rounded them up within an hour and told them they could be fined or arrested if they returned.
  • Australia: Protesters rallied outside John Pan's home in Queensland, Australia, twice and neighboring locations on three occasions. One protester held up a sign that said "Kick CCP's agent out of Australia!" Pan worked with local police to identify protesters; he said they will face stalking and criminal defamation charges if they show up again.
  • Japan: A person in Japan also experienced similar harassment, three people with knowledge of the matter confirmed to Axios.

The bottom line: The unprecedented attacks on Chinese dissidents resulted, in part, from targeted online disinformation boiling over into offline reality.

  • But despite the clear overlap between disinformation in Chinese-language spaces and the American far-right, it did not become major national news.
  • That's likely because Americans do not always pay close attention to issues that are unfolding within immigrant communities.

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