Nov 24, 2020

Axios China

Welcome back to Axios China. Today we've got attacks on U.S.-based Chinese activists, Chinese-language disinformation, a conversation with Peter Berkowitz, and lots more.

  • I love hearing from readers. You can send tips, feedback, or suggestions to bethany@axios.com.
  • Quick housekeeping note: Axios China will be off next week. We'll return to your inbox on Dec. 8.

Today's newsletter is 1,697 words, a 6½-minute read.

1 big thing: U.S.-based Chinese activists targeted by protests

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

In the weeks before the U.S. presidential election, three prominent Chinese activists in the U.S. found their homes surrounded by anonymous protesters who accused them of spying for the Chinese Communist Party, my colleague Shawna Chen and I write.

Why it matters: The three activists, who had fled China due to repression from Chinese authorities, now face physical threats on U.S. soil.

  • The protesters appeared to be supporters of an anti-CCP movement led by Guo Wengui and former White House adviser Steve Bannon.

What's happening: The trouble began in September, when Guo, a Chinese billionaire living in exile in the U.S. who has developed a large following, made a video denouncing a long list of well-known Chinese dissidents as supposed CCP spies.

  • Among the names he mentioned were Bob Fu, Wu Jianmin, and Guo Baosheng (no relation to Guo Wengui), all long-time U.S. residents who fled China amid government repression.

Fu is a Chinese-American pastor in Midland, Texas, known for his work supporting Christians in China facing repression. A former leader of the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy movement, he fled China in 1997 amid state persecution.

  • Fu and his family were taken into protective custody in October after dozens of protesters, apparently mobilized by online disinformation, protested outside their house for weeks.
  • The protesters first arrived in buses outside his home in early October, holding signs accusing him of being a "CCP spy." The protesters, who refused to identify themselves, appeared to be of Chinese heritage and held signs in English and Chinese.

What he's saying: Fu told Axios that local law enforcement said there were "credible threats" against him and his family.

  • "It’s very traumatic to my family, to my children," said Fu, who added that he doesn't have any relationship with Guo and doesn't know why Guo would accuse him of spying for China.
  • "I cannot find any reasonable answer."

Wu Jianmin is a democracy activist who now lives in California.

  • Between Sept. 23 and Nov. 20, 10 to 30 protesters gathered outside of Wu's home in southern California every day, he told Axios.
  • Videos and photographs viewed by Axios show protesters holding signs accusing him of being a "fake anti-Communist," threatening him with a toilet plunger, and punching and kicking him in the face. They also shouted that he wanted to spread COVID-19 to kill his neighbors.
  • Wu says local law enforcement told him the protesters had the right to rally as long as they did not infringe on his property. It wasn’t until Nov. 20 that Wu secured a restraining order against the protest leader, causing the protesters to disperse.

What he's saying: “I hope American law enforcement will stop Guo Wengui. He shouldn’t be allowed to do what he is doing,” Wu said.

  • “They took videos outside my house every day and put them online,” he told Axios. “My children and wife are afraid and have expressed emotional trauma.” 

Guo Baosheng is a CCP critic who lives in Virginia.

  • For three days in late September, about 20 people surrounded Guo's house, Guo told Axios. They held anti-CCP signs, took photos of Guo, and waved flags of the New Federal State of China, an anti-CCP movement spearheaded by Guo Wengui and Bannon, according to photos viewed by Axios.
  • But after Guo Baosheng successfully filed a protective order, the protesters stopped coming.

Axios reached out to Guo Wengui's lawyer for comment, but they did not respond before publication.

The bottom line: Whatever Guo Wengui is up to, it's making the lives of Chinese activists in the U.S. harder.

2. America's Chinese communities struggle with online disinformation

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Disinformation has proliferated on Chinese-language websites and platforms like WeChat that are popular with Chinese speakers in the U.S., just as it has on English-language websites, Shawna and I write.

Why it matters: There are fewer fact-checking sites and other sources of reliable information in Chinese, making it even harder to push back against disinformation.

Driving the news: Unknown perpetrators attempted to scare Chinese Americans away from the polls on Election Day, ProPublica reports.

  • On WeChat, at least two dozen groups disseminated the false narrative that the Department of Homeland Security planned to dispatch the military to subdue riots. 
  • 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.
  • “They’re trying to imitate tactics used by QAnon,” Keenan Chen, a researcher for the disinformation-tracking nonprofit First Draft, told Foreign Policy.

The big picture: Chinese-language disinformation in the U.S. often appears to be aimed at suppressing minority political participation, stirring up fears, or appealing to concerns about "liberal excess." It's often adapted from disinformation that's already circulating in English.

  • "This is not unlike what’s happening in English language social media," said Shaw San Liu, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association in San Francisco, a grassroots organization aimed at serving local Chinese communities that also works to combat disinformation.
  • "The spin and disinformation can distract from the real issues and the real substantive policy debates that we want everyone in a democratic society to be able to participate in," Liu said.

How it works: On Chinese media platforms like WeChat, political discourse is “asymmetrically polarized,” according to Chi Zhang of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. 

  • Because Chinese American immigrants often cannot access mainstream English-language media — and don't see their community covered in stories — WeChat becomes their primary source of news.
  • The problem is that information on WeChat is often hyperpartisan, transplanted from American news sites and social media. Right-wing narratives dominate the platform in both reach and volume, Zhang’s research shows. 
  • False or misleading information circulate heavily around hot-button issues like affirmative action, Black Lives Matter and undocumented immigrants. 

Plus, there are few fact-checking systems in place. Anyone can create a microblog account and disseminate information through a newsfeed or private group chats.

  • "The media outlets that cater to the Chinese diaspora — a jumble of independent websites, YouTube channels and Twitter accounts with anti-Beijing leanings — have formed a fast-growing echo chamber for misinformation," New York Times reporters Amy Qin, Vivian Wang, and Danny Hakim wrote in a Nov. 20 article.
  • "With few reliable Chinese-language news sources to fact-check them, rumors can quickly harden into a distorted reality. Increasingly, they are feeding and being fed by far-right American media."
3. Catch up quick

Pope Francis says that China's Uighurs are "persecuted," Reuters reports.

Chinese President Xi Jinping called for the global use of QR codes to track the health status of travelers during the pandemic, per BBC.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is in Japan today and may meet with Japan's new prime minister amid regional tensions, Reuters reports.

Hong Kong authorities have detained Joshua Wong and two other activists over their roles during 2019 protests. Go deeper.

4. Peter Berkowitz's advice for Biden administration

Peter Berkowitz. Photo: U.S. State Department website

Peter Berkowitz, director of the State Department's policy planning office, which recently released a lengthy paper called "The Elements of the China Challenge," took part in a conversation on Monday with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies' Jonathan Schanzer.

During the event, I posed a question to Berkowitz about what advice he would give the incoming administration as they formulate their China policy.

Berkowitz's response:

"First, take seriously China’s actual conduct. Second, take seriously what China says about the import of its conduct and its aspirations. Third, be in a position to distinguish between mere rhetoric that is designed for consumption in the West and what the Chinese Communist Party says to its members."

Go deeper: FDD will post the entire transcript and event recording on their website tomorrow.

5. The U.S.-China split in space

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

China and the U.S. don't collaborate in space —a decadesold divide that is shaping the future of both nations' space programs, Axios' Miriam Kramer and Alison Snyder write.

Why it matters: U.S. semiconductor companies and those in other sectors are under pressure — from politicians and consumers — to become less reliant on China. The record of the nations' parallel ambitions in space shows what the U.S. gains and loses when it cuts China off.

China has a flourishing space program with big ambitions. Those include building a space station in orbit in the coming years and eventually sending people to the Moon.

  • But NASA and China are prevented from cooperating in space without congressional approval under the Wolf Amendment, first passed in 2011.

The U.S.-China separation in space "may have long-term costs that exceed their benefits to America," Matthew Daniels of Georgetown University writes in a new report from Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.

  • The lack of cooperation means the U.S. may not get timely access to scientific data from China’s ambitious missions to the Moon and Mars.
  • And it makes it difficult for the U.S. to understand — and therefore compete with — the Chinese space program, Daniels writes, while it risks "ceding international leadership opportunities" for the U.S. in space and reducing opportunities to de-escalate conflict in space.
  • If the U.S. is focused on international leadership and managing risk in space, "some narrow relaxation" of policies may be needed, he writes.

Between the lines: The U.S. effectively cut China off in part as a way to limit China’s advancements in space, but that largely hasn’t worked.

  • "The hope was that if we wall off our technologies from China, they'll never get it," Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation told Axios.
  • "But of course they just did it themselves. So we also lost a China that would be reliant on other countries' technologies, and instead, they have this burgeoning indigenous industrial base that is rapidly advancing."

Read the full story

6. What I'm reading

Fake news: How Steve Bannon and a Chinese billionaire created a right-wing coronavirus media sensation (NYT)

  • Highly recommend this deeply reported piece about the nexus between right-wing disinformation in the U.S. and some Chinese dissidents.

What friends are for: White House weighs new action against Beijing (WSJ)

  • Trump administration officials are considering establishing an informal alliance of democratic nations to push back against specific Chinese actions from time to time.
  • This seems to be a new theme. The State Department paper released last week also recommends alliances and multilateral action in the push against Beijing.
7. 1 incredible thing: Famous Uighur bard's new poem emerges from gulag

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Famed Uighur poet Abduqadir Jalalidin disappeared into China's internment camps almost three years ago. But a poem he wrote there was somehow smuggled outside the gulag's walls, transmitted by Uighurs who memorized it, scholar Joshua Freeman writes in the New York Times.

Here is the poem, called "No Road Back Home."

In this forgotten place I have no lover’s touch
Each night brings darker dreams, I have no amulet
My life is all I ask, I have no other thirst
These silent thoughts torment, I have no way to hope
Who I once was, what I’ve become, I cannot know
Who could I tell my heart’s desires, I cannot say
My love, the temper of the fates I cannot guess
I long to go to you, I have no strength to move
Through cracks and crevices I’ve watched the seasons change
For news of you I’ve looked in vain to buds and flowers
To the marrow of my bones I’ve ached to be with you
What road led here, why do I have no road back home.