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How the Chinese Web Came to Believe the CIA Tried to Assassinate Snowden

According to Chinese conspiracy theorists, a PLA unit in Macau stopped the alleged plot.

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It’s official, at least according to Chinese authorities: Officers for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) did not kill several CIA agents sent to Macau and Hong Kong to assassinate NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Wait, what?

Over the last year or so — it’s difficult to date the rumor’s exact beginning — a segment of the Chinese Internet has been trying to figure out why in March 2014 China’s military bestowed a top honor on a group of special forces soldiers stationed in Macau in peacetime. And so one of the more popular explanations is that this group of soldiers earned the honor by dispatching a group of CIA operatives sent to kill the world’s most famous whistleblower.

The Chinese Internet — particularly its military forums, powered by a relatively small but dedicated and paranoid coterie of fanboys — is no stranger to rumors and conspiracy theories. The Snowden assassination story, along with its Macau connection, is merely one of its gems, and it showcases the Chinese media’s willingness to traffic in unsourced reports and unnamed (and perhaps nonexistent) sources and to cater to the worst instincts of China’s reading public.

Now, what was once a rumor has risen to the level that Chinese security officials are batting down the report. In a widely syndicated article published Monday, the investigative outlet Southern Metropolis Daily reported that it reached out to security officials in Macau who said that after investigating the matter and verifying with the PLA’s Macau unit, the reports are “absolutely” not true.

So how did we get to a point where Chinese security officials felt obliged to respond to this outlandish tale? It’s not clear when the rumor first surfaced, but a March 2014 post on popular military forum Tiexue (literally meaning “iron and blood”) contained the purported “worldwide news” about the armed clash, citing unnamed official U.S. media. Searches show that the Hong Kong outlet Phoenix ran a similar story on April 24, though it has since been deleted.

The rumor’s eventual jump from the seedy edges of the Internet to the pages of a major online outlet like Phoenix showcases the Chinese media’s unfortunate aversion to proper sourcing. Neither the article repeating the rumors — nor the story debunking it — give proper names, dates, or web links for the individuals or articles cited. That makes it much harder for readers to sniff out nonsense and it allows the story to spread.

Indeed, on April 27, 2014, the all-purpose Chinese military news site Global Military reported that “recent intelligence” showed that in June 2013, shortly after fleeing the United States for Hong Kong, Snowden was “quickly transferred from Hong Kong to a safe place in Macau” while under Chinese protection. That report conveniently cited only unnamed “online mainline media outlets,” but no matter.

In response, the unsourced report continues, the U.S. military dispatched a group of 16 operatives to carry out the “attempted killing of Snowden.” En route to Snowden’s hideout, four CIA officers, all of Chinese descent, “exchanged fire with the Macau-based PLA unit,” resulting in the American officers’ deaths. One of those killed was a “high-level” official in the CIA’s Hong Kong office. For reasons the report does not explain, “neither the mainland Chinese nor the U.S. military has verified the matter.” Perhaps because there is nothing to verify.

So with facts having long ago been tossed out the window, the story of Snowden’s attempted assassination in Macau has now become a parable for how what you find online only confirms what you already know.

One popular comment to the Southern Metropolis Daily’s findings reads: “Isn’t everyone clear by now on the United States? Even the Pakistanis don’t know how bin Laden died.” The most up-voted comment on that article on the Chinese social media site Weibo insists the shootout indeed happened, with China and the United States agreeing to keep quiet.

And the second-most popular: “I used to think this was false; but now that [the authorities] have come out to deny it, I think it’s true.”

Photo credit: PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images

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