Tea Leaf Nation
Breitbart Has Landed in Beijing
Even China's elites love to share fake news, wild accusations, and racist claptrap from America.
BEIJING — Only hours after the election of Donald Trump, with channels across the world devoted to coverage of the shock event, China’s flagship nightly news Xinwen Lianbo led with a congratulatory phone call by its leader, President Xi Jinping — not to the U.S. President-elect, but to a couple of orbiting Chinese cosmonauts. (The news broadcast got to Trump after almost half an hour.) Behind Beijing’s poker face, though, it quickly became clear that Trump’s victory has exposed an ugly underbelly to Chinese elitist thinking.
Watching the results in a bar in the Chinese capital, in contrast to the despairing mood around I observed members of various chat groups — mainly Chinese returnees educated at illustrious institutes like Wharton, Harvard, and Johns Hopkins — react with a discomfiting blend of nationalist gloating and outright racist glee to Trump’s win.
It’s not just aggrieved white people in the American rust belt; many in the Chinese middle and even upper classes also share the rank-amateur conspiratorial beliefs about U.S. politics pushed by the alt-right likes of InfoWars, Breitbart and the National Policy Institute, whose articles, unmoored from the bonds of fact or reason, are frequently translated and disseminated on Chinese social media without context or dissent. While a sophisticated censorship apparatus known as the Great Firewall has created a de facto intranet within China, barring the critical likes of WikiLeaks, Twitter and the New York Times, commentary from less-reputable outlets of the foreign media is able to run wild across mainland social networks.
Collectively, such content, curated by Chinese incarnations over the wall, depicts a well-managed secret society, overseen by Jewish puppeteers, that runs the whole show in the United States. Look no further than Stanford-educated “angel investor” and influential entrepreneur Ding Chenling’s viral listicle of takeaways from the Trump victory, in which Ding repeatedly refers to a “consortium of Jews” out to create a “vampire” World Order, predicated on Holocaust sympathy. (Of course, the Shoah may or may not have happened, Ding says; he personally reckons the numbers don’t add up.)
After Trump’s win, I went out with Jimmy, a second-generation rich Chinese who drives either a Porsche or a Jaguar every time we meet and has mentioned in the past that he’s a Holocaust “cynic.” Rising to the despondent occasion, Jimmy unspooled his theory of Zionist cabals comprising Democrats, the Clintons, Wall Street, and the mainstream media, all in cahoots against an outsider businessman, Trump, whose racial and sexist antipathies Jimmy happened to casually endorse. I’ve heard such comments before in China — amateur economist Song Hongbing’s 2007 Chinese bestseller Currency Wars, which posits the Rothschild-controlled Federal Reserve controlling much of 20th-century history, was read and influential at the highest ranks of government and business — along with their equally simplistic counterpoints (one perennial favorite: “Jews are clever, and good at business!”). But Trump’s ascent has further disinhibited a racial-supremacist tendency among even the highly educated: one that dismisses the 240-year-old United States as juvenile, its politics easily reducible to the Chinese equivalent of Truther talk.
In official newspapers, local “Western experts,” Chinese counterparts of the Sino specialists frequently cited by overseas media to parse the inner workings of Beijing, offer insights more worthy of an internet bulletin board. Clinton was “100 percent evil,” Renmin University senior fellow of international relations Wang Yiwei observed, in a comment since removed from an article on state-run Global Times posted within hours of the election. In the same piece, another professor sunnily compared Trump to Ronald Reagan. (“He has no experience and will use common sense.”)
Yet such sophomore analysis and crank talk, disseminated as fact, is increasingly common here. One middle-aged Chinese teacher recently asked me whether the Queen of English had killed others besides Princess Diana; when I queried her, she showed me a gossip story on WeChat, a popular messaging app. Some suggest the disappearance of Flight MH370, en route to Beijing, was a CIA plot to prevent the transport of a “secret object” to China; others claim that the United States is colluding with North Korea’s Kim dynasty to destabilize the Korean peninsula at China’s expense. A woman I briefly spoke with on election morning mentioned the infamous Clinton “death list” among a catalogue of ills against the Democrat candidate.
There have been similar slanders involving China, often about eating babies or selling human flesh and credulously shared from Seoul to Seattle by those who believe (or are prepared to believe) any outlandish or damaging rumours about mainlanders. (The Cold War anti-communist John Birch Society was founded on baseless beliefs about U.S. government moles in cahoots with Mao Zedong’s forces.) The difference is that, within China, rumors on platforms like WeChat and Weibo pertaining to Chinese leaders are strictly controlled. In fact, rumormongering is an outright crime, usually defined as “defamation” or the broader term of “disturbing public order,” and punishable according to the weight of the offense — bloggers who criticize the government or provoke real-life demonstrations are hardest hit.
Not so for writers criticizing foreign countries or governments. Then, the anti-rumor rules rarely apply, with online rabble-rousers even enjoying the outright support of the Chinese state. In August, for example, an article spread in Chinese social media claiming that a Democratic National Committee worker killed in an apparent July mugging in Washington DC had, in fact, been deliberately targeted by Clintonite assassins to prevent email leaks to WikiLeaks (an apparently fruitless murder, as it transpired). The main source was the Liaowing Institution, a non-profit institute “with Chinese characteristics” affiliated with state news agency Xinhua, whose claims were further fanned around the net by the Chinese Youth League, a clickbait-hungry Communist Party youth organization happy to push the U.S. banks-and-media control theory.
Just a week before the election, Quartz reported on another Clinton rumor going gangbusters around the Chinese web, this one keenly endorsed by Trump himself. The meme-rich article claimed that Clinton was a direct funder of Islamic State. (This hot garbage was shared by “at least six of my WeChat friends, many of them university-educated and well traveled,” Quartz journalist Zheping Huang remarked). The rumor mill continued to churn even after the election; one story that claimed a weeping Clinton had blamed Obama for her loss trended as the third-most popular Weibo article the day after the election.
“False stories circulate on Weibo and WeChat all the time,” said Ang Xie, a 31-year-old documentary filmmaker. Xie recently visited to Beijing to make The Game: The Doc, a short film purporting to fact-check whether, as Trump has claimed, the Chinese “love” him. Xie found few in the streets and parks of Beijing who even recognized Trump’s name, but some who repudiated Clinton on the basis that she reportedly hated China — something they’d picked up from various skewed sources and reports.
“I scroll through my WeChat feed and come across numerous clickbait [articles] with provocative thumbnails and titles each day,” Xie told me. “They’re just cheap, fast, and unethical ways to get clicks and Internet traffic. Some of the titles even read, ‘Click now before this gets taken down!’ in Chinese. Perhaps the censors will eventually catch and flag these articles,” Xie added, “but the damaged has already been done, and the content might be copied and posted elsewhere under a different title.”
If the United States has always endured a surfeit of fake news, some of it offered as satire, in China the problem has always been a deficit of the real stuff. Between the official organs of the state and the rumormongers of the web stand no trusted official sources or reliable, independent voices. “Lose an axe, suspect a neighbour” is a popular Chinese idiom to describe the rampant suspicion that can arise from a lack of objective evidence. When fresh fish suddenly vanished from Beijing supermarkets in late November, the New York Times reported, consumers were confused about whether this meant they had been eating tainted food all along. Managers blustered, government safety departments denied any issue and, as gossip ran wild, a state-owned local newspaper observed, “When there’s a plethora of public explanations, when rumors and doubts abound, in the end it all comes down to having no sense of psychological security.”
Now the dominance of platforms like Facebook around the globe and Weibo and Wechat in China has created a powerful confection: an intoxicating, isolating mix of falsehoods masquerading as truth, while the genuine article becomes further ghettoized by (take your pick) the gullibility of readers, media savvy or, in China’s case, highly advanced censorship. Social media, supposedly designed to bring us closer together, has instead cocooned people in self-absorbed bubbles. “I recall seeing multiple people sharing an in-depth analysis of the new H1B visa implications [of] a Trump presidency,” Xie said. “Perhaps folks in China care more about the winner of the election and their own immigration plans to the United States than deteriorating social problems and potential racial crises” there.
Some academics, like He Fan of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, observe that the primal tendency of conspiratorial thinking is its supremacy of belief over truth. Among those well-travelled and learned Chinese elites, it’s telling how often these bubbles espouse a mistrust of the U.S. system — even one that has benefited them with an overseas education, bank accounts, and possible future refuge. Hoax alt-right stories perpetuated by the likes of the Liaoning Institute seem to be readily swallowed by those who treat state-produced fare Xinwen Lianbo as a nightly joke.
Not that the state need worry; authoritarian governments don’t need to be dictatorial when its citizens are willing to share nationalist so-called news that confirms their own bias, articles that are substantiated with crud and chum dredged from the dark soil of the Internet — bolstered with memes, gifs and screenshots from overseas sites, often in English — which, ironically, convey more conviction than the authorized red banners of traditional propaganda like People’s Daily.
The age-old sentiments of Chinese superiority are being reinvigorated in repackaged gobbets of shareable clickbait that pander to the basest of instincts among those who otherwise should possess decent intellects. What’s going on?
Perhaps the old observation that most debates about foreign politics in China are actually domestic political commentary, shrouded in misdirection to evade immediate censorship, applies here. After all, the idea that the whole system is rigged — that an unseen network of relationships based on blood and business pulls the strings of government and constrains the potential of ordinary working stiffs — has long had currency in China’s top-down, opaque, frequently kleptocratic system. Personality cults from Mao Zedong’s to the more recent, less overt one centered on President Xi Jinping have oft assured citizens that, when it comes to ruling and rooting out corruption, only one man can “fix it.” In this context, the appeal of Trump sounds awfully familiar.