China’s Online Warriors Want More Gates in the Firewall

Nationalists need to yell on a global stage for their careers’ sake.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian takes a question at the daily media briefing in Beijing on April 8.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian takes a question at the daily media briefing in Beijing on April 8. Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images

For the head of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s information department, winning an information war against the West isn’t going to happen by itself.

“In order to win the right to speak, we must take the initiative and actively shape it,” Hua Chunying wrote in the Central Party School-linked publication the Study Times shortly before she was promoted to her new position in July 2019.

And take the initiative she has, along with her fellow “Wolf Warrior” colleagues who have been deploying scorn, sarcasm, and conspiracy theories in their attempt to shape the global discourse. But they’ve been doing so on platforms banned inside China itself—ones that other ambitious careerists inside the Chinese system are now desperate to get permission to use.

In late May, Hua fired off a salvo. “I can’t breathe,” she wrote on Twitter, with a screenshot of a tweet by U.S. State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus that had criticized the Chinese government over its Hong Kong policy.

But when the Global Times, the nationalistic tabloid owned by the People’s Daily, reported on the message on Weibo—China’s heavily censored ersatz version of Twitter—hundreds, if not thousands, of Chinese citizens were quick to fire back “I can’t tweet,” reminding everyone that Twitter is blocked in China.

Just a few weeks earlier, Weibo erupted with protest after an internet user was fined by authorities in the northern province of Shaanxi for jumping the Great Firewall. Many commented that the use of a virtual private network (VPN) couldn’t be illegal, as the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s frequent use of Twitter attests, reported Radio Free Asia.

That argument has garnered support from some surprising corners in China, including from Hu Xijin, the editor in chief of the Global Times.

On Weibo, Hu objected to the punishment, stating that there was nothing illegal about scaling the Great Firewall for information, and argued that the law should be administered “flexibly” and that it was necessary in some cases to circumvent internet controls, especially during such “unusual times.”

But a crackdown on commercially available VPNs in recent years has meant it’s getting more difficult for Chinese people to circumvent internet censorship. In 2017, Beijing shut down most domestic commercial VPN services, and Apple removed VPNs from its online stores in accordance with Chinese government regulations stipulating that all VPNs in China require a government license. Authorities have also been applying pressure on multinationals to buy and use insecure state-approved VPNs.

In June, Twitter took down thousands of accounts that it said were part of a persistent, large-scale influence campaign that it attributed to Beijing. In their analysis of the Twitter takedown, my colleagues pointed out that the posting patterns of tweets “mapped cleanly to working hours at Beijing time” and that Beijing “appears to be allowing for experimentation across the apparatus of government in how to promote the CCP’s view of its place in the world.”

Plenty of others, including Chinese think tankers, media professionals, nationalist trolls, and even the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) are pushing for their own opportunity to be part of the experimentation. Each group is jostling for the chance to demonstrate its fealty to the party and its willingness to take the fight to Western imperialists. But that means allowing ladders over the firewall, which the authorities aren’t eager to offer, especially in a climate of paranoia at home where signing off on contact with foreignness has become dangerous in itself.

In May, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), a prominent think tank, offered a number of strategies for Beijing’s external communications, including the capability to monitor Western media around the clock and draw on the expertise of state media, private media, diplomats, enterprises, and think tankers in a quick-response media team.

“In the face of malicious slander and sharp criticism from foreign media, we should improve our media response methods. We should not just sneer at each other but be calm and objective and convince people through reason,” the CASS scholars wrote, adding that their messages should “use foreign audiences’ favorite expressions and narrative forms to affect them”—especially on social media.

Soon after, Cao Kefan, a media personality at Shanghai Media Group and a National People’s Congress delegate, told reporters that he had submitted a bill that would allow a specially trained and trusted cadre of media workers to effectively have a VIP pass so they could jump over the Great Firewall and “speak China’s voice” to foreigners.

Cao pointed to the example of Liu Xin, a presenter from China’s state broadcaster, who sparred with Trish Regan, a host on Fox Business Network, first on Twitter and then in a historic if tedious televised debate in May 2019.

“The Sino-U.S. anchor debate was a good attempt,” Cao told reporters. “In the future, we can gradually expand these opportunities to even more people. We should encourage more influential people in different fields to represent themselves in international media, spread their ideas, and engage with others, showing the world China’s tolerance and openness.”

Many aren’t waiting for permission. Chinese nationalist trolls, who have long taken it upon themselves to jump the Great Firewall to defend China, have seen in their representatives in the Foreign Ministry, or MOFA, a mirror of themselves. “At home, we rely on ‘ziganwu’ [literally, “50 Cent Party” commenters who “bring their own food”]. Overseas, we rely on MOFA,” as one of them put it on Weibo recently.

Several pro-China Twitter users contacted by the New York Times in June said they had joined Twitter specifically to follow the Wolf Warrior diplomats. It’s unlikely that these nationalist Twitter newbies will be content to just retweet their representatives.

Even the PLA is eyeing Western social media platforms like Twitter. There is, according to scholars at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, “substantial evidence the PLA is considering the opening of social media accounts on Western platforms, most likely Twitter.”

Writing in Foreign Policy in late March, I argued that Twitter should add a disclaimer to the accounts and posts of China’s Wolf Warrior diplomats that their fellow citizens aren’t allowed to use the platform. But what happens when Beijing does allow more of its citizens—albeit ones who are willing to toe the party line—to have a VIP pass through the Great Firewall?

With Chinese internet users relegated to government-approved VPNs, Beijing could ensure that whomever it allowed through the Great Firewall stayed on their best behavior. After all, why limit yourself to a small pack of Wolf Warriors when there’s a whole knot of toadies waiting in the wings?

Fergus Ryan is an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute's International Cyber Policy Centre.

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