Two types of people usually emerge after living under tyranny for a long period of time. One is willing to risk their lives to speak truth, demand change, and preserve historical records and lessons for the next generation. The other group suffers Stockholm syndrome, a psychological response wherein “a hostage captive begins to identify closely with his or her captors, as well as with their agenda and demands.”
Communist China’s nationalist trolls belong to the latter group. A number of incidents that took place last week on social media demonstrate how insufferable this group is.
Wang Fang, a Wuhan-based writer who publishes under the pen name “Fang Fang,” is one of the more than 11 million Wuhan residents who lived through the two months of quarantine as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. On Jan. 25, she learned the tragic news of the passing of Dr. Li Wenliang, one of the eight whistleblowers who warned the public about the Wuhan virus back in December 2019.
Fang wrote her first entry of what later became known as “Wuhan Diary” on WeChat, a popular Twitter-like social media platform in China owned by Weibo. From then on, she wrote 60 entries until Beijing lifted the Wuhan lockdown.
Fang’s Diary Grants a Window to Wuhan
Fang’s online diary was very conversational. She talked about the weather, her flowers, the price of food, and daily challenges she faced, such as running low on her diabetic medicine. She also chronicled the sufferings and deaths she observed, as well as what she had heard from others. She didn’t shrink from criticizing the government’s cover-ups and propaganda.
For instance, when Wuhan’s Communist Party leader demanded that Wuhanese undergo “gratitude education” to thank the Communist Party for its leadership in winning the “people’s war” against the coronavirus outbreak, Fang wrote: “The government is the people’s government. It exists to serve the people. Please take back your arrogance and humbly show gratitude to your masters — the millions of Wuhan people. The government should apologize to people as soon as possible. It’s time to reflect and find people who are responsible for today’s situation.”
Her simple and straightforward writing style attracted millions of Chinese readers. Every day, people waited eagerly to devour her new entry. Of course, for the Chinese government, such truth-speaking is dangerous because it counters the government’s narrative that “the Communist Party has everything under control” and “the party knows what’s best for the Chinese people.”
Chinese censors deleted each of Fang’s posts within hours. Still, many Chinese netizens and human rights organizations managed to save digital copies of some of her entries. Some even left notes to censors, such as this one:
I am deeply touched by Ms. Fang’s essay and the difficult lives that people in Wuhan have endured. Not only are they quarantined from the rest of the world, they are also not allowed to speak the truth. When you are doing your censoring, please show mercy and see if you can let this piece stay in the public forum as long as you can before you have to delete it. Ordinary folks in Wuhan and in the rest of China are counting on someone like Ms. Fang to speak on behalf of them.
Fang expressed her censorship frustration in one of her entries:
The article I posted on WeChat yesterday was deleted again, and my Weibo account has also once again been blocked. I thought I couldn’t post on Weibo anymore, and then found out that they only censored yesterday’s post and that new posts can still be published. It made me instantly happy. Alas, I am like a frightened bird. I no longer know what I can say and what I can’t. When it comes to something as important as this fight against the epidemic, I’m cooperating fully with the government and obeying all their commands. I’m now just short of taking an oath with a fist over my heart — is this still not enough?
On March 25, in her last diary entry, Fang wrote, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” What she didn’t expect was that the fight to defend her reputation had just begun.
Chinese Media Will Twist Any Story
Fang’s outspokenness has attracted admirers as well as detractors. Chinese nationalist trolls started viciously attacking Fang, initially on Chinese social media platforms, publishing her home address, spreading rumors about her finances, implying she was paid by the West to fabricate her diary all this time. Some have even threatened to go to Wuhan to kill her.
After publisher Harper Collins announced it would publish a translated version of Fang’s “Wuhan Diary” this summer, these Chinese nationalist trolls began to vehemently attack her on Twitter, some insulting her appearance through fat-shaming, some claiming she’s never been a good writer, but most calling her a “liar” and a “traitor” and her diary “a tool deployed by the west to sabotage Chinese government’s heroic effort to contain the outbreak.”
The attack was led by one of communist China’s propaganda mouthpieces, the Global Times, which indicates the attack on her was not a grassroots effort. You can see a few examples here, here, and here.
Fang isn’t the only one subjected to vicious attacks on Twitter by these Chinese trolls last week. Jiayang Fan is an American journalist of Chinese descent who writes for New Yorker Magazine. She tweeted last week that for unknown reasons, security guards of Henry J. Carter Specialty Hospital forcefully removed a Chinese-speaking health worker from her mom, who has ALS. Fan said if the hospital wouldn’t restore the aid worker her mother’s survival depended on, she would have to try to get her mom out of the hospital and may have to acquire a ventilator to care for her on her own.
Chinese media quickly picked up the tweet and twisted her story. They told Chinese readers that American police forcefully removed the ventilator from a Chinese American senior infected by the coronavirus, and her daughter had to watch her die alone. Chinese media used this twisted narrative to drive home the message to domestic audiences that America treats Chinese immigrants inhumanly.
You may love America, but America doesn’t love you back, was the message. So only the Chinese Communist Party can guarantee a happy and secure life for all Chinese.
As this twisted story spread in China, Chinese nationalist trolls took delight in Fan’s mom’s suffering and attacked her on Twitter for Fan’s support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement last year and critical reports of communist China in the past. These Chinese trolls used similar language they used to attack Fang, calling Fan a sellout and a “traitor” even though she is a naturalized U.S. citizen. Fan said she also received death threats and reprimands from these Chinese trolls.
A Profile of Chinese Nationalist Trolls
Who are these Chinese nationalist trolls? Some are nicknamed “Wumao” or “50 cents,” because the Chinese government supposedly pays them 50 cents for each tweet. Some became trolls on their own initiative, but no matter their origin, they are easy to identify on Twitter.
Keep in mind that Twitter is blocked in China, so to get over China’s internet firewall, trolls have to use a virtual private network, or VPN. Their account activation dates are often recent because they open accounts only when they identify someone to attack. They usually have very few followers and rarely follow many others because their goal is not to encounter new ideas and different opinions, but to defend Beijing’s propaganda and attack anyone who criticizes China or doesn’t tow Beijing’s official line on issues related to Hong Kong and Taiwan.
These nationalist trolls are angry most of the time, and the way they throw their insults reminds people of red guards from Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. They are especially malicious toward ethnic Chinese who think differently. They often use the most racist, sexist, violent, and hateful language to go after ethnic Chinese women, as evident by Fang and Fan’s experiences. It is a shame Twitter has done little to rein in these trolls.
The good news is that they do not represent the majority of Chinese people. If you go through tweets about Fang and Fan, you will also find supportive and kind messages from other Chinese. Still, anyone who openly criticizes Beijing’s policies should be aware that these Chinese nationalist trolls are especially active now as Beijing is eager to deploy its digital army to deflect any coronavirus-related blame and point fingers elsewhere.
How to deal with them? Most people who were attacked by Chinese nationalist trolls chose either to block them, report them, or simply ignore them. Last week, creative Twitter users in Thailand also showed you can use satire to drive these trolls crazy.
These Chinese nationalist trolls are insufferable. They are only too happy to be locked inside a firewall. Ironically, after they have gone through all the trouble to climb over the wall, all they want to do is defend the wall’s existence and the regime that put it up. They may think they are defending and protecting China’s image, but they are actually causing more damage to China’s reputation.