“Their greatest asset has been American division,” said Ben Nimmo, director of investigations at Graphika, a network analysis firm that produced Thursday’s report. “Bad news for America has been good news for them. Because the overall narrative they’ve been building is China’s rising and America’s falling.”
The first of the Chinese videos debuted within 24 hours of the events.
For China’s government, the Capitol riot wasn’t just a way to spar with the United States over the merits of democracy. Chinese officials used it to justify their government’s crackdown in Hong Kong and noted that the roundup of protesters in Hong Kong resulted in fewer deaths than the assault on the Capitol.
China Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying also drew the comparison at a news conference on Jan. 7.
“The Hong Kong police showed maximum restraint and professionalism and no protester ended in death,” she said. “However, as you mentioned, there are already four deaths in Washington of which the situation is less violent and destructive than that in Hong Kong.”
Graphika has been tracking the Chinese propaganda operation — which it calls “Spamouflage” because the messages are spread through online spammy distribution techniques — since 2018, but its backers and other details remain unknown. The videos and social media posts are consistent with official Chinese government media and have been promoted online by government officials, but the operation’s relationship, if any, to the Chinese government or its ruling party is unknown, Nimmo said.
The videos’ narration is delivered in a robotic voice speaking fractured and sometimes-ungrammatical English. English and Chinese subtitles appear on-screen, below images grabbed from news reports about American unrest, political turmoil and national struggles in fighting the coronavirus.
“The United States, which has always promoted democracy and human rights, has become a country of riots, conflict and curfew,” said one recent video featuring clips from the attack on the Capitol that resulted in five deaths.
The Spamouflage campaign showed signs of reaching wide international audiences last year, including in Venezuela and Pakistan, with some videos viewed thousands of times. But takedowns by Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have limited the operation’s reach more recently, Nimmo said. The videos focusing on the Capitol attack and Trump’s impeachment have been viewed only several dozen times each, suggesting the companies’ moves against the operation have been effective.
The videos compare the Capitol siege to pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2019, saying that outrage about the Jan. 6 attack showed an “American double standard” given that Hong Kong’s protests were praised by some U.S. officials, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Hours before the Capitol riot, Hong Kong authorities arrested dozens of members of the political opposition, effectively neutralizing the city’s democracy movement. The unprecedented move came as the United States was distracted by the Senate runoffs in Georgia and then the riot.
After the Capitol attack, China’s propaganda apparatus quickly seized on the opportunity to point out that Hong Kong’s legislature was also trashed by rioters and argue that China was only doing the same thing as the United States by restoring law and order.
The Chinese state-run tabloid Global Times tweeted, “@SpeakerPelosi once referred to the Hong Kong riots as ‘a beautiful sight to behold’ — it remains yet to be seen whether she will say the same about the recent developments in Capitol Hill.”
Dou reported from Seoul.