Turn on the TV any evening in China, and you’re likely to see a grim, razor-tongued woman letting fly at the Trump administration.

The diatribes unleashed by Foreign Ministry information chief Hua Chunying are usually ignored in the West, but for China’s people, they are often the only words on the United States that make it through the heavily censored media.

“Have they no shame? Don’t they owe the American people an apology? Disregarding facts and shifting blame to China only illustrates what it means to be scoundrels,” she fired back earlier this month, responding to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s accusations that Beijing sought to cover up the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

Temperatures rose again this week, as Chinese state television released an animated cartoon mocking Pompeo as a liar, and President Trump blasted back at “some wacko in China.”

As Hong Kong was overrun by pro-democracy protests last year, Hua charged the United States with instigating the unrest. This narrative of foreign intervention in Hong Kong is now being used as the pretext for a new sweeping national security law that Beijing announced Thursday it will implement by fiat for the former British colony.

Propaganda may not be true, but it can change the course of reality if enough people believe it.

For many Chinese, what they know of the United States through state media is that the CIA’s “black hand” is trying to stage a revolution in Hong Kong, that the United States had clusters of atypical pneumonia months before Wuhan, and that Washington is trying to wreck China’s economy out of spite.

With each rinse of the spin cycle, this narrative is diverging further from the Trump administration’s narrative to Americans, in which China engineered the coronavirus in a Wuhan lab, U.S. industry was tricked into investing in China instead of being drawn by the profit motive, and a staggering number of Chinese nationals in the West are spies.

The upshot is that in both China and the United States, officials are priming the public to accept a higher degree of confrontation between the two nations, and this acceptance is paving the way to the reality. 

Propaganda has been a major push under Chinese leader Xi Jinping, whose father was once propaganda minister, said Joseph Torigian, an assistant professor who studies authoritarian politics at American University.

“Xi Jinping is absolutely obsessed with the idea of motivation and ideals,” Torigian said.

To much of the West, Hua, 50, is unknown, or only known as a cog in Beijing’s disinformation machine. Within China, she is a minor political celebrity, with patriotic fans affectionately calling her “big sister” and “goddess” online.

Her promotion last summer to the Foreign Ministry’s information department chief made her only the second woman to hold the post and reflected a broader ascendancy of policy hawks in Beijing.

Propaganda is often rooted in a kernel of truth. And it’s true that China is emerging as a rival to the United States for the first time, and that Americans are waking up to the risks.

As the two world powers enter a trial of strength in a global recession, propaganda appears likely to prove effective in harnessing both nations’ public opinions to support austerity measures and expensive strategic investments. But spin campaigns can have costs: They can undermine the public’s faith in their government and spur anger toward scapegoats, such as immigrants.

The art of messaging

There was a time when the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda worked on the West. The party’s first Foreign Ministry propagandist, Kung Peng, a former secretary of first Premier Zhou Enlai, was widely remembered domestically and overseas as a beauty who charmed American diplomats and journalists into sympathy for the fledgling Communist cause.

New York Times correspondent Brooks Atkinson sent back a dispatch from Mao Zedong’s base in Yanan in 1944, calling it a “wonderland,” and he later helped Kung seek a U.S. publisher for a manuscript on how she joined the party. Western visitors described an enchanting spokeswoman who championed freedom of speech and sought their protection from the ruling Kuomintang, which she said targeted her for kidnapping.

Back when Kung headed its operations, the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s information department was still called the “intelligence department,” an acknowledgment of the party’s interwoven efforts of outward propaganda and inward intelligence-gathering. Kung’s daughter later wrote in a memoir that her mother was effective in gaining useful information through her foreign friendships.

After the “fall” of China to the Communists in 1949, a number of Kung’s American friends, including diplomats and scholars, were put through the wringer of the 1950s anti-Communist hearings spearheaded by Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.).

Seventy years later, the question is no longer whether the Chinese Communist Party might rule domestically but the extent to which it may shape the world order.

Hua is the most prominent face of this new hawkishness. Far from positioning herself as a supplicant to Western friends, she reflects Beijing’s new forcefulness and — increasingly — its disdain. (She responded last year to a question on U.S.-China trade talks with “huh huh,” an inauthentic imitation of a laugh, which briefly went viral in China as a vocalization of contempt.)

She and her two deputies, Geng Shuang and Zhao Lijian, are Beijing’s first spinners to take to Twitter, fighting fire with fire against Trump administration officials. As with other Chinese officials, they hold their private lives closely, and Hua has disclosed little about herself except that she plays tennis. She declined to be interviewed for this article.

'Fighting for our say'

The daughter of officials, Hua arrived at the elite Nanjing University in 1988 at a time when admiration for the West was reaching explosive force across the country. Just months into her studies as an English major, Nanjing University was upended by student protests in support of the pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

Hua’s classmates erected a “Democracy Wall” on campus in Nanjing, boycotted classes, held hunger strikes and brought city traffic to a standstill with massive marches, according to contemporaneous accounts. Dozens of Nanjing faculty members announced their support of the Beijing protesters.

By the time Hua was a young Europe specialist for the Foreign Ministry, Beijing had made clear that China would not follow the West into democracy, but it wanted to open up economically. Hua served as an envoy to the European Union from 2003 to 2010, a boom period for China after its 2001 accession to the World Trade Organization.

Globalization was still the prevailing trend when Hua first appeared as a mild-mannered face at the Foreign Ministry podium in 2012. Since then, Hua’s tone has grown icier as the political winds turned colder. Her rise is testament to her instincts for political survival and unflagging defense of the party line.

Leta Hong Fincher, a scholar of China feminism and author of “Betraying Big Brother,” said Hua’s exposure as a spokeswoman belies the lack of women among the nation’s decision-makers. Female representation at senior levels of the party has fallen in recent years, and women across society are under pressure to prioritize child rearing over careers as the nation’s birthrate flags, she said.

Hua doesn’t have power over policymaking. But she may in the future, as the spokesperson’s office is a traditional stop for future ambassadors and senior Foreign Ministry posts.

As she prepared at a party school for her promotion last summer, Hua penned an outline for global propaganda efforts that fell in lockstep with Xi’s vision of a forceful China.

China must demand to have a say in the world equal to its economic size, she wrote, instead of waiting for other nations to relinquish this power voluntarily.

“These changes aren’t immediate or automatic,” she wrote. “We must be proactive in fighting for our say in the world.”

Liu Yang, Wang Yuan and Lyric Li in Beijing contributed to this report.