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New tactic in China’s information war: harassing a critic’s child in the US

Deng Yuwen, a prominent Chinese writer now living in exile in the suburbs of Philadelphia, has frequently criticized China and its authoritarian leader Xi Jinping. China’s response of late has been fierce, with crude and ominous personal attacks online.

According to researchers from both Clemson University and Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, a covert propaganda network with ties to the country’s security services has been targeting not only Deng but also his teenage daughter with sexually suggestive and threatening messages on popular social media platforms.

The content, posted by users with fake identities, appeared in comments on Mr Deng’s posts on X, the social platform, and on public school accounts in their community, where the 16-year-old daughter was falsely portrayed as a drug user, arsonist and prostitute.

“I tried to delete these messages,” Mr. Deng said of the online attacks, speaking in Mandarin Chinese in an interview, “but I couldn’t because today you try to delete them and tomorrow they just switch to new accounts to leave offensive text and language.”

According to investigators, vulgar comments against the girl also appeared on community pages on Facebook and even on sites like TripAdvisor, Patch, a community news platform, and Niche, a website that helps parents choose a school.

The harassment fits a pattern of online harassment that has raised widespread concerns in Washington, and Canada and other countries where China’s attacks have become increasingly brazen. The campaign included thousands of messages that researchers linked to a network of social media accounts known as Spamouflage or Dragonbridge, part of the country’s vast propaganda apparatus.

China has long sought to discredit Chinese critics, but the targeting of a teenager in the United States is an escalation, said Darren Linvill, founder of the Media Forensics Hub in Clemson, whose investigators documented the campaign against Mr. Deng. Federal law prohibits strict online harassment or threats, but that does not seem to deter China.

“There’s no question that this is crossing a line that they haven’t crossed before,” Mr. Linvill said. “I think it suggests that the lines are becoming meaningless.”

China’s propaganda apparatus has also stepped up attacks on the United States in general, including efforts to discredit President Biden in the run-up to the November presidential election.

“They are exporting their repressive efforts and human rights abuses – targeting, threatening and intimidating those who dare to question their legitimacy or authority, even beyond China, including here in the US,” Christopher A. Wray, the director, told reporters. of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, to the American Bar Association in Washington in April.

Mr Wray said China is exerting “intense, almost mafia-like pressure” to silence dissidents now legally in the United States, including activities online and offline, such as posting flyers outside their homes.

A spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Washington, Liu Pengyu, said in a statement that he was not aware of Deng’s case and had no comment. He added that China’s State Council government last year issued regulations to protect the safety of teenagers online.

In a statement, Meta said it had removed Facebook accounts that targeted the Dengs as part of its monitoring of Spamouflage’s activities. The statement said the activity had not received much attention on Facebook. Patch and Niche said they also removed the accounts because they violated their standards of use. X and TripAdvisor did not respond to requests for comment.

According to Mr. Linvill’s team at Clemson, not all posts targeting the Dengs were removed. New messages also continue to appear, and even traces of deleted messages can linger online for years. Spamouflage’s attacks still appear in searches for Mr. Deng and his daughter on Google, for example.

The attacks from China posed a challenge to government and law enforcement officials in the United States. Last year the Ministry of Justice 34 officers charged work for China’s Ministry of State Security on charges of harassing U.S. residents like Mr. Deng, but the agents live — and are believed to still work — in China, beyond the reach of U.S. law enforcement.

Some have called for a more aggressive response, including Rep. John Moolenaar of Michigan, the Republican chairman of the House Select Committee on the Communist Party of China.

“We must educate and empower law enforcement officials and the American people to understand the CCP’s tactics,” he said in a statement, referring to the party, “and protect the people who seek safe haven in our country.”

The Spamouflage network was first identified in 2019 during massive anti-Beijing protests in Hong Kong. It creates inauthentic accounts on social media or technology platforms to bombard real users with spammy content – ​​hence the name given to the network by researchers. While the content often fails to go viral, the swarming nature of the attacks can be a nuisance, or worse, to the targets.

The network, which Meta linked to law enforcement agencies in China last year, previously focused mainly on domestic issues, such as the Hong Kong protesters, to discredit and intimidate critics of the Communist Party.

It has become increasingly active abroad, attempting to influence political debates and elections in Taiwan, Canada and since at least the 2022 midterm electionsthe United States. A American Olympic figure skater and her father, a former political refugee from China, were targeted in what the Justice Department described as an espionage operation ordered by Beijing. Chinese journalists Women working abroad, especially women, are also depicted in fake escort advertisements and face bomb attacks and rape threats.

The Justice Ministry’s indictment against the Ministry of State Security agents did not explicitly link them to the Spamouflage network, but the activities described closely mirror its work and appear “highly likely” to be the same operation, it said. a recent report by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a nonprofit research group. The institute also warned that the network is increasingly focusing on the US presidential elections.

In Mr. Deng’s case, as with others, the aim seems to be to silence criticism. Mr. Deng, born in Xinyu, in southeastern China, was once an assistant editor at Study Times, a weekly magazine of the Communist Party’s Central Party School, which trains up-and-coming officials.

His comments sometimes pushed the boundaries of the party line. He was fired in 2013 after writing an opinion piece for The Financial Times — which appeared in its Chinese and English editions — calling on China to cut its strategic ties with North Korea’s erratic authoritarian leader, Kim Jong Un. He eventually left the country.

Mr. Deng, who is 56, has lived in the United States with his wife and two children since 2018. He continues to publish essays in various news outlets and books on Chinese politics and foreign policy. The latest book was “The Last Totalitarian,” published in Chinese in April by Boudenhuis in New York City. In it he states that the Communist Party has lost the trust of the people and must reform.

In the interview, Mr. Deng said he was used to criticism from the Chinese government, but that the personal attacks began after he published an article in February comparing Mr. Xi’s top officials to the Gang of Four under Mao Zedong.

The first post Clemson investigators discovered appeared that month on X, where Mr. Deng’s account has more than 100,000 followers. A high school in the town of the family and his daughter was mentioned. The harassment spread to other accounts on

The posts condemned him as a traitor, a plagiarist and a tool of the United States. More than 5,700 posts to date on X alone have singled out his daughter, according to Clemson’s investigation.

Users’ profiles often made them appear American, even though they had few or no followers. Many messages contained stilted, ungrammatical English, a hallmark of spammouflage campaigns.

They became increasingly lurid and threatening. Fake images of Mr. Deng’s daughter’s face superimposed on scantily clad women appeared on Facebook, advertising sex for $300. At least one post called for sexual abuse, offering an $8,000 reward.

His daughter, who speaks English and is fluent in the Gen Z language, was also initially angry about the attacks, Mr Deng said, but with his encouragement she has also tried to shrug them off. “I want to do my best not to involve my family in my business,” he said.

Meta, Google and other major tech platforms have long been aware of Spamouflage’s activities and have tried to blunt its reach. Last year, Meta announced that it had removed more than 7,700 fake Facebook accounts linked to the network in one quarter alone.

Clemson’s Mr. Linvill said China’s tactics are likely to continue because the country “has not yet suffered any meaningful repercussions beyond account deletions, which from their perspective is of no consequence at all.”

Bing Guan contributed to the reporting.

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