There is a genre of social media influencer in China that can be described as “military fanboys” and one account recently shared a video in which the narrator threatened nuclear war with Japan.
- A video in which the narrator threatens nuclear war with Japan has been shared by an official Chinese government account
- One expert says the video is not an official message from Beijing, but the fact it exists means it has been passively endorsed
- Another analyst says officials within all levels of the CCP compete to “tell China’s story”
Then, an official Chinese government account — albeit that of a small, municipal authority in the country’s north-west — reposted the highly inflammatory video.
The message: If Tokyo steps in to defend Taiwan against China, “nuclear weapons will surely be used against Japan”.
Did Beijing use the local government account to share propaganda and send a message to the world, or did a low-level official just go a little rogue?
Tom Sear, a cyber propaganda and China expert from the University of New South Wales, said it could be both.
“The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are allowing a posture to have a life, while also making it seem like it’s not their official message,” he said.
“Of course China can’t say that. That’s a massive diplomatic incident if they were to do that, but if a fanboy does it, that appears like the voice of the people.”
For a country with a very tightly controlled media landscape, experts say the fact the video exists tells us something.
“It wouldn’t be there to see if someone didn’t want us to look at it,” Mr Sear said.
The message in this video is very aggressive.
At one point, the narrator says Japan will be an “exemption” to China’s “no use or no first use of nuclear weapon commitment” if Tokyo “intervenes militarily in our domestic affairs, including in the unification of Taiwan”.
Earlier this month, Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso angered Beijing when he said his country would need to defend Taiwan, with the United States, if it was invaded by China.
Japan is prohibited from military conflict, but it is allowed to defend itself. Mr Aso said a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would be seen as an existential threat to Japan and his country could then exercise its self-defence right.
Asked about Mr Aso’s comments, another Japanese cabinet minister gave the country’s official line on Taiwan: “Japan hopes the Taiwan issue will be resolved through direct dialogue between parties concerned in a peaceful manner.”
Some analysts have suggested Mr Aso’s comments were also strategic — a message to China that Tokyo could plausibly deny.
Either way, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Mr Aso’s remarks “harmed the political foundation of China-Japan relations”.
“We will never allow any country, in any way, to interfere in the Taiwan question. Nobody should underestimate the Chinese people’s strong determination, will and ability to safeguard national sovereignty,” he said.
Mr Sear said it was reasonable to consider the video another response to Mr Aso’s comments.
“Nuclear power is an elephant in the military-diplomatic room,” he said.
“China doesn’t talk about its nuclear power much, so this kind of [social media] subterfuge is a way of placing a threat on the agenda.”
Mandate to get attention
When it comes to CCP members sharing information online, President Xi Jinping has urged all levels of the ruling party “to tell China’s story”, according to Jake Wallis, head of information operations and disinformation at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
“Elements of the party-state apparatus, down to the regional government level, compete to demonstrate their alignment with the CCP’s contemporary projection of discourse power,” he said.
Experts say there is a mandate from Beijing for party members to communicate internationally and fight to change public opinion — to “reshape the international order”.
“In international facing communication, ultra-nationalistic material may be a mechanism for mobilising the Chinese diaspora – which the party views as a powerful vector of international influence,” Dr Wallis said.
With CCP officials ambitious to climb the party ladder and approval from Beijing to post controversial information or material, what might seem like a slip-up or a rogue post by an official, could be strategic.
“In response to a series of crises — the Hong Kong protest movement, the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic from Wuhan, the intensification of great power conflict with the US — Chinese officials have increasingly interwoven disinformation with diplomacy,” Dr Wallis said.
“One tactic increasingly deployed by Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials and state media is to repost nationalistic content … as was the case with Zhao Lijian’s tweet containing an image referencing allegations that emerged from the Brereton Inquiry.”
In November, a Chinese official tweeted an image of an Australian soldier holding a bloodied knife to the throat of an Afghan child. Australia demanded an apology, but one was not forthcoming.
Dr Wallis said “increasingly the CCP’s information operations attempt to create the perception of moral equivalence between the party-state and democratic states” in an attempt to alleviate criticisms of China’s human rights record.
CCP on the world wide web
On China’s domestic internet, “the party sets the tone”, Dr Wallis said.
“However China’s domestic internet environment is constantly shaped and manipulated through a complex system of distributed social and technological control mechanisms,” he said.
With a mandate from Beijing to influence international audiences, some analysts believe there is evidence of these amplification and suppression practices being used in western digital spaces like Twitter.
In May, an investigation by Associated Press and the Oxford Internet Institute found China’s rise on Twitter had been powered by an army of fake accounts that had retweeted Chinese diplomats and state media tens of thousands of times, covertly amplifying propaganda that could reach hundreds of millions of people.
Anne-Marie Brady, from the University of Canterbury, is an expert on China’s attempts to exert political influence around the world and has been an outspoken critic of the CCP.
Earlier this month, she posted tweets poking fun at the party’s 100th anniversary celebrations and then two of the tweets were made temporarily “unavailable” and her Twitter account was “temporarily restricted”.
Responding to the ABC’s questions, Twitter did not say why the material was temporarily blocked, just that no permanent action had been taken.
Once her account was reinstated, Professor Brady tweeted: “Twitter may have briefly forgotten they don’t work for Xi Jinping”.
The company said: “the assertion that Twitter is in coordination with any government to suppress speech has no basis in fact whatsoever.”
“We advocate for a free, global and open Internet and remain a staunch defender of freedom of expression,” it said.
Some analysts believe a concerted campaign of complaints against a tweet can trigger an automatic block, but Twitter has not confirmed that mechanism.
The ABC did not receive a response to questions put to the Chinese Foreign Ministry. In a statement to Associated Press in May, the ministry said: “There is no so-called misleading propaganda, nor exporting a model of online public opinion guidance.”