War has made the Kremlin try harder to envelop Russians in a parallel information universe, in which Ukraine is run by Nazis and Russian soldiers are liberators. China’s government is doing something similar. Whereas its propaganda for foreign ears stresses China’s desire for global harmony, at home it not only allows but even encourages the expression of caustically nationalist views online, especially on topics such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, covid-19 and Ukraine.
A group of anonymous activists is now trying to expose this parallel universe to the wider world. In March they launched a Twitter account that translates for foreign audiences extremist commentary that China’s censors allow on social-media platforms. The Great Translation Movement (tgtm) provides the non-Chinese-speaking world with a rare glimpse of how the Communist Party distorts online discourse among its citizens at home and abroad, where many get their news from Chinese social media (Twitter itself is blocked in China).
It typically posts screenshots and English translations of Chinese responses to state media reports regarding, for instance, Russia’s bombing of a Ukrainian school on May 7th that killed 60 people. Most dismissed it as a set-up. “Brother Putin will never do such a thing,” read one. Another recent post concerned nato support for Ukraine. Several comments urged nuclear strikes on America or its allies. China’s government professes neutrality over Ukraine, but clearly favours the invaders.
In an interview via Twitter, account administrators said the identity of many contributors is unknown, but many are Chinese-born students or professionals. It already has 155,000 followers and hundreds of contributors translating posts into many languages.
It has also touched a nerve in Beijing. Chinese state media and academics have condemned tgtm with unusual vigour, branding it part of a Western-led information-warfare campaign. Wang Qiang of the National Defence University warned that it aimed to stir a popular uprising in China. He accuses it of cherry-picking comments and ignoring extremist views online in the West.
tgtm denies any link to foreign governments. It says it chooses comments that are widely liked or written by opinion leaders with large followings. What makes China different is that Western governments permit multiple views. The party promotes a single narrative on many issues and encourages extremist comments which amplify that, while censoring alternative opinions. What is allowed to remain is what influences millions inside the Great Firewall, says one administrator. “These views get perpetuated within the echo chamber.”
tgtm has its Western critics, who question its bleak portrayal of Chinese society. Its impact, though, is clear. “They disrupted the Chinese government’s communication machine,” says Xiao Qiang of the University of California, Berkeley. “That’s why it’s so upset.”