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Hong Kong Confronts Beijing's Disinformation Tweets

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Kin Cheung

Riots! Dark forces! Terrorism! American gangsters!

The allegations are propaganda smears threatened dictators routinely employ to tar opponents and shift blame.

Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and communist China frequently slandered the U.S. as a gangster state. The Nazis and communists used 1930s Hollywood gangster flicks as visual evidence.

In 2019, communist China's propagandists are using these bogus accusations as narrative warfare tropes to discredit Hong Kong's relentless pro-democracy demonstrations and -- potentially -- as reasons to suppress them militarily. Even gangsters. A pro-Beijing newspaper has claimed an American "black hand" is behind the protests, a term with terrorist and Mafia connotations.

Narrative warfare operations differ from legitimate information dissemination. They employ "weaponized narratives" spun from outright lies, false quotes, threats, blame shifting, etc. Destroying adversaries is the goal.

The demonstrations oppose Beijing's attempt to limit the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region's (HKSAR) autonomy and free political system as promised by the Sino-British Declaration of 1984. It guaranteed a distinct system of rule until 2047. The demonstrations began in earnest on June 9. One demonstration had 1.7 million participants, out of a population of 7.5 million.

The protestors argue Beijing wants to slowly "mainlandize" the HKSAR. For evidence, they point to attempts in 2003 and 2014 to limit autonomy. They want Beijing to live up to its word, per the declaration.

The crisis has become a test case for China's ability to honor a treaty -- to keep its word in common parlance. It occurs as the U.S.-China "trade war" reveals weaknesses in China's vaunted economy.

On June 4, Hong Kong held a march commemorating the Tiananmen Square massacre's 30th anniversary. Hong Kong remains open to all forms of media and information exchange. Protestors argue Tiananmen Square's historical fact proves totalitarian tyranny threatens their freedom. It's an embarrassing argument Beijing has not countered -- and perhaps cannot counter. The truth: Beijing has tried to erase the massacre from history, a vicious act of narrative warfare the Hong Kong demonstrations challenge.

Social media platforms are one of Beijing's disinformation battlefields. On Aug. 20 on CNBC's "Squawk Box" program, an interviewer asked U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo if Chinese Twitter and Facebook accounts have spread "misinformation about Hong Kong." Pompeo replied that reports that China is sowing disinformation "are very consistent with our understanding of Chinese efforts around the world."

On Aug. 19, Twitter's corporate blog announced the company had suspended 936 Chinese accounts that were "attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong, including undermining the legitimacy and political positions of the protest movement." Twitter called the Chinese effort "a coordinated state-backed operation." The banned accounts were part of a "network of approximately 200,000 accounts" that Twitter also suspended.

I'll paraphrase a disinfotweet Twitter posted. "Dream News" tweets that "people with ulterior motives" hiding behind the scenes have "laid siege to the legislative" (sic -- likely meaning Hong Kong's legislative building). "The path of your darkness and the bright roads of the masses of Hong Kong will not inevitably coexist."

Dream News says protestors attack government facilities and, by implication, its government. That's "fake news," but it echoes a narrative that Beijing may need to send forces to restore order. The "path of your darkness" sentence echoes Maoist bombast circa 1967 -- perhaps "black hand" as well. Communists may clap, but some Hong Kongers and Taiwanese will interpret the threat as confirmation Beijing is reneging on its "One China, two systems" pledge.

On Aug. 12, photos of Chinese People's Armed Police (PAP) armored vehicles near the Hong Kong border appeared on the internet, confirming rumors. The PAP is a paramilitary force of 660,000 Beijing uses for special security problems, like oppressing Uighurs in Xinjiang province. In 2012, called it a force for "defeating the enemies within China" and "smothering unrest."

The PAP's presence is a fact -- and it is an explicit threat of military intervention.

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