After New Zealand massacre, Islamophobia spreads on Chinese social media

The Weibo app icon. (Brent Lewin/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

In the wake of last Friday’s shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, a wave of celebration hit Chinese social media.  

On Weibo—China’s Twitter equivalent, with 446 million monthly active users, 120 million more than Twitter—mainstream coverage of the attacks was barraged with comments that expressed anti-Muslim rhetoric and support for the shooter. The top comment under a video clip posted by People’s Daily likens Muslims to “cancer cells” and asks the Chinese government to avoid making the same mistakes as New Zealand. People’s Daily is China’s largest news outlet and the official state paper, and its comments section is heavily censored. Yet at the time of writing this comment is in the highest position of visibility and has been liked by more than 400 people.

Such comments aren’t representative of the Chinese population. Many Weibo users posted emphatic rebuttals, and some wrote articles decrying anti-Muslim sentiment. But again and again, the “most-liked” comments under mainstream media posts on Weibo are filled with hate speech. “Islamophobic speech on Chinese social media only comes from a small group of people. But there has been a drastic rise since 2016,” Kecheng Fang, a veteran Chinese journalist and media researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, tells me, noting the influence of the US presidential election.

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One of China’s largest digital newspapers, ThePaper.cn, published fourteen news posts about the massacre to its 16 million followers. Under those posts, seven “top” comments made statements that were explicitly anti-Muslim or in support of the shooter. Together they have been liked 1,590 times. Only two comments condemning the massacre made it to the top of the pile. The same pattern can be observed on the feeds of The Beijing News, Global Times, and other mainstream Chinese news outlets. (The public discussions taking place under the posts of political commentators and individuals are even more unhinged.)

WeChat, the world’s third-largest social media app at 1 billion users, is no exception. An article titled “The names on the gunman’s magazines reflect the deep anxiety of European white men” that described the attacks as “heroic revenge” quickly surpassed 100,000 views (WeChat’s view count limit). The article included a poll: 10,881 readers who participated, or 76 percent, responded that they were very or somewhat sympathetic to the shooter. Another post, entitled “New Zealand massacre is not a terrorist attack,” quotes at length from the gunman’s manifesto and was shared in screenshots across WeChat groups. On Zhihu, China’s Quora-like Q&A platform, inaccurate translations of parts of the manifesto also spread widely.

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Hours after the gunman streamed the shooting live, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter raced to scrub their sites of the video. (Facebook removed 1.5 million copies of the video in the 24 hours after the attack.) Weibo and WeChat followed suit, but under much less scrutiny. The video has been removed, but the shooter’s manifesto can be easily found on both platforms, alongside its Chinese translation.

 

China’s intricate and omnipresent censorship mechanism does not pay much attention to extremism or hate speech. Instead, it focuses strictly on the expression of anti-government opinions and calls for offline protest. The very concept of controlling hate speech against ethnic groups or minorities has never been widely accepted or understood, and the Western idea of being “politically correct” tends to be dismissed—but topics like Taiwanese or Tibetan independence are treated with great caution. Writing about the government “re-education” camps for Western China’s Uighur minority is also extremely sensitive and would prompt severe punishment like the deletion of the user account altogether, but Chinese conservative discourse usually doesn’t touch those issues; inside the country there’s very little information available. Instead, ideas are recycled from Western right-wing news and repackaged to highlight the perceived problems of Western societies. This angle has always been relatively safe from government intervention. Online discussion of feminism, LGBTQ rights, and other progressive causes, on the other hand, are considered to touch on domestic issues and are scrutinized closely by censors.

The architecture of Weibo and WeChat also dramatically amplifies extremist voices. I have been analyzing hate speech on Chinese social media since 2013, as a media researcher at the University of Hong Kong. Weibo, like Twitter, is a thread-based microblog platform that was inspired by the Bulletin Board System, but it has an important difference: it places the most liked or commented reply directly below the original post. This function turns controversy into visibility. The platform also provides little context for conversations, steering users toward polarization rather than nuance.

WeChat, whose subscription function publishes articles from institutional and individual channels, is a highly segregated space. As a Tow Center report from 2018 notes, information sharing and discovery on WeChat almost exclusively occur within a user’s personal network. The space is dominated by a monoethnic media that is “asymmetrically polarized, with the right leading in volume, reach, and skewed issue agenda.”

Weibo and WeChat are a source of daily information in China, and many individuals and small groups called Ying Xiao Hao (营销号, marketing accounts) run grassroots media channels as small businesses. Because they depend on ads, branded content, and patronage from viewers, a larger audience means higher income, and they don’t have the oversight or accountability of a traditional media institution. “Many Ying Xiao Hao take advantage of people’s fear and hate,” says a member of No Melon Group (反吃瓜联盟), an all-volunteer team that fact-checks news on social media. “And they keep repeating this formula to produce fake stories about Muslims, black people, women, and LGBTQ communities. It feeds them.”

The enormous power of Chinese social media platforms is enabling the global circulation of extremist and alt-right discourses—and China’s Great Firewall might, counterintuitively, be helping the circulation. In China, there are volunteers downloading PragerU’s alt-right explainer videos from YouTube, adding Chinese subtitles, and uploading them to Weibo. But the same audience can’t directly access the abundant rebuttals published on YouTube, and it’s impractical to translate and share those rebuttals in anticipation. Once misinformation starts to spread, then, because of China’s firewall, it takes much more effort to rein in.

 

The Christchurch shootings aren’t the first or even the most discussed recent events to reveal the spread of Islamophobia in Chinese cyberspace. Two months ago, on Chinese New Year, CCTV was accused of surrendering to halal rules by “intentionally omitting” the image of a pig in an illustration for the Year of the Pig. Early last year, Reyizha Alimjan, a Chinese actress of Kazakh descent, posted on Weibo that she didn’t celebrate the lunar new year. The post was interpreted as a hostile gesture against Han Chinese and Alimjan was bombarded with insults and threats, prompting her to leave Weibo entirely. Other controversies—often protests against halal food being served on airlines or sold in stores—occur periodically.

To Western eyes, anti-Muslim rhetoric in China takes a somewhat familiar form: it traffics in stereotypes and lapses in causality, equating Islam to terrorism and non-white immigration to the extinction of ethnic majorities. Two violent incidents continue to fuel resentment and suspicion against the entire Muslim community: in July 2009, a Uyghur protest in Ürümqi turned violent, leaving nearly 200 people dead and thousands injured, most of them Han Chinese. And in 2014, four Uyghurs stabbed dozens of people in a train station in Kunming, Yunnan.

Mengyang Zhao, a media researcher from the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on the alt-right, tells me that she noticed an uptick in anti-Muslim speech as early as 2013, when she was interviewing Chinese feminist activists. The activists were targeted by rumors that claimed they were being funded by Saudi Arabia; previously, they had been vilified with accusations of having connections to Western influences like the Ford Foundation and Hillary Clinton.

Words like baizuo (白左, meaning white leftists) and shengmu (圣母, holy mother) are used to dismiss those who hold progressive views. “The narrative about the troubles and decline of Western liberal democracy and the strength of China’s authoritarian regime is attractive to many nationalists, even though they do not really hold strong views about—or have any knowledge of—refugees and left-wing Westerners,” says Chenchen Zhang, a researcher based in Brussels who studies right-wing discourse on Chinese social media. In 2018, Zhang analyzed 1,038 posts on Zhihu, the Q&A website. She found that conservative discourse is influenced by the “vocabulary and arguments of right-wing populism in Western politics,” along with pre-existing nationalist and racist views.

American extremists have started taking notice of the opportunity for an audience in China. The term “baizuo” has been adopted on a small scale. A prominent alt-right news site opened a Weibo account last year, although it attracted very little attention.

“It is somewhat ironic if you think about it,” says Kecheng Fang. “In the aftermath of 9/11, a small group of nationalists in China cheered for Osama bin Laden. After eighteen years, some people cheered for the white terrorist instead.” He adds: “It could have been the same group of people. What changed is who they define as enemies in a globalized world.”

Chang Liu contributed to the reporting.

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Tony Lin is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, author, and media researcher.