China-Linked Campaign Harasses Dissident's Teenage Daughter

Deng Yuwen, a prominent Chinese writer now living in exile in suburban Philadelphia, has regularly criticized China and its authoritarian leader, Xi Jinping. China’s response of late has been harsh, with scathing and menacingly personal online attacks.

According to researchers at Clemson University and Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, a secret propaganda network linked to the country’s security services bombarded not only Mr. Deng but also his teenage daughter with sexually suggestive and threatening posts on popular social media platforms.

The content, posted by users with false identities, appeared in replies to Mr Deng’s posts on social media platform X, as well as on the accounts of public schools in their community, where his daughter, who is 16, was falsely portrayed as a drug addict, arsonist and prostitute.

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

According to the researchers, vulgar comments directed at the girl also appeared on community pages on Facebook and even on sites such as TripAdvisor, Patch, a community news platform, and Niche, a website that helps parents choose a school.

The harassment fits a pattern of online intimidation that has raised alarm in Washington, as well as in Canada and other countries where China's attacks have become increasingly brazen. The campaign included thousands of posts that researchers linked to a network of social media accounts known as Spamouflage or Dragonbridge, an arm of the country's vast propaganda apparatus.

China has long sought to discredit Chinese critics, but targeting a teenager in the United States is an escalation, said Darren Linvill, founder of the Media Forensics Hub at Clemson, whose researchers documented the campaign against Mr. Deng . Federal law prohibits serious harassment or threats online, but that does not appear to be a deterrent to China's efforts.

“There's no doubt that this crosses a line they haven't crossed before,” Mr Linvill said. “I think that suggests that the limits are becoming meaningless.”

China’s propaganda apparatus has also stepped up attacks against the United States more broadly, including attempts to discredit President Biden ahead of the November presidential election.

“They are exporting their repressive efforts and human rights violations, targeting, threatening and harassing those who dare question their legitimacy or authority outside of China, including here in the United States,” Christopher said A. Wray, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, at the American Bar Association in Washington in April.

Mr. Wray said China was exerting “intense, almost mafia-style pressure” to try to silence dissidents now living legally in the United States, including online and offline activities, such as posting leaflets near to their homes.

A spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, Liu Pengyu, said in a statement that he was unaware of Deng's case and would not comment. He added that the government's State Council issued regulations in China last year to protect teenagers' safety online.

In a statement, Meta said it had removed Facebook accounts targeting the Dengs as part of its monitoring of Spamouflage's activities. The statement said the business has not gained much traction on Facebook. Patch and Niche said they also removed accounts for violating their usage standards. X and TripAdvisor did not respond to requests for comment.

Not all posts targeting the Dengs have been removed, according to Mr. Linvill's team at Clemson. New posts also continue to appear, and traces of even removed posts can persist online for years. Spamouflage attacks still appear in Google searches for Mr. Deng and his daughter, for example.

Attacks from China have posed a challenge to government and law enforcement in the United States. Last year, the Justice Department indicted 34 agents working for China's Ministry of State Security on charges of harassing U.S. residents like Mr. Deng, but the agents live – and presumably continue to work – in China, beyond the reach of American law. reinforcement.

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

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

The Spamouflage network was first identified in 2019 during mass anti-Beijing protests in Hong Kong. It creates inauthentic accounts on social media or technology platforms to bombard real users with spam-like content, hence the name researchers have given the network. While the content often fails to go viral, the swarming nature of the attacks can be annoying, or worse, for those who are targeted.

The network, which Meta last year linked to law enforcement in China, once focused much of its attention domestically on discrediting and intimidating Communist Party critics, such as protesters in Hong Kong.

He has become increasingly active abroad, seeking to influence political debates and elections in Taiwan, Canada and, at least starting with the 2022 midterm elections, the United States. An American Olympic figure skater and her father, a former political refugee from China, have been targeted in what the Justice Department has described as an espionage operation ordered by Beijing. Chinese journalists working abroad, especially women, have also been depicted in fake escort advertisements and faced bomb and rape threats.

The Justice Department's indictment against Ministry of State Security officials did not explicitly link them to the Spamouflage network, but the activities described closely mirror its work and appear “extremely likely” to be the same operation, according to a recent report from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a nonprofit research group. The institute also warned that the network was increasingly focusing on the US presidential election.

In the case of Mr. Deng, as with others, the intent appears to be to silence critics. Mr. Deng, born in Xinyu in southeastern China, once worked as a deputy editor at Study Times, a weekly newspaper of the Communist Party’s Central Party School that 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 for China to abandon 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 a variety of media outlets and books on Chinese politics and foreign policy. His latest book was “The Last Totalitarian,” published in Chinese in April by Bouden House in New York. In it, he argues that the Communist Party has lost the people's trust and needs to reform.

In the interview, Mr. Deng said he was accustomed to criticism from Chinese authorities, but the personal attacks began after the publication of an article in February comparing Mr. Xi's group of senior officials to the Gang of Four under Mao Zedong.

The first post found by Clemson researchers appeared that month on X, where Mr. Deng’s account has more than 100,000 followers. It mentioned a middle school in the family’s hometown and his daughter. The harassment spread to other accounts on X and then to numerous platforms, including Facebook, Medium, Pinterest, DeviantArt and Pixiv, a Japanese site for artists.

The posts denounced him as a traitor, a plagiarist, and a tool of the United States. According to Clemson's research, more than 5,700 posts to date on X alone have singled out his daughter.

Users' profiles often made them appear to be American, even though they had little or no following. Many posts featured stilted and ungrammatical English, typical of Spamouflage campaigns.

They became increasingly frightening and menacing. Doctored images appeared on Facebook with Mr. Deng’s daughter’s face superimposed on scantily clad women, advertising sex for $300. At least one post called for her to be sexually assaulted, offering a bounty of $8,000.

His daughter, who speaks English with the fluency of a teenager in Gen Z slang, was also initially angered by 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,” she said.

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

Clemson’s Mr. Linvill said China’s tactics were likely to continue because the country “hasn’t faced any significant repercussions yet beyond account closures, and that’s not costly from their perspective.”

Bing-Guan contributed to the writing of the report.

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