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China Targets Overseas Social Media Influencers in Its Latest Transnational Repression Scheme

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China Targets Overseas Social Media Influencers in Its Latest Transnational Repression Scheme

In a break from its past censorship strategies, China is now attempting to expand its circle of influence beyond its own borders. 

China Targets Overseas Social Media Influencers in Its Latest Transnational Repression Scheme
Credit: Depositphotos

“Currently, the [Chinese] Ministry of Public Safety is tracking and investigating my 1.6 million followers. Once they have identified them, they will notify local police and summon those individuals for further actions.” Li Ying posted this warning in Chinese on his account on the popular social media site X (formerly Twitter) on February 25. 

Li’s account, @whyyoutouzhele, primarily shares first-hand social media content blocked and censored in mainland China. Li’s X account became popular amid the White Paper Protests in late 2022 across China and has been one of the most followed political social media accounts on X since. 

“Indeed, I also find the strategy of going through my followers list and investigating them individually absurd, but what I have discovered in recent days was true. They are using the most rudimentary method,” Li said in a subsequent post. He asked followers to unfollow the account and prioritize their safety. On the next day, Li revealed that he had lost 200,000 followers on X in 24 hours. 

As Li’s messages indicated, Chinese authorities are adopting a cumbersome but intimidating tactic to control the flow of negative information concerning the country. Li is not the only victim. Wang Zhi’an, a former journalist for CCTV, China’s state broadcaster, made a similar post on his X account

These warnings are having a ripple effect among Chinese-language X accounts. Multiple social media influencers who primarily comment on political issues in China also reported declines in followerships on X, YouTube, and other social media platforms since Li’s warning.

Chinese authorities target social media influencers like Li with a tactic that requires massive manpower. The strategy shows little consideration of the costs associated with its policing resources. Instead, the tactic aims to intimidate individuals from having contact with social media influencers like Li. By having police officers demand that individuals unfollow accounts like Li’s, the Chinese authorities also attempt to put economic pressure on influencers who rely on subscription numbers to generate income on YouTube and other platforms.

In a YouTube video published by Li on February 28, he acknowledged that the policing activities against his followers had led to larger impacts on Chinese-language social media content creators as followers are more and more afraid to subscribe to their YouTube channels and other social media accounts. 

Over the past five years, China has been on the offensive in its propaganda and ideological efforts. Media reports have revealed that the regime spends billions of dollars each year on disinformation campaigns and propaganda campaigns. Different from its strategies in the two decades prior, China is now increasing its ambition and seeking to expand its circle of influence beyond its own borders. Documents from U.S. government agencies, congressional hearings, and human rights groups have substantiated the efforts made by China through its state apparatus to harass, intimidate, and influence individuals and groups that oppose the Chinese regime and its policies – no matter where they live. 

In Canada, for example, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service claims that China attempted to influence the previous two Canadian federal elections. Reports from Safeguard Defenders in 2022 also exposed that China opened at least 102 “Chinese Overseas Police Service Centers” in 53 countries. The United States’ Department of Justice has repeatedly indicted Chinese nationals for harassing or surveilling dissident voices on U.S. soil.

The covert efforts made by the Chinese government further damage the already deteriorating relations between China and democratic countries such as the United States, Canada, and key EU member states like Germany and France.

Despite its domestic economic struggles, China continues along a path that prioritizes repression and political censorship. In economic terms, the country had a problematic year in 2023 and may perform worse in 2024. Those issues create challenges to government expenditures at the central and local levels. In March 2023, the Chinese State Council announced a 5 percent decrease in positions in its Central Departments. Media reports from late 2023 indicate that local-level governments across the country are laying off contractors over concerns about government budget burdens. News reports from 2023 also show additional risks with Chinese local government debts, a long-term issue exacerbated by the zero-COVID strategy amid the pandemic. However, the Chinese government shows little concern for the cost involved in cracking down on political dissidents with detailed and targeted efforts – even when the returns are nebulous. 

Despite losing more than 10 percent of his followers on X, Li vowed to continue running his X account as an outlet for people interested in seeing Chinese social media content without censorship. The Chinese government may try to intimidate and harass individuals who seek uncensored information. Yet without addressing the root causes of its economic slowdowns and geopolitical dilemma, China will have to spend more and more resources on social media and state repression in the near future.