Newspaper article International New York Times

Beijing's Rising Smear Power

Newspaper article International New York Times

Beijing's Rising Smear Power

Article excerpt

The online slander of dissidents is seen as an attempt to manipulate opinion on a global scale.

Chinese dissidents are constantly subject to all sorts of harassment. The artist Ai Weiwei can't leave the country to attend exhibitions of his own work. Hu Jia, a human rights activist who spent more than three years in jail on charges of subverting state power, is frequently put under house arrest. And of course many dissidents get hauled off on spurious charges, like the 81-year-old Beijing writer and underground publisher Tie Liu, who was detained by the police early this month.

I recently gained notoriety as a victim of another method used to deal with perceived enemies of the state: a vicious online smear campaign.

On Aug. 21, a series of articles titled "The Past and Present Life of Murong Xuecun" appeared on Literature City, a website based outside of China that claims to be the No.1 portal for overseas Chinese. Several of the essays are signed by the likes of "Black Talk," "Mr. Negative" and "Forest," but most didn't bother carrying a signature.

Similarities in style indicate that the essays are the work of a single team. They show zealous patriotism and moral obsession; they quote sources that can't be verified. The biggest giveaway that this was a coordinated attack by government allies (no one can prove Beijing is actually to blame) was that the same title -- "The Past and Present Life of ... " -- was used on posts to smear other dissidents this year.

The articles' lies started with my childhood: I was a delinquent and kicked out of many schools. They accused me of molesting little girls. As an adult, they said, I've been a frequent visitor of prostitutes. They went on to say that I've had multiple extramarital affairs and that my infidelities led me to wife beating. They even said I plotted to blow up the Beijing airport.

Within days, links to these articles were circulated on Twitter, which is banned in China, and retweeted more than 1,000 times. The articles also appeared on two other influential overseas Chinese- language websites.

At first, I only laughed at the slander. But as the lies spread more widely on international platforms, it began to feel serious. I value my reputation, and countless innocent Chinese people have had their good names destroyed this way. The authors know very well that when the same lies are repeated over and over again they become widely perceived as truth.

The most damaging aspect of the online posts is that they rely on elements of truth: biographical details about me, including the names of schools I attended, that few people know. (I suspect the authors had access to the government's personal file on me.) The bits of truth give the posts a veneer of authenticity.

There was no way to defend myself. "Prove you didn't do it! Show me evidence!" someone tweeted to me. "Come out and face us if you think you are innocent!" Without knowing who my adversaries are, there is no one to debate. …

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