Would China’s influence via WeChat go (almost) unnoticed?

Would China's influence via WeChat go (almost) unnoticed? Cybersecurity

The Chinese WeChat, like most social networks, is a haven for misinformation and “fake news”. Less known, at least in Western countries, is its role in mobilizing communities in the Chinese diaspora to support politicians or personalities.

These activities are coordinated by a system known as the United Front, a network of Communist Party and state agencies that are responsible for influencing groups outside the Chinese Communist Party. At the top, the United Front’s labor department is chaired by China’s fourth-highest political leader, Wang Yang. President Xi Jinping and his family have been involved in the work of the United Front for decades.

“The primary tool of the United Front is actually the WeChat social network,” said Maree Ma, executive director of Vision Times, one of Australia’s leading Chinese-language media.

Influence game

WeChat’s private groups are limited to 500 members, but according to Maree Ma, there are “hundreds” of United Front organizations in Australia, each of which has several of these groups.

“Some of them have almost 50 of these groups, with 500 people in each of them, so you can do the math,” said Maree Ma at a seminar hosted by the Australian Institute for Political Strategy ( Australian Strategic Policy Institute) earlier this month. “Normally these groups are pretty inactive, you know, with messages on where to eat, where to go on vacation, which school to choose,” she said. “But when critical questions arise, information can be disseminated extremely quickly by these groups.”

An Australian example was given during the 2019 federal election campaign, when WeChat groups targeted Gladys Liu, the Liberal Party candidate for Chisholm’s electorate in Melbourne. “When she made her first supportive comments about Hong Kong, there was a sudden increase in negative comments about her broadcast to WeChat groups,” said Maree Ma. “It served as a warning to her that United Front efforts can help it win the election and gain its position, but also take away that position if it exceeds the limits. “

Taiwan originally targeted

The thoughts and views of the Chinese diaspora are constantly shaped by what is broadcast on WeChat, says Maree Ma. “I think WeChat really goes under the radar of most western democracies,” she said. declared. These WeChat groups are so large that leaders of organizations linked to the United Front can use the number of groups they control as justification for obtaining more funds from the Chinese consulate.

The ASPI seminar was organized to discuss the report on “Foreign Interference and the Chinese Communist Party’s Single Front System”. According to its author, analyst Alex Joske, these online disinformation and rallying efforts are still relatively uncoordinated with other elements of the Chinese cybernetic apparatus, such as the Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of Security of ‘State and the People’s Liberation Army. “I think all of the online disinformation space seems relatively new to the Chinese Communist Party, at least outside of Taiwan,” said Alex Joske.

“There have been many examples of what looks like a state-sponsored online activity on Facebook, on the Line app, which targets Taiwan, but we’re only just starting to see that it really goes beyond ‘a Chinese-speaking audience,’ he said. “Although there are organizations supposed to coordinate some of these activities, I think that in practice, it is really very compartmentalized.

That said, organizations of the United Front can prepare the ground for further activities such as espionage. “For example, the United Front’s labor department will set up a network of community groups, and then an intelligence agency can come and recruit people into these organizations, and then the networks are essentially already in place for them,” continues Alex Joske.

Technology transfer from Europe

The work of the United Front is also a key element in the transfer of European technology to China, according to Didi Kirsten Tatlow, senior researcher at the German Council for External Relations. “Germany may be a center in some ways,” said Didi Kirsten Tatlow, because it is a center for science and technology. His research has identified approximately 300 or 330 organizations connected to the United Front throughout Germany, and perhaps “more than 1,000” throughout Europe, particularly in the United Kingdom, France, Italy. , in Spain and in the Nordic countries.

“Yes, it is very common. There are a lot of things going on, ”she confirms. At the higher levels there is what Didi Kirsten Tatlow calls the “capture of the elite”, German political and economic leaders. One example is the creation of the China-Brücke, led by a vice-president of the Bundestag, the German parliament. Other members of the board include German representatives from Huawei and Alibaba, as well as representatives from other political parties.

But there are also lower-level organizations, coordinated by the Chinese People’s Association for Foreign Friendship, which today has a network of 37 branches in Germany. “They connect to so-called cultural friendship associations created by Germans who may have a romantic vision of China, who want to do calligraphy, and that sort of thing,” said the German researcher. “They start by doing calligraphy or music, and suddenly, they are there, doing a fully paid tour of China, visiting AI installations or factories, business development parks and centers technology transfer, ”she says. “It’s a very broad and very deep structure. “

Didi Kirsten Tatlow compares the structure of these organizations to mushrooms. “You have this kind of mycelium which spreads under the ground and a mushroom appears here and there … Ah, it is something which belongs to the system of the United Front or to the influence of the Communist Party”, a she declared. “But in reality, these mushrooms are all connected underground by very fine networks. “

Regulate WeChat?

The clear consensus of all panelists is that the influence of WeChat is growing and that something must be done about it. But what to do ? “I think the starting point should be to engage with Tencent and WeChat and try to hold it accountable to the same standards as Facebook and Twitter, for example,” said Alex Joske.

India, for its part, has banned WeChat and 58 other Chinese applications, declaring that they were “prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of India, to the defense of India, to the security of l ‘State and public order’. But a strict ban of course has human rights implications, and Didi Kirsten Tatlow would prefer to see a “truly concerted global effort” to raise awareness about how social media can be used to manipulate opinion .

Maree Ma believes that Australia should “absolutely introduce laws” to regulate WeChat “so that it poses less risk to national security”, although she also recognizes that WeChat “cannot be controlled”. “Western politicians think, okay, that maybe we can counter misinformation by having our own presence on WeChat, but just establishing a WeChat platform isn’t really enough,” she says. . “It’s not like on Twitter or Facebook where you can remove fake accounts … China can close your WeChat group if you go over the limits.” “

Source: ZDNet.com

Source: www.zdnet.fr

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