Terrence Shen says he had an awakening after arriving in Canada in 2004 to attend university.
He began taking stock of all he had been taught by the Chinese Communist Party’s education system while growing up in Beijing and came to a conclusion: He’d been “cheated” by the government and education system in China, where officials “rewrite history to serve power.”
He finished his undergraduate degree in East Asian studies and began working as a journalist in Hong Kong and Beijing, then moved back to Toronto, where he’s now aiming to set the record straight on issues where China’s official narratives are the only ones most Chinese speakers around the globe get.
“To me, telling the truth has never been more critical,” he said. “Someone has to do it.”
Feeling that people don’t read as much as they like to watch and listen, he began a Twitter account and YouTube show, called Mr. Shen, to counter the Chinese government’s narratives on world events and domestic China issues.
Now Shen has more than 300,000 subscribers listening to his channel in Mandarin where he discusses current events, how they are related to China and what false information and narratives he sees being pushed. It’s a big enough following that it’s how he makes his living.
Lately, it’s becoming more common for him to tackle disinformation around the war in Ukraine as Shen, and others who speak Chinese, have taken it upon themselves to combat deception about the war from sources linked to mainland China.
One thing he’s noticed lately is Beijing pushing the same narratives as Moscow as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues.
“They are doing everything they can to influence people,” he said. “Everywhere you are told that Russia is good and Ukraine is bad.”
He pointed to China’s state-run media outlets, like the tabloid Global Times, as entities trying to push the idea that western countries are at fault for the invasion, and painting Russia as an innocent victim or otherwise justifying Moscow’s actions.
In one editorial in March, Global Times accused the US government of not wanting the war to end, in order to “extract geopolitical value” from the invasion.
“When they talk about the actual war they are trying to give you the idea the West is abandoning Ukraine,” he said, suggesting the approach is aimed at dispiriting supporters of Taiwan’s sovereignty. “Their news source always comes from Russian media and the Russian government.”
He said “fake news” stories have also reported that Ukraine’s leaders have pocketed western aid and sold off military equipment to other countries.
Shen said he mostly addresses the articles and opinions appearing in major Chinese-language publications because they have the largest influence. But, he added, smaller outlets or Chinese-language social media host disinformation as well.
Meanwhile, another disinformation fighter takes a more academic approach.
Sherman Lai, an adjunct assistant professor in Asian studies at Queen’s University, likes to talk about the history behind world events on his Mandarin YouTube show, Bookshelf, so people better understand them rather than rely on Chinese government news and propaganda.
Lai often tackles subjects in Chinese history, he said, because the Chinese Communist Party doesn’t want them discussed.
“History is factual,” he said, and “there are many dark aspects of CCP history.”
Lately, however, Lai has also found himself trying to educate his viewers on the realities of Russia and Ukraine, going back to the days of the Soviet Union.
Many Chinese people think Ukraine is part of Russia, Lai explained; Seeing the invasion in this context, they have the same mindset as Russia’s government.
“They regard Ukraine as a province of Russia,” he said. “Chinese relate it with Chinese domestic problems, like Xinjiang or Tibet or Taiwan.”
It’s important for Chinese speakers to understand the whole situation and the history behind it, he said. Still, the reaction of many Chinese, both abroad and in China, to the invasion has mystified Lai.
He finds it confounding that Chinese people don’t view Ukraine invasion as more similar to Japan’s invasion of China in the 1930s. It’s partly because those in China aren’t taught a particularly clear history of that decades-old attack, he said.
“Ukrainians are fighting a war just like their grandfathers or great grandfathers were doing 80 years ago,” Lai said. “That is sad. Very, very sad.”
Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, an associate policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, said the kind of work Shen and Lai do is a “civil-society response” to disinformation and an effective way to combat it, rather than have government organs take it on.
“There can be some benefits by having a non-political response,” Beauchamp-Mustafaga said. “Ideally it wouldn’t be a politicized issue, it’d just be a broad civil-society response.”
When governments themselves respond to online disinformation and misinformation, it becomes easier for that to be turned into a political issue, he said.
In Beijing’s case, most disinformation is aimed at discrediting critics of the CCP and legitimizing the state’s actions and leadership, Beauchamp-Mustafaga noted.
With Ukraine, he said, there’s certainly alignment on news stories between Beijing and Moscow, but no evidence yet the two governments are directly co-ordinating their messages. If it ever surfaces they are working together, he said, it wouldn’t be a surprise.
One narrative perpetuated by Russia and China is that bioweapons were being developed in Ukraine with the help of the United States. Beauchamp-Mustafaga said that narrative overlaps with attempts by China to sow the idea the US was responsible for COVID.
“China has interest in discrediting foreign, mainly western, criticism of its handling of COVID so one of the narratives that’s developed in the last couple of years is that the US originated COVID, that the US has developed COVID as a biological weapon,” he said. “That obviously aligns with Russian efforts to discredit Ukraine and justify its invasion.”
But the trend is nothing new, he said, Beijing has a long-standing interest in disinformation.
It’s especially nothing new for Shen, who said he’s been subject to it since his school days. Now, he said, as China’s government tries to deceive the world when it comes to events in Ukraine, he’s not going to let their message go unchallenged.
“They are just trying to mislead the world,” Shen said, pointing to China’s government’s attempts to portray itself as neutral in the conflict. “They are actually behind Russia.”
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