Photo: A middle-aged woman awaits customers at a migrant worker noodle shop in central Shanghai, in an area slated for future demolition (by me, November 2018)
Many of my readers know me from Twitter, which is its own little alternate universe with multiple subcultures and communities. For most part, I stay within Writing Twitter, which has its quirks, but has generally been a lovely community where I’ve made many good friends. What some of you may not know, is I initially gained a following because of an essay I wrote about Tiananmen, and several (honestly innocuous) tweets that went viral on China Twitter.
China Twitter must be one of the weirdest communities on Twitter, which is officially banned in China (there are still many China-based accounts with large and active followings). What that means is that the overwhelming majority of accounts on Twitter which post about China: do not live in China, have never been to China, do not even speak Chinese. And yet, they command huge followings for their “insights” on China.
I would never call myself a China expert. But I did spend most of the past decade living, working, and traveling around China for work. I speak Chinese, I read Chinese, and I’ve written (award-winning) screenplays in Chinese. I’m also a Chinese history buff, and one of my proudest college accomplishments is securing the only A+ that the now-deceased Professor Fred Wakeman awarded for Advanced Chinese History.
So, I’m not an expert, but I do have decent, and fairly recent qualifications when I talk about China, especially China today. I’m also Singaporean—last I checked, our government is still bravely trying to remain politically neutral between China and the US. All along, I thought my views on China were fairly moderate. I thought—perhaps channelling Lee Kuan Yew—that it was still possible to inhabit a position of neutrality.
Until China Twitter. At first, I tried to be a voice of reason. I even made it to some ‘Top 100 accounts to follow on China’ list at one point, which was hilarious. But as Trump’s rhetoric on China escalated and tensions between China and the US worsened, the online conversation became increasingly one-sided. Despairing, in June 2019, I wrote a post (in Chinese) about the rapidly evaporating middle ground on China. There are many PRC Chinese, particularly the younger generation, who are self-aware and critical of their country’s flaws. But the environment just became so toxic that it became impossible to say anything about China on Twitter that wasn’t along the lines of “China is BIG, BAD & EVIL.”
So I gave up. I decided to stick to fiction, where I can tell human stories with nuance, stories that tell complicated truths about society and politics. There’s just no point trying to tell human stories about China on Twitter, and in most of English-language media, the audience appetite for such stories is also shrinking. I found my home in Writing Twitter, and I like it there.
So imagine my surprise when I read that two of the most famous China Watchers on Twitter, were, together with Jimmy Lai (founder of Apple Daily and ‘defender of press freedom’), behind one of the most notorious alt-right disinformation scandals of the 2020 American election: a fake intelligence agency set up to peddle supposedly incriminating information on Hunter Biden’s ties to the Chinese Communist Party.
If you want to know exactly how messed up this confluence of China Twitter and American politics is, Wilfred Chan here has a good summary:
I have known the two men’s names for a long time. They are the attack dogs of China Twitter. Their modus operandi: scouting out tweets (and accounts) that could be construed as sympathetic to China, completely misrepresenting the author’s intentions, and luring a massive Twitter pile-on. The first time it happened, I took it very personally. It stressed me for days—I shouldn’t have attracted the attention, I should have kept my head down, I was wrong to open my mouth. I read my tweets again. I stood by what I said. But was it worth all the trouble?
The funny thing is, now that their role in the Hunter Biden disinformation scandal has been exposed, China Twitter, which once treated their words as gold, has completely turned on the two men, as though by aspiring but failing to imitate the Russian KGB, they crossed a line within their community—a certain ‘moral standard’, so to say. Every China Watcher is now tripping over themselves to disavow association with the names involved, or casting shade on their background and motives. But the real problem doesn’t lie with the two men, but a certain almost cult-like, unquestioning culture within China Twitter, as a Chinese American friend writes:
It’s not just that Balding BSed and everyone so freely ate and passed around his shit with so much smug self certitude, it’s that they take that attitude with them for every story and narrative they try to push and treat any skepticism, criticism, or pushback with ridicule and dismissal, and of course this is what you get.
I have no doubt that this newsletter will make the rounds within China Twitter again. Many in the community make their living by writing or peddling information about China. I don’t and have never wished any harm to their livelihoods. But as readers, I think it’s high time we raise our standards for reporting and writing on China—and keep our minds open to stories that stray or even counter standard Western-centred narratives. The world is a big, scary place, and evil doesn’t just emanate from one people or country, just as no one people or country stands for all that is good and righteous.