How a Chinese nationalist’s talking point found its way into a Trump tweet

Society & Culture

Donald Trump's recent anti-China tweet cites an interesting source: a Chinese academic known for his pro-Beijing stance. The academic's words found their way to English-language media — Fox News, specifically — through the Epoch Times, a Falun Gong newspaper that has aligned in recent years with the American far right.

Donald Trump talks a lot about China’s influence in Washington, but it’s not every day that he tries to make his point by tweeting a video of a pro-Beijing academic.

Yesterday, Trump tweeted a clip from Tucker Carlson Tonight featuring Chinese professor Dí Dōngshēng 翟东升 telling a Chinese audience that Beijing had “old friends” in America’s elite circles during the pre-Trump years.

“The Trump administration is in a trade war with us, so why can’t we fix the Trump administration?” Di says (according to the subtitles). “Why did China and the U.S. use to be able to settle all kinds of issues between 1992 and 2016?…We fixed everything in two months. What is the reason?

“I’m going to throw out something maybe a little bit explosive here: It’s just because we have people at the top. We have our old friends who are at the top of America’s core inner circle of power and influence.”

https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1336161955845959680

Carlson, the far-right Fox News anchor, tried to use Di’s comments as evidence of Chinese interference. “If you’re wondering why our political class has stood by and allowed the Chinese government to degrade this country and our way of life, why they stood by as the Chinese government has flooded the United States with deadly opioids that have killed hundreds of thousands of people, or have stood by as the Chinese government has ripped off billions of intellectual property from our companies — there’s your answer.”

Di, the professor in the video, is the deputy dean of the School of International Studies at Renmin University of China. The talk was filmed on November 28 for Answer (答案 Dá’àn), a year-end video series produced by Guan Video (观视频 guān shìpín) featuring prominent — often nationalistic — Chinese commentators.

In the same talk (though not featured in Carlson’s show), Di said he met with a Jewish businesswoman who had a Beijing residence permit (and Chinese citizenship) — and that she was one of the “old friend[s] of us Chinese people.”

Di’s statements are all unverified. Yes, foreign governments lobby in Washington, D.C., and the professor likely has some government connections — but it is also highly possible that he was merely posturing for a nationalistic video channel. Either way, Carlson’s characterization of the video as “evidence” of China’s meddling, as he calls it, is baseless.

Guan Video’s “Answer” series on Bilibili

Guan Video is part of Guancha (观察者网 guānchá zhě wǎng), a nationalistic news outlet funded by the venture capitalist Eric X. Li, who is known for being staunchly pro-Beijing (he gave a rather famous 2013 TED talk). Other speakers featured in the web series Answer include Peking University economist Chén Píng 陈平, Renmin University political scientist Jīn Cànróng 金灿荣, Fudan University political scientist Zhāng Wéiwéi 张维为, and Global Times editor-in-chief Hú Xījìn 胡锡进 — all of them known for their pro-Chinese Communist Party stance.

It is worth noting that Guan Video is one of the largest producers of video content for China’s most popular nationalistic thought leaders. While Hu officially works for the Global Times, WeChat records show that his public account — where he posts viral videos and articles — lists a subsidiary of Guan Video as the owner entity. Similarly, Guancha itself owns the WeChat accounts of both Chen and Zhang.

How, then, did Di’s Chinese-language video end up in Fox News, and later Donald Trump’s Twitter feed?

Di’s talk was first picked up in English-language media on December 3 by the Epoch Times, which, for most of its existence, had focused on criticizing the Chinese Communist Party and being the de facto propaganda wing for the Falun Gong.

While the video was originally in Mandarin Chinese, it was translated into English by Jennifer Zeng (曾铮 Zéng Zhēng), a U.S.-based writer and activist, and published on her personal blog and YouTube channel on December 4. The clip used on Fox News features the watermark for her channel, “Inconvenient Truths.” (A vocal advocate for the Falun Gong, Zeng is the author of a book on her experience as a practitioner.)

For more than a decade, the Epoch Times was practically unknown in the U.S., despite its popularity within some Chinese-American communities — it was a free tabloid on the newspaper racks of America’s Chinatowns. The header of its Chinese-language paper, Da Jiyuan, shows a tally of Chinese citizens who have quit the Party next to the publication date.

Falun Gong-affiliated media have turned to the American far right ever since the U.S. election of 2016. After a rebranding campaign, the Epoch Times has adopted a fiercely pro-Trump stance, using aggressive social media tactics and rampant misinformation, all the while maintaining its visibly anti-CCP rhetoric. Like other U.S. far-right outlets, it has parroted Trump’s election fraud talking points, refusing to recognize Joe Biden’s 2020 victory.

In recent years, some critics of the Chinese government have tiptoed around Western far-right circles, providing them with anti-Beijing talking points as well as misinformation. The Chinese billionaire fugitive Guō Wénguì 郭文貴, for instance, is a close ally of Steve Bannon, a former Trump advisor and Breitbart editor. According to the New York Times, the two were behind the story of Dr. Li-Meng Yan, a Hong Kong virologist who claimed that China had created COVID-19 as a bioweapon. This was a completely unsubstantiated claim, and Yan was not the whistleblower she pretended to be, but she did end up on — wait for it — Tucker Carlson Tonight, where her story became a sensation for the American far right.

In another case, an anonymous “intelligence” report about Hunter Biden’s China ties was published before the 2020 election. Written under a pseudonym and a fake persona, it was first posted by Christopher Balding, an American academic known for his criticism of Beijing on Twitter. Balding also made appearances to promote the report on China Unscripted, a podcast produced by the Epoch Times, as the document was shared by QAnon groups and Newt Gingrich. NBC News found that the “investigation” was commissioned by Apple Daily, a pro-democratic Hong Kong paper — though Mark Simon, a former executive, said he had backed it without owner Jimmy Lai’s knowing.

On the Bilibili page of Guan Video, the recording of Di’s talk — the second episode of the series — is no longer available.