Critics of Beijing Face Increasing Impersonation Attacks

The identities of outspoken China critics, both in the diaspora and of other nationalities, are being hijacked

Critics of Beijing Face Increasing Impersonation Attacks
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines

Andrew Phelan was preparing his Melbourne home for the arrival of his elderly, unwell mother when the doorbell rang. Standing next to the man whom Phelan had booked to help assemble a bed were four police officers. They were carrying firearms. They barged into his house and told Phelan — a high-profile China watcher and commentator — that he was under arrest. A Chinese-Australian reporter had contacted the Victoria state police to say she’d received an email from him threatening to rape and kill her. Phelan knew he was innocent; the police, at that stage, did not: His name and correct address were on the email. So they raided his home and took his laptops, phone and an internal drive as evidence. They even followed him to the bathroom.

“It was unbelievable, straight out of the twilight zone,” Phelan told New Lines over the phone. He said that more than six months on from the incident, which occurred on Jan. 25, he could now laugh about it, but it’s clear from his recounting that the experience is still raw — and for good reason.

“It was very intrusive, very confronting. For all intents and purposes they treated me like a criminal,” he said.

Phelan was taken to the police station, fingerprinted and interrogated. It was only after the police had gone through his files and emails that they too realized he was innocent. He was released later that day, and his name cleared.

Or was it? In Phelan’s own words, he suffers from “whistleblower’s anxiety.”

“What if some people might say, ‘Did he actually send that email?’” he asked.

That is precisely the point. Phelan is part of a new and growing club of people whose names and identities are being hijacked and used for nefarious purposes. It’s a disparate group stretching across the globe and contains activists, journalists, academics and lawyers. All are tied together by one common thread — they criticize China.

The “impersonation is out of control,” the Chinese-Australian satirical artist Badiucao told me. In June, Badiucao, who is often referred to as the Banksy of China, opened an art exhibition in Warsaw to display his work, which covers topics from the Tiananmen Square Massacre to Xi Jinping’s removal of presidential term limits. In the days leading up to the opening, there were calls from the Chinese Embassy in Poland to cancel it. But the gallery stood firm and the exhibition went ahead. A few days later, Badiucao went on X, formerly known as Twitter, and discovered a string of accounts pretending to be him.

Badiucao believes the faux account campaign has many aims: to stop people following the real Badiucao and seeing what he is actually saying; to have fake Badiucaos say things that would discredit him; to use phishing links to trick his supporters into revealing private information and jeopardizing their own safety; and to directly impair his income through sending people to a fake online store of his work, or “even worse,” he told me, to “scam people for money” at these fake stores and further damage his name.

It feels resonant that China, a nation known for its disregard of intellectual property rights, should be faking people’s identities, and more so given that there are people who fake their own identities in China to avoid justice. Suspicion remains over whether Bo Xilai’s wife Gu Kailai, who was charged with murdering the British businessman Neil Heywood in 2012, used a body double during her trial. Perhaps Gu was following China’s long tradition of “ding zui,” the practice of rich people hiring poor substitutes to endure punishments on their behalf, which dates back to at least the mid-17th century. At that time, the missionary Domingo Fernandez Navarrete expressed shock at its ease and frequency. A few centuries later, in 1895, the Taiwan-based missionary George Mackay wrote of the replacements as “an open secret.”

“These men had nothing to do with the case, but were bribed to wear the cangue for six weeks,” he noted, describing the pillory historically used for public punishment in East Asia. At the same time, the Qing author De Fu and legal scholar John Bruce Norton both said it was common for some of these substitute criminals to be executed for crimes they didn’t commit.

A practice rooted in economic disparities, it’s little wonder it reemerged in the China of the 21st century with its huge chasm between rich and poor. In 2009, for example, a wealthy 20-year-old, Hu Bin, killed a pedestrian while speeding. It is alleged, albeit unproven, that a body double appeared in court in his place and even carried out his sentence. Another example comes from 2012, when the owner of a demolition company offered a man living on the poverty line around $31 for each day spent in jail to cover for his crime.

Ding zui shows a murky approach to people’s identities and the law. And yet, when it comes to faking the identities of others to smear them, there isn’t obvious precedent in the country. When I asked a historian of modern China for pre-internet examples, such as people who might have been framed by impersonators during Mao Zedong’s time, they had none.

As for dealing with disobedience that is not directly on its doorstep, China’s history is complicated. A centuries-old saying — “Shan gao, huangdi yuan” (“The mountains are high, and the emperor is far away”) — guided some local officials to flout laws coming from Beijing because, they believed, distance granted them relative protection. A number of dissidents assumed as much too, such as the late Qing radical Zhang Binglin, one of the country’s most prominent early 20th-century scholars, who had publicly supported reformers in the country. When the reformers fell from grace, Wang fled, first to Japan and then to Shanghai’s International Settlement, where he carried on writing very openly in support of reforms from what he assumed was a safer place, outside of the Qing’s jurisdiction.

But Chinese authorities did police what happened beyond their borders. In 1903, they tried to force Shanghai authorities to hand Zhang over (the authorities refused, settling on an arguably tokenistic internal trial instead). More famously, the revolutionary statesman Sun Yat-sen was kidnapped in London in 1896, where his captors threatened to return him to China and have him executed. He was released from London’s Chinese Embassy 12 days later, but only after a hoopla on the part of U.K. diplomats and newspapers.

Still, until the advent of modern technology, the difficulties involved in going after those beyond Beijing’s borders meant it was reserved for the most high-profile figures, typically those involved in organized opposition. Not so anymore. Today, anyone who criticizes Beijing from anywhere in the world can find themselves a target of the Chinese Communist Party, and Xi does not take criticism lightly. Under the current president, control of dissent has ramped up to a level not seen since Mao.

“There is a more intense effort recently to take steps against people who mock or criticize the leader of the Chinese Communist Party,” Jeff Wasserstrom, a historian of Modern China, told New Lines. “Some of it smacks of a sort of desire by Xi Jinping for a ‘lese-majeste’ type of approach to him and his family,” he added, referring to laws that make it illegal to insult a monarch.

Attacks take myriad forms, from threatening letters, calls and cyberattacks to bricks thrown through windows and mysterious break-ins. In extreme circumstances, people have been plucked from streets thousands of miles from Beijing and transported to China, such as the Hong Kong bookseller and Swedish citizen Gui Minhai, who was in Thailand when he disappeared in 2015. He remains in Chinese detention today.

Those targeted typically came from the Chinese diaspora, however, and it is only recently that people of other nationalities have found themselves affected. It’s also only recently that the use of fake identities has entered the playbook. And it’s only in the last few months, or even weeks, that it’s mushroomed to an alarming degree.

“During the almost quarter century that I’ve been working as a China correspondent, I’ve learned enough to know how the Chinese operate if they want someone to shut up. And yet I am also shocked. As far as I know, Western journalists are rarely treated this heavy-handedly,” wrote Marije Vlaskamp, a reporter for de Volkskrant (a Dutch daily) this past April, after a bomb threat was made in her name, using her real phone number, which led to the Chinese Embassy and the Dutch prime minister’s official residence in The Hague being cordoned off.

“This is the first time that unknown persons are intimidating a Dutch journalist outside China on behalf of the Chinese state,” wrote Vlaskamp. “The tactics to silence someone through psychological warfare or by portraying that individual as a terrorist are mainly used against people of Chinese origin, such as Han Chinese, Uyghurs and Tibetans.”

Vlaskamp’s imitation was particularly detailed. A booking was made in her name at a hotel near the Binnenhof (the seat of the Dutch Parliament), and in the name of the activist Wang Jingyu, a Chinese national who fled China in 2019 after publicly supporting Hong Kong protesters. Wang is no stranger to threats. Indeed, for this article I reached out to Wang, who then followed me on X. On Aug. 1, a person going by the name Adela Lee tweeted at me and several others whom Wang follows to tell us to pass a threat onto him. The tweet read:

“Hello, please tell Wang if he doesn’t pay back the money, don’t blame me for revenge on his parents.”

Lee was a mystery online — minimal information was available on who or where they were. They were only followed by two people and followed three in return, and their account was newly opened, in this past July to be precise. The contact was creepy — and this is just entry-level harassment for Wang.

Vlaskamp wrote last year in detail about “how Beijing was making the young activist’s life miserable.” This year she renewed contact with Wang. Shortly afterward, she and Wang were both threatened via the messaging app Telegram by someone called “Alice,” who told them that if they didn’t meet “her,” bomb threats would be made in their name and they’d be arrested. Vlaskamp was not arrested. She has since been plagued by what-ifs.

“What if by pure coincidence I had been in the neighborhood of the Chinese embassy, that Saturday afternoon? Can I still travel abroad or will my name end up on international wanted lists as a terrorism suspect? And what if ‘Alice’ — or whoever is hiding behind that name — comes up with more surprises to discredit me?” Vlaskamp said.

As these examples show, the tactic is an excellent way to sully someone’s reputation. More than that, it sows confusion. If “fake news” undercuts what people believe, “fake people” undercut who people believe. Add to the mix messages containing falsehoods, and trust is dissolved.

Associates at the London-based law firm Doughty Street were baffled when one of their most senior king’s counsels (a prestigious title given to senior trial lawyers), Helena Kennedy, emailed to say she was stepping down from representing the Hong Kong pro-democracy advocate and media mogul Jimmy Lai. Only she wasn’t. She never sent that email. Kennedy, Caoilfhionn Gallagher KC, another Doughty Street lawyer working on the Lai case, and Lai himself have all had fake emails sent in their names, in a tactic Kennedy described to me as both “sinister and annoying.”

Luke de Pulford, executive director of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, has had at least 13 spoof email addresses set up, and while some are menacing (threats were sent from one to Michael Chong, a Canadian politician who has been more broadly attacked following his criticism of China’s Uyghur policy), most are vexing. They’ll tell people things are canceled when they’re not. In one instance, an impersonator successfully ended de Pulford’s Conservative Party membership and extracted personal details in the process. To do this, they went one step further than in any other case I’ve heard of so far; they called up the Conservative Party membership office pretending to be de Pulford.

The victims are often exhausted, their mental health dealt a blow.

“I ended up in hospital. I was so stressed out, the side of my face swelled up,” Phelan told me.

Wang, the Dutch-based Chinese activist, asked whether they were trying to drive him crazy and in so doing drive him back to China. For Wang, the threats in his name started before the incident with Vlaskamp. Last year, Wang, who has lived in the Netherlands for several years now, helped to expose secret Chinese police stations in the country. After that, his name was linked to a colorful variety of threats and false insinuations.

“They often call the Dutch emergency number to report false cases,” he said, explaining that one call had claimed that there were hostages and weapons in his apartment. Another claimed he was violent to his girlfriend. The police asked her if this was true and she made clear it was not.

Wang has been arrested many times on the back of these reports. He believes the Chinese Embassy in the Netherlands was behind the Vlaskamp attack and doesn’t think the Dutch government has responded strongly enough.

“The response of the Dutch government was only a condemnation from the Foreign Ministry,” he said. “They should expel diplomats who reported the false cases.”

The embassy denies they’ve had any involvement. They say they reported Wang to the police as they take any bomb threat seriously. It raises the question: Who exactly is behind the attacks? Lone wolves? The Chinese state?

Researchers and social scientists have long been warning about China’s united front, a political strategy of the CCP involving networks of organizations and individuals who influence, subvert and intimidate China’s critics abroad. Despite its name, the united front is not united. There isn’t a single mastermind, a single line where orders come from and where orders can be traced back to. To use intelligence parlance, the smoking gun is missing.

Phelan thinks that China’s Ministry of State Security is behind his attacks, but he acknowledges that it’s “impossible to prove.”

De Pulford has traced attacks twice using something called a canary token, a digital trap in which spy tech is embedded within legitimate-looking files. Through these traps, if the attacker is not using a VPN, their location can be pinpointed. The trail led to Hong Kong but he doesn’t know more than that.

Instead, he has drawn inferences. He believes it’s one person, on the basis that the emails follow a similar format.

“He sends a clickbait email which looks like it might have been from me to the uninitiated or those not reading it closely,” de Pulford says. “And then further down the line, if someone responds, it will turn very weird very quickly. Very often he uses scriptural quotations, things like ‘Luke’s bones will be crushed,’ or something like that or ‘Luke should turn away from the devil.’”

De Pulford says it’s likely “an ultra-loyalist, self-motivated person in Hong Kong.” Since the methods are crude, if there was any association with the Chinese state it would likely be loose.

De Pulford also thinks the same person is behind spoof email addresses for Tom Tugendhat, the security minister in the U.K.; Ben Rogers, head of Hong Kong Watch; and Andreas Fuldo and Kevin Carico, both academics.

De Pulford has gotten further than most in tracing his assailant and yet ultimately has found no real name.

In the absence of a named criminal, there is little the victim can do. Wang sent me a voice recording of a police officer telling him that the only safe place for him was prison, “because they can’t get you there.” That suggestion is absurd. A more helpful one is to pre-emptively register email and social media accounts under iterations of a name. Still, this is far from foolproof, and very arduous. Consider Safeguard Defenders, an organization that helps human rights defenders from China. On X, the accounts that imitate them are too many to count. Last September, over 1,000 were registered in their name in just 12 hours. Today there are still at least 200, the point at which I gave up counting. How could they register enough accounts to plug every hole?

Some have turned to the tech giants for help.

“My sense is that the bots are a response to the publication of the Chinese language version of my book ‘In the Camps’ in Taiwan in June and the media coverage it has gotten from the Taiwanese press. It’s now much more likely that Chinese language readers in the mainland will access my work and I think this makes it more dangerous from the Chinese state’s perspective,” the anthropologist Darren Byler told New Lines after more than 14 accounts opened in his name a few weeks ago on X. Byler started sending reports to X only to get automated replies. So on July 30, he made a more public announcement on X to force the company’s hand, and it promptly acted.

Badiucao has had a degree of success via this route too. X is responding to requests to remove fake accounts. At the same time, he is frustrated by the removal of his blue tick. For Badiucao, X’s new verification system means there is no chance of exiting the nightmare.

At its most basic, the current impersonation campaign copies standard internet phishing scams. It’s not new. Fraudsters around the world do it all the time, including in China. Counterfeit accounts on social media also exist in China and many are a thorn in Beijing’s side. They’ve been known to impersonate news outlets, state institutions and public personalities. In May of this year, the Cyberspace Administration of China closed almost 13,000 counterfeit military accounts alone.

Still, while the aims of these counterfeit social media accounts might overlap with those targeting China’s critics — to sow confusion, to ridicule — there is little evidence that they seek to seriously harm and silence. Perhaps, then, the attacks on critics more closely resemble Russia’s “kompromat,” compromising evidence that was collected by secret police on the regime’s opponents.

“In the Soviet Union kompromat could be used for social shaming, denial of jobs or other opportunities, even legal action or spurious incarceration,” said Dr. Emma Briant, an academic and expert on information warfare.

As Briant pointed out, new technology has allowed “counterintelligence operations that once were complex to be carried out with terrifying ease. The cyberintimidation of these dissidents combines a number of intelligence techniques, from the apparent hijack of their identities with fake accounts and the creation of fake kompromat. … As in the Chinese case, where real kompromat is unavailable, it can be doctored, forged or faked.”

A terrifying consideration is that, crude as the tactic has been thus far, improvements to AI could make it very effective. Utilizing the best spyware and hacked content, our emotions, our behaviors and our facial featues could all be wrapped up into a very believable package. Impersonation will likely take on heightened forms.

Will people stop speaking out? There is little evidence they have yet. Phelan is adamant that, at least when it comes to himself, he won’t. “I’m not going to censor anything,” he said.

Phelan is keen to emphasize that he doesn’t always criticize the CCP, but he believes it’s important to “bring sunlight” to the CCP’s “gray-zone tactics” that exist between conventional ideas of peace and war. One of those is the treatment of the Uyghurs, the Muslim ethnic group that lives in China’s northwestern Xinjiang province. Uyghurs have been subjected to extreme persecution, the most egregious example of which is the detention of approximately 1 million in centers that have been likened to concentration camps.

“I spent a full day in Auschwitz and this place was a factory. … I said that if you see this sort of thing happening again you are going to say something about it,” he told me, adding that the treatment of the Uyghurs has similar hallmarks, especially the “systematic, industrial” form the persecution is taking.

“My skin is thicker than the Great Wall,” Badiucao added. Badiucao is not his real name and he has no intention of revealing it. “What’s in a name?” William Shakespeare quipped. In the case of Badiucao, it might be the only thing separating him from a swarm of copycats intent on ruining his life.

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