Since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, China has been actively promoting an alternative reality that pushes pro-Russia and pro-Putin messages. On heavily censored social media platforms in China, a significant group of internet users started to share their support for Russian President Vladimir Putin, with messages advocating for Russia to use nuclear weapons. Documented by the New York Times, online opinion in China is mostly pro-Russia, pro-war, and pro-Putin.
Those radical ideas and opinions certainly do not represent the views of all Chinese residents, but individuals and messages speaking against the war and supporting peace are severely censored by China’s cyberspace authorities. On the other end, despite the murky official position from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Chinese censors appear to side with views that support nationalism and Russia, and have demonstrated a very high tolerance for messages that belittle Ukraine (including calls for young Ukrainian women to be brought to China to marry Chinese bachelors).
A group of Chinese dissidents has had enough. They decided to take action to name and shame those who praise Putin, the unjustified invasion, authoritarianism, and the spread of far-right nationalist ideas on social media. Calling their social media campaign “The Great Translation Movement,” this group of anonymous dissidents created a Twitter account to collect social media messages that support radical ideas and Russian war activities, and translate them to English, Spanish, Japanese, Korean, and other languages. The campaign also has the hashtag #TheGreatTranslationMovement available in different languages for Twitter users to join the movement, share content, and attract more attention from the general public. On its official Twitter account, the Great Translation Movement has a thread that informs potential participants about the ways to support the campaign.
Just a month after its creation, The Great Translation Movement Twitter account now has more than 99,000 followers. The identities of the campaign organizers remain unknown. The Great Translation Movement is believed to have started among users in a subreddit channel named ChonglangTV. Calling itself a lighthouse that forever stands, the subreddit had been an active space for Chinese dissidents to speak against the authoritarian regime but was later banned by Reddit in early March for violating policies concerning personal privacy.
The translation movement does not have an identifiable leadership team, and when interviewed by Deutsche Welle, participants in the campaign said that due to security concerns, they do not know each other’s names or whereabouts. Speaking of the purpose of the campaign, they say that they would like to raise awareness among people around the world that China is not as nice as its propaganda says and that people living in China are poisoned by arrogance, cruelty, nationalism, and a lack of sympathy. When doing translations for campaign, some participants acknowledged that they were shocked by the disturbing content and had to temporarily stop reading Chinese social media for their mental health.
Translating materials from Chinese media and social media is not a completely new task. Journalists, researchers, and professionals working on China-related work regularly do this work to help non-Chinese language users to understand critical information regarding China. However, the Great Translation Movement created a new channel for internet users around the world to see the rarely discussed dark side of the Chinese internet.
Utilizing the Great Firewall, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda has been implementing different strategies for its international and domestic audiences. While trying to appeal to international audiences by criticizing issues such as racism and colonialism in Western democracies, China has increased its efforts to cultivate far-right nationalism ideologies as a domestic propaganda tool to justify its policies in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and the lack of human rights improvements. The Great Translation Movement offers people who do not understand the Chinese language an opportunity to examine many outrageous propaganda materials and the outcomes of those propaganda efforts.
With this “name and shame” tactic, the movement also became a tool to fight against extreme nationalism in China and the government’s propaganda efforts to promote those messages. Shortly after the vulgar language around “sheltering” young Ukrainian women created a backlash, China began censoring sexist messages that mocked the sufferings of Ukrainian civilians. The Great Translation Movement declared a partial victory against CCP propaganda on Twitter, citing signs that various levels of the Chinese government halted and censored their propaganda efforts due to the pressure from the campaign.
Chinese state media outlet Global Times called the movement “a cognitive war” against China. The overseas edition of the People’s Daily, the CCP’s official mouthpiece, called the translation activities a smear campaign that is doomed to fail. Some critics also blamed the Great Translation Movement for causing the rise of anti-Asian racism in countries such as the United States and Canada. But those claims all appear to be self-contradictory: While anti-Asian hate crimes increased by 300 percent and 339 percent in Canada and the United States, respectively, those issues appeared in 2020, two years before the start of the Great Translation Movement.
The reactions from the Chinese government indicate the effectiveness of this social media campaign. By revealing the notorious side of China’s state propaganda, the movement’s became a deterrent to Beijing’s domestic propaganda efforts.
Compared to Beijing’s propaganda mechanisms, the Great Translation Movement has limited resources and impact on international politics. But this decentralized social media campaign has created significant challenges to the state-sponsored propaganda efforts supported by billions of dollars of funds. While a social media campaign is unlikely to outperform the CCP propaganda apparatus, the effectiveness of this social media campaign highlights a critical weakness in China’s propaganda tactics. Once relying on isolation and disinformation, and information gaps, CCP propaganda now faces further challenges as their messages and efforts now become embarrassments on international social media platforms.