The Volunteer Movement Enraging China

An informal, online network is translating publicly available articles and social-media posts. That has been enough to rile Beijing.

An eyeball looks through a hole in a wall painted to represent a Chinese flag.
Adam Maida / The Atlantic

In early March, Han Yang, a 50-year-old Sydney resident, was invited by a friend to join a WeChat group with other members of Australia’s Chinese diaspora that focused on Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine. Yang found that the others began posting a stream of offensive material—stories filled with vitriol toward Ukrainians, Russian-state disinformation, and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories—accompanied by user comments cheering on Moscow’s violence.

When one user asked where in Sydney they could find a store selling Russian food, which they planned to purchase to show support for Moscow, Yang had enough. “That triggered me,” he told me. “It is so outlandish.” He remembers thinking: “You live in Sydney and you want to pay the Russians some money and buy their food just to show your support for their invasion of another country?

He turned to Twitter to vent and pass along what he was seeing to a different audience, screenshotting and translating the stories and comments from the group chat into English, careful to block out the names and photos of the posters. The thread, which eventually stretched to dozens of posts, read like a snarky play-by-play from a cutting sports announcer, only occasionally interrupted by updates on Yang’s daily routine, such as when he had to walk his dog or wash the dishes. It caught the attention of China watchers, creating enough of a stir to be noticed by state-backed media and Chinese media personalities, both of which quickly singled out Yang for a raft of criticism.

Yang is part of a larger informal, online network called the Great Translation Movement that has sprung up since Russia’s invasion, translating Chinese-language news items, popular social-media comments, speeches, and statements from academics and pundits into English, and posting them to Western platforms, primarily Twitter. Most translations are focused on the war, though the Chinese government’s coronavirus lockdown of Shanghai, which has dragged on for weeks, has recently become another topic of interest. An anonymous Twitter account has taken on the moniker The Great Translation Movement and picked up more than 150,000 followers since it launched in March, making it the center of this diffuse and ad hoc effort that has used the platform as a battleground to push back on Chinese-state-dominated narratives that have proliferated on the site despite it being blocked within China.

Though all these volunteers have done is simply translate posts that have already cleared China’s internet-censorship regime, they have nevertheless managed to enrage Beijing. China’s Great Firewall strives to keep those behind it from seeing an online world free from censorship, barring major Western news outlets (including The Atlantic) and social media, while heavily curtailing what can and cannot be said online by domestic users. It does not, however, throw up similar barriers for those interested in peeking in. In fact, one of the only significant hurdles to accessing the Chinese internet is language skills. Those involved in the Great Translation Movement, such as Yang, hope to show an audience unfamiliar with the Chinese language some of the narratives that are officially sanctioned or gaining popular support.

Many of these narratives are very much at odds with the diplomatically projected neutrality regarding the war that comes from Beijing’s more staid official statements and speeches. After seemingly struggling to explain its position early on, China now largely focuses its narrative—pushed by state-backed outlets, pundits, and officials—on blaming the war on the United States as well as apparent efforts by NATO to encircle Russia. Additionally, translations posted by volunteers show that a belief has emerged that as Ukrainians suffer, American companies and business tycoons profit handsomely off the war at a safe distance. The longer and more drawn-out the conflict, the logic goes, the better for them.

The translation efforts have clearly perturbed Beijing. Numerous articles in state media have targeted the Great Translation Movement Twitter account, Yang, and others for attacking China by allegedly choosing the most extreme sentiments for translation. Maria Repnikova, an associate global-communications professor at Georgia State University who studies censorship and propaganda in China and Russia, told me it was notable how much attention the effort had attracted, among both casual internet users and Chinese officials. “It’s as if this group has triggered the most sensitive spots for different participants in the conversation about China and especially about China in relation to the Ukraine war,” Repnikova said. “For some Western observers, these translated statements reinforce their preexisting opinions about China’s stance. For Chinese nationalistic media, it reasserts the idea that the ‘West’ is out to get China.”

Yang’s original thread, despite his relatively low follower count on Twitter, were quickly noticed, for example. The Global Times, a jingoistic state-backed newspaper, called him out by name in a late-March report about the Great Translation Movement. The article called his posts a “smear campaign” that cherry-picked examples, and it linked the movement to racist incidents against Asians living in the United States. (Despite one expert dismissing the movement as “just a farce,” the GT article was more than 1,500 words long.) A few days later, the newspaper again slammed the efforts. Less than a month later, it ran another lengthy—albeit more nuanced—commentary entitled “How China Can Counter Translation Bias,” written by Tang Jingtai, a journalism professor at Fudan University, in Shanghai. (Tang declined to comment.)

Tang’s article was in turn quoted in yet another GT story, a broader one accusing The Wall Street Journal, the BBC, and Google Translate of intentionally mistranslating Chinese into English. “Behind these superficial mistranslation incidents, however, lurk the long-term hostility and prejudice of the West toward China, remarked Chinese scholars,” the newspaper said. People’s Daily and other Chinese state media have also weighed in. Late last month, Cong Peiying, an assistant professor at China Youth University of Political Studies, in Beijing, compared the movement to a virus that was mutating and needed to be halted. The expansion from blaming individual actors to pointing the finger at Western media writ large made sense, Repnikova said, because it “taps into the larger narrative in state media about Western discourse hegemony and deliberate effort to curtail China’s discourse power. It also fits into the larger narrative about the West ‘misunderstanding’ China.”

Beijing’s unhappiness over perceived bias in translation—whether or not it is merited—is not at all new, James St. André, an assistant translation professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told me. “The issue with China feeling it is misrepresented in English is something that goes back to the Opium Wars and issues in the 19th century with the early contact with Western nations,” he said. Over the decades, the Chinese government has “deliberately nursed a grievance in this area.” The idea of a truly neutral translation is, St. André said, a “polite myth.” Translators are always drawn into their work and that, in turn, colors the outcome. In short, he told me, “there is no Switzerland” in the world of translation, and those who are now upset “are complaining about something that they themselves are doing as well.”

Indeed, the volunteers who compose the broader movement are open about the fact that they are not analyzing a random selection of commentary in Chinese. Instead, the individuals running the Great Translation Movement Twitter account told me they were trying to rectify a major misunderstanding about China that they believe is pervasive in the West. Two competing visions of China are pushed by Beijing, they say, and one of them might not be visible to people who do not read Chinese. “The image that the Chinese government tries to cultivate overseas is that of a big, cuddly panda bear who spreads traditional Chinese culture in a friendly way and takes the initiative to befriend the whole world,” they told me. (The account is run by a group of volunteers who wished to remain anonymous to protect themselves from possible retaliation.) “Conversely, the discourse promoted within China is increasingly nationalistic,” they said, citing pro-Russian sentiments, saber-rattling about the reunification of Taiwan, and co-opting of the anti-Asian-hate movement—what they called “the real face of China.”

The account began as a Reddit page and migrated to Twitter after the subreddit was closed over issues with doxxing. The Twitter account’s administrator told me that they and others in the Great Translation Movement had read and been influenced by Bending Spines: The Propagandas of Nazi Germany and the German Democratic Republic, a 2004 book by the Calvin University professor Randall Bytwerk whose contents were “terrifyingly familiar.” Still, although the Twitter account and others like it are open about the apparent bias they are attempting to correct, the administrator dismissed complaints that the account selects comments from the fringes of the Chinese internet. The group chooses content to translate that is from state media, and thus approved by the government, and other articles that garner huge support, enough to argue, the administrator said, that they represent “popular views that many in Chinese society strongly believe in.”

There is little doubt about the official veracity of the speeches and papers translated by Tuvia Gering, a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, a think tank. Gering has focused his translation efforts on a range of Chinese academics, pundits, and policy makers, posting threads to Twitter showing the official embrace of conspiracy theories and the movement of disinformation from Russian state media to China. During our conversation, Gering mentioned a new Russian falsehood he had noticed about bioweapons labs being run by Americans in Mongolia. He told me he was almost certain that the theory would at some point be picked up in China. A few hours after we spoke, my phone buzzed with a message from Gering. “Called it!” he wrote, with a link to his latest Twitter thread showing the lie being parroted by Chinese officials.

Gering told me he started posting translations from the Chinese internet to Twitter more than a year ago. As the war in Ukraine has unfolded, there has been increased interest in his work. In every country, he acknowledged, “you are going to have bigots and racists and people saying terrible things.” There were two main differences with China. “The information space in China is highly regulated—that’s one,” he said. “Second, the people I document saying these horrible, terrible things are tenured professors; they are party members; some of them are policy makers; some of them are top strategists.”

The WeChat group that Yang had originally begun posting about dissolved in April. By then, Yang was translating new material, sometimes sending dozens of tweets a day. He told me he spent three years working at the Chinese consulate in Sydney in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and that some of his former colleagues had blocked him on Twitter. He has taken the criticism in stride. “I wear it as a badge of honor,” he told me. Claims from Chinese media that he might be trying to overthrow the Chinese government or foment a revolution made Yang laugh. “This is extremely flattering,” he said. “I’m just a nobody in Sydney, Australia, typing on my phone.”