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Pro-Chinese online influence campaign promoted protests in Washington, researchers say

<i>NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/AFP via Getty Images</i><br/>China-based hackers breached the email account of US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns as part of a recent targeted intelligence-gathering campaign
China-based hackers breached the email account of US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns as part of a recent targeted intelligence-gathering campaign

By Sean Lyngaas, CNN

(CNN) — A Chinese marketing firm likely organized and promoted protests in Washington last year as part of a wide-ranging pro-Beijing influence campaign, according to new research.

The Chinese firm also used a network of over 70 fake news websites to promote pro-China content in an example of the more aggressive efforts by pro-China operatives to influence US political debate in recent years, according to security firm Mandiant, which analyzed the activity.

One of the protests was against a US government ban on goods produced in China’s Xinjiang region, where US officials have accused the Chinese government of systematic repression of the Uyghurs. The other protest was on the sidelines of a June conference on international religious freedom, Mandiant said.

One of the protests only attracted roughly a dozen people but it showed the scope and ambition of the pro-China efforts.

The hired protesters, who included self-proclaimed musicians and actors in the Washington, DC, area, apparently had no idea they were being enlisted in a pro-China influence campaign, the Mandiant researchers said.

The campaign backed by the Chinese firm, Shanghai Haixun Technology Co., Ltd., is “intended to sow discord in US society,” Ryan Serabian, a senior analyst at Mandiant, told CNN.

In both cases, protesters carry placards and chant slogans about racial discrimination and abortion in the US. Haixun, the Chinese firm, distributed videos of the protesters online to further the influence campaign, according to Mandiant.

Shanghai Haixun Technology did not respond to a request for comment.

Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said he was unaware of the details of the research. “China has always adhered to non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs,” Liu said in an email to CNN.

The Washington Post first reported on the Mandiant research.

In the runup to the 2016 US presidential elections, Russian operatives used social media to organize protests on American soil as part of Moscow’s election interference, according to US intelligence officials. Such divisive tactics are no longer confined to the Russians, according to election security experts.

During the 2022 US midterm elections, pro-China propagandists showed signs of engaging in “Russia-style influence activities” that stoke American divisions, FBI officials told reporters last year. The FBI pointed to Facebook’s shutdown of accounts originating in China that posted memes mocking President Joe Biden and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.

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