People posing as Reuters reporters try to infiltrate China’s ‘white paper movement’

3 Min
People posing as Reuters reporters try to infiltrate China’s ‘white paper movement’

Two Reuters journalists had their identities impersonated by someone who used fake social media accounts to try to obtain information from activists about overseas Hong Kongers, the news service reported.

The false portrayals of the two journalists, Hong Kong-based correspondent Jessie Pang and Shanghai bureau chief Brenda Goh, began in late November and took place on the Telegram message app and on Instagram, according to Reuters.

The unknown impersonator or impersonators sought information about people linked to the “white paper” protests of late last year, in which people protested against China’s strict COVID-19 controls by holding up white sheets of paper to reflect their voicelessness, according to screenshots and several accounts provided to Reuters.

An Australia-based Chinese dissident cartoonist known as Badiucao revealed the impersonations on Saturday on Twitter, Reuters reported.

According to screenshots taken by Badiucao and seen by Reuters, a fake account was set up on Telegram and one on Instagram claiming to be Pang. 

Badiucao said he was approached in a Telegram chatroom by someone who said they were Pang. The imposter sought to gain the trust of members of the chat by giving details of Pang’s background and recent work, Badiucao told Reuters.

‘Very odd’ questions

“The questioning started out superficial, then went deeper,” Badiucao told Radio Free Asia. “She asked me, ‘Do you know who the organizers of Wenxuan China are? Are they in Hong Kong or somewhere else?’

“Wenxuan China” refers to the name of the Telegram group chat where the exchange took place. 

“I told her straight that the organization is decentralized, and we don’t ask each other where we are located,” Badiucao said to RFA. “She said, ‘I’m a reporter from a Western mainstream media outlet, so you don’t have to get so bureaucratic with me.’ I’ve given a lot of interviews, and so her questions seemed very odd to me.”

According to Reuters, Badiucao asked to confirm the person’s identity through Pang’s verified Twitter account. A screenshot of the conversation provided to Reuters by Badiucao showed that the imposter responded, saying that they had no control over the Twitter account, as it was “run by a team at Reuters.” 

The imposter then sent Badiucao a photo of Pang’s press ID, which had expired. Another activist told Reuters he had communicated on Telegram with a fake persona of Goh for three months.

Pang and Goh refused to comment when contacted by an RFA reporter. Reuters also would not comment, referring RFA to their news article.

After the fakes were uncovered, all their known accounts and conversations were deleted, according to Reuters. None of Goh’s or Pang’s official social media accounts seem to have been hacked.

Organizations that ‘pose a threat’

The “white paper” movement sparked a wave of arrests and a broad security clampdown. It was the first time mainland China experienced widespread civil disobedience since President Xi Jinping assumed power a decade ago.

“From the perspective of the Chinese government, this has been quite successful, but it is dangerous for us,” Badiucao said to RFA, referring to the impersonation of the two reporters.  

“The Chinese government knows the power of [non-government] organizations very well. Sexual minority groups, religious organizations, people organizing a decentralized protest on Telegram, organizations like that definitely pose a threat to them,” he said. 

“It’s my belief that they want to track down, control and arrest their members like in [the Hong Kong 2002 movie] Infernal Affairs,” he said, referring to the 2002 Hong Kong movie that includes a main character who works as a police officer but is secretly a spy for organized crime.

—RFA  report, Feb 28, 2023