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Sat May 21, 2022, 08:18 PM

The Volunteer Movement Enraging China

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.


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