NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: weapons of mass distraction.
Disinformation. Propaganda. Conspiracy theories. Fake news. These are tools of citizen control once seen only in totalitarian regimes. But now Americans must contend with them on a daily basis, thanks in large part to the prevalence of social media.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: We saw these weapons deployed during the 2016 election. Intelligence officials warn they’re active this year as well. But disinformation campaigns don’t just target well-known political figures. They can also be used against those fighting for human rights and freedom around the world. Even activists who work within the relative safety of this country aren’t immune, as an outspoken pastor now living in Texas recently discovered.
Joining us now to talk about this disturbing case is Mindy Belz. She is WORLD’s senior editor and chief international reporter. Good morning, Mindy!
MINDY BELZ, REPORTER: Good morning, Mary.
REICHARD: Remind us who Bob Fu is and why he’s so unpopular with the Chinese Communist Party.
BELZ: Bob Fu was one of the students who protested at Tiananmen Square. He survived because he left three days before the violent crackdown that many of us remember. So Fu is, you could say, a foe of communists.
REICHARD: What happened to him after Tiananmen Square?
BELZ: Later he became a Christian and started an underground church. For that, authorities jailed him along with his wife in 1996. They were released. They escaped to Hong Kong and then to the United States. In this country he went to seminary and founded a human rights group called ChinaAid. That group supports house churches and pastors in China, but it’s also one of the top groups documenting and publicizing the CCP’s crackdown on all religious believers—that’s the Communist Party of China. Fu is recognized as an expert on this topic; he’s testified 13 times before Congress.
REICHARD: Tell us about the campaign against him and the man behind it.
BELZ: Starting in late September, a Chinese billionaire living in the US began pumping out YouTube videos and tweets targeting Bob Fu. Fu tells me he’s never met or had dealings with the man, whose name is Guo Wengui. Guo has a checkered past, both in China and the United States, including targeting people who land on his enemies list. Now he says Bob Fu is a Chinese spy and a traitor at the top of a list that he’s calling “evil cheaters.” And he says, “they all deserve to die.” That’s a pretty dangerous statement.
What makes it all more intriguing is that Guo also has high-level connections in this country. Those include Trump’s former adviser Steve Bannon and his presidential attorney Rudy Giuliani. So people pay attention to him, even though he sounds like a crank. Giuliani appeared with Guo online, smoking cigars, as this campaign against Bob Fu rolled out.
REICHARD: What happened after Guo started his disinformation campaign?
BELZ: Well, a few weekends ago four busloads of protesters showed up at Fu’s house in Midland, Texas. And they’ve been coming ever since, staying all day, holding signs with Fu’s photo, calling him a traitor and a spy, and streaming it live online. That includes a media platform owned by Guo.
They also have tried to distribute fliers about Fu to neighbors, and several have been arrested for trespassing for that. But we’re now in week three of the protests. Early on—federal, state, and local law enforcement became involved. They told Fu his life was in fact in danger. They took him, his wife, and two of his three children into protective custody. As Fu told me, “The threats are real.”
REICHARD: So if Guo Wengui is also, supposedly, a foe of the Chinese Communist Party, why is he going after Bob Fu and others who have fled China and now shine light on Beijing’s abuses?
BELZ: That’s the million-dollar question.
This kind of campaign seems bent on intimidating Fu—he’s now in hiding! And he cannot do the work he’s been doing. His offices for ChinaAid are closed, too. It also seems designed to cast doubt on Fu, despite his long public record. There’s the saying, “a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth.” Most of the targeting of Fu is happening online in Chinese—indicating that Guo is keen on discrediting Fu among Chinese speakers, that is Chinese-Americans because I’m told that his output, this campaign is blocked on social media inside China.
REICHARD: What should we make of all this, Mindy?
BELZ: It all seems to suggest that it’s Fu’s record as a democracy activist and religious freedom advocate that’s actually what’s being targeted. There’s no evidence he’s supported Chinese communist causes. I say that based on what I know of his 20-plus years in the U. S. and what others who know him have told me.
But Guo does in fact have Communist Party ties. In China he had a close relationship with a key party official who was ousted by President Xi Jinping. After that happened, Guo left China. That could all suggest that Guo continues to curry favors and do business with the CCP or with factions inside of it.
We should emphasize: I’ve talked to China experts on this, I’ve talked to people who have actually been briefed by the FBI on the case, and none of them fully understand what’s going on here, and I think that’s the essence of a disinformation campaign. It is meant to confuse.
REICHARD: Mindy Belz is WORLD’s senior editor and international reporter. You can read more of her reporting on the attacks against Bob Fu at WNG.org. Thanks so much for joining us today.
BELZ: It’s my pleasure, Mary!