China’s government media arms launched an attack on Swedish climate celebrity Greta Thunberg this week after the nation’s Foreign Ministry scolded her not to opine on Chinese issues, the Asian outlet Coconuts reported on Tuesday — Thunberg recently expressed support for 12 Hongkongers imprisoned after attempting to escape to Taiwan.
While the main focus of Thunberg’s activism since she became a global sensation at age 16 is to pressure world governments — though notably not China — into expansive policies to fight climate change, her public friendship with Hong Kong protest leader Joshua Wong has resulted in direct clashes with the Communist Party. Wong also began his career of opposing communism in Hong Kong as a teen during the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests and has since risen to become one of the most prominent figures in the campaign to distance the nominally autonomous city from Beijing.
Hong Kong residents took the streets of their city by the millions last year to oppose a bill that, if passed, would have allowed China to extradite anyone present in Hong Kong into the authoritarian and arbitrary Chinese legal system. Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo) failed to pass the law, resulting in Beijing’s National People’s Congress (NPC) passing a law in May that effectively did the same thing. The NPC’s “national security” law violates Hong Kong’s Basic Law, its constitution, as it gives the Communist Party the power to prosecute anyone present in Hong Kong for vaguely worded crimes such as “foreign interference” and “subverting state power.”
The 12 Hong Kong refugees are participants in the anti-communist protest movement who attempted to escape by sea to the sovereign state of Taiwan to avoid prosecution under the way, as conviction carries with it a minimum ten-year sentence. Chinese authorities captured the refugees and extradited them to Shenzhen, on the Hong Kong border.
This weekend, Thunberg joined Wong’s campaign urging China to release the refugees.
"12" is more than just a number.
— Greta Thunberg (@GretaThunberg) October 17, 2020
Thunberg has previously supported Wong’s activism, calling it “inspirational” and writing a supportive blurb for the cover of his book, Unfree Speech.
Coconuts noted that Thunberg’s participation in the campaign attracted the objection of the Global Times, a belligerent Chinese state propaganda newspaper. While the Global Times saved its sharpest insults for “secessionist” Wong, it cited unnamed Chinese “netizens” referring to Thunberg as a “clown.”
China’s Communist Party often uses the Global Times to make more outrageous claims than would be diplomatically prudent coming from its Foreign Ministry, like its routine threats to invade Taiwan or destroy the Indian military. To launch attacks that may be too incendiary even for the Global Times, the propaganda newspaper relies on alleged comments from “netizens,” social media users inside the tightly controlled ecosystem of government sites like Sina Weibo and WeChat.
According to the Global Times, Chinese “netizens” have recently demanded boycotts of the South Korean boy band BTS over friendly comments to their U.S. audience; claimed that Americans are cannibalizing Chinese coronavirus victims; and called the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks “beautiful.”
The “netizens” have now reportedly turned their ire towards Thunberg.
“She is calling white black by asking to save the Hong Kong rioters, which also shows that she is nothing but a clown eager to play to the gallery,” the Global Times claimed one “netizen” said on Weibo. Another, it continued, called Thunberg “despicable.”
Another Chinese government propaganda arm, China Daily, also attacked Thunberg. European Union Bureau Chief Chen Weihua called Thunberg’s alleged “manipulators” “pathetic” for supporting the freedom of Hong Kong refugees and condemned Wong personally for “manipulating” a young activist. Wong is 24.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry weighed in officially on Monday, though with milder language.
“China is [sic] country with rule of law and Chinese judicial authorities handle cases in strict accordance with law. Nobody has any right to interfere,” spokesman Zhao Lijian said.
“The individuals were arrested according to law for suspected involvement in or organization of illegal border-crossing. As investigation is underway, Chinese public security authorities protect the criminal suspects’ lawful rights and interests in accordance with law [sic],” he said of the Hong Kong 12.
Chinese media has not always taken to attacking Thunberg. Last year, at the height of her popularity prior to being named Time magazine’s Person of the Year, China Daily called Thunberg a “very impressive speaker.” The newspaper then criticized the world for not similarly applauding Chinese environmentalists.
The Communist Party actively represses climate activists. Praise for Thunberg in Chinese media pages last year occurred a few months before the mysterious death of Xu Dapeng, the founder of China Friends of Nature, the oldest environmentalist group in the country. Xu died of “pneumonia” in Wuhan, China, in January, along with his wife. Doctors did not test him or his wife for coronavirus, so their deaths did not count towards the national tally. Relatives of the Xu couple lamented that the government kept them largely uninformed of the medical struggle they faced.
Another prominent environmentalist, teen Ou Hongyi, has experienced regular Communist Party intervention to prevent her from participating in Thunberg’s “Fridays for Future” campaign, which encourages teens around the world to be absent from school on Fridays as a protest against climate change. Thunberg outraged the Communist Party in the beginning of October by demanding that China stop arresting Ou for her peaceful protest.