In his short political career, Donald Trump has made a habit of dismissing unfavorable media reports as “fake news.” Now it seems Beijing is taking a page from his playbook, using the term to attempt to discredit foreign media reports on Thursday that claimed a prominent human rights lawyer was tortured in government custody.
Experts told VICE News that Chinese state media’s adoption of the term appears to directly borrow from the U.S. president.
Referring to the state-run Xinhua news agency report, Zhang Baohui, a political scientist at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University, said that “Xinhua’s usage of this term should be attributed to Trump.”
The term “is obviously spreading among countries,” said Zhang.
Xinhua, the mouthpiece for the ruling Communist Party, published an article Thursday describing international media reports on the alleged torture of Chinese attorney Xie Yang as “nothing but cleverly orchestrated lies.” “The stories were essentially fake news,” read the article.
Fake news – false online reports presented as legitimate news stories – emerged as an issue during last year’s U.S. presidential election, and the rise of deliberately misleading stories is increasingly proving to be a problem in several other countries. But the term has been gradually debased as it is used more and more by political actors seeking to discredit critical coverage or deflect uncomfortable realities.
Trump has been the most high-profile adopter of the term, regularly wielding it as an insult to bash any journalism that paints his administration in an unflattering light.
The most recent claim of “fake news” from the Chinese centers around the story of Xie, a 45-year-old attorney who has represented clients in many politically sensitive cases. He was detained in the Chinese province of Hunan in July 2015 at the start of an ongoing crackdown on human rights lawyers and activists, and has yet to be released.
Late last year reports emerged, sourced to transcripts of interviews with Xie’s lawyers, alleging that he had been subjected to threats and violence in custody – with the aim of forcing him to confess to political crimes.
Xie’s claims were reported by outlets such as the The New York Times – regularly accused by Trump of peddling “fake news” – and The Guardian, which said that while the allegations could not be verified, they were consistent with previously documented abuses in custody.
The Xinhua article Thursday reported that an “independent team” set up by officials to investigate the torture reports had interviewed Xie and his fellow inmates and established that the alleged abuses did not happen.
It claimed the torture allegations had been cooked up by Jiang Tianyong, another prominent human rights lawyer who has been detained since visiting Xie’s relatives in November, and who it said had encouraged Xie’s wife to publicize the claims.
The torture claims were designed “to cater to the tastes of Western institutions and media organizations, and to use public opinion to pressure police and smear the Chinese government,” Xinhua said.
Human rights groups say that confessions to political crimes made by detained activists in China are typically made under duress.
Experts contacted by VICE News said that while Chinese state media had long accused Western news outlets of bias against China, the use of the term “fake news” was a recent development.
“I would argue that their use of this term seems to be influenced by Trump’s use of the term to discredit major Western media outlets,” said Patrick Poon, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Amnesty International.
According to the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, Xie has been indicted on charges of “inciting subversion of state power,” and “disrupting court order.” Xie’s lawyer, Chen Jiangang, told Reuters Thursday that his client’s account of torture was genuine, saying that Xie had made the same claims to him.