Chinese social media groups reveal nationalist influencers

User location information made public by leading Chinese social media companies has revealed that posts of some of the country’s most prominent hardline online nationalists come from abroad.

The location data from the accounts of a handful of patriotic “influencers” have prompted anger from compatriots enduring lockdowns and other restrictions under Beijing’s tough zero-Covid policy.

Many social media users expressed outrage when the data showed nationalist blogger Zhong Xiaoyong, who has said that Chinese people who are not sufficiently patriotic should emigrate, was in Japan.

China’s cyber space regulator in October proposed requiring social media platforms to make users’ locations public. Microblogging site Weibo began showing locations based on users’ internet protocol addresses in March for anyone posting content related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and expanded the rule to all users at the end of April.

Other social media sites have adopted a similar approach, with WeChat, the Tencent-owned messaging service, showing locations when users post on its in-app public accounts.

After WeChat location data showed Zhong was posting from Japan, the former journalist wrote on Thursday that he and his family were in the country for medical reasons. But WeChat users posted screenshots that appeared to indicate Zhong, who is also known by his pen name Lian Yue, suggesting to another user that he was in Japan as a tourist.

News of his location sparked widespread criticism, with one person commenting online: “[He] loves [his] country for work, and leaves the country for the lifestyle.”

Zhong, who previously claimed he “will never emigrate or leave China”, defended his travels and said he would eventually return. “The first half of my life was rather quiet so I felt like moving around after I entered the second half of my life,” he wrote.

Internet users also took aim at Wu Jing, actor and director of patriotic blockbuster Wolf Warrior, after location data appeared to show him logging in from Thailand.

Wu is known for stressing his nationalist credentials in interviews, and in 2017 said Chinese people who did not think their country’s growing power was a good thing should leave. He has also shared photos online of his family’s Chinese passports after they were accused of having foreign residency.

Zhong and Wu did not respond to requests for comment.

Analysts pointed out that IP address data did not prove where a user was, since location can be masked by use of virtual private network software. But Beijing is hostile to the use of VPNs, which are often used to bypass the “Great Firewall” used to separate China’s highly censored internet from the rest of the world.

Location data on Weibo initially showed Di Ba, an online group that has organised online campaigns against Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen and Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters, was based in Taiwan. But shortly after the location was published, the account switched its IP address to Hong Kong, then to Japan and later to China’s Zhejiang province.

Weibo said it was publishing location information in order to crack down on users impersonating others or “spreading rumours” and to ensure the authenticity of content.

Analysts said it could also deter users from posting controversial content.

Zhicong Lu of City University of Hong Kong’s department of computer science said location information could help establish the credibility of information being posted and help combat misinformation, but added: “It’s kind of a double-edged sword, [and also a] kind of surveillance tool.”