The incredible story of a failed black propaganda operation, which started as a spy story and ended up in comedy.
by Massimo Introvigne
The persecution of religious minorities in China is a deadly serious affair, but the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) propaganda abroad sometimes looks more like a comedy. We at Bitter Winter were ourselves involved in a bizarre series of events, which can be read as a spy story but also as a piece of old-time vaudeville.
First, we should introduce the main characters. If you are reading this article, you probably know what Bitter Winter is all about. The respected American Protestant magazine World once called us “a thorn in the side” of the CCP. To remove the thorn, the CCP has arrested 45 of our reporters in China. It has also mobilized its fellow travelers in the West to attack us whenever possible.
If you read Bitter Winter, you also know the CCP, but most probably you don’t know a minor Belgian fellow traveler of that Party, a Belgian called Roland Delcourt, who is married to a Chinese and has been living in Shenzhen for “at least 20 years.” He gives interviews and writes propaganda letters in favor of the CCP that are published in the Chinese regime’s official organs, including the People’s Daily and the news agency Xinhua. He is also a “cyberwarrior” and posts on social media to defend the CCP, with a language that parrots, but goes beyond, the “wolf warrior” Chinese diplomats. For instance, he likes to play on the phonetic similarity between “Biden” and the French word “bidon” (phony), and calls the U.S. President, when he criticizes China, “a false democrat,” “the Yankee Gauleiter” (suggesting a comparison with Nazi war criminals), and “the cholera (as Trump was the plague).”
We should also introduce two other organizations. The first is The Church of Almighty God (CAG), a Christian new religious movement and the single most persecuted religious group in China. Because of the merciless persecution vested on them in China, more than 5,000 CAG members have fled the country and are seeking asylum in democratic countries.
The second is a Belgian federal center called CIAOSN (Centre for information and advice on harmful cultic organizations), created in 1998 to advise other branches of the Belgian government on “dangerous cults,” and influenced by the similar (but not identical) French governmental organization MIVILUDES. Bitter Winter is critical of certain positions expressed by CIAOSN (particularly about the Jehovah’s Witnesses) but our parent organization, CESNUR, maintains a respectful if critical attitude to the Belgian center, members of which have attended CESNUR conferences.
All these organizations and individuals came together in a strange way in the last few months. On April 1, 2021, Bitter Winter received, through an E-mail without signature and from an address unknown to us, a 15-page document entitled “Almighty God , the Devil, Stretches Their Claws into Europe. Europe Is in Danger Now.” At first, the coincidence of the date suggested a connection with April Fools’ Day. It was a compilation of standard Chinese accusations against The Church of Almighty God, including fake news we had already seen in Chinese media, such as false statistics about how many CAG refugees were granted asylum, and the false information that Pope Francis had publicly denounced the CAG. However, the repeated reference to a “devil Almighty God” inspiring the CAG looked like a caricature version of the Evangelical literature against the “cults,” and prevented us from taking the document seriously.
When several scholars, most of them in Belgium and the Netherlands, started writing to us that they had also received the document, we took a second look. We concluded that it was written to give the impression that it had been produced by conservative Christians concerned with the “heresies” of the CAG, but it was in fact just another product of the CCP propaganda. Apart from the references to the devil, most of the content reproduced almost literally CCP propaganda literature against the CAG. It was also written in bad English, with mistakes typical of a Chinese trying to write in that language.
Why the CCP should produce such a bizarre document was, at that time, unclear. It seemed that the main aim was to campaign against CAG asylum-seekers in Europe, and that the CCP was concerned that a number of CAG asylum applications had been granted in European countries, recognizing that CAG members are severely persecuted in China.
One month after we first received the report, on May 1, an article appeared in the Brussels based European multimedia news platform EU Reporter by Roland Delcourt, who told the story that he had recently visited CIAOSN and was told that the Belgian federal center “was very interested in an 18-pages [sic] report they recently received on the Eastern Lightning (The Church of Almighty God),” and would consider it if asked to render advise on asylum applications by CAG members in Belgium. Several Belgian and international scholars contacted CIAOSN, and were told that a gentleman called Roland Delcourt had indeed visited the center, but he had done most of the talking about the anti-CAG report (which was indeed the same we had received). While the article, which had been published on the same day also in a Swedish newspaper, was spreading through other pro-Chinese Web sites, on May 7 CIAOSN issued a press release clarifying that, “Contrary to what is mentioned in the article [by Delcourt], the CIAOSN has never spoken out on this religious group in question [the CAG]. These incorrect statements do not in any way reflect the informal exchanges between the Center and the author of the article.”
This was just the beginning of the story. Radio Gold is a local Italian radio that operates in the Piedmontese province of Alessandria, and specializes in local news. On May 30, 2021, it published a “commercial advertisement” with a large title “CIAOSN, the Center of Research for Information and Advise on Harmful Cultic Organization,” and a subtitle, “What do we know about Bitter Winter?” This time, the article attacked Bitter Winter. It included an unusual amount of false information even for Chinese propaganda, including mentioning as if they had exposed Bitter Winter articles from the Italian weekly L’Espresso and the German Catholic periodical Katolisches that had, in fact, highly praised our magazine. It also stated that “many intellectuals, Christians, including these connected with the Vatican, Protestant churches, as well as many other religious organizations have abandoned this structure [Bitter Winter].” We don’t know what they are talking about.
Apart from the content, we were astonished by the fact that the article published on Radio Gold’s Web site was signed by the staff member who had received Delcourt when he had visited CIAOSN. We immediately smelled a rat. Not only it is not in the style of CIAOSN to attack an independent magazine, but why on earth a Belgian federal center should publish an article as a paid advertisement in the Web site of an Italian local radio mostly known for its (excellent) coverage of the football club Alessandria and its recent promotion from Italy’s third to second division?
Again, a member of CESNUR’s advisory board called CIAOSN and received the expected confirmation that CIAOSN had nothing to do with the article published by Radio Gold. This was too much, and on June 1 our lawyer wrote to Radio Gold asking for the removal of the defamatory article. Radio Gold’s attorneys answered that the article had indeed been removed, and emphasized that it was a paid advertisement placed by a reputable advertising agency. Our lawyers contacted the agency and were told that the article had been given to them to be placed in an Italian media outlet by (surprise, surprise) a Chinese gentleman.
The bizarre incidents had not ended. On June 6, an obscure British publication called Epistle News published an anonymous opinion very much similar to Delcourt’s early articles against the CAG refugees. It again mentioned CIAOSN, and claimed that “the government of Belgium recognized the Eastern Lightning as an illegitimate cult and, as a consequence, all the requests from their believers will be automatically rejected.” CIAOSN’s press release denying that they told anything similar to Delcourt was ignored, and Delcourt’s article as published on May 1 in Sweden was linked.
The strangest part (so far) of the story came on June 26. In China, banned religious movements are called xie jiao, an expression dating back to the Middle Ages and designating “heterodox teachings” prohibited by the government (less correctly, the expression is often translated as “evil cults”). There is an official China Anti-xie-jiao association, controlled by the CCP. One June 26, they published what they presented as an account and translation of the Epistle News article, under the title “British Media: Beware of the Dangers of the Xie Jiao ‘Almighty God.’” Only the most gullible Chinese readers may believe that the Epistle News represents the opinion of the “British media.”
The most interesting feature of the article in Chinese is that it falsely reports that the article in the Epistle News, in addition to the CAG, also attacked Bitter Winter and the undersigned. In fact, the Chinese article happily reported that the text in the Epistle News “pointed out that the xie jiao’s mouthpiece media Bitter Winter lacks credibility and is a pro-American media.”
The problem is, the article published by the Epistle News did not say anything similar, and did not mention Bitter Winter at all. So, the CCP was publishing fake news about fake news, in addition to the usual false myths about the CAG.
The Chinese article even revamped the old fake news that the CAG was responsible for the murder of a woman in a McDonald’s diner in Zhaoyuan, Shandong, in 2014. The article credits Bitter Winter with having persuaded many that the assassins were in fact members of a different religious movement. We would be honored if such were the case, but well before Bitter Winter the fact that those responsible for the murder were not CAG members (they worshiped different persons [their two female leaders] as “Almighty God,” had a different theology, and had no relations with the CAG organization) had been established by articles published in 2014 by the CCP-owned The Beijing News, which also published part of the transcripts of the trial of the assassins, who stated in unequivocal words that they were not members of the CAG and in fact regarded the CAG as a “false” religion. Among Western scholars, the first who documented that the McDonald’s murderers were not CAG members was the Australian sinologist Emily Dunn in her 2015 book Lightning from the East (Dunn is not associated with CESNUR or Bitter Winter). I also published about the McDonald’s murder in peer-reviewed journals and books (my book on the CAG was published by Oxford University Press), not only in Bitter Winter.
The Chinese article stated that “there is on-site surveillance of this murder, which is unequivocal.” Nobody denies that the murder happened, but the on-site surveillance recording obviously has nothing to do with which religious movement the perpetrators were members of. A video the article failed to mention is an interview with one of the two leaders of the group responsible for the murder, Zhang Fan (who was later executed in 2015), which was broadcasted by the Chinese Phoenix Television in 2014 (and clearly recorded with the authorization of the police), where she stated that as a young woman she was curious about the CAG, but “I never managed to contact The Church of Almighty God because they were secretive people, and I was not able to find them.”
Since it is easy to compare the article in the Epistle News and the “translation” by the China Anti-xie-jiao Association, why did they publish a bogus text that is so easy to unmask? Our educated guess is that the article was originally written in Chinese, and sent to co-conspirators in Europe for publication in the Epistle News. After the text was written in China, but before it was sent to the Epistle News, the European conspirators were hit by the letter sent to Radio Gold in Italy by Bitter Winter’s lawyers. They realized that, unlike struggling refugees with different immediate concerns, Bitter Winter does react to slander. They got scared enough to eliminate the part about Bitter Winter from the piece submitted to the Epistle News.
All this has a smell of secret services, but also of amateurism and gaucherie. In 2017, I and other Western scholars were invited to China, as experts of new religious movements, for a dialogue with Chinese anti-cultists and leading police officers in charge of the repression of the xie jiao. Chinese media published propaganda accounts of the meetings (including several pictures of the undersigned), where in fact we disagreed on almost everything. However, one thing our Chinese counterparts were not was stupid. They looked like intelligent people. Perhaps they have now been replaced by less competent officers—with a taste for vaudeville.