Death threats for teasing drug cheat
Australia basketball superstar Andrew Bogut has revealed how he was subjected to vile abuse and death threats by fanatical Chinese fans following a "harmless joke" on Twitter about a Chinese drug cheat.
His ordeal comes as security experts warn the growing power of "patriotic netizens" attacking anyone they believe has "insulted" China is being harnessed by Chinese Communist Party Government.
Bogut says not only did he suffer from an "endless barrage" of attacks, sponsorship deals went "curiously quiet" and he even had a bolt thrown at him while playing in China.
Bogut, a champion Sydney Kings basketballer who has played in the elite NBA league in the US, had poked fun at drug sanctioned swimmer Sun Yang by saying "swimmers who medal vs Sun Yang should break the podiums with hammers."
It was a reference to the fact the Chinese athlete had used a hammer to destroy his own blood vials.
"A somewhat harmless joke on Twitter turned me into public enemy No.1 in China," he says.
"Mid this year I made a joke on social media about previously sanctioned drug cheat Sun Yang. This 'harmless' joke had thrown an endless barrage of death threats, sexual violence threats and vile abuse you wouldn't spew to your worst enemy.
"Oh, not just to me, but also my wife and kids. "NMSL" was the standout of my mentions for months on social media. I believe the acronym translates to something along the lines of "Your Mother will die"."
"The only serious moment was during one of the games when someone from the crowd had thrown a bolt at me.
"It grazed my shoe while I was sitting on the bench. I survived, had a chuckle and got on with it. Remember, all because of a tweeted joke."
According to top China watching analysts at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, the Chinese Government has been likely running "covert information operations" on Western social media platforms for the past two years.
Researchers examined a network of 940 accounts that Twitter suspended after identifying them as being involved in an operation against the Hong Kong protesters and found they "acted like a marketing spam network".
Unlike the more sophisticated manipulation of twitter by Russia in the US political domain, the Chinese tweets were a "blunt force operation".
"This People's Republic of China-linked operation is clumsily re-purposed and reactive," it found.
Silent Invasion author and academic Professor Clive Hamilton says Australian swimmer Mack Horton was also "monstered on social media for calling his Chinese rival a drug cheat".
"Patriotic netizens launch attacks on those who have insulted China or 'hurt the feelings of the Chinese people'," he said.
"These frenzies can be stoked by state media. The authorities always keep a very close eye on what is happening and can close down netizens in an instant as they did with the NBA situation when they decided it was becoming counter-productive."
Just last month, a tweet by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey supporting Hong Kong protesters was met with fury by Beijing and Chinese media outlets and caused an international storm.
Bagut also tweeted out his support of Morey at the time.
"When I first saw the tweet, I immediately let Daryl know to be ready for the "NMSL" flooding all his social media pages will receive every minute of the day, for a good month," he says.
"My late grandfather Mile Bogut escaped Communist Yugoslavia many moons ago to give his family, and in turn me, a better life. One thing I know for sure, my grandfather would be smiling down on me knowing that I riled up many so many people that were from the very regime he risked his life to get away from."
Senior Lecturer in Chinese Studies Dr Gerry Goot, from Adelaide University, says it may not necessarily be the Chinese Government co-ordinating the outrage.
"Not every Chinese fan is hyper-nationalistic but it only takes one fans to generate momentum by transferring the original words from Messenger or Twitter to WeChat, which is a different world altogether," he said.
"And because it gets a different audience once it goes into WeChat, it's Chinese language first. Once you translate it from English to Chinese, it takes on a difference connotation."