Via the ABC:
A pro-China rally planned for Saturday in Melbourne to condemn the clashes in Hong Kong has been postponed after a letter claiming to be an event permit from the Melbourne City Council was confirmed to be fake.
A well-known local Chinese media outlet, Australian Red Scarf, first announced the pro-Beijing protests in Melbourne on their WeChat account last Friday, accompanied by an image of a letter saying the council approved the “Support One China Principle” event to be held at the State Library in Melbourne.
About 100 people were expected to gather in front of the State Library in the morning, and countered by a collective of pro-democracy groups including Hong Kong, Uyghur and Tibet activists.
HK protests come to Australia
Pro-Hong Kong and pro-China rallies are also planned at the Martin Place Amphitheatre and Belmore Park in Sydney on Friday and Saturday respectively.
The protests come after student demonstrations between the pro-Hong Kong and pro-Beijing camps have seen confrontations over the past fortnight, ranging from scuffles at the University of Queensland (UQ) to peaceful hours-long debates on the footpaths outside Monash University’s Clayton campus in Melbourne.
On Wednesday, the ABC approached the Melbourne City Council about the letter, which said the council approved the pro-China rally, shortly before they issued a statement on Twitter confirming it was “fake”.
“The City of Melbourne does not issue permits for protests or demonstrations,” the statement read.
“However, we encourage anyone planning an assembly, demonstration or rally to let Victoria Police and the City of Melbourne know so that we can plan for any effects on parks, public places, streets and footpaths and notify affected businesses and services.
Local Chinese media City Discount reported on their WeChat account later on the same day that the pro-China rally has been postponed to an unspecified date.
The ABC understands that pro-democracy protests will go ahead as planned, and Victoria Police has also confirmed to the ABC that it was aware of protest activity planned in Melbourne CBD on Saturday.
‘It isn’t a prank, but a sophisticated trap’
It is unclear who originally posted the fabricated council letter on WeChat and what their intention is, but local Chinese media have speculated on WeChat that it was planted by a pro-democracy protester as “a trap” to lure pro-China protesters to rally on Saturday.
Sydney Post’s editor-in-chief, who writes under the penname Xiao Shi Yi Lang, published an article on Wednesday saying the pro-China protest planned in Melbourne was “actually a fake protest” and “a trap” designed by pro-democracy protesters to lure more people to their demonstration at the State Library on Saturday.
City Discount also published a report speculating that the fake letter was “very likely” to be “misinformation from separatist forces”.
The report said if pro-China protesters were to have shown up at the now-postponed rally, they would have been “trapped” and faced “provocation” from the pro-democracy camp.
When the ABC asked Xiao Shi Yi Lang to explain how he knew the fake council approval letter was “a trap” set by a pro-democracy protester, he told the ABC that he could not confirm whether the person was from the pro-democracy or pro-China camp.
In fact, he said he only knew that the person’s WeChat nickname is “1994%” and came to this conclusion after joining several private Sydney and Melbourne-based WeChat groups and speaking with various Chinese netizens.
The ABC attempted to contact “1994%” and a WeChat user who is believed to be the organiser of the pro-China protest in Beijing, but both accounts appear to have been deregistered or had their account names changed.
‘It’s up to the netizens to determine the authenticity’
Since the City of Melbourne has dismissed the letter as fake, it has emerged that the councillor’s name and signature at the bottom of the letter, Cath Hewitt — who the letter said was the manager of health and activity approvals at the City of Melbourne — was also forged.
The City of Perth said in a reply on Twitter to a journalist that Cath was in fact a City of Perth employee, and “her name and details have been used fraudulently to appear to give some authentication to the event.”While both city councils have clarified their positions on Twitter, it’s unlikely their messages have filtered through to Chinese netizens — the majority of whom saw the fake letter on WeChat.
Well-known WeChat media accounts in Australia, including CN2MEL, Australian Red Scarf, and Sydney Impression have all widely publicised the “Support One China Principle” demonstration using the fake protest letter to encourage Chinese community members to join the parade.
A spokesperson for CN2MEL admitted to the ABC that the media outlet published the picture of the fake approval letter without verifying it first, adding that he first saw the letter on “WeChat moment”, which is a sharing function similar to Facebook timeline.
“We collect and show all sorts of information to netizens, and it’s up to the netizens to determine the authenticity for themselves,” the spokesperson said, adding they would update their article and apologise to readers about the fake letter.
He added that while many local Chinese media outlets call themselves “media”, they function more as news translation and integration services compared with conventional media.
Australian Red Scarf and Sydney Impression have both declined ABC’s interview requests.
In Sydney, the pro-China camp will push ahead with their planned rally on Saturday in Belmore Park — the same location the pro-Hong Kong camp will host their demonstration on Sunday.
A NSW police spokesman told the ABC “the [Pro-China] protest has been permitted for Saturday 17, August 2019, and is anticipated to be a peaceful demonstration”.