The Untold Psychological War in Hong Kong: Gray Media’s Influence Operation on the Legislation of Article 23

Publication: China Brief Volume: 24 Issue: 12

Protesters brave heavy rain as they march against the 2019 Hong Kong extradition bill. (Source: Wikipedia)

Executive Summary:

  • Analysis of five gray media outlets in Hong Kong during the consultation period for Article 23 legislation passed earlier this year, show how they echo governmental talking points and coordinate to produce collaborative content across popular social media channels.
  • These outlets often present themselves as nonpartisan but deploy tactics such as featuring a small set of alleged “experts” while omitting their relevant affiliations and not flagging conflicts of interest.
  • Viewership and engagement rates on posts in the dataset were generally low to moderate, but this does not capture content disseminated in other channels, for instance via private group chats on other platforms, suggesting that these posts’ reach and efficacy is a lot higher than they might otherwise appear.
  • Gray media outlets in Hong Kong incorporate legal and cognitive warfare tactics to support Beijing’s political agenda, targeting Hong Kongers as a part of a broader national security strategy aimed at further cracking down on free expression in the city.

Hong Kong’s gray media plays an understudied role in amplifying the authorities’ narratives and steering public opinion on critical issues. Amid the discussion of Beijing’s malign influence operations (IOs) both within the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and in the international arena, few researchers have looked at the role of gray media in Hong Kong itself. The information ecosystem in which these outlets exist, their affiliation with state entities, and the tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) deployed in past influence operations often differ from those used both in the mainland and internationally. An analysis of the top five gray media in Hong Kong can shed light on how these entities incorporate legal and cognitive warfare tactics to support Beijing’s political agenda, targeting Hong Kongers as a part of a broader national security strategy aimed at further cracking down on free expression in the city. These influence operations first aim to create a façade of broad public support for the legislation. However, once the legislation is enforced, as shown in the recent arrests under alleged violation of Article 23, previously falsified public endorsements are then redeployed to justify the arrests and legitimize prosecutions.

Earlier this year, the Hong Kong government passed a new piece of legislation as part of the National Security Law, known as Article 23 (Hong Kong eLegislation, March 23: English, Traditional Chinese; see China Brief; March 1). The announcement of the law and the period during which the government was soliciting public feedback was accompanied with a concerted influence campaign on both traditional and social media platforms. This article draws on data collected between January 30 and February 28, 2024, during the legislation’s short public consultation period (HKSARG, January 30).

Survey of Five Key Gray Media Outlets

The five most prominent pro-Beijing media outlets in the city—Speak Out Hong Kong, Silent Majority, Today Review, GRT Great Bay Area Channel, and Kinliu HK—all amplified support for the regime during the consultation period. This support largely centered on two narratives, either stressing the need to establish a bill of this kind, or condemning Western interference and attacks “smearing” the city’s domestic politics.

These pro-nationalistic outlets, often termed “gray media,” have alleged close ties with PRC state entities. For instance, they may be financed by corporations linked to the mainland, or their work might be positively acknowledged by PRC officials (HKFP, 2016; November 29, November 30; Asia Sentinel, July 29, 2014). They often publish content that coincides with influence operations and coordinate with each other to produce collaborative videos and posts on relevant topics. The activity from these outlets is mainly conducted in Cantonese on platforms such as Facebook and YouTube that are popularly used in the Hong Kong community—more so than Weibo or WeChat.

Speak Out Hong Kong

Established in 2013, Speak Out Hong Kong (港人講地) is managed by Looop Media Limited (圈傳媒有限公司), which is a part of the Hong Kong United Foundation (HKUF) (, accessed May 29). HKUF was founded by Barry Cheung Chun-yuen (張震遠), a pro-Beijing individual and former member of the HK Executive Council, and Raymond Tang Yee-Bong (鄧爾邦), a former election campaign advisor to Hong Kong’s former chief executive Leung Chun-ying (aka CY Leung) (Yahoo News HK/Sing Tao Daily, July 9, 2013). Given its large fan base—500,000 followers on Facebook and 436,000 on YouTube—Speak Out HK plays a major role in spreading pro-Beijing narratives on social media.

During the research window, Speak Out HK published 32 Facebook posts that discussed the Article 23 legislation. Of these, 17 were original videos that amplified support for the bill (, accessed May 29). These videos often featured interviews with alleged experts to convince the target audience of the legislation’s legitimacy and necessity—examples of appeals to authority, the logical fallacy whereby the opinion of an influential figure is used as evidence to support an argument.

These videos also mislead the public by omitting certain facts about the interviewees, including their affiliation with state entities. For example, on February 22, Speak Out HK released a video emphasizing comments from Gu Minkang (顧敏康), who argued that Article 23 perfects the national security legal system and rebuked Western media “smear” as “political hype” (, February 21). While Gu was labeled as the Associate Co-Director of the Academy for Applied Policy Studies and Education Futures at The Education University of Hong Kong, the video failed to mention that he also serves as the Vice Chairman of the Hong Kong Basic Law Education Association (Hong Kong Legal Exchange Foundation, accessed May 29). This last affiliation is perhaps Gu’s most obvious conflict of interest and should be declared in any discussion in which he advocates for legislation as part of the Basic Law.

A separate Facebook video features an interview with the lawyer Kacee Ting (丁煌) speakouthk, February 28). The video is captioned “How about we let the barrister tell everyone how harsh Americans’ national security law is? What qualifications do they have to criticize Hong Kong?” Ting’s analysis is misleading, as it implies an equivalence between national security legislation in liberal democratic countries like the United States and Hong Kong’s Article 23 (Nikkei Asia, February 28). The video also fails to mention Ting’s affiliation with the Business and Professionals Alliance for Hong Kong (香港經濟民生聯盟), a pro-Beijing political party in the city (, accessed May 29).

Silent Majority

Founded by pro-Beijing individual Robert Chow, Silent Majority (幫港出聲) presents a pro-nationalist view and allegedly has close ties with PRC state entities (Silent Majority, accessed May 29). For instance, former Politburo Standing Committee member Zhang Dejiang (张德江) met with members of Silent Majority and praised them for their efforts campaigning against Hong Kong independence (HKFP). The outlet is also well-financed by mainland PRC-linked corporations (Asia Sentinel, July 29, 2014).

Silent Majority published 44 posts within the one month period on Facebook—the highest number among the five outlets surveyed (, accessed May 29). The group also worked with another gray media outlet, HKGPao (84,000 Facebook followers), to produce a new series of collaborative videos titled “If Hong Kong had Article 23 back in the day” (, accessed May 29). Each video contained a main argument accompanied by case studies supporting Article 23. For example, one video was captioned “Chapter 7 addresses external organizations that conduct foreign interference and threaten national security” and used the example of the group of protestors in 2019 known as the “dragon-slayers,” who sought to attack the Hong Kong Police Force’s paramilitary task force, the Special Tactical Contingent (特別戰術小隊) (The Times, December 9, 2019). These two media outlets often share each other’s posts in attempts to maximize their content exposure—a tactic frequently deployed in disinformation campaigns run by PRC state-affiliated organizations. The groups have released six videos for this series so far, though none has exceeded a thousand views to date.

GRT Great Bay Area Channel

GRT Great Bay Area Channel (大灣區頻道) is a Facebook page managed by the local office of the provincial-level state media Guangdong Radio and Television (GRT) (, accessed May 29;, accessed May 29). The 10 posts GRT published during the consultation period have similar narratives such as emphasizing the urgency and necessity of passing Article 23 legislation.

GRT stands apart from other outlets, however, by “borrowing mouth” from international public figures. “Borrowing mouths to speak” ( “借嘴说话”) refers to a tactic of using “international friends to carry out foreign propaganda” as described by Zhu Ling, the President and Editor-in-Chief of PRC state media China Daily (通过国际友人开展对外宣传) (, Aug 1, 2016). Previous research has explored how foreign social media influence pushes Xinjiang propaganda narratives domestically and internationally (ASPI, Dec 10, 2021).

In the latest influence operations regarding Hong Kong’s Article 23 legislation, these “international friends” include the chief executive of Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) Noel Quinn, chairman and founder of Crown Worldwide Group James Thompson, and Richard Cullen, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong. Thompson stated that Article 23 “is to prevent actions that attempt to disrupt Hong Kong,” while Cullen argued that the legislation “further perfects Hong Kong’s security system” (; February 21, February 25, February 24). Citing foreign figures’ opinions on how Article 23 legislation enhances the city’s national security allows these articles to suggest that the legislation has wide support from international society and “debunking” reporting on international opposition to it in Western media.

Today Review

Registered in April 2021 and managed by AcMedia Limited, gray media platform Today Review (今日正言) is notorious in Hong Kong. It has a long track record of disseminating disinformation that aligns with PRC state media narratives, such as falsely claiming that COVID-19 had infected Americans prior to the outbreak in Wuhan in late 2019 (TodayReview88, accessed May 29; Factcheck Lab, June 25, 2021).

Today Review features commentaries from “anonymous” writers in defense of the legitimacy of the Article 23 legislation. For instance, on February 5 Today Review published an op-ed titled “Why having Article 23 will better protect Hong Kong’s development” under the pseudonym Kong Ou Ping (港澳平) (, February 5). [1] This writer is affiliated with PRC state media Xinhua News Agency and their work is regularly featured by the Hong Kong and Macau Work Office and the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in the HKSAR (HMO, February 5; LOCPG, February 7). Both entities have published identical articles.

Kinliu HK

Kinliu HK (堅料網) often features politicians and Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) from the Pro-Establishment camp as columnists (Kinliu HK, accessed May 29). Its CEO, Chan Sung-wai (陳崇煒), is also purportedly a former reporter for PRC state media outlet Wen Wei Po (Stand News, September 2, 2015).

Kinliu HK initiated a new series titled “Article 23 Legislation Q&A” during the public consultation period. The series comprised 15 articles addressing various concerns regarding the legislation. These included questions about whether suspects would be sent to the PRC mainland to stand trial, or if citizens are likely to violate the law unintentionally (; February 14, February 27).This strategy implicitly aims to justify the legislation while also reassuring Hong Kongers by attempting to assuage their fears. By creating the impression that Hong Kong will still maintain rule of law and judicial independence from Beijing’s interference, the articles suggest that the city will retain peace and order.

The Reality

Viewership and engagement rates on posts from these articles were generally low to moderate. Collaboration between gray media outlets, as Silent Majority and HKGpao do by cocreating videos and regularly sharing each other’s posts, is one way in which these outlets try to maximize their exposure. There is reason to believe, however, that the aggregate impact of gray media outlets’ influence operations is more profound than those figures suggest. First, these posts are widely shared among pro-Beijing and pro-establishment groups in social networks including private group chats—something that the publicly available engagement data does not include. The older generation in particular are generally more supportive of the authorities’ actions and often circulate these pro-government narratives in WhatsApp groups, for instance. As people tend to perceive information from their own social networks and communication channels as credible, they are more likely to believe in the disinformation. This mode of distribution exacerbates echo chamber and filter bubble effects and fosters cognitive biases that reinforce pre-existing beliefs when encountering people with similar dispositions.

These gray media outlets often present themselves as nonpartisan organizations. However, their output suggests otherwise. They feature interviews with “experts,” as well as have them publish op-eds and rely on them for quotes. This creates the illusion that multiple sources with different arguments all point to the same conclusion, strengthening the narratives’ persuasiveness (Rand, July 11, 2016). The use of such appeals to authority is especially useful for audiences who have low media literacy and critical thinking skills. By omitting relevant affiliations and not flagging conflicts of interest, these outlets violate journalistic standards and belie the veneer of independence and neutrality in their reporting.

A sense of familiarity is also key to increasing the probability that someone will believe a particular narrative. Repeated exposure is one way to increase a person’s sense of familiarity. [2] When the person delivering the information is someone familiar—either their friends, family, acquaintances, or even someone seen repeatedly on social media—people are even more susceptible. This ultimately generates an “illusory truth effect,” whereby a target groups’ susceptibility to influence operations increases, even though they may not initially have been disposed to believe the narrative. [3] One reason for this is that people are often cognitively lazy. To save time and energy when processing information, especially complicated ones, will they resort to the use of frequency heuristics (Rand, July 11, 2016). In other words, people are more inclined to believe information they have heard more frequently, and from sources they would usually trust. An additional effect of gray media is to sow confusion and generate distrust in society. This operates regardless of whether people actually buy into the disinformation narrative.

The efficacy of recent influence operations by gray media outlets relating to the Article 23 legislation is difficult to assess. However, past influence operations—integrated with legal and cognitive warfare tactics—have successfully sowed confusion, polarized public opinion, generated distrust, and magnified division in society. [4] This could be reflected in the political polarization between the pro-democracy and pro-government camps during the protest five years ago as noted in both Western and Chinese media (New York Times, Jan 19, 2020; China Global Television Network, Sep 3, 2019), of which the effect is believed to be amplified by Beijing’s influence operations.


Gray media in Hong Kong and the part they play in government influence operations continue to evolve. Dissecting their tactics and affiliations could help fortify democratic resilience in a manipulated information ecosystem. While there may be little that will halt Beijing’s suppression of the city of Hong Kong, Beijing’s tactics here are likely fungible to other contexts, including Taiwan. A deeper understanding of how they operate therefore has a much wider utility beyond exposing the deterioration of the information environment in Hong Kong itself.


[1] Presumably with the meaning “commenting on Hong Kong and Macau affairs.”

[2] David Gefen, “E-commerce: the role of familiarity and trust,” Omega, 28:6, 2000, p. 725-737.

[3] Rainer Greifeneder, Mariela Jaffe, Eryn Newman, Norbert Schwarz, eds. The Psychology of Fake News: Accepting, Sharing, and Correcting Misinformation. Routledge, 2021.

[4] Author’s own observations on the ground in Hong Kong during the 2019 protests.