Borrowing mouths to speak on Xinjiang
Fergus Ryan, Ariel Bogle, Nathan Ruser, Albert Zhang and Daria Impiombato
Our research has found key instances in which Chinese state entities have supported influencers in the creation of social media content in Xinjiang, as well as amplified influencer content that supports pro-CCP narratives.
That content broadly seeks to debunk Western media reporting and academic research, refute statements by foreign governments and counter allegations of widespread human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Often, such content is then promoted by party-state media and diplomatic accounts across major international social media networks and in Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) briefings. This trend is particularly notable given the difficulty faced by journalists reporting in Xinjiang.
Our research also examines how the CCP’s use of foreign influencers presents a growing challenge to global social media platforms, and in particular their efforts to identify and label state-affiliated accounts
This was how Zhu Ling (朱灵), then China Daily editor-in-chief, emphasised the importance of utilising foreigners for Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda in a speech celebrating the 30th anniversary of his newspaper. Zhu was referring to a strategy of using ‘friendly’ or noncritical content created by foreigners for both internal and external propaganda—a method the CCP has employed since the Mao era.12 The strategy, sometimes referred to as ‘using foreign strength to propagandise China’, is based on the idea that propaganda can be particularly potent if it’s created by foreigners.
Our data collection has found that, since the beginning of 2020, 156 Chinese state-controlled accounts on US-based social media platforms have published at least 556 Facebook posts, Twitter posts and articles on CGTN, Global Times, Xinhua or China Daily websites amplifying Xinjiang-related social media content from 14 influencer accounts. More than 50% of that activity occurred on Facebook. This data includes foreign social media influencers in China and Chinese social media influencers who have interacted with the foreign influencers in Xinjiang.
To illustrate how this ecosystem operates, ASPI ICPC built a network diagram (Figure 2) of Chinese state media and diplomatic accounts that share or post content by foreign social media influencers; reference foreign social media influencers; or promote China-based influencers who have interacted with foreign social media influencers in Xinjiang. An interactive version of this diagram is available online. Nodes are sized by the number of posts shared.
This report focuses on three in-depth case studies that analyse Xinjiang-focused foreign influencer content and the amplification of that content by Chinese state entities.
The ‘A Date with China’ propaganda campaign
Social media influencers from Canada, Germany, the UK and Ghana took part in the ‘A Date with China’ (中国有约) media tour of Xinjiang in May 2021, which was held under the auspices of the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC). The tour was co-organised by the China Daily and by 11 of China’s provincial-level cyberspace administrations, including the Xinjiang CAC.
Content created as part of the Xinjiang leg of the ‘A Date with China’ tour received significant online amplification across US-based social media platforms. China Daily articles and videos, in addition to other related material, have been promoted at least 150 times by Chinese state media and MOFA accounts on Facebook alone. The most active Facebook pages sharing ‘A Date with China’ content were the People’s Daily’s ‘We are China’ account and the Japanese version of the People’s Daily account.
The ‘YChina’ media tour
A number of other foreign social media influencers have created Xinjiang content in 2021 that’s then been heavily promoted, and sometimes repackaged, by Chinese party-state media and diplomatic accounts. For example, Raz Gal-Or is the co-founder of the Y-Platform, which is a multichannel online video network in China. He features in three videos from Xinjiang shared on the company’s YChina YouTube channel in April 2021, in which he visits a local home among other activities.
YChina has cooperated with party-state media since its inception. In May 2017, YChina teamed up with CCTV News Center to create the ‘Silk Road Youth Talk’ series of videos that were broadcast on CCTV. In 2019, YChina released a video featuring Gal-Or helping a 90-year-old military doctor fulfill his wish to witness a flag-raising ceremony in Tiananmen Square. Gal-Or’s videos featured in the People’s Daily production ‘CPC at 100: Views from Expats’, which was also published on the People’s Daily domestic social media channels as well as its ‘We Are China’ YouTube channel.
Mapping the strategic geography of influencers’ trips to Xinjiang
Just as some media tours of Xinjiang appear largely directed by state-controlled institutions and government bodies, the locations shown in foreign influencers’ videos may be chosen by state entities to further particular narratives about the region. For this report, ASPI analysed hundreds of YouTube videos depicting trips to Xinjiang made and posted by foreign influencers. Some of the videos seem to have gone to considerable length to avoid featuring evidence of the CCP’s human rights abuses in the region, such as detention infrastructure (although, ironically, such infrastructure was inadvertently captured in some videos).
YouTube, Facebook and Twitter began providing contextual labels for state-funded media accounts between 2018 and 2020, largely as part of efforts to reduce the impact of foreign influence operations on US elections, but subsequent reports have found that some of these policies remain inconsistently applied and problematic.
This issue continues for China’s party-state media: ASPI examined instances in which content about Xinjiang made by foreign vloggers was shared or reposted on apparent party-state affiliated YouTube channels that weren’t labelled with YouTube’s ‘funded in whole or in part by the Chinese government’ tag. There are also discrepancies between how the accounts of individual journalists working for party-state media are labelled.
China has long been among the most restrictive countries for journalists to operate in, and Tibet and Xinjiang are particularly difficult reporting environments. For years, foreign journalists have faced surveillance, physical abuse, restrictive visa procedures and harassment of sources and news assistants. Harassment of journalists in China in 2020 was particularly intense in Xinjiang, according to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China.
The use of foreign influencers creates a degree of plausible deniability for the CCP’s international-facing propaganda—a strategy adopted in the knowledge that foreign voices are more likely than official CCP spokespeople to penetrate and relate to target overseas populations. At the same time, the ability of foreign governments to conduct legitimate online public diplomacy within China—such as posting on Weibo—is being curtailed and at times censored.
In combination, this creates a potent one-way vehicle for the extraterritorial projection of the CCP’s political power.