by Fergus Ryan , Ariel Bogle , Nathan Ruser , Albert Zhang & Daria Impiombato
10 Dec 2021
This report explores how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) uses foreign social media influencers to shape and push messages domestically and internationally about Xinjiang that are aligned with its own preferred narratives.
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 report focuses on the promotion of foreign influencers who disseminate content about Xinjiang on US-based social media and content networks, including YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, as well as on Chinese platforms such as Bilibili. The report analyses this unique online influencer ecosystem and examines three in-depth case studies with a focus on Xinjiang-focused foreign influencer content and the amplification of that content by Chinese state entities.
The Chinese party-state continues to deny allegations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang, including forced labour, mass detention and cultural erasure. Previous work by ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre (ICPC) has found Chinese party-state entities using US social media networks in an effort to create greater ambiguity about the situation in Xinjiang, push a counter-narrative and amplify disinformation. It has also found that the CCP uses tactics, including leveraging US social media platforms, to criticise and smear Uyghur victims, journalists and researchers who work on this topic, as well as their organisations. Other tactics have included temporal and narrative alignment between pro-CCP social media influencers and state entities (for example, targeting the BBC over its reporting on allegations of systematic rape in Xinjiang’s internment camps, among other stories) as well as the amplification of content that depicts Uyghurs as broadly supportive of the Chinese Government’s policies in Xinjiang.
Foreign social media influencers are creating content about Xinjiang that’s being used as part of a wider, global propaganda push by the Chinese state to counter critical reporting about human rights abuses in the region, often via amplification on US-based social media platforms.
Some foreign influencers who are promoting CCP propaganda operate outside traditional journalistic professional standards and aren’t disclosing key conflicts of interest (such as their participation in state-backed and funded tours of Xinjiang).
Our data collection has found that, between January 2020 and August 2021, 156 Chinese state-controlled accounts on US-based social media platforms have published at least 546 Facebook posts, Twitter posts and shared articles from CGTN, Global Times, Xinhua or China Daily websites that have amplified Xinjiang-related social media content from 13 influencer accounts. More than 50% of that activity occurred on Facebook.
As a part of our data collection, ASPI ICPC created a network diagram to help illustrate this unique and burgeoning ecosystem (Figure 2, page 10). This diagram includes Chinese state media and diplomatic accounts that share and promote content by foreign social media influencers. An interactive version of this diagram is available online here.
Video plays a key role in this ecosystem. Videos featuring foreign social media influencers are often the preferred content that Chinese state entities repackage and boost online.
ASPI analysed hundreds of YouTube videos depicting trips to Xinjiang made by foreign influencers. Just as many tours of Xinjiang are largely directed by state-controlled institutions and government bodies, our research suggests that some of the locations shown in the foreign influencers’ videos are chosen by state entities. When the locations weren’t chosen by the Chinese state, our analysis found that detention centres were sometimes accidentally filmed. Our analysis of one video, filmed by a ‘vlogger’ from Singapore, found that he unintentionally filmed seven separate detention facilities in a 15-minute YouTube video showing his airliner’s descent into Ürümqi International Airport.
Our research has found that labelling schemes adopted by some video-sharing and social media platforms to identify state-affiliated accounts are inconsistently applied to media outlets and journalists working for those outlets. In addition, few platforms appear to have clear policies on content from online influencers or vloggers whose content may be facilitated by state-affiliated media, through sponsored trips, for example.
The type of manipulation of the information environment described in this report can be harder to detect and can circumvent efforts by social media companies to identify and categorise the online activity of government and government-funded entities.
This report argues that social media platforms should better craft and implement policies to identify accounts with state links, or content that has been directly facilitated by states— policies that should apply globally.
This research project used both quantitative and qualitative research methods, and it involved in-depth and original data collection that spanned multiple languages. This included:
cross-platform data analysis and collection that comprised US- and Chinese-based social media networks and included text, imagery and video (social media collection tools included CrowdTangle and Twint)
programming tools such as RStudio to analyse data and create network graphs showing interactions (packages used included tidyverse, ggplot and visNetwork)
the collection, translation and analysis of Chinese-language material, including government documents, state media reports, official speeches and other sources
satellite imagery collection and analysis, including geo-coding locations based on our analysis of published videos and social media content.
Introduction: ‘Borrowing mouths to speak’
We have always attached great importance to ‘borrowing a mouth to speak’ and used international friends to carry out foreign propaganda.
—Zhu Ling, editor-in-chief, China Daily, 2016
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. The strategy, sometimes referred to as ‘using foreign strength to propagandise China’ (利用外力为我宣传), is based on the idea that propaganda can be particularly potent if it’s created by foreigners.
In Zhu’s speech, which was published in August 2016 in Qiushi, the CCP’s most authoritative journal, he said that China’s propaganda should mix ‘what we want to tell’ with what foreign audiences ‘want to hear’. The messaging should have emotional valence as well as making a reasoned point, Zhu said. Consider, for example, the ‘Chinese Dream’, which is Xi Jinping’s signature soft-power campaign designed to market globally the idea of a strong, successful, happy China. This should be explained and disseminated, Zhu argued, through a combination of ‘speaking by yourself’ and ‘speaking by others’.
The general principles of the strategy are endorsed by Chinese President and CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping. At a June 2021 collective study session of China’s Politburo on external propaganda, Xi stressed the need to ‘never stop expanding our circle of friends that understand China and befriend China in the arena of international public opinion’, instructing that China must improve its capacity to make its voice heard in the global ‘public opinion struggle’. Xi also reiterated a point he made in a February 2016 Politburo work meeting on news and public opinion that more work should be done on converging Chinese and foreign perspectives (融通中外). As Xi described in 2016, that convergence isn’t meant to take place in equal measure, but to elevate and proselytise the CCP’s world view:
Bringing together the Chinese and foreign is more than just simply catering [to the tastes] of foreigners. Rather, it is improving our ability to disseminate the Chinese way [of doing things], to disseminate the Chinese system, Chinese concepts, and Chinese culture in ways … such that foreign audiences will be happy to accept it, in language that is easy for them to understand, so that Chinese concepts become a global lingua franca, and an international consensus.
In response to Xi Jinping’s June 2021 instructions, Shen Haixiong (慎海雄), deputy head of the Propaganda Department of the CCP and head of China Media Group (the official media conglomerate directly under the Propaganda Department of the CCP) outlined how he intended to create ‘a studio for influencers in multiple languages’ (多语种网红工作室) to better reach younger media consumers globally. These state-supported training programs for online influencers would help the People’s Republic of China ‘break through and enhance the ‘spread of a positive attitude’ (好感传播), according to Shen.
Xi Jinping has long called for Chinese media workers and academics to do a better job of ‘telling China’s stories to the world’ in order to help redress what the CCP sees as a deep global imbalance in what its refers to as its ‘discourse power’ (话语权), which is considered a core part of the country’s ‘comprehensive national power’ (综合国力). In a 2013 address to propaganda ministers from across the country, Xi specifically instructed that there should be a ‘focus on building a discourse system with new concepts, new categories and new narratives that integrate the Chinese and the foreign’.
The strategy is hoped to help break what’s referred to within the CCP as the West’s ‘discourse hegemony’ (话语霸权) over China. In the view of senior propaganda officials, Western media encirclement of China is having a deleterious effect on how the country is viewed around the world.
A Pew Research Center survey released in June 2021 reflected the dire state of China’s international standing, showing that majorities in 15 of the 17 advanced economies surveyed hold an unfavourable opinion of the country.
This reputational hit follows China’s early cover-up of the coronavirus outbreak, economic and diplomatic coercion targeting foreign governments and companies and the continued exposure of the CCP’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang by foreign academics, think tanks, international NGOs and journalists. China’s internal and external propaganda push has ramped up in response to this, and also aims to burnish the CCP’s credentials as it celebrates its centenary in 2021. Propaganda messaging on China’s handling of the pandemic and treatment of ethnic minorities has been deployed to counterbalance critical reporting of those issues.
Over the same period, China has stepped up pointed criticism of foreign media coverage of its activities in Xinjiang and sought to hobble critical reporting on the issue by expelling foreign journalists from the country. At least 18 foreign reporters from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post were expelled from China in the first half of 2020, according to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, which is itself an organisation that China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) has long described as illegal. MOFA says the expulsions were in response to curbs that the US placed on Chinese reporters.
Since their expulsion from China, coordinated attacks on the remaining corps of foreign journalists have intensified. At the same time, MOFA spokespeople have repeatedly held up the American journalist Edgar Snow, best known for his 1937 book Red star over China, as the exemplar of objective foreign reporting on China. In reality, some historians argue that Snow’s reporting trips were carefully choreographed and that his interviews with key figures, including Chairman Mao Zedong, were controlled and censored.
In the past, the CCP has ‘borrowed the mouths’ of friendly foreigners such as Snow to create approved articles, books, photography, documentaries and movies. As this report shows, that same approach has now been extended to foreign vloggers and online influencers.
The online influencer ecosystem
The social media influencer ecosystem is a global phenomenon in which people grow an audience for their online accounts by creating particular types of content (travel videos, for example), typically based on a specific personality, style, topic or message. The use of digital platforms to make money is not unusual, and typical monetisation pathways include advertising revenue, paid product placement and content deals. Endorsement arrangements between government institutions and social media influencers are also common. For example, fitness influencers were paid by local governments to urge Americans to stay at home during the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s worth noting that advertising disclosure requirements vary by country and by platform.
China has a sophisticated social media influencer ecosystem across multiple platforms, including Douyin (the domestic precursor to TikTok), the video-sharing site Bilibili and social media platforms such as Xiaohongshu. There’s a popular niche for non-Chinese influencers or vloggers who, typically but not always, speak Mandarin and share their content on domestic platforms. Some also operate from China on US platforms, including YouTube and Instagram, and create content tailored to markets in different countries. This is despite access to those services being blocked in China. This suggests that the activities of the China-based international-facing influencers are tacitly condoned, even if not necessarily directly endorsed, by the propaganda apparatus of the party-state.
Virtual private networks Accessing banned foreign platforms in China is possible by using virtual private networks (VPNs), which are strictly monitored in the country as they allow users to breach the ‘Great Firewall’, or ‘climb over the wall’ (翻墙). Only VPN services authorised by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology are allowed, while selling or accessing other non-authorised VPN services is illegal. The law is applied selectively, and penalties are more often imposed when individuals use VPNs to access controversial pieces of information or publish political content that opposes CCP lines. In Xinjiang, for example, since a harsh internet crackdown that began in 2009, the use of VPNs has been listed as one of the red flags authorities have used to detain Uyghurs and other minorities.
By leveraging the popularity of foreign media influencers in China, the Chinese state propaganda apparatus can package their messages through potentially more persuasive voices in an attempt to neutralise critical reporting about human rights abuses in Xinjiang and depict a more positive image of the region. In turn, those foreign social media influencers may have their Xinjiang-related content promoted at MOFA conferences, cross-shared on US-based social media platforms and referenced in English-language party-state media articles, growing their profile and potentially offering new opportunities for monetisation and audience building (Figure 1). While ASPI cannot confirm whether foreign social media influencers are commissioned (and provided monetary compensation up front) to create Xinjiang-related content, the BBC has reported that state media outlet CGTN has set up a department tasked with contacting foreign social media influencers to cooperate or use their videos (see case study 2). Likewise, this report will examine how influencers are invited to take part in state-sponsored tours.
Figure 1: Chinese Consulate-General in Sydney’s Twitter account sharing a CGTN video of British vlogger Jason Lightfoot
Source: Twitter, 8 April 2021, online.
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.
Figure 2: Network diagram of Chinese state media and diplomatic accounts that have engaged with foreign influencer content
Source: Created by ASPI ICPC, available to explore online.
The most active state media accounts in our dataset were China Media Group’s subsidiaries CGTN and CCTV, which are under the control of the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department, as well as the People’s Daily, which is the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the CCP, and its ‘We Are China’ branded social media accounts.
Videos play a key role in this influencer ecosystem. Videos featuring foreign media influencers are the prime content that Chinese state entities work to repackage and boost online. Our analysis of these videos suggests that they fit into two broad categories with sub-themes targeted at different international and domestic audiences.
The first category of videos seeks to reframe international narratives by displaying a wholly positive image of life in Xinjiang. These videos tend to emphasise ‘exotic’ Uyghur culture, taking a marketing approach to the content by depicting the region’s hospitality, food, dancing and happy men and women. Infrastructure was also a popular theme, especially projects relating to agriculture, roads and high-speed rail and direct references to China’s ‘rural revitalisation’.
The most active MOFA accounts on Facebook and Twitter promoting this style of content in our dataset belonged to Zhang Heqing (张和清), who’s a cultural attaché at the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. He promoted foreign-influencer-related content at least 56 times. For example, Zhang shared a video featuring Stuart Wiggin (Figure 3). A British national, Wiggin posted videos on YouTube and a number of Chinese platforms as ‘The China Traveller’ (司徒建国) from the Xinjiang leg of the ‘A Date with China’ media tour (see Case study 1) about the ‘wonders’ of Xinjiang.
Figure 3: Chinese diplomat in Pakistan, Zhang Heqing (left), sharing content featuring foreign media influencers; Barrie Jones’s video (right) criticising foreign media coverage of Xinjiang was shown in a MOFA briefing
The second category of videos is more overtly political and seeks to directly counter allegations of forced labour and detention centres, among other issues. These videos at times pointedly used positive depictions of local Xinjiang life to directly contradict allegations of human rights abuses— for example, by creating content in Xinjiang cotton fields to counter allegations of forced labour (Figure 4). Some videos in this category didn’t use footage from the region, but instead included a speech to camera or an interview contradicting allegations of human rights abuses.
The most mentioned influencers in this category in our dataset were Canadian Daniel Dumbrill, the Barretts (Lee and Oli Barrett, a British father–son vlogging duo), and Barrie Jones of Best China Info (also British). All of these influencers have been directly referenced by MOFA officials on social media or in party-state media articles, and both Daniel Dumbrill and Barrie Jones have had their videos shown at MOFA press conferences.
Cao Yi (曹毅), a consul at the Embassy of China in Lebanon, shared foreign influencers’ content in this category at least 31 times, including content from Daniel Dumbrill (a Canadian vlogger reportedly based in Shenzhen) and Barrie Jones from the YouTube channel Best China Info (a British expatriate potentially based in Guilin, China).
Figure 4: Chinese state media posts featuring Raz Gal-Or visiting a cotton field (left) and Lee Barrett’s comments on cotton picking in Xinjiang (right)
The Twitter account of Li Bijian (李碧建), the Consul-General of China in Karachi, Pakistan, was also an active actor in this category. He tweeted and retweeted at least eight posts, including a retweet of Cyrus Janssen, who describes himself as a former golf professional now turned vlogger who posts about China from his native Canada (Figure 5).
Figure 5: Li Bijian sharing content featuring foreign media influencers
Source: Li Bijian, Twitter, 6 August 2020, online.
This report now focuses on three in-depth case studies that analyse Xinjiang-focused foreign influencer content and the amplification of that content by Chinese state entities. They include:
content created by social media influencers as part of the ‘A Date with China’ (中国有约) media tour of Xinjiang in April 2021, which was hosted by the Cyberspace Administration of China
the online video brand ‘YChina’, created in part by Israeli Raz Gal-Or, and YouTube content created by the company about Xinjiang
satellite mapping and analysis of the strategic geography of foreign social media influencers’ trips to Xinjiang.