An Analysis of Some 500 Uyghur Vlogs Suggests They Are Created as Government Propaganda
August 4, 2022
A screenshot from Anniguli’s video “How to Harvest Cotton in Xinjiang?,” in which she visits a cotton farm. Speaking about changes to how cotton is harvested, she says, ‘But now there is a machine. What kind of machine?’
"Hello everybody, welcome to Anniguli’s channel, yada yada, ha ha ha!”
A young Uyghur woman smiles into the camera on the table in front of her. She is in her early twenties, fashionably dressed, her brown hair in a shoulder-length bob. She speaks in upbeat, animated Mandarin, her addition of “yada yada” a winking reference to the routine of her greeting.
This is Anniguli’s 746th video on YouTube, a platform blocked in China. She is recording from what appears to be a hotel in Shanghai, where she attends a media and arts university. The video runs a mere three and a half minutes. In it, she talks about dating during college—how an ethnic Han high school student four years her junior approached and tried to court her. She laughs. “I am far more interested in studying and earning money,” she assures the viewer, “than I am in dating.”
The casual angle of the camera initially suggests an impromptu confessional. But a closer look at the overall composition reveals a more intentional design. Neatly-laid western cutlery atop a clean white plate sits between Anniguli and the camera. A bottle of red wine adorns a shelf behind her. A shopping bag rests on the table to her right. And in the very front of the frame, the camera captures the familiar color of a Coca-Cola can and a fast-food carton displaying the logo of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.
The presence of these objects is not coincidental. The cutlery, the wine, the shopping bag all support the image of a modern, sophisticated woman enjoying luxury consumption. The Olympics logo, appearing as it does in a video with an ethnic Uyghur host, serves as a silent rebuke of international calls to boycott the Olympics in protest of government policies in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
Even Anniguli’s seemingly apolitical chitchat carries a deeper message: A Uyghur woman might dismiss a man because he is too young, or because she is focused on school, but not simply because he is Han Chinese.
Anniguli runs video channels on YouTube and the two Chinese platforms Haokan and Xigua. The channels present her as an average, 20-something vlogger in China. In this, her 746th video, she is not promoting any fashion brands, hot new products, or trendy life-hacks. Instead, what she sells to her millions of viewers, mostly within mainland China, is the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) preferred narrative about her native Xinjiang.
For the past few years, Uyghur and other young members of ethnic minority groups from Xinjiang have been creating videos like Anniguli’s in which they appear to display details of their personal lives while simultaneously evincing support for the policies of the CCP. These videos are a type of state propaganda, but for those producing them they also serve as a form of self-promotion, an income stream, and a pathway to political safety.
Anniguli is one of dozens of young, fashionable ethnic minority vloggers uploading subtle, well-produced videos that support the Party line. Since 2018, Anniguli and her fellow influencers have posted hundreds of videos to Chinese social media sites, as well as to the U.S.-based YouTube. To a casual viewer, the videos may appear indistinguishable from the slew of others shared online by vloggers every day. The hosts film themselves going about their daily lives, commenting on subjects that appear to interest them. Yet their commentary closely mimics official state propaganda, at times echoing the government’s words verbatim.
To better understand this phenomenon, we collected and analyzed videos from seven different vloggers, all of whom have accounts on YouTube and various Chinese social media platforms such as Weibo, Xigua, and Haokan. As of June 2021, we had compiled a total of 2,672 videos dating back to 2018. Of these, we did a quick content analysis of around 500, and analyzed about 30 in depth.
These videos are valuable not only because they show the workings of the Chinese propaganda machine and the ways it is entwined with the social media platform business, but also because the videos often provide glimpses into local life in Xinjiang at a moment when such information is extremely difficult to obtain.
Through our analysis, we developed several ways to assess how likely it is that a vlogger is taking direction from propaganda authorities. This includes parroting government talking points, especially in situations that would likely impose high social costs on the vlogger, and displaying unusual permissions and freedoms—such as an ability to travel around Xinjiang unencumbered, film in “sensitive” places, or publicly access banned online platforms.
While these vloggers clearly respond to incentives provided by the political leaderships, they also seem to respond to a thriving market for these kinds of videos. Successful vloggers stand to make decent money from their videos by collecting the bonuses that some platforms pay for a certain number of views, likes, and subscriptions. Especially when the videos are promoted via government accounts, high numbers of views—and thus bonuses—can be achieved. That we cannot clearly disentangle the financial from the political incentives underscores the extent to which government propaganda works in tandem with commercial opportunities online.
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The vloggers we studied tended to be young, usually in college or just out, and are mostly women. Qedirye, a Uyghur woman who returned to her hometown of Kashgar after graduating from medical school elsewhere in China, posts videos under the name “Kaidiyaya” that feature her praising the Chinese government’s local settlement policies in fluent Mandarin. Dina, also from Kashgar, used to share an account with Qedirye but now posts to her own account, “Hello Dina.” Anniguli, too, initially called herself simply “Guli” while sharing an account with a Kazakh women named Anni, but now posts to the account alone. We still do not know her real name.
A few men, however, do have their own accounts. The “Faté’s United Family” channel broadcasts from Chöchek (Tacheng), Xinjiang, spotlighting a young Uyghur man named Arafat (or Fa-té, in a Mandarin shortform), who shows off his cooking skills and talks with his younger Han Chinese “brother,” modeling the Chinese government’s vision of ethnic unity. Another vlogger, Mewlan, calls himself “Thick-Eyebrowed Brother from Kashgar” and discusses food, business, and tourism in his clips. All videos remain squarely within the government narratives about Xinjiang.
Other non-Han creators are also uploading such content. Tajik, Mongolian, and Hui women all post videos that play up their minority identity while expressing support for government policies and speaking almost exclusively in Mandarin.
From this pack of influencers, Anniguli stands out as one of the earliest and most successful. Some of her first videos show her traipsing around Ürümchi (Urumqi), the capital of Xinjiang, filming herself at tourist sites but also meandering through the bazaar, stopping by her mother’s clothing store, and visiting her grandparents in Ghulja. She represents the Modern Uyghur Woman as the Party wants her: beautiful, smiling, accommodating; speaking fluent Mandarin; wearing fashionable clothes and make-up; fond of music, dance, and food; and committed to advancing within Chinese society.
The focus on dance, food, exotic beauty, and smiling docility in her self-presentation fulfills Han Chinese stereotypes about minority women. Her fashion, makeup, and affinity for business and shopping present her as modern and forward-looking.
Anniguli’s thoughts on a range of subjects, as expressed in her videos, further burnish her image as the Party’s ideal Uyghur Woman. She explains “how to win a Uyghur girl’s heart” in several different clips, suggesting Han Chinese men make up a considerable part of her target audience. In one video from April 2020, she and two friends voice their support for inter-ethnic marriage, speaking about it purely in terms of freedom of love, signaling their openness to dating and marrying Han Chinese men and thus supporting an important element of the government’s policies in the region. In her discussion of inter-ethnic marriage, while she does refer to difficulties arising from cultural and linguistic differences, she does not mention religion at all, despite the fact that Uyghurs often invoke their adherence to Islam as justification for their reluctance to marry Han people.
The Chinese government certainly would like Uyghurs, and the rest of the world, to think of inter-ethnic marriage as being about individual freedom. In reality, it is an especially sensitive topic in Uyghur circles. Many Uyghurs’ experiences of discrimination and a fear of being assimilated, as well as religious barriers and traditions of endogamy, have led to extremely low rates of marriage between Han and Uyghur individuals. Even government incentives, such as direct payments to Han-Uyghur couples, have not meaningfully altered this trend.
But inter-ethnic marriage is just one area in which the Chinese government’s goals of ensuring cultural and political dominance and an obedient population in Xinjiang have proven either ineffective or counterproductive. The Party-state’s efforts since the early 2000s to increase economic development in the region—efforts which enriched local leaders and Han-Chinese migrants but left many ethnic minority citizens without their land, without employment, and without equal standing in society—only increased many Uyghurs’ sense of alienation and disenfranchisement. Popular resistance to the Party-state’s colonialist enterprise sometimes boiled over into violence, including several attacks on government, commercial, and public spaces categorized as terrorism by the government and many international observers. The authorities chose not to address the root causes of the discontent, but instead in 2014 instituted a “People's War on Terror.”
By 2017, the “People’s War on Terror” had escalated into a violent large-scale campaign against a wide range of behaviors, customs, and practices enacted by an ethnic minority person that did not conform to Beijing’s strict conception of the “Chinese nation.” Authorities clamped down on religious rites, community rituals, and individuals’ freedom of movement, explicitly conflating Islam with extremism, and Uyghurness with separatism. It culminated in the construction of an extensive network of camps and other detention facilities to hold hundreds of thousands of ethnic minority citizens accused of praying in their own homes, speaking to someone abroad, or having WhatsApp installed on their phones, among other “crimes.”
Amid international condemnation of such state violence, Beijing has ramped up its efforts to portray Xinjiang’s denizens as cheerful, contented, and above all, grateful to the CCP. Some of these efforts at persuasion have been awkward and unconvincing. The lifestyle vloggers, on the other hand, represent a more sophisticated genre of propaganda—one that blends seamlessly into the existing Internet firmament while glossing over decades of economic discrimination, racial-ethnic profiling, state violence, and fear.
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Ayituna (known online by her name as transliterated into Mandarin; her Uyghur name is Aytune) started uploading videos to Weibo in late 2018. Even though she was working in Ürümchi, situated in the north of Xinjiang, she posted under the account name “Flower of Southern Xinjiang.” In June 2020, she returned to her hometown, in Qaraqash (Karakax) county. Since the move, she has often filmed herself with her family in the restaurant her father owns. She speaks to her parents mainly in Mandarin, even though they clearly struggle in their non-native tongue. Her sole employment in Qaraqash, she tells us in one sequence, is recording and posting videos.
Qaraqash county is one of the most religiously conservative areas in Xinjiang, with a Uyghur population topping 97 percent. In this mostly Muslim community, drinking alcohol is frowned upon, especially in recent decades. And yet, the Chinese government, which has declared such sensibilities evidence of an “extremist” mindset, actively encourages Uyghurs to drink, even organizing a beer festival and other public drinking events.
All of this makes Ayituna’s video “Are Xinjiang People Good at Drinking Alcohol?” especially jarring. Ayituna visits a liquor factory in Hotan and samples their product, eliciting laughter from Han Chinese bystanders when she says it’s too strong for her. While it is not unthinkable for a Uyghur woman—even one raised in a traditional, southern Uyghur family—to drink alcohol in a private setting, it is unlikely that she would choose it as a topic of her vlog and upload videos for thousands, including her parents, relatives, and teachers, to see. Publicizing such a recording could be socially damaging to her within Uyghur circles which would view it as shameful. Why then would Ayituna do it? We strongly suspect that the content of this video, like many of the others we reviewed, arose from the suggestions, or even demands, of propaganda officials.
Many of these videos highlight themes that align neatly with well-defined government narratives. Sometimes, the hype is blatant, as when Kaidiyaya extols government programs by name. Visiting a friend in the countryside near Kashgar, she exclaims: “This is so beautiful. These are the Safe Homes (anjufang, 安居房) that the government has built for farmers.” In other cases, the videos deliver their messages with a degree of subtlety: hosts celebrating Han Chinese holidays like Mid-Autumn Festival but never mentioning traditional Uyghur holidays like Nowruz; hosts wearing state-approved symbols of Uyghur identity such as a doppa hat but never appearing in “extremist” headscarves; hosts praising Uyghur schoolchildren on their mastery of classical Chinese poetry but never talking to them in their mother tongue.
Some motifs induce a bit of queasiness. Over and over again in the videos we reviewed, female vloggers speak rapturously of Uyghur women’s beauty, reinforcing the exoticizing, colonialist portrayals found in state media.
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We identified a shift in the videos’ topics over time, from softer cultural themes towards hard-nosed international politics, further bolstering our sense that government authorities are setting the vloggers’ agendas. Beginning in late 2020, the videos became increasingly likely to repeat Chinese Foreign Ministry talking points, even on extremely politically sensitive issues like forced labor in Xinjiang’s cotton industry. Outside of Xinjiang, it would be natural for some influencers to spontaneously voice their opinion on heated political topics, and, given China’s Internet censorship regime, for opinions in support of the government to dominate the online space. Inside Xinjiang, however, especially in the shadow of the camps, it seems incredibly unlikely that ethnic minority vloggers would broach such fraught topics without the permission of or direction from government authorities.
Even more unlikely: a vlogger refuting Western media reports published by outlets blocked in China. Authorities in Xinjiang have imprisoned numerous Uyghurs and other ethnic minority citizens for accessing forbidden apps and media. Yet Ayituna, the vlogger who toured the Hotan liquor factory, did just that. In an April 9, 2021 video uploaded to the CCTV YouTube channel, Ayituna expressed her indignation that Radio Free Asia had described her as spreading Chinese government propaganda. This confluence of activities—discussing politically-charged subject matter, referencing censored foreign media reports, posting to an online platform technically unavailable within China, all in a region where Uyghurs have been locked up for far less—strongly suggests government involvement in the creation of her videos.
The vloggers’ unusual freedom of movement likewise hints at a special relationship with the government. Anniguli, Ayituna, and other hosts travel around Xinjiang with an ease unavailable to average Uyghurs. Between formal restrictions on movement and intensive security checks, most Uyghurs would find it difficult to visit the range of villages and tourist sites the vloggers do in their videos, much less record lengthy shots in industrial-scale cotton fields, as Anniguli did in 2018 and 2019. The cost of such video production also raises questions. Based on our review of their videos, many of the vloggers do not appear to come from families of means that could support their degree of traveling.
Of course, popular vloggers do not necessarily need government funding. The media platforms they use—Xigua, YouTube, and Haokan—all compensate creators of popular content in various ways. Even if Chinese authorities bankrolled the start-up costs for these accounts, or helped attract an initial set of followers, the vloggers have a strong commercial financial incentive, separate from the government, to continue posting. Additionally, the authorities can still reward influencers indirectly by promoting their content and thereby boosting their views, likes, and subscriptions, thus increasing their profits. A retweet or quote by state media increases views and thus earnings.
Anniguli, in particular, appears well-compensated for her videos. In one clip, she notes that her monthly expenses in Shanghai come to 20,000 renminbi (almost U.S.$3,000), not including her tuition—a significant step up from her previous lifestyle in Ürümchi. Elsewhere, she mentions that her father did not support her vlog at first, but later changed his mind when he saw how much money she was making. Another vlogger, Wang Xiaolong, in a video uploaded to YouTube, calculated Anniguli’s monthly earning from social media platform Xigua might be. Based on his knowledge of the platforms’ rates per view and the average of Anniguli’s views per video, he estimates that she makes well over 12,000 renminbi (almost U.S.$1,800) a month from just one platform alone.
Other vloggers seem to be cashing in as well. The vlogger Mewlan opened a restaurant in Kashgar called “Thick-Eyebrowed Brother,” after his screen name. The restaurant caters to Han Chinese tourists who have watched his videos. Mewlan, who doesn’t mention political issues in his videos, focusing instead on food and dance, may well have never received any direct government support. He may simply be a savvy entrepreneur, hewing closely to the government’s preferred narratives in order to turn a profit.
Their traveling, too, appears to be covered by the proceeds of their vlogging. In May 2021, Anniguli, Ayituna, and two other ethnic minority vloggers all met up on a beach on China’s eastern coastline, thousands of miles from Xinjiang, to record together. This meeting was arranged by the Chinese social media platform Haokan, onto which they were all uploading videos regularly.
We cannot say for sure what motivates any given individual to shoot any given video. Certainly, we cannot rule out the role of fear or coercion in prompting some of these videos. Publicly displaying loyalty to the Party-state could offer the vloggers a level of political protection for themselves and their loved ones; some of them may feel compelled to record—a kind of forced political labor. Others may have genuine admiration for certain Party policies. Given the vloggers’ youth, inexperience, limited access to outside information, and constant political pressure, we find it difficult to gauge how conscious they are of their role or how they understand their own position. Commercial earnings and political safety are scarce essentials for youths belonging to marginalized minorities whose economic opportunities have shrunk over the past decade and who have faced discrimination and incarceration.
What we can say is that the political, personal, and commercial form a mutually reinforcing space in Xinjiang in which Uyghur and other ethnic minority vloggers must operate. We have little doubt that the government supports, in various capacities, the production of these videos. In some ways, the videos represent just the latest iteration of propaganda featuring ethnic minority citizens expressing gratitude to the Party-state. Yet, the social media market has imbued them with layers of complexity, injecting commercial motivations and individual flair into otherwise stiffly scripted content.
Our research on this phenomenon is a work in progress, and recently a few things have changed. Again. In the fall of 2021, Anniguli stopped uploading new videos. Perhaps her disappearance is due to her new busy life in Shanghai. Perhaps she has been recruited to more lucrative jobs at her art and media school. Perhaps she has merely lost her appetite for vlogging. We hope the reason is not more sinister.
Ayituna, on the other hand, is still producing videos and her views and subscriptions have increased. In several of her newest videos from 2022, she speaks slightly more Uyghur than she did in past videos and even speaks some English. In the Spring of 2021, she also mentioned the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, known in Uyghur as Roza Héyit. Whether these changes indicate a degree of loosening up of language and cultural policies in southern Xinjiang or whether they are merely an expression of the government’s effort to window-dress becoming more tolerant and benevolent to its minorities in the face of sustained condemnation remains to be seen.
Vloggers from Xinjiang will almost certainly keep churning out these videos in the coming months and years: the geopolitical rivalry between China and the U.S. has turned Xinjiang into a propaganda trope on both sides, and social media only continues to grow in importance in the global battle for hearts and minds. If anything, the Chinese government’s efforts to produce authentic-looking content will increase in urgency and sophistication.