Tik-Tok, time is running out: CCP-backed influencers are winning the social media battle in Xinjiang

A war is raging online in Xinjiang. Chinese authorities have employed a network of influencers to engage in waves of disinformation, countering popular global pressure. Intricate if insidious, the CCP's policies are an affront to truth and freedom.


By Ruth Ingram

November 8, 2022


"Genocide?!"


Social media "influencer" Xinjiang Guli (Alice) is furious with former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. She derides his campaign to discredit China on her YouTube channel. "You are simply nonsense!" She scoffs.


The young, twenty-something Uyghur university student is outraged by Western accusations of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity against her people and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and lashes out for the benefit of her 53,000 followers.


"Carefully orchestrated good news stories of those who have benefitted from the so-called re-education campaign have come thick and fast to oppose the anti-Chinese rhetoric"


She greeted America's former Secretary of State's verdict on the so-called atrocities in Xinjiang with "outrage" and "hilarity."


As a resident of Xinjiang, she said, she could not stand these "falsehoods".


The motive was clearly to create instability and hinder the "peaceful co-existence" of the "harmonious" ethnic groups; Pompeo's lies were "fictional" and "self-defeating", she concluded. Her clearly scripted diatribe against American hegemony, enunciated phrase by phrase, then swiftly cuts to the snow-clad peaks and ski fields of the Tian Shan mountain range.


Here, with her bevvy of Xinjiang "beauties" all Uyghurs are free to enjoy the good life, she trumpeted. "Eat your heart out Pompeo, your accusations bear no relation to the reality of our carefree lives."


Supporters of the East Turkistan National Awakening Movement rally in front of the White House to commemorate the 13th anniversary of the Urumqi Massacre [Getty Images]


Beijing's determination to counter growing opposition over the treatment of the so-called minority Turkic peoples on its North Western flank, has seen every stop pulled out since 2018 to boost its popularity, massage negative satellite imagery and discredit shocking camp survivor testimonies.


Its own state media the China Daily, Global Times and the China Global Television Network (CGTN) have been working overtime to counter Western disapproval of its actions. Carefully orchestrated good news stories of those who have benefitted from the so-called re-education campaign have come thick and fast to oppose the anti-Chinese rhetoric.


Following exposés by relatives in the West, hastily gathered panels of loved ones are corralled by Chinese media to hurl insults and debunk their relatives' accusations.



Posses of CGTN journalists trudge into remote deserts and villages to visit families deemed by "disgruntled" exiles to have languished in camps or suffered in some way from CCP campaigns of cultural destruction.


One such team pursued exiled poet Aziz Isa Elkun's elderly mother into the Hotan countryside following allegations that his father's grave had been destroyed. His only consolation following the "exposé" was to see his mother alive after several years of state-imposed silence.


Prodigious social media campaigns have seen thousands of fake Twitter accounts go to war against anti-Beijing narratives; accounts whose Tweets, re-tweeted tens of thousands of times have created a "fiction of popularity" and a "mirage of broad support," for its actions.

Months of unbridled activity escape Twitter censors' nets until according to a 2021 study by Associated Press and the Oxford Internet Institute, 26,879 accounts were identified that managed to retweet Chinese diplomats or state media posts nearly 200,000 times before being suspended.


Foreign citizen "journalists" too are lured into the CCP's propaganda net, given free rein to explore the country and explode "myths" surrounding repression and human rights abuse, largely for a foreign audience. Famously, one year ago, Israeli blogger Raz Galor recorded more than 650,000 viewers to his documentary on Xinjiang's mechanised cotton industry during a spell "working as a cotton farmer."


Posses of CGTN journalists trudge into remote deserts and villages to visit families deemed by "disgruntled" exiles to have languished in camps or suffered in some way from CCP campaigns of cultural destruction.


One such team pursued exiled poet Aziz Isa Elkun's elderly mother into the Hotan countryside following allegations that his father's grave had been destroyed. His only consolation following the "exposé" was to see his mother alive after several years of state-imposed silence.


Prodigious social media campaigns have seen thousands of fake Twitter accounts go to war against anti-Beijing narratives; accounts whose Tweets, re-tweeted tens of thousands of times have created a "fiction of popularity" and a "mirage of broad support," for its actions.

Months of unbridled activity escape Twitter censors' nets until according to a 2021 study by Associated Press and the Oxford Internet Institute, 26,879 accounts were identified that managed to retweet Chinese diplomats or state media posts nearly 200,000 times before being suspended.


Foreign citizen "journalists" too are lured into the CCP's propaganda net, given free rein to explore the country and explode "myths" surrounding repression and human rights abuse, largely for a foreign audience. Famously, one year ago, Israeli blogger Raz Galor recorded more than 650,000 viewers to his documentary on Xinjiang's mechanised cotton industry during a spell "working as a cotton farmer."


"The Chinese Communist Party hides under the cloak of MCN's [multi-channel networks] to absolve itself of all connection with the operation, thereby creating the appearance of "independent" and "authoritative" voices backing its own spurious agenda"


As can be seen by dozens of twenty-something Uyghur vloggers, their less polished presentation conveys, in the words of ASPI, "a false sense of legitimacy and transparency about China’s frontier regions that party-state media struggle to achieve."


Woven for example into the clips of Annie Guli, whose fan base reached more than half a million in her heyday three years ago, are strands of favourite recipes and Xinjiang's famous kababs, happy family life, Turkic culture, and the beauty of her homeland, permeated with a robust thread of CCP policy.


The predominantly young women are allowed to wander unusually freely from city to city when most Uyghurs are forbidden to travel anywhere, their YouTube channels, banned in China, are carefully choreographed to push Beijing's line on ethnic unity, interracial marriage, the importance of the national language, and the CCP's role in lifting Xinjiang from China's most "backward" province to its role today as a key hub of its Belt and Road policy linking Beijing with Europe.


Strongly debunking "propaganda" on forced labour, internment camps and human rights abuse, Western "lies" and smears are decried in no uncertain terms.


The "influencers", many of whom simply call themselves "Guli", (flower) the Han pet name for young Uyghur women, all conform to the twenty-first century CCP stereotype.


They never mention religion, they speak fluent Mandarin, live secular lifestyles, love fashion, like to drink alcohol and party, and wear their hair loose; the antithesis of their more conservative Southern Xinjiang compatriots, so problematic for Beijing.


Tibetans, Uyghurs and those from Hong Kong joint force hold a candlelit vigil outside the Chinese Embassy in London on the 33rd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre [Getty Images]


According to ASPI, the video content appears to be the creation of the individual influencers but is in fact what is referred to in China as "professional user-generated content", or content that’s produced with the help of special influencer-management agencies known as multi-channel networks (MCNs).


The Chinese Communist Party hides under the cloak of MCNs to absolve itself of all connection with the operation, thereby creating the appearance of "independent" and "authoritative" voices backing its own spurious agenda.


Danish researchers have also been investigating the phenomenon headed by anthropologist Rune Steenberg. They compiled 2,672 videos from seven of these vloggers dating back to 2018 and analysed thirty in depth to reveal a stark profile of a State system determined to counter the agenda of the West.


Annie Guli and her compatriots' seemingly innocent chat on Chinese social media platforms such as Weibo, Xigua and Haokan and US-based YouTube, about their families, choice of boyfriends or lack of them, hobbies and social life have provided telling clues as to the workings of Beijing's propaganda machine. According to Steenberg the videos were riddled with common themes.


They often parroted government talking points quoting policy verbatim and benefitted from promotion via government accounts. Other "minority" ethnicity "influencers" enjoy promoting their own ethnic identity in Mandarin, whilst at the same time supporting government policies on interracial marriage and ethnic harmony.



Many including Karakax's Ayituna, with 1.4 million followers, rely solely on income generated by their stream.


Fresh from her home in the conservative Uyghur Muslim heartland her counter-cultural plug for the Hotan liquor factory plays straight into the hands of a state whose policies in Southern Xinjiang have often pushed habits that are anathema to the faithful. But it seems as if she has captured the hearts of CGTN, and they pay the bills.


International condemnation of Beijing's actions amid its so-called War on Terror has seen a doubling down on its portrayal of Uyghurs as happy, smiling, and frequently dancing, grateful citizens. Kaidiyaya praises the government's local settlement policies, Dina is not surprised that most bikinis in China are sold in Xinjiang and in her before and after clips of Kashgar she is full of praise for the "earth-shaking" changes, the welfare provision and the fact that "all Chinese people are now becoming rich".


She praises special homes that are built for farmers by the government, celebrates Han Chinese festivals rather than Uyghur holidays and admires Uyghur children’s mastery of Classical Chinese poetry.


Each of the vloggers studied has been observed by Steenberg's team to have become increasingly vocal in support of the government since 2018, leading them to suspicions of increasing degrees of compulsion and likely government interference in the content of their posts.


Steenberg's jury is out as to whether the vloggers are helpless pawns in the State machine, whether they are simply motivated by money, or whether they genuinely admire their government.


Given the extent of illegal roundups in internment camps, some might be trying to protect family members and some with the power to influence hundreds and thousands might be simply in too deep to get out. Special punishments are reserved for the two-faced.


According to Steenberg, as the geopolitical rivalry increases between the United States and Beijing, and Xinjiang as a vital hub in the Belt and Road continues to be a flash point of Beijing's economic strategy going forward, social media will continue to be a powerful tool in winning hearts and minds, not only at home but across the international community.


The author is writing under a pseudonym to protect her identity




Source: english.alaraby.co.uk