Foreign social media influencers are being used by the Chinese Communist Party as part of a “global propaganda push” to whitewash human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region, according to a report by an Australian think tank.
Chinese state entities invite foreign social media creators on state-backed tours of the autonomous region and amplify video and other content that support “pro-CCP narratives,” according to the report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).
In the report released on Tuesday, the Canberra-based think tank said it identified at least 546 posts by Chinese state-controlled social media accounts that promoted Xinjiang-related content created by 13 foreign influencers.
The posts, spanning January 2020 and August 2021, included videos that depicted a “wholly positive image of life in Xinjiang” by focusing on the region’s food, culture and infrastructure, as well as more “overtly political” videos that disputed allegations of mass detention and forced labour.
“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,” said the think tank, which receives funding from a range of sources including the Australian and United States governments, the tech industry, and arms manufacturers.
“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 briefings. This trend is particularly notable given the difficulty faced by journalists reporting in Xinjiang.”
Zhang Heqing, a cultural attaché at the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad, was the most prolific sharer of foreign influencer content, promoting it at least 56 times, according to the report.
The report, titled “Borrowing mouths to speak on Xinjiang”, said the strategy aligned with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s call earlier this year to “never stop expanding our circle of friends that understand China and befriend China in the arena of international public opinion”.
“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,” the think tank said.
“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.”
The think tank recommended social media companies “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”.
A UN human rights panel in 2018 said it had received “numerous and credible” reports that authorities in Xinjiang had detained 1 million or more Uighur and other ethnic minority Muslims in internment camps.
The office of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said on Friday it was preparing to release its assessment of conditions in Xinjiang within weeks, after failing to make progress on arranging a visit to the region.
The announcement came as the Uighur Tribunal, an unofficial tribunal with no enforcement powers based in the UK, said it was “satisfied beyond reasonable doubt” that Beijing was responsible for genocide and crimes against humanity in the region.
Beijing has defended its “vocational education and training centres” as necessary to combat violent extremism and alleviate poverty.
Chinese Foreign Minister Spokeswoman Hua Chunying on Twitter accused ASPI of being a government-funded agency and said people should “follow the money” to understand why it published “so many fake reports about China”.
Daniel Dumbrill, a Canadian vlogger named in ASPI’s report, told Al Jazeera the think tank had more significant conflicts of interest than the people it was drawing attention to.
“If their position is that it is problematic my content has been re-shared by government officials, it helps further emphasize my point about ASPI, who not only has their reports re-shared and utilized by government, who not only participate in government panels, but are funded by governments and the military industrial complex to begin with, which is a significantly more problematic and conflict of interest ridden issue,” Dumbrill said.
“Recognizing this is a valuable first step to then examine and reconcile why many of their reports are dishonest, biased and incomplete, because of course, their sponsors being beneficiaries of the work that they sponsor is not just coincidental.”