How China spreads its propaganda version of life for Uyghurs
Thousands of videos of Uyghurs denying abuses against their community are showing up on Twitter and YouTube. They’re part of an elaborate influence campaign by Chinese officials to counter reports of human rights violations in Xinjiang.
- Recently, the owner of a small store in western China came across some remarks by Mike Pompeo, the former U.S. secretary of state. What he heard made him angry.
- A Uyghur store owner criticizes the U.S. State Department’s declaration of genocide in Xinjiang. He says his experience in an “education and training center” removed his “religious extremist thoughts.”
- A worker in a textile company had the same reaction. So did a retiree in her 80s. And a taxi driver.
Pompeo had routinely accused China of committing human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region, and these four people made videos to express their outrage. They did so in oddly similar ways.
“Pompeo said that we Uyghurs are locked up and have no freedom,” the store owner said.
“There’s nothing like that at all in our Xinjiang,” said the taxi driver.
“We are very free,” the retiree said.
“We are very free now,” the store owner said.
“We are very, very free here,” the taxi driver said.
“Our lives are very happy and very free now,” the textile company worker said.
These and thousands of other videos are meant to look like unfiltered glimpses of life in Xinjiang, the western Chinese region where the Communist Party has carried out repressive policies against Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities. Most of the clips carry no logos or other signs that they are official propaganda.
But taken together, the videos begin to reveal clues of broader coordination — such as the English subtitles in clips posted to YouTube and other Western platforms.
A monthslong analysis of more than 3,000 of the videos by ProPublica and The New York Times found evidence of an influence campaign orchestrated by the Chinese government.
The operation has produced and spread thousands of videos in which Chinese citizens deny abuses against their own communities and scold foreign officials and multinational corporations who dare question the Chinese government’s human rights record in Xinjiang.
It all amounts to one of China’s most elaborate efforts to shape global opinion.
Beijing is trying to use savvier and more forceful methods to broadcast its political messages to a worldwide audience. And Western internet platforms like Twitter and YouTube are playing a key part.
Many of these videos of people in Xinjiang first appeared on a regional Communist Party news app. Then they showed up on YouTube and other global sites, with English subtitles added. (The excerpts of dialogue in this article are translated from the original spoken Chinese or Uyghur by ProPublica and The Times. They are not taken from the English subtitles in the original videos.)
On Twitter, a network of connected accounts shared the videos in ways that seemed designed to avoid the platform’s systems for detecting influence campaigns.
China’s increasingly social-media-fluent diplomats and state-run news outlets have since spread the testimonials to audiences of millions worldwide.
Western platforms like Twitter and YouTube are banned in China out of fear they might be used to spread political messaging — which is exactly how Chinese officials are using these platforms in the rest of the world.
They are, in essence, high-speed propaganda pipelines for Beijing. In just a few days, videos establishing the Communist Party’s version of reality can be shot, edited and amplified across the global internet.
How the Videos Work
The dialogue in hundreds of the Xinjiang videos contains strikingly similar, and often identical, phrases and structures.
Most videos are in Chinese or Uyghur and follow the same basic script. The subject introduces themselves, then explains how their own happy, prosperous life means there couldn’t possibly be repressive policies in Xinjiang.
Many people in the videos use the expression tusheng-tuzhang (土生土长), meaning “born and raised.” They claim that, as native Xinjiangers, they know best how their community is treated.
A four-character Chinese phrase meaning “born and raised” appears in more than 280 of the more than 2,000 videos attacking Pompeo that ProPublica and the Times found on YouTube and Twitter.
The people in more than 1,000 of the videos say they have recently come across Pompeo’s remarks, most of them “on the internet” or on specific platforms such as Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok.
An expression meaning “complete nonsense” and close variations of it appear in more than 600 of the videos.
Establishing that government officials had a hand in making these testimonials is sometimes just a matter of asking.
In one clip, the owner of a used car dealership in Xinjiang says: “Pompeo, shut your mouth.”
When reached by phone, the man said local propaganda authorities had produced the clip. When asked for details, he gave the number of an official he called Mr. He, saying, “Why don’t you ask the head of the propaganda department?”
Multiple calls to Mr. He’s number were not answered. Seven other people in the videos whose contact information could be found either declined to be interviewed or couldn’t be reached. (The name of the car dealership’s owner is being withheld to protect him from retribution by Chinese officials.)
In another sign of government coordination, language in the videos echoes written denunciations of Pompeo that Chinese state agencies issued around the same time.
Beginning in late January, government workers across Xinjiang held meetings to “speak out and show the sword” against “Pompeo’s anti-China lies,” according to statements on official websites.
The clips’ effectiveness as propaganda comes in part because they will probably be most people’s only glimpse into Xinjiang, a remote desert region closer to Kabul than to Beijing.
The Chinese authorities have thwarted efforts by journalists and others to gain unfettered access to the indoctrination camps where hundreds of thousands of Muslims have been sent for reeducation.
On government-led tours of the region, foreign diplomats and reporters have been allowed to speak with locals only under Chinese officials’ watchful eyes, often in settings that seem staged and scripted.
For Western platforms hosting the Xinjiang testimonials, the fact that they are not immediately obvious as state propaganda poses a challenge.
To promote transparency, sites like YouTube and Twitter label accounts and posts that are associated with governments. The Xinjiang videos, however, carry no such tags.
YouTube said the clips did not violate its community guidelines. Twitter declined to comment on the videos, adding that it routinely releases data on campaigns that it can “reliably attribute to state-linked activity.”
How the Videos Spread
The video campaign started this year after the State Department declared on Jan. 19, the final full day of the Trump presidency, that China was committing genocide in Xinjiang. (Story continues; see here)
(This story was originally published by ProPublica)