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China Uses YouTube Influencers to Whitewash Alleged Abuses of Uyghurs

FILE - Members of Uyghur communities take part in a protest against China, near the Chinese consulate in Istanbul, on Dec. 4, 2022.
FILE - Members of Uyghur communities take part in a protest against China, near the Chinese consulate in Istanbul, on Dec. 4, 2022.

Guli Abdushukur is a young Uyghur woman and a YouTube influencer with more that 150,000 subscribers.

In one of Abdushukur’s viral videos, she tells foreign journalists that she wants to defend Xinjiang, a region in northwestern China, against reports of human rights abuses there. She says she wants to highlight the beauty of her homeland, like the cotton fields, fresh fruit, markets, and adults and children who love to dance.

In another video, which garnered more than 440,000 views, Abdushukur appears in an idyllic cotton field and shows how cotton is harvested in Xinjiang. The beautiful cotton harvest tutorial fails to mention the fact that cotton produced in Xinjiang is often tied to forced Uyghur labor. Uyghurs are a majority-Muslim ethnic group in the region.

Abdushukur is not alone. According to a 2022 report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a research group, the Chinese government has turned to YouTube influencers in yet another disinformation campaign designed to conceal the abuses Beijing is accused of perpetrating in Xinjiang.

On the surface, the videos appear harmless, ASPI said. Topics range from puppies to makeup to travel.

Then the tone sometimes shifts. “These people, they slander us for nothing,” one woman says in one of the videos.

Aytunam Ablikim of the active “Ayituna” YouTube channel, which has more than 40,000 subscribers, is another example. “Welcome to Xinjiang!” her account biography proclaims. In one video, she talks about the beautiful hair of the women in her family. But other videos are explicitly propaganda with English subtitles.

“To an inexperienced viewer, these Uyghur influencers would just look very genuine. These women post about the most mundane things,” ASPI researcher Daria Impiombato told Vice magazine in March. “But then embedded in this lifestyle content there are hidden, subtle propaganda messages. I believe the main aim of these channels is that of whitewashing the human rights abuses.”

Despite being blocked in China, YouTube has become an ideological battleground for Beijing, according to Vice. For their investigation, Impiombato and her team reviewed more than 1,700 YouTube videos. Many of them depict Xinjiang as idyllic.

“From the bucolic to the exotic, videos from small towns and villages or distant cities on China’s western frontier are being promoted in both official discourse and popular media as new lands of opportunity for China’s youth,” the ASPI report said.

In reality, Beijing stands accused of committing genocide and crimes against humanity against Uyghurs and other majority-Muslim ethnic groups in the region. The Chinese Communist Party’s alleged abuses include forced labor, mass detentions and forced sterilizations. In an emailed statement to VOA, a spokesperson at China’s Washington embassy denied the accusations.

“Seeing is believing. People are wise enough to tell right from wrong. The so-called issue of Xinjiang has been used as an instrument to slander China. Such attempts won’t go very far,” the spokesperson said. “China sincerely welcomes friends from all countries to visit Xinjiang and see [for] themselves Xinjiang’s social tranquility, economic progress, ethnic harmony and people’s freedom in religious belief.”

Cultural destruction is a central element of what is happening in the region, which means the Uyghur language is under threat, according to Timothy Grose, a professor at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Indiana.

That means “a picture of Uyghur text or a video of Uyghurs speaking to each other in their mother language can provide a seemingly convincing argument to the underinformed and those concerned that the Uyghur crisis is being ‘fabricated’ for U.S. geopolitical interests,” Grose told VOA. “How, these people may ask, can the Uyghur language be under attack if it can been seen and heard on the streets?”

The narratives in these influencer videos first began to emerge in Chinese state media after 2018, according to Peter Irwin, who works at the Uyghur Human Rights Project, a research-based advocacy organization in Washington.

“It’s a transparent attempt to depict a narrative that doesn’t align with any of the facts on the ground,” Irwin told VOA. “The point is to present a perspective that appears to be a genuine, organic expression of their experience on the ground, but many of these influencers are directly supported by the government. If you look through their content, it all aligns neatly with what has already been said consistently in state media and from the government itself.”

Beijing-backed propaganda about Xinjiang is nothing new. Chinese state media have long disseminated the official narrative on Xinjiang, justifying Beijing’s policies in the region as necessary for counterterrorism purposes while reinforcing a stereotypical cartoon-like image of happy, dancing Uyghurs.

What makes these videos noteworthy, ASPI’s Impiombato told Vice, is that they were made to appear separate from the state in order to bolster their legitimacy.

“The problem with these videos is that their link with the propaganda apparatus is not as direct as with party state media or people who appear on Twitter and have official state-linked accounts,” she said. That risks making the videos more believable and the propaganda more effective.

Beijing’s use of social media influencers underscores the lengths it will go to in trying to influence public opinion about Xinjiang, according to Zumretay Arkin, who works for the World Uyghur Congress, a Uyghur advocacy group based in Munich.

“It is quite shocking to see how far the CCP is willing to go to whitewash genocide,” she told the VOA.