Faced with accusations of human rights in China’s Xinjiang and other issues, Beijing has tried to attract and draw in foreigners to promote the Chinese narrative and counter what they call “Western smears against China. In the age of self-publishing, Beijing seems to have found such a foreign face: the expatriate netizen.
Foreign netizens “support China”
A search on YouTube for the pinyin for “Xinjiang” will likely result in videos of foreign YouTube bloggers talking about Xinjiang in addition to Western media reports. In these videos, foreign bloggers either share what they have seen and heard from their personal visits to Xinjiang or refute Western reports, many of which are nearly identical to the Chinese government’s narrative.
These video bloggers include Lee and Oli Barrett, a British father and son team living in China, and Jason Lightfoot, a Briton. The videos they uploaded do not show them visiting Xinjiang, but they claim that the U.S. and other Western countries are using genocide and forced labor to attack China in order to destabilize it and serve Western geopolitical interests.
In other videos, Lightfoot accused the Western media of being “lie makers” and mocked the British BBC for using a so-called “netherworld filter” in its coverage of China. In late 2019, Lee Barrett released a video praising China’s political system, saying that the one-party system makes decision-making in China more efficient than a multi-party system, allowing the country’s economy to grow at a rapid pace.
Daniel Dumbrill, a Canadian expatriate in China, is another expatriate blogger who criticizes Western hype on Xinjiang issues and defends Chinese policies. He says the U.S. bans products from Xinjiang on the grounds of forced labor without any real evidence, but in fact takes away the livelihoods of Uighurs and makes ordinary people suffer. He recently visited Kashgar and other places in Xinjiang and posted a video saying he saw Uighur children playing communicating with each other in their own language, and signs on the streets were written in both Uighur and Chinese, showing no sign of the Western claim that China is eliminating the Uighur language. He said the streets are indeed heavily policed and monitored, but local Uighurs say they are now very safe.
These video bloggers are favored and highly sought after by Chinese officials. They have been invited to appear on the official Chinese media CGTN (China Global Television Network) and their videos have been reposted or used by the Chinese government and official media social media accounts. Dumbrell’s comments were even used by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying at a press conference as fodder to rebut Western reports.
Taking Chinese money for China’s big foreign propaganda?
Their relationship with Chinese officials, however, has also generated controversy and scrutiny. A recent BBC report titled “China’s disinformation-driven foreign weblebrities” said that Chinese official media and government agencies are funding or collaborating with foreign video bloggers to produce China-friendly videos to help China’s big foreign propaganda, and that some video bloggers may have such cooperation with Chinese official media. The report said that both Barrett and his son and Lightfoot have participated in visits organized by Chinese official media or government agencies, and they are also listed as Global Stringer by CGTN.
These foreign bloggers deny taking money from China to do propaganda for China. Lee Barrett released a video on Wednesday saying that what he documented was what he did, saw, experienced and believed in China, and that it was not “disinformation” at all. Barrett and his son had earlier said in a video that they had indeed participated in a visit by self-publishers organized by China Radio International (CRI), which provided transportation and accommodation, but they stressed that the video was independently compiled and produced.
American video bloggers who have appeared in or received attention from the Chinese media include Jerry Kowal, who is popular in China, Matt Galat, an American who runs the YouTube channel JaYoe Nation, and Cyrus Jassen, an American who has lived in China for more than a decade and now lives in Canada. Jassen).
Voice of America tried to contact them but did not receive comment by press time. In an emailed response to VOA, Wang said he would produce a video to respond to media questions.
Bret Schafer, a researcher with the Media and Digital Disinformation Project of the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for the Defense of Democracy, told VOA that it is difficult to tell whether the foreign bloggers are being funded by the Chinese government or whether they are sincere in their pro-China statements. But he said, “Many of them probably do have those views, for whatever reason. The official Chinese media outlets are very good at finding them and giving them a platform.”
But he points out that China has an Internet firewall, that Western social media platforms like YouTube are blocked in China, and that the fact that these foreign video bloggers living in China are free to use VPNs to post videos on YouTube actually suggests that they have some permission and support from the Chinese government.
If you have a negative view of the Chinese government, can you still be allowed to log on to these social media platforms? I think the answer is obviously no. So the question is, do they have the support of the government at least on some level?”
Pulling in foreign netizens for foreign or domestic propaganda?
In any case, Schaeffer said, the strategy on the Chinese side is very clear – to get the Chinese government’s propaganda out through the mouths of foreigners, as Russia has long done, “to make those views seem more credible.”
Chinese officials have launched several initiatives in recent months to find foreigners who can “better tell the story of China and the Chinese Communist Party.” China Daily, the official Chinese media, recently established the “New Era Snow Studio” to facilitate foreign journalists and foreign friends, encouraging them to “present a true, three-dimensional and comprehensive China,” as the American journalist Edgar Snow did.
CGTN has launched a competition called Media Challengers to find journalists, bloggers, video broadcasters, weblebrities and others around the world. The winner will receive a prize of up to $10,000 and a chance to work for CGTN on a full-time or part-time basis.
The BBC, citing several anonymous sources, said CGTN is now focusing on using “netizens and celebrities” to “counter” foreign media coverage by creating a “netizen The “netizen” department is responsible for contacting foreigners to negotiate the use of their videos or collaborate on video production, and arranging for foreigners to travel to Xinjiang.
Matthew Tye, an American who has lived in Huizhou, Guangdong Province, China, for a decade, is a YouTube video blogger with nearly 700,000 followers. He started his YouTube channel Laowhy86 in 2012 to document his life in China and discuss cultural comparisons between the U.S. and China, before returning to the U.S. in 2018 and turning to comment on Chinese politics and society.
He argues that China’s use of foreigners for foreign propaganda may still be more of an intensification of internal propaganda than convincing foreign audiences. He said foreign bloggers defending the Chinese government post videos on YouTube to an audience that is supposed to be a Western audience, but the comments below the videos include a number of responses in simplified characters.
It does work very well for the Chinese government,” he said. If a Chinese person sees one of these videos on the Chinese side of the web and it says the same thing that the Chinese government says, that the Chinese government is good and has the best interests of the people in mind, lo and behold, this foreigner says the same thing. And then they’ll say, I’m curious what the view is on the other side, I’ll get a VPN, go over the wall to YouTube, and then they see the same thing. It’s double positive reinforcement. They see foreigners telling foreign viewers how great the Chinese government is, and they think it should be very credible. So it’s a domestic Chinese audience on both sides.”
Some scholars in China have also pointed out the same problem. At the China Globalization think tank’s “New China Narrative Seminar” this week, Chinese international relations scholar Chu Yin pointed out that China is developing a strange phenomenon of “internalizing foreign propaganda,” leading to confusion about who to tell China’s story to, resulting in a lot of This has resulted in a lot of money being invested in foreign propaganda, but in the end it only has an effect on the country.
All that remains is the hymn
When Matthew Tye was in China, he and his partner rode motorcycles through the country, filming two documentaries: Riding South China and Riding North China. He said they encountered obstacles and restrictions while filming then, especially in ethnic minority areas considered sensitive by the Chinese government, and he was later targeted by Chinese state security and had to leave the country. But he says foreigners in China today are afraid they won’t be able to observe and document China as closely as they did back then.
The Chinese government has invested so much money in this propaganda campaign to make China look good and to promote itself that people are no longer able to be neutral and go out and shoot very neutral content because it’s not allowed,” he says. There’s no longer room to show the subtle complexities, there’s no longer room to be able to go out and say, this is great, but this needs attention. Now you can only tell the good and tell why it’s better than the West.”