By Bahram Sintash and Nuriman Abdureshid
China has enlisted some fresh faces in its pushback against charges it is committing genocide against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang: young foreign social media influencers who produce short videos showing happy minorities in the far-western region.
Travel videos recorded by video bloggers known as vloggers are carried on platforms such as Twitter that are banned in China and spread by state media and affiliated sites. The echo and amplify Beijing’s massive propaganda effort to depict Uyghurs as content with and grateful for Chinese rule.
The videos show “foreign travelers” interviewing people in factories in Xinjiang, with captions such as “Friends, it’s a lie that there is a genocide of the Uyghurs.” “Everything is normal here,” and “Is there a single piece of evidence that there are more than 1 million people in concentration camps?”
State-owned media outlets and local governments organize the pro-China campaign, paying vloggers to take trips, according to documents posted online and video producers familiar with the system.
“What happens is you’ll have a state media like CGTN or CRI or iChongqing or any number of organizations which are run by the Chinese government — which are the Chinese government — and what they will do is they will pay for the flights, pay for the accommodation, organize the trip, and liaise with the content creator and invite them to go on these trips,” said YouTuber Winston Sterzel, who lived in Xinjiang.
Minders working as translators or fixers are always present to make sure the content creators follow the script, he said.
Vloggers, who post short videos on their personal websites or social media account on platforms like YouTube, say that local government officials arrange their travel and logging during trips they are hired for to make videos that put China in a good light.
“They arrange our travel, and they pay for our lodging and food,” said YouTuber Lee Barrett in a video he recorded.
Business Insider reported in January that China’s consulate general in New York signed a U.S. $300 million contract with U.S.-based Vippi Media in New Jersey to create a social media campaign promoting positive messaging about China TikTok, Instagram, and Twitch as a lead-up to the 2022 Olympic Games in Beijing.
Social media influencers were asked to produce content for their target audiences on Chinese culture, positive diplomatic relations between China and the U.S., and consulate general news.
‘Living happily and joyfully’
On the YouTube channel “Two Brothers,” Netherlands-based Tarekk Habib and Anas Habib, both of Egyptian descent, published a video on Dec. 31, 2021, in which they say a Chinese company agreed to pay them U.S. $1,000 to produce and share a video extoling the government’s measures to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus at the Olympics and to ensure the safety of athletes.
They said they turned down the request and instead produced a video discussing China’s oppression of Uyghur Muslims.
China’s struggle to shape world opinion about Xinjiang will come into sharp focus this month, when U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet makes a long-awaited visit to China, including Xinjiang.
Since 2017, about 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples are believed to have been incarcerated a vast network of internment camps in Xinjiang.
The U.S. and a handful of European countries have labelled these practices genocide, while China has angrily rejected criticism and maintains the camps are vocational training centers designed to combat religious extremism and terrorism.
In fall 2021, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) government began an initiative to mobilize foreign students in China to praise “Xinjiang policy.” The effort was part of the central government’s larger plan to portray ethnic minorities in Xinjiang as happy and content, according to an article in Xinjiang Daily.
Under the title “The people of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang are living happily and joyfully,” the report cited a series of letters written by Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping in which he called on foreign students in July 2021 to increase their understanding of the “real China,” so that their knowledge would inspire others to understand the country as well.
The XUAR government in October 2021 sponsored a trip to Xinjiang for students from 16 countries, including Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Burundi, Uganda, Russia, Pakistan, Korea, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, the U.S. and the U.K.
Chinese state media said the students visited Kashgar (Kashi), Hotan (Hetian), and other places, and saw Xinjiang’s economic development, social stability, quality of life, culture, ethnic unity and religious harmony.
“They are not only able to look after the young and old people in their homes, they can also earn a salary. Their work environment is very good, and they are truly happy,” an Armenian student was quoted as saying.
Such accounts are meant to counter a growing tide of well-researched reports by researchers and foreign media about conditions in Xinjiang.
Since the start of 2018, authorities have prevented most international journalists from entering Xinjiang and forced foreigners living in the region to leave.
YouTubers from the U.S. and South Africa who lived in the Xinjiang or in mainland China for a decade or more said that while recent vlogs by foreigners “traveling” to Xinjiang appear to be simple and normal, government fixers are always on the other side of the camera, controlling what is said and recorded.
“You’re gonna be approached by your agent or your middleman … who is a communicator between you and the management company, or as they call themselves, talent agencies,” said LeLe Farley, an American comedian and rap artist who lived in China for years and worked as an announcer for Chinese-language programs.
“Those talent agencies get word directly from the government, like ‘we need foreign bloggers for white-washing Xinjiang; we need them to go there, and here’s the trip that we’ve prepared for them to go on. We’ll pay for the whole trip,’” he said.
Josh Summers, who ran a popular blog known as “Far West China” as well as a YouTube channel, moved to Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi (Wulumuqi) in 2006 and lived both there and in Karamay (Kelamayi) until 2018. While in Urumqi (Wulumuqi), he wrote about and produced videos on Uyghur weddings, cuisine and Eid prayers at the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar.
“A lot of these travelers that you’re talking about, these people that are doing videos, the reality is they know nothing on Xinjiang,” he said. “They pretend to, but they know nothing, whereas I lived there.”
As authorities stepped up their surveillance and monitoring of Uyghurs in 2015, the Chinese government looked increasingly into the work of foreigners living in the region, Summers said.
Summers said he was detained and questioned by authorities. While they eventually let him go, they also told him and his family that they could no longer stay in China.
In 2018, representatives of the Chinese government deported him and forbade him from returning to Urumqi. He chose not to publish any videos about Xinjiang because he did not want to cause problems for Uyghur contacts.
‘Look at all the Uyghurs dancing’
American Matthew Tye and South African Winston Sterzel were also forced to leave China over videos they published after having lived in the country for more than 10 years.
The pair, who became well known in China under the handles laowhy86 and Serpentza, told RFA that vloggers’ videos, may appear to have been made freely, but they are fake and have another purpose altogether.
“The place might seem great to a tourist who knows no Chinese language or culture, but this is very dangerous,” said Tye.
“By going there and smiling and saying, ‘Look at all the Uyghurs dancing,’ you are helping one of the most disgusting governments in the world,” Sterzel said.
Tye and Sterzel, who are now both back in their home countries, have continued to post videos about China on their YouTube channels.
They said that a Chinese government agent contacted them over email and offered to pay U.S. $2,000 if posted a propaganda video on their channel claiming that the COVID-19 virus was being spread by white-tailed deer in the U.S., Tye said
“Really, what the video is insinuating was that COVID-19 was found in America before China,” he said.
“We strung them along to try to get as much information as possible, but they eventually found out who we were and they cut ties with us,” he added. “This has happened previously, and they’ve tried to get us to do that with tourism, propaganda and all kinds of stuff.”
Jerry Goode, a South African living in China, is one of a number of foreigners who have been taken on the government-organized trips to Xinjiang to make vlogs.
Goode recorded a YouTube a video of himself walking around the streets, stalls and night market of the Grand Bazaar in Urumqi, a main tourist attraction. The video, post online on Jan. 24, has been viewed more than 60,000 times. At the end of the video, Goode declares that it is “untrue” that genocide is occurring in the region.”
Goode initially agreed to an interview with RFA about his trip to Xinjiang but never replied to further attempts to talk to him.
Not close to normal
Tye and Sterzel dismissed the video as state-sponsored propaganda.
“Xinjiang is massive, and there’s no way that some idiot YouTuber who cannot speak Chinese, who cannot speak the Uyghur language, who knows nothing about the culture of China can walk around in this tiny little area and claim that there is no genocide or any bad things happening in China,” Sterzel said.
“As for the tourism videos, if you watch any promotional videos that any other YouTubers made about any specific region of China, it won’t just be about tourism,” Sterzel said. “There will be some government-angle incentives, there will be something about how the government has improved the lives of the people there or how the government has built this infrastructure.”
LeLe Farley, an American comedian and rap artist who lived in China, said middlemen working for Chinese officials approached him in 2019 to create videos promoting China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Xi Jinping’s signature trade and transport infrastructure program.
Farley said he was not interested because he has hosted events in Los Angeles for Chinese government entities, which he found to be “soul crushing if you’re not able to completely numb yourself out to them, or if you’re not willfully ignorant.’
Gene Bunin, the founder the Xinjiang Victims Database, is a Russian-American dual citizen and researcher who first visited Xinjiang in 2008, and lived in Urumqi and Kasghar from 2014 to 2018.
He told RFA that Uyghurs were living anything but a normal life, saying that from 2018 onward the number of people given prison sentences of 10 years or more has increased steadily.
He also estimated that some 300,000 Uyghurs, mostly men, have been moved from internment camps to prisons. According to Bunin, a large number of them have been made to perform forced labor under the guise of “poverty alleviation.”
About the “happy Uyghurs” featured on Chinese social media accounts, Bunin said: “My friends there disappeared. What the YouTubers are saying in the counterpropaganda videos they make about Uyghurs are lies.”
Not all vloggers read from the Chinese government hymn sheet when they make videos about Xinjiang.
A 20-year-old calling himself “Guanguan” used a GPS map compiled by BuzzFeed News in 2020 to locate various internment camps believed to hold Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in Xinjiang.
That same year, Guanguan traveled to several places in the XUAR, including Urumqi (Wulumuqi), Changji (Sanji), Qomul (Hami), and Korla (Kuerle), and secretly videoed different detention facilities. In October 2021, he posted a 20-minute documentary on YouTube, depicting apparent detention facilities in and around the cities with footage from his trip on his YouTube channel.
“People like Guanguan have an incredible amount of courage,” Sterzel said. “As a Chinese citizen, the amount of trouble he could get into by doing this is incredible, but he still did it anyway.”