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China ramps up disinformation campaign on Uyghurs in Xinjiang

August 22, 2022
topics: Genocide
by: Sasha Kong
located in: China, USA
tags: China, disinformation, social media, Uyghurs, Xinjiang

China’s burgeoning propaganda to forge a better image of Beijing has taken on US-based social media platforms as international concerns over human rights violations and genocide against the Uyghur population in Xinjiang increase.

United Nations High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet will step down this month amid brickbats from rights groups and Western governments following her visit to China in May this year.

Bachelet has been criticised for her soft rhetoric about China’s potential human rights abuses, including the ongoing genocide of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Soon after, Reuters reported exclusively that China lobbied for support from other countries to ask Bachelet to scrap an upcoming report on human rights violations in Xinjiang. 

This is one of many acts by Beijing to control information - an objective that researchers at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) called "central" to the Communist Party’s geopolitical policy. In a recent report, ASPI states that China utilises disinformation in order to "influence international public opinion." 

ASPI’s report, along with a plethora of others from various thinktanks and legacy media outlets, points out that China’s disinformation campaign has been evident on US-based social media platforms including Twitter and Facebook. Among the over 6.7 million tweets and retweets mentioning Xinjiang that the report analysed, over 60 percent were posted by Chinese state media and diplomats. 

A joint report by Propublica and the New York Times also dug into over 3,000 videos on Western social media platforms in which Uyghur speakers are seen denying accusations of Beijing’s genocide and forced labour. The report states these people seemed to have followed a similar script, as the use of "complete nonsense" appeared in over 600 of these videos and over 1,000 said they uploaded such videos in response to former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s speech denouncing human rights abuses in Xinjiang. 

Chinese president Xi Jinping stressed multiple times that the internet is the "battlefield" of information competition. Officials said in a statement that the variety of voices "brought an enormous crash and challenge" to China’s "mainstream ideology," and that they now strive to "unify thoughts."  

On Xinjiang, Beijing reiterated its accusation that any reports of human rights violation in the region have been "fabricated by the US and other Western countries," calling them "the lie of the century" with the intention to smear China with "falsified information."

Creating the “Chinese Dream”

Using social media to spread pro-China rhetoric is part of the CCP’s effort to boost its soft power, according to Dr Gregary Winger, assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati’s School of International and Public Affairs specialising in cybersecurity. 

"Disinformation campaigns waged via social media are new, but the underlying practice is a form of propaganda and reflects an effort to strengthen China's soft power," Dr Winger told FairPlane. "Specifically, China is not Russia," he added. "While Putin and the Russian government are seemingly comfortable being feared and alienated from the international order, China is not." 

The expert said that China seeks to present an admirable image to the Western world.

"The basis of Xi Jingping's worldview and the Chinese Dream are positing China as an alternative model of governance that should be admired and emulated abroad," he explained. "Soft power is the ability to convince others of that fact and persuade them to embrace China's vision."

Such campaigns include attacking researchers investigating the genocide of Uyghur people in Xinjiang, a report by Mandiant showed. The report investigated 72 fake news sites and social media posts that are linked to a Chinese PR firm named Shanghai Haixun Technology Co, which reportedly sells "Europe and US Positive Energy" content creation packages for English-speaking audiences. 

"Content promoted by the campaign includes efforts to reshape the international image of Xinjiang, criticism of the US and its allies, and attempts to discredit critics of the PRC government," the report reads. "We observed efforts to smear anthropologist Adrian Zenz - known for his research on Xinjiang and China’s reported genocide against the Uyghur population - through website articles and social media posts."

Going under the radar

China’s state media has reportedly adopted a new strategy to spread the Republic's narrative on social media: certain journalists working at China Daily, Global Times and Xinhua were found to have obscured their online bio by hiding who they work for.

For instance, CGTN’s chief US correspondent calls himself "TV Host/Journalist" on Twitter, while Xinhua’s Berlin reporter’s bio became "Chinese correspondent in Europe."

While many have been marked by social media as "China state-affiliated media," others successfully went under the radar, and were found to have run ads targeting American users. CGTN employees who were able to run Facebook ads for their content that attack Western countries, including the US, have been dubbed "international influencers."

Dr Winger says China’s disinformation campaign to save its image will likely result in a fiasco. 

"China's human rights record, and especially the international campaign on abuses in Xinjiang, are embarrassing and undermine China's soft power," he said. "This is particularly true in Europe and the United States, where concerns about human rights can lead to real economic costs in the form of economic boycotts."

"The disinformation campaign is a response to these efforts and an attempt to limit the economic and political damage to China's reputation," he added. "I do not believe these campaigns will be particularly successful in either North America or Europe, but they may help in other parts of the world like South America."

ASPI researchers say that Beijing will likely bolster its external propaganda by working with overseas Chinese diaspora groups - many oh which are reportedly radical in support of the CCP – and using emerging technology to generate native phrases to improve its campaign. 

The report advises governments to expand economic sanctions on parties who spread propaganda, similar to the ones launched in response to Russia's disinformation campaigners about the Ukraine War, as well as provide more funding to researches exposing China’s propaganda system.  

Image by Gary Lerude

Article written by:
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Sasha Kong
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China USA
Videos appear on western social media platforms in which Uyghur speakers deny accusations of Beijing’s genocide and forced labour.
Videos appear on western social media platforms in which Uyghur speakers deny accusations of Beijing’s genocide and forced labour.
© ProPublica
"The basis of Xi Jingping's worldview and the Chinese Dream are positing China as an alternative model of governance that should be admired and emulated abroad."
© Kevin Frayer/Getty Images
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