The Uighur ‘influencers’ working for Beijing’s propaganda machine
If you watched some of the videos on YouTube featuring young Uighur influencers, then you would have no idea that a growing number of human rights organisations and the United Nations have documented China’s severe repression of this Muslim ethnic minority. In a study published mid-October, an Australian research centre has dissected more than 1,700 videos to show how they are in fact part of the complex Chinese propaganda network under President Xi Jinping.
“Do you want to know about cotton in Xinjiang? Then, follow [me]!” says a smiling young woman who presents herself online as “Anni Guli”, a Uighur resident of Xinjiang. In the video, Anni tells her followers that she will show them a cotton field in Xinjiang, an autonomous region of China and the native land of the Uighur minority.
In this video, published on Youtube in April 2021, Anni interviews someone she calls her "older sister”, who she says works in the fields. Then, she throws herself, laughing, into a fluffy pile of recently cut cotton. Maintaining a cute and cheerful tone throughout the video, Anni highlights the quality and profitability of Xinjiang cotton.
The bucolic scene in this video seems light years away from widespread evidence that the Chinese government is responsible for the persecution of the Uighur ethnic minority, under the guise of a fight against radical Islam.
More than a million Uighurs are currently shut away in forced labour camps, according to the United Nations, which said in a report published on August 31, 2022, that there is “credible proof” of acts of sexual violence and possible crimes against humanity carried out against the Uighurs.
Online, you can find hundreds of videos of young “influencers” like Anni Guli. Many of them use the word “Guli” as part of their usernames, which means flower in Uighur and is often used to refer to young women. All of these videos are like pretty postcards from Xinjiang, showing the young women dressed in traditional Uighur outfits made of embroidered silk, posing in front of grand landscapes.
'For Uighurs, it’s just unthinkable to use foreign social media networks'
French researcher Dilnur Rehyan, who is of Uighur origin, has been speaking for years about the frightening situation in Xinjiang. She told our team that these videos are a product of the Chinese propaganda machine.
These videos were probably made in the part of the [Xinjiang] territory left intact for propaganda reasons. For Uighurs, it is just unthinkable to use foreign social media networks. That’s one of the 75 signs of radicalisation that can get you sent to a concentration camp or sentenced to a serious prison sentence. [Editor’s note: The 68th "sign of radicalistion" identified by the authorities mentions the use of foreign social media networks to spread "extremist ideas." However, the rule is vague and can be used to carry out arbitrary arrests].
Daria Impiombato is a researcher at the Australian Policy Strategy Institute (ASPI), a research centre that has published several reports on the experience of Uighurs in China.
Impiombato and her colleagues analyzed more than 1,700 videos made by 18 different influencers. Most of these influencers are Uighur but several are from Kazakhstan, Tibet, Mongolia and Hong Kong… essentially all of China’s autonomous regions with strong cultural identities that differ from the majority Han ethnic group.
Their work has revealed several links between these influencers and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP):
The fact that these influencers seemed to have a special pass to stream on YouTube without any repercussions in real life was very suspicious.
And it turns out the majority of these very young women streaming basically on behalf of the Chinese state and pushing out propaganda lines, are very, very politically reliable.
Some of them are card-carrying members of the CCP. Others have received awards by the CCP and other organs of the party state.
We decided to look into it and understand what was actually going on and then we soon realized that these accounts were actually being run by private companies called "multi-channel networks" in China or AMC. Some of the companies actually signed contracts with local propaganda bureaus in order to make local party officials turn them into Internet celebrities.
The researchers determined that several influencers work with Chengdu Grey Man Culture Communication, an agency specializing in "cultural content", particularly in Sichuan, Tibet and Xinjiang.
The agency has already carried out projects in connection with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It has, for example, "transformed a member of the Party in Xinjiang into a real internet star", according to Impiombato. That influencer has nearly 870,000 subscribers on Douyin, China's version of TikTok.
Here's Renagul Rahman after 'Chengdu Grey Man' transformed her into an internet influencer. pic.twitter.com/Q6RVaVzCdH— Fergus Ryan (@fryan) October 20, 2022
The influencers managed by this agency garner millions of views from around China, but they also attract attention from abroad.
Videos used by Chinese embassies abroad
Impiombato and her colleagues focused in particular on the case of "Elder Guli" and "Younger Guli", the women who appeared in videos of Xinjiang's cotton fields. Their videos were also produced by Chengdu Grey Man.
The two sisters have profiles on Instagram, TikTok Twitter and Youtube, all of which are banned in China. “Young Gulli” has even released a few videos in perfect English, content that seems explicitly crafted for international consumption.
Their account, named "Story of Xinjiang by Guli", has since been suspended from Twitter, and has disappeared from TikTok, Instagram and YouTube. The researchers don't know why.
But on international social networks, the videos of the two "sisters" are still being picked up by traditional Chinese propaganda outlets, such as embassies.
Let us visit #Xinjiang to enjoy its peaceful life, hospitable people, tranquil mountains and beautiful lakes! pic.twitter.com/tqD20vSHkr— Lijian Zhao 赵立坚 (@zlj517) March 16, 2021
Sometimes these Uighur influences have even collaborated with YouTubers from Europe.
These videos also appear on a variety of websites that are not overtly linked to the government and claim to be “neutral”. They say they want to “show another reality”, what is “actually happening in Xinjiang”.
‘The content created by these influencers corresponds with Xi Jinping’s vision’
Impiombato explained that these accounts try to pass as "ordinary", when they are actually distilling the vision of Xi Jinping and the Communist Party.
[The content of these videos] does really fit into the vision that the party leadership and Xi Jinping have for the way in which they want China to be depicted and how they want China's story to be.
It can look like, on the surface, just another lifestyle content channel. A lot of them are about puppies or raising animals in the countryside of these regions and how some of these get together to eat traditional food.
In reality, it hides a lot of very overt propaganda lines on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party.
These influencers don't make reference to their faith. And even when they discuss traditional Islamic holidays, for example, they tend to do so in a very sort of non-religious way.
[These “lifestyle” videos] are more likely to interest more people and get the message across because they look very genuine. They look like these people are just expressing their own opinion.
我来看看多少人会把丁珠开除藏籍以及“中共强迫” https://t.co/rwcMGIud8I pic.twitter.com/aVXardEYds— 稲妻の影様🌲🌱（淡推） (@HoreneyLee) March 28, 2022
Since Xi Jinping came to power, Tibet, Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang have been undergoing cultural assimilation policies in favour of the Han majority. These influencers also echo this, by regularly mentioning Han culture and the importance of the Mandarin language in their region.
>> Read more on The Observers: Cultural assimilation of Mongolians in China: ‘We could be the next Uighurs’
Other videos, which we classify as 'implicit propaganda', promote the idea that these regions having come out of poverty and developed thanks to the work of the CCP.
Finally, we have explicit propaganda. That would be dancing or wearing plain clothes and saying how much they love the country or how much they're proud to be Chinese. Sometimes they would be sort of brandishing Chinese flags or talking about their experience being party members and so on.
Some would go out and openly debunk foreign reports about, for example, illegal forced labour in Xinjiang or genocide accusations coming from the United States and other governments.
Having such an active presence on a Western social media platform is highly unusual for young Uyghur women, & ordinarily would be fraught with danger.— Fergus Ryan (@fryan) October 20, 2022
So, naturally many ppl questioned the authenticity of the SOXBG accounts, notably anti-CCP YouTubers @serpentza & @laowhy86 pic.twitter.com/xz6gbFWjCb
While the profile of the two Guli "sisters" has now disappeared from foreign social media networks, many influencer accounts are still active on YouTube. Impiombato says that rather than blocking these accounts, which nevertheless offer "a glimpse into the lifestyle of some people in the region", it is important to highlight their link with the CCP and make sure they are not monetised.