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‘Wolf Warriors,’ ‘Astroturfing’ and ‘Simply Happy Lives’: How China Hijacks the Truth About Xinjiang

Don’t be fooled by Beijing’s attempts to “manipulate and dominate” international discourse around human-rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the U.S. State Department warned Wednesday.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the agency said, is employing a combination of “wolf warrior” officials, state and international media, and internet influencers to aggressively deflect and deny accusations of genocide against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim minorities.

“PRC messaging tactics seek to drown out critical narratives by both flooding the international information environment to limit access to content that contradicts Beijing’s official line, and by creating an artificial appearance of support for PRC policies,” the State Department said, using an acronym for the People’s Republic of China. “The PRC works to silence dissent by engaging in digital transnational repression, trolling and cyberbullying.”

Beijing, it added, drowns out messages it deems unfavorable by using government social-media accounts, private accounts, PRC-affiliated media and bot clusters to “flood” information ecosystems with counternarratives, conspiracy theories and unrelated news items. To manipulate stories about Xinjiang, pro-PRC stakeholders engage in “astroturfing” campaigns that create the “illusion” of widespread grassroots support with coordinated inauthentic posts.

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Such “positive stories” about Xinjiang include made-up depictions of Uyghurs living “simply happy lives,” along with posts that emphasize the supposed economic gains that Beijing’s so-called poverty-alleviation schemes have brought to the province, the State Department said. In mid-2021, for instance, more than 300 inauthentic but pro-PRC accounts inundated social-media platforms with thousands of videos of Uyghurs appearing to deny any abuse while purporting to be “very free.”

“These videos claimed to show widespread disagreement throughout Xinjiang with claims in international media that Uyghurs were oppressed,” the agency said. It noted that the New York Times and ProPublica have revealed that propaganda officials in Xinjiang were behind most of these videos, which emerged on PRC-based platforms before spreading to Twitter and Youtube “in order to manipulate public opinion.”

Stories of a multicultural society living in harmony, the State Department said, stand in contrast with the “reality” of the CCP’s extensive surveillance of Uyghurs, including PRC officials living in Uyghur homes for at least six weeks a year. The messaging aims to “divert attention” from reports of Beijing’s “demographic engineering” campaign to increase the Han Chinese population in Xinjiang and “dilute” those of the persecuted groups, it added.

PRC stakeholders both post and promote content that claps back at claims made by independent media outlets and think tanks, the agency said. In response to allegations of forced manual picking in Xinjiang’s cotton fields, a cavalcade of diplomatic accounts, PRC-affiliated media organizations and suspected bot networks posted stories about the rise of mechanized cotton-harvesting in the province. This messaging, however, avoided engaging with reports regarding the coerced transfer of an estimated 100,000 Uyghurs to work in factories elsewhere in China, it said.

The State Department said that China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs enlists confrontational diplomats—dubbed “wolf warriors” by some commentators—to use “whataboutism” and false equivalencies to accuse its critics of hypocrisy. The arguments “do not advance the case that the PRC is innocent,” it said. “Rather, they make the point that other countries are equally guilty of abuse.”

The disinformation spread is a global one, the agency said. PRC- and CCP-affiliated media outlets like China Global Television Network, China Daily, China Radio International and Xinhua generate content in at least 12 languages while pouring significant resources into social-media advertising. Beijing has used these outlets to claim that internment camps holding more than a million Uyghurs in Xinjiang are “vocational education and training centers”’ that have “fully guaranteed the trainees’ personal freedom and dignity.” In contrast, detainees interviewed by human-rights groups such as Amnesty International have described them as places of interrogation, torture and other physical and sexual abuse.

“The PRC partners with foreign media to republish both PRC-produced and PRC-backed content to local audiences, giving Beijing’s chosen narratives a level of authority and credibility they would not be able to achieve on their own,” the State Department said. It named the example of the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, which ran a story by an anonymous author in November 2019 on the PRC’s poverty-alleviating policies in Xinjiang, raising questions of “whether it was PRC propaganda.”

Tapping into the world of internet celebrity, the Chinese government has supported the use of “multilingual internet celebrity studios” to “enhance the PRC’s image” in key regions, the State Department said. Miburo Solutions, an analytics firm, has identified more than 200 third-country influencers, with an average reach of 309,000 followers, with ties to PRC state media. Together they create social media content in at least 38 languages, including Arabic, English, French, Russian and Spanish.

The State Department also said that China’s Cyberspace Affairs Commission and Central Propaganda Department directly employ roughly two million “trolls” nationwide to defend the government and attack, discredit and harass critics, sometimes by publishing an individual’s personal information online without their permission, a practice known as doxxing. Another 20 million people, it said, work as part-time “network civilization volunteers” to target the domestic Chinese audience and Chinese-speaking diaspora communities.

“Trolls take the lead on attacking, stirring controversies, insulting and harassing netizens to poison the information environment and distract from narratives critical of the PRC,” the agency said.

On Thursday, the CCP-affiliated Global Times blasted the State Department for “defaming” China with its “rather ridiculous” and “groundless” accusations.

“Should China just keep silent at all and refrain from making any legitimate response and clarification in face of the U.S.’s big lies on Xinjiang-related affairs?” it wrote. “The U.S. State Department is no doubt playing the hypocritical trick of a thief crying ‘stop thief!’”