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China Party-state co-opts foreign mouths, pens, brains to shape global narratives

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(TibetanReview.net, Nov28’23) – To counter global criticisms for its authoritarian system, persecution of dissidents, ill-treatment of ethnic minorities, and aggressive behaviour towards neighbours, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-state, led by President XI Jinping, has “cultivated” a large pool of foreign influencers and content creators who peddle its online propaganda and counter-narratives, to present itself as respectable and global rules-abiding, suggests a new research report.

The Party-state has set up multilingual influencer incubator studios, tapped into a vast network of international students at Chinese universities, and created competitions among ambitious creators to push its narrative and combat the adverse global perception of it, according to the Canberra-based Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).

The think-tank’s analysts Fergus Ryan, Matt Knight, and Daria Impiombato say Beijing has drafted more than 120 international influencers who are amenable to being ‘guided’ towards producing content that suits the CCP’s narratives promoting its values, policies, and ideology. They are also stated to build the party’s legitimacy for the Chinese audience and support its propaganda overseas.

Tellingly, the majority of these top pro-China influencers have been found to belong to the democratic world – the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Israel, and Taiwan.

For instance, US influencer Jerry Kowal – who enjoys 26 million followers on YouTube and Chinese social media platforms like Bilibili, Douyin, Xigua, and Toutiao – has made several videos hailing China’s response to Covid-19 while berating America’s.

“I’m happy, I feel a sense of freedom! There’s no virus and no anti-maskers – This is the most organised,” he was quoted as having said in a video when he arrived in Shanghai from San Francisco in early 2021.

He was invited to Chinese TV channels for interviews after his video was picked up by Western media. And he has described himself as an “objective observer untainted by the foreign media’s bias against China” while calling Western media outlets like the New York Times “fake news”.

The report notes that many foreign influencers had realised that appealing to Chinese nationalism could fast-track their popularity and hence revenue as China’s internet regulations encourage users to promote the CCP’s propaganda.

Influencers like Bart Baker are seen to have tried to capitalise on that sentiment. He had left his 10 million subscribers on YouTube in 2019 to create exclusively on Chinese video platforms. From parody video songs, he has now shifted to signing patriotic Chinese songs and displaying love for Chinese commercial brands.

Baker’s videos is stated to include one in which he smashes his American Apple iPhone and tramples it on the ground while switching to a brand-new Chinese Huawei phone.

Likewise, Andy Boreham, a New Zealander with 1.8 million followers across Chinese social media platforms has said on his YouTube account that he is “countering the Western anti-China narrative”. He is among foreign influencers creating videos about Xinjiang and has called international criticisms of China, alleging acts of genocide of its Uyghur Muslims there, a “hideous trope”.

All this is taking place in response to President Xi’s call on China’s huge propaganda machinery to “tell China’s story well” to increase the country’s “international discourse power”.

Responding to this call, Chinese state-run universities have cultivated in their own foreign students as video bloggers or vloggers to produce content for foreign audiences. For example, Huaqiao University’s “Overseas New Voice Generation” new media studio aims to use students, especially from Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan, to “tell China’s story well, communicate China’s voice well, and give full play to their ‘others’ perspective’ and ‘youth discourse’ advantage in cross-cultural communication.”

In 2021, over 200 foreign students from 16 countries took part in a related video shoot, the report notes.

Content created by Chinese state media and foreign influencers about contentious subjects like Xinjiang are seen to have exploited mainstream social media companies’ algorithms that prioritise fresh content and regular posting.

That is why in two separate searches from the US and Germany, the ASPI has found that the majority of the top 10 videos for keywords like “Xinjiang” and “Xinjiang cotton” – an industry alleged to employ forced labour – belonged to influencers and state media.

The report notes that these influencers are not given direct instructions by the state media apparatus. Rather, they are guided and shaped by prizes, incentives, and controls.

However, their enthusiasm is often not shared by Chinese audiences, a section of which has called out foreign influencers for using “wealth password” – a reference to overpraising China to attract views.

Nevertheless, the report observes: “The growing use of foreign influencers will make it increasingly difficult for social media platforms, foreign governments, and individuals to distinguish between genuine and/or factual content and propaganda.”

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