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Whataboutism and China's Promotion of Social Media Surrogates

Residents walk past a propaganda board showing Chinese President Xi Jinping with local children and slogans calling for unity amongst the different ethnicities in Shule county in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region on March 20, 2021. (Ng Han Guan/AP)
Residents walk past a propaganda board showing Chinese President Xi Jinping with local children and slogans calling for unity amongst the different ethnicities in Shule county in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region on March 20, 2021. (Ng Han Guan/AP)
Li Jingjing, CGTN reporter

Li Jingjing, CGTN reporter

"Well, I don't know whether you look(ed) into CGTN's other work, whether on television or social networks, because if you did, you would notice that I'm really not a key role."


On December 14, Li Jingjing, a reporter at China's state-run China Global Television Network (CGTN), posted a YouTube video in response to a recent New York Times report about foreign social media influencers who "spread pro-Beijing messages around the planet."

In the video "I'm Being Targeted by The New York Times! Here's What I Want to Say," Li begins by thanking the Times (sarcastically) for promoting her travel videos, particularly those in China's northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where the Chinese government has been accused of human rights abuses including religious discrimination and forced population control.

The Times story focused on the work of Li and a handful of YouTubers whose reports line up sympathetically to government narratives but whose connections β€” to state media, funding, help with travel, access β€” aren't necessarily apparent.

The YouTubers deny being controlled by the government, the Times wrote, "but even if the creators do not see themselves as propaganda tools, Beijing is using them that way."

In her video response, Li rejects the idea that she misleads viewers by not identifying herself as a CGTN employee on YouTube, arguing that her posts are on her longtime personal channel. She further claims editorial independence, saying, "No one is forcing me to say anything on my personal channel."

Li is clear about her pride in China and belief that Western media are misrepresenting the country. But the video also misleads by ignoring China's increasingly harsh media environment, stifling of foreign reporting, jailing of journalists and incessant censorship β€” even its blocking of YouTube.

A large part of the piece engages in whataboutism directed at Paul Mozur, one of the authors of the Times article.

Li, for example, asks whether U.S-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia (sister organizations to Voice of America), should be labeled as state media even though their journalists claim independence. (Note: A legal firewall prohibits political interference with news reported by Voice of America.)

She continues along that line, asking how concerned Mozur is that a number of organizations and activists whose work centers on rights abuses in China receive funding from the U.S. government or National Endowment for Democracy.

Li then addresses a question she says Mozur sent to her, asking if she plays "a key role in CGTN efforts to build out a broader range of content creators that it supports with funding, access and publicity." Mozur also asked her if these efforts were a new CGTN initiative.

Li responds: "Well, I don't know whether you look(ed) into CGTN's other work, whether on television or social networks, because if you did, you would notice that I'm really not a key role, because there are so many experienced, prestigious journalists, anchors who (have) been working in this news industry for decades."

Li also denies in the video that her job at CGTN has given her special access within China.

"I build my connections and reputations in the circle by myself, like every journalist in the world," Li said. "And funding publicity? All I got is my monthly salary, which is not high anyways. … And publicity? I work in the media, which brings publicity to other people."

Li never directly answers whether CGTN is helping fund or promote social media influencers, or how new the CGTN initiative is.

As noted in the Times report:

"State-run news outlets and local governments have organized and funded pro-Beijing influencers' travel, according to government documents and the creators themselves. They have paid or offered to pay the creators. They have generated lucrative traffic for the influencers by sharing videos with millions of followers on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.

"With official media outlets' backing, the creators can visit and film in parts of China where the authorities have obstructed foreign journalists' reporting."

The upshot, the Times contends, is to spread the Chinese government's line.

"Chinese diplomats and representatives have shown their videos at news conferences and promoted their creations on social media. Together, six of the most popular of these influencers have garnered more than 130 million views on YouTube and more than 1.1 million subscribers," the Times reported.

Writing on Twitter, Mozur said a video by Israeli influencer Raz Gal-Or giving a positive depiction of life in Xinjiang "was shared by 35 government connected accounts with a total of 400 million followers. Many were Chinese embassy Facebook accounts, which posted about the video in numerous languages."

Gal-Or also failed to disclose "his family's business ties to the Chinese state," the Times said.

Research by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute has reached many conclusions similar to those of The New York Times report.

The ASPI, for example, "found key instances in which Chinese state entities have supported influencers in the creation of social media content in Xinjiang, as well as amplified influencer content that supports pro-CCP (Chinese Communist Party) narratives."

Countering accusations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang, including forced labor, mass incarceration and allegations of cultural genocide, is a primary area of focus.

In her response video, Li states that she works in the same way as journalists everywhere, and that it is insulting to suggest that "all of the resources and connections" that she has are "granted by some big bosses."

But as previously noted by, China has one of the world's most restrictive media environments, and access to information is frequently restricted. Independent media are highly monitored. State media outlets have no editorial freedom. Individuals who report on areas sensitive to the state can face harsh consequences.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) recently noted an "acceleration of China's violations against its own international commitments to freedom of opinion and expression" and an "unprecedented campaign of repression led by the Chinese regime in recent years against journalism and the right to information worldwide."

The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that China "remains the world's worst jailer of journalists for the third year straight, with 50 behind bars." In its 2021 World Press Freedom Index, RSF ranked China 177th out of 180 countries, only two spots above North Korea.

In 2018, for example, RSF noted that four local journalists in Xinjiang had been arrested "for the absurd reason of being 'two-faced.'" RSF explained that the "vague term 'two-faced' is a means of accusing people of being secretly opposed to government policies."

RSF also reported that the "arbitrary detention of many Uyghur journalists and their families" had corresponded with the greater "systemic crackdown" on Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.

In March, two brothers of a journalist with Radio Free Asia's Uyghur Service were detained in what relatives called "an intimidation campaign aimed at preventing him from reporting on rights abuses."

Reporters' access, especially in sensitive areas such as Xinjiang, is extremely limited by the state. As reported by France 24, authorities in Xinjiang set up roadblocks, staged car crashes and construction work, and even closed off entire cities to keep journalists out.

Similar efforts to block access have been documented by the BBC.

The International Federation of Journalists released a report in May saying that Beijing had "weaponized foreign journalist visas, forcing resident journalists out of China."

The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China also reported in March that Chinese authorities had "dramatically stepped up efforts in 2020 to frustrate the work of foreign correspondents."

Chinese citizens working with Western outlets have been subjected to harassment and interrogation by state security forces. Journalists have also faced detention, assault, and heightened levels of surveillance and harassment.

Taken together, Li's claims that she operates as a normal journalist β€” that her role at CGTN neither provides her with access nor has any bearing on her editorial decisions β€” seem implausible.

Her social media posts, particularly on Twitter, thematically follow major Chinese state media talking points.

As observers told Voice of America in November, Chinese state media is increasingly modeling that of North Korea, with the pretense of independent, critical journalism dropped.

In her response video, Li notes that she does not mention her state media affiliations because she is using her personal YouTube channel. She fails to mention that YouTube is actually blocked in China.

Like Li, Chinese state media outlets circumvent the country's Great Firewall to use the platform to engage Western audiences.

Twitter, which Li also regularly uses, is also blocked in China.