When you type “Xinjiang” into the search bar on Weibo, a Chinese social media site, the first posts to pop up include a short blurb praising the Xinjiang Free Trade Zone, travel vlogs from the region, and Uyghur cuisine recipes. Do the same on Instagram and you will see similar fare: Posts of travel and lifestyle vlogs purporting to show an idyllic agrarian paradise and travel destination.
The coordinated effort of the Chinese government to push informal vlog and lifestyle content from vetted influencers on global social media feeds is working, winning over algorithms that tend to reward accessible and gratifying content. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has deployed seemingly independent content creators to portray Xinjiang as a place in which fair-skinned, Mandarin-speaking Uyghurs go about their enviable, semi-pastoral lifestyles. Blissful Uyghers perform traditional dances, visit delicious food markets, and raise cows over lush green mountains. This false image of a cute, ethnically exotic paradisiacal frontier is gaining a dangerous edge over independent journalistic coverage detailing the persecution and internment of millions of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims. Who would choose to dissect leaked internal CCP documents showing evidence of torture in re-education camps over watching a 30-second video of a Uyghur family making breakfast?
The Party’s use of social media to build a narrative of peace outside the bounds of China’s “Great Firewall” has also involved a counterattack against global condemnation of its systemic Muslim persecution. Following the 2022 UN Human Rights Commission report accusing the CCP of crimes against humanity, a brief burst of independent media coverage highlighting Muslim persecution has dissipated with the rise of innovative, often subtle social media propaganda that is opaquely tied to the CCP. This strategically aggressive counternarrative to the Uyghur genocide demonstrates a creative, generative effort to not only expunge but also overwrite reality. It goes beyond past precedents like the CCP’s landmark success in largely erasing the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square Massacre from the Chinese national consciousness.
The fatal army crackdown on pro-democracy student protestors killed anywhere from several hundred to ten thousand civilians and has long been the subject of a relentless and systematic gag campaign by the CCP. Forced silence has fostered what journalist Louisa Lim has termed “mass amnesia.” Those with lived memories of the event are silenced through censorship and targeted intimidation efforts such as house arrests, expulsions from cities, and hounding by violent plainclothes security officers. Their children may either have little to no knowledge of the event or agree with the CCP’s combination of rationalization and denial.
In a survey, only 15 of 100 Beijing University students could identify a photo of Tank Man, who was famously captured standing in front of tanks leaving Tiananmen Square the day after the massacre. This void in national memory is the product of the CCP’s continuous undermining of the basic freedoms and safety of dissidents, both on and offline.
Each year, as the June 4 anniversary approaches, Beijing hands out a fresh wave of arbitrary detentions and arrests against known dissidents, activists, and even average social media users who are vocal about the memory of the massacre. Online censorship tightens to catch coded mentions of the event, recently even influencing Zoom to block an American account organizing virtual memorials of the massacre. The overwhelmingly dominant Chinese narrative of June 4 has become utter silence, or else a brief paragraph in a history textbook detailing a counterrevolutionary terrorist uprising that was put down by the state.
Policing information to influence the narrative of both the memory of June 4 and the CCP’s treatment of Uyghur people, Beijing’s governance relies on swift, real-world violence against perceived threats to Party leadership. By existing as a culturally, ethnically, and politically distinct people within a Han nation-state, the Uyghurs pose a threat to the government. As part of the CCP’s efforts to integrate Xinjiang into mainland China by force, more than one million Uyghurs and other Muslims have been detained in internment camps since 2017. The charges on which they are held often center around their expressions of Muslim religion and culture, which are deemed extremist and threatening.
Beyond the internment camps, those living in Xinjiang exist under a police state with enforced disappearances, involuntary sterilization, and a comprehensive surveillance system that includes biometric data collection and digital spyware. Surveillance software flags “suspicious behavior” such as attending a mosque or communicating with those considered by the state to be subversive.
But unlike the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the CCP has not undertaken a scorched earth campaign to utterly flush Xinjiang out of mental existence. Instead, party officials are boosting and promoting Uyghur lifestyle YouTubers and foreign content creators who portray an ordinary Xinjiang defined by its exotic novelty, rather than its population’s subversive religious and political beliefs. This new, more creative tactic of state messaging is fooling vulnerable global audiences as the content the CCP pushes appears genuine and relatable. People do not apply the same critical scrutiny to daily doom scrolls as they do to their news feeds, and the CCP has taken advantage of that.
Seemingly autonomous Uyghur influencer accounts on Western social media feeds appear to open an authentic window into Uyghurs’ lives and opinions. Often, they actually operate with the support of multi-channel networks, companies allowed to legally access media platforms censored in China as long as their content is subject to tight CCP oversight to ensure its alignment with Party messaging. Content is generally in vlog format and shows a thriving Xinjiang containing bustling markets with delicious foods and sprawling cotton fields with automated labor.
Similarly, foreign content creators are carefully vetted by the CCP and invited to produce media to counter foreign journalism. In one video, a vlogger chats with a friendly cotton farm employee in Xinjiang who states he is happy and well-paid. Rather than relying exclusively on physical force, hardline censorship, or official state media messaging, the CCP has effectively learned to use informal, influencer-created content to implant disinformation.
Social media platforms are increasingly becoming a battlefield upon which independent or professional journalism is losing ground to concerted disinformation campaigns. First-person footage of a beautiful Xinjiang cotton farm can easily gain more traction than independent news articles. Subsiding media coverage of the CCP’s persecution of Muslims in Xinjiang is likely allowing the genocide to be carried out in unchecked obscurity, especially as the persecution move into new phases about which little is known. The potential success of the CCP’s quasi-state-sponsored social media propaganda campaign in countering accusations of genocide and human rights abuses has extremely direct, dire consequences for victims.