Authoritarian Tech

Pro-Beijing influencers and their rose-tinted view of life in Xinjiang

A network of social media personalities cast doubt on Uyghur abuses in Xinjiang

When Jerry Grey, a British-Australian living in Guangdong, China, went on a cycling holiday to Xinjiang in the late summer of 2019, he was blown away by the region’s spectacular scenery and architecture. A particular highlight of his trip was visiting Turpan, the ancient oasis city in the east of the region, where he admired an 18th-century mosque with the tallest minaret in China.

Grey, 62, who visited Xinjiang as a tourist, said he couldn’t find any traces of the sprawling concentration camps he had read about in the press. “I never saw one,” he said. “That doesn’t mean they aren’t there. It’s a huge place, but we did cycle down some very, very long stretches of open road.”

Grey, who is a former London Metropolitan police officer, admitted that he found Xinjiang’s surveillance network and continual police checks oppressive. “It was a pain in the butt,” he said. “But at no stage were they ever abusive.”

I asked him if he would willingly live under a draconian regime of surveillance and arbitrary detention like the one that operates in Xinjiang, controlling the region’s Muslim population under the guise of combating terrorism.

“Would I like it? Course not. I wouldn’t like it at all,” he said. “But would I move? Probably not. If they said to me, ‘You can’t use a VPN and you can’t use your Twitter account,’ and things like that, then I might consider it. Because my lifeline to the outside world is through the internet.”

Despite Grey’s acknowledgement of heavy surveillance in Xinjiang, he has devoted the past five months denying the existence of detention camps in the region, citing his bike ride as evidence. 

In March, he was in quarantine after returning home from a trip to Thailand. It was six months on from his visit to Xinijiang. “I was bored silly, so I opened up my Twitter account and thought, ‘I know what I’ll do. One of the things I can do is I can start tweeting about the bike ride.’”

Grey began with two followers and now has more than 4,000. Many of them are Chinese users, living both within the country and abroad. His Twitter page is a relentless rehashing of his camp-free cycling tour. “We didn’t see any concentration camps, but the days and nights in Xinjiang require a lot of concentration to get through,” he quipped in one July 15 post. 

Grey has, inevitably, attracted the attention of Chinese media. On the day we spoke, he was scheduled to speak with the state TV channel CGTN directly after. 

“Their propaganda department absolutely sucks. And I think – maybe I’m being used, but I’m being used to deliver a message that I believe in,” he said. “They’re not telling me what to say.”

Other Beijing-based news outlets have already featured interviews with Grey: “Australian offers candid observation of Xinjiang distinct from Western characterizations,” ran one headline on the website of the Global Times newspaper in June. 

Though Grey’s individual reach is modest, he is part of a network of users that all share a similar message. He calls them his “comrades in arms.” 

Carl Zha, a Chinese-American Twitter user with 43,000 followers, spends his mornings surfing in the turquoise waters of Bali, Indonesia, before returning to his fiancee, three puppies, and his job as an influencer posting and broadcasting about China. Zha, 43, was born in China a month after Mao Zedong’s death and left for the U.S when he was 13. Over the past two years, he has become known for his content about Xinjiang. His posts are devoted to attacking Western reports of human rights abuses in the region and painting coverage of Uyghur oppression as an influence operation designed to incite tension between the U.S. and China. 

“The US government is pushing Cold War propaganda to get us involved in another war,” he told me in a Skype interview. Despite the content of his Twitter account, he said he doesn’t deny that China has inflicted human rights abuses on its Uyghur population.

“I feel very conflicted about what the Chinese government is doing, because it is very heavy-handed, it is a massive social engineering project,” he said. I asked him whether he had spoken to any Uyghurs about the issue. He said that he has been a member of a WeChat group of Uyghur and Han people from Xinjiang in 2015. “It’s pretty much defunct now,” he said, explaining that it went quiet when Xinjiang authorities cracked down on communication two years later. 

Since then, despite extensively posting about Xinjiang, Zha told me he had not had a conversation with any other Uyghurs, either living in Xinjiang or abroad. “Nobody has reached out to me,” he said. “The Uyghurs living in exile – there are actually plenty of outlets for them right now. I mean there’s many – all the news channels, all the mainstream news. I’m a small shop. I’m a one-person channel.”

Zha’s podcast about China, titled “Silk and Steel,” hosts mostly like-minded guests, including Jerry Grey. Zha said he wasn’t opposed to speaking with Uyghurs and told me that he had featured a Hong Kong protester on the show. 

“I’m not just a shitposter that posts a lot – my podcast is my income stream. That’s what’s supporting me to live in Bali,” he said. 

Zha and Grey are part of a group of bloggers, YouTubers and social media personalities – backed by legions of automated accounts – who seek to play down Uyghur oppression in Xinjiang. They see reports of Uyghur human rights abuses as attempts to attack Beijing, and believe that Western coverage of the Xinjiang crisis forms part of a state-funded offensive against China. 

Though the accounts of Zha and Grey are run by real people, there are hundreds of accounts within their network which appear to be inauthentic. These coordinated accounts, seen by Coda Story, all spout Chinese propaganda content claiming Xinjiang is happy and thriving. Some claim to be run by Uyghurs. If they were authentic Xinjiang Twitter accounts, their users would require a VPN to access them – a practice that can mean instant arrest in the region. 

Over on TikTok, the top-ranking videos on the “Xinjiang” hashtag bring up beautiful images of the region, interlaced with videos claiming the camps in Xinjiang are a conspiracy theory. A top result comes from an American user called @vagdentata. “I keep seeing people post about the Uyghur Autonomous Region in China, claiming there are concentration camps there – that is not true, it’s fabricated by the CIA.” On Friday, President Trump banned dealings with Chinese tech giants TikTok and WeChat and announced he would bar both apps from operating in the U.S, unless they were sold to a U.S. buyer within 45 days. 

Mamutjan Abdurehim, 42, is a Uyghur father living alone in Sydney. He has spent a great deal of time on social media, trying to find out more about the situation in Xinjiang. He is troubled by the presence of the denialists he encounters on the internet.

“That’s the most painful part of being online,” he said. “Seeing somebody denying — openly denying — what’s going on there and trying to portray activists as agents of the West or agents of Western propaganda. That’s very, very painful.” 

Abdurehim believes his wife, Muherrem Ablet, is currently imprisoned in Xinjiang. She and their two children were separated from him after they had to return to China to replace her passport. In April 2017, Abdurehim’s wife was rounded up and sent to a camp. The family was told she would be entering a brief period of “study.” Except for a short message when she was allowed out on day release in late May 2017, Abdurehim has not heard from his wife since.

Abdurehim said he is often kept awake at night after reading conspiracy theories denying Uyghur oppression. “I get tempted to respond to them and fight them over Twitter,” he said. “But I calm myself down. No, no, no, no need for that.”

Alongside Abdurehim, there are thousands of Uyghurs around the world who have testified about their missing family members in Xinjiang. Since 2016, the region has been subjected to a brutal crackdown, corralling Uyghurs into a sprawling network of detention centers, camps and prisons.  

Researchers and journalists have unearthed overwhelming evidence of Xinjiang’s surveillance and detention programs. As a result, they are often targeted by bots, trolls, and pro-Beijing influencers. Vicky Xiuzhong Xu, a researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, who published a report exposing Xinjiang’s forced labor system in March, is one of them. 

“There have been a lot of attacks against me and my family on the internet,” she said, explaining that her critics are not interested in seeing evidence of oppression in Xinjiang. 

“They have decided that if we publish material that appears to be criticizing the Chinese government, then we must have been paid by a foreign government; we must have secret agendas. But, no matter how strong the research is, no matter how much evidence we have, they’re not going to be persuaded otherwise.” 

One Twitter account that frequently targets Xu is run under the name Xi Fan. Its owner says she is a young Chinese woman living in Victoria, Australia, who grew up in Xinjiang. Her tweets are typical of pro-Beijing channels: TikTok videos showing China’s tourist attractions, mixed with political content often justifying the Chinese government’s crackdowns on Tibetans, Hong Kongers, the Falun Gong religious movement and Xinjiang’s Muslim minorities. 

On the day that the new Hong Kong security law was passed, giving Beijing sweeping powers to clamp down on dissent, she tweeted: “I’ve been looking forward to this day for a long time. I was in the street when I heard the good news, and jumped for joy. Hong Kong is finally stable.” 

When I contacted Xi for an interview, she would only answer my questions publicly on the platform. Our back and forth lasted a whole day. “When I joined Twitter, I saw articles here about Xinjiang, I was shocked and angry,” she said. “These articles are complete distortions of reporting, which is why I am speaking out.”

I asked her what her response was to the thousands of Uyghurs around the world who have spoken out about abuses in Xinjiang. “They are liars. They are trying to subvert China, incite ethnic hatred and split China. Paid by CIA, to attack China. And u stupid idiot believe that,” she said. She added: “U believe what u want to believe. And Uyghur are still living a stable and happy life in China.” Soon after, she stopped responding to my questions. 

Illustration by Sofiya Voznaya

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Isobel Cockerell

Isobel Cockerell is a reporter with Coda Story. A graduate of Columbia Journalism School, she has also reported for WIRED, USA Today, Rappler, The Daily Beast, the Huffington Post and others.

Get in touch via [email protected] Follow @isocockerell