Enter the Grayzone: fringe leftists deny the scale of China’s Uyghur oppression

This week, writer and commentator Max Blumenthal downplayed Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang on international TV — and he’s not the only one

On July 25, Max Blumenthal, the founder and editor of the far-left news site The Grayzone, went on Going Underground, a current affairs show broadcast by the Russian state-controlled TV channel RT. On air, he questioned the scale of the detention of Uyghurs in camps in China’s northwestern Xinjiang province. 

“I don’t have reason to doubt that there’s something going in Xinjiang, that there could even be repression,” said Blumenthal. “But we haven’t seen the evidence for these massive claims.” He went on to describe reports of Beijing’s abuse of Uyghurs as “the hostile language of a Cold War, weaponizing a minority group.”

Blumenthal’s statements met with outrage online and many social media users accused him of ignoring one of the largest-scale human rights violations of the 21st century.

This is not the first time a writer from The Grayzone has sought to refute or downplay reports of Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang, and there is precedent for Blumenthal’s words. With a hardline anti-imperialist ideology and a deep-seated antagonism towards U.S. interventionist foreign policy, The Grayzone has followed a similar path on Syria, challenging reports of atrocities by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. What is more, these fringe views appear to be creeping into other areas of the American left.

Ideological spread

In April, a small left-wing blog named LA Progressive began to publish articles denying the persecution of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. In one, Margaret Kimberely wrote that widespread reports on the mass detention of Muslim minorities are “a falsehood.” In a subsequent essay, Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers dismissed such narratives as “vast exaggerations used to stoke anti-China views.” 

LA Progressive’s denial of human rights abuses in Xinjiang is particularly jarring considering the rest of its content. Most of the site’s articles concentrate on issues of racial and economic inequality, LGBTQ rights and healthcare reform. But, in recent months, it has run three pieces stating that the Chinese state is being subjected to a disinformation campaign over its treatment of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.  

Founded in 2008 by husband and wife Dick Price and Sharon Kyle, LA Progressive states that it is “committed to advocating for the public interest, as opposed to the corporate agenda.” Price and Kyle are active in Los Angeles left-wing circles and have ties to groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, on whose national board of directors Kyle represents Southern California. 

When asked why the site had published the pieces cited above, Price said, “We don’t necessarily agree with every sentence in every opinion piece we publish, but we do feel these two articles are worthy of people’s consideration.”

Small but loud

While the number of left-wing voices denying China’s ongoing repression of the Uyghur people is few, those that do exist are vociferous and well-organized. Of these, The Grayzone is by far the most influential. In recent years, it has taken a variety of contrarian stances on world affairs, from supporting the Assad regime in Syria to backing Venezuela’s authoritarian leader Nicolas Maduro.

Blumenthal began his career as part of the more mainstream left. The son of Sidney Blumenthal, a former aide to President Bill Clinton, he has written for The New York Times, The Nation and The Daily Beast on subjects ranging from Sarah Palin’s 2008 vice-presidential campaign to the Arab-Israeli conflict. He has also published a number of books, two of which are based on his experiences in Palestine. 

Once a supporter of the Syrian revolution and a critic of Assad, Blumenthal has made frequent appearances on state-run broadcasters such as Russia’s RT and Sputnik radio, and China’s television news channel CGTN. In December 2015, he attended a 10th anniversary party for RT in Moscow. Around this time, he became a fervent advocate for the Syrian regime and set up The Grayzone. 

Initially hosted by the progressive website AlterNet, The Grayzone left the platform in early 2018. In March 2020, Wikipedia marked The Grayzone as a “deprecated source” and discouraged editors from linking to it — a designation shared with RT, the far-right TV channel One America News Network and Alex Jones’ conspiracy theory site InfoWars. 

While many of The Grayzone’s ideas push hard at the edges of left-wing discourse, it still commands a significant audience. The project has 112,000 YouTube subscribers and over 67,200 followers on Twitter. Blumenthal was recently retweeted by President Donald Trump. He has also appeared on the Fox News show Tucker Carlson Tonight and Rolling Stone magazine’s popular podcast Useful Idiots.

Unsurprisingly, The Grayzone is viewed favorably in Beijing. Blumenthal was recently the subject of a three-part interview with Global Times, a newspaper run under the auspices of the Communist Party of China. Ajit Singh, who has written two articles for The Grayzone questioning reports that Uyghurs were being held in camps in Xinjiang, has appeared on the state-owned news channel CGTN multiple times. Meanwhile, between December 2019 and March 2020, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokespeople Hua Chunying and Lijian Zhao both tweeted a Grayzone article that claimed reports of Uyghur oppression were unreliable and overblown. 

The existence of U.S.-based outlets, run and staffed by American residents who are ready and willing to refute criticism of China’s actions in Xinjiang is of great benefit to Beijing, according to experts.

“Having westerners say things that are in line with the state narrative helps bolster their claims,” explained Darren Byler of the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Asian Studies. “It’s coming from Grayzone, rather than from Chinese state media, although it’s saying the same thing.”

Nury Turkel, a Uyghur lawyer and the Commissioner of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said that The Grayzone goes one step further than simply repeating Beijing’s line. “It’s almost like these guys are providing talking points to the Chinese propaganda machine,” he said.

Since 2018, The Grayzone has published at least four articles undermining reports of the repression in Xinjiang. “Information about camps containing 1 million prisoners has originated almost exclusively from media outlets and organizations funded and weaponized by the U.S. government to turn up the heat on Beijing,” wrote Singh and assistant editor Ben Norton in one August 2018 piece. 

In recent months, a blog named Black Agenda Report has taken similar stances. Founded in 2006 by veteran broadcaster Glen Ford, and activists Margaret Kimberely and Leutisha Stills, the site gained some recognition in progressive circles around 2012 for its critiques of President Barack Obama from a radical left-wing African-American perspective. 

In January, contributing editor Danny Haiphong published an article titled “My Trip to China Exposed the Shameful Lies Peddled by the American Empire.” In it, he explained that he had taken a two-week tour of the country with an organization named the China-U.S. Solidarity Network. While there, he visited a number of cities, including Beijing and Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. 

“I did not see concentration camps for Uyghurs in Xinjiang,” he wrote. “In fact, it is difficult to walk more than a mile without running into a mosque. Every street sign in the city is translated in both Mandarin and Uyghur languages.”

Haiphong later repeated these points on Grayzone’s YouTube show Red Lines, which is hosted by Anya Parampil, a former correspondent for RT America and Blumenthal’s wife.

In a response to questions for this piece, Haiphong wrote, “Shouldn’t reporters be curious, rather than assume the dominant narrative peddled by US intelligence and corporate media? If you want to cover disinformation, you may want to redirect your attention to those with power rather than come question me.” 

The left-wing magazine CounterPunch has published a significant number of articles condemning Beijing’s repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. However, it has also occasionally featured pieces that deny any such thing is taking place. 

“The deluge of fake news from Western corporate media since the beginning of this year seeks to demonize the Chinese government, painting it as a gross violator of human rights, when the truth is the exact opposite,” wrote Thomas Hon Wing Polin and Gerry Brown in September 2018.

The same people who take pro-Beijing positions on Xinjiang often follow suit on China’s ongoing crackdown in Hong Kong. Popular Resistance, a blog run out of Baltimore, Maryland, by Zeese and Flowers — the authors of one of LA Progressive’s Xinjiang denialist pieces — is one example. 

“What is happening in Hong Kong is not actually a people’s uprising for democracy, but a tool for anti-China rhetoric and Great Power Conflict,” they wrote. 

Popular Resistance has repeatedly cited Grayzone in its coverage of Xinjiang and republished Haiphong’s Black Agenda Report article. 

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend”

Left-wing support and equivocation for authoritarian regimes is by no means a new phenomenon. In the past, notable figures such as Noam Chomsky and Alexander Cockburn have questioned the scale of atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge and Stalin. These positions have generally been rooted in anti-imperialism and a deep suspicion of America’s dominance in global affairs.

Many on the U.S. left take issue with the hegemonic position occupied by their country, but very few end up defending Bashar al-Assad’s bombing of the Syrian people or Xi Jinping’s mass incarceration of religious and ethnic minorities. 

However, publications such as The Grayzone function on a purely ideological level. Based on a desire for a multipolar world, in which global military, cultural and economic power is distributed among multiple nation states and Western influence greatly diminished, they have been quick to argue on behalf of authoritarian regimes such as China and Syria. 

Weaponizing doubt

While a few fringe media outlets are unlikely to shift mainstream political opinion on China’s actions in Xinjiang, they can create significant problems in some areas of the left. Some experts believe that the spread of pro-Beijing narratives is a particular risk in light of the Trump administration’s intensifying rhetoric against China. 

“The narrative has gotten louder in response to the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Byler. 

“There’s been a real ratcheting up of anti-China sentiment at a grassroots level in the U.S.,” he explained. “I think that’s causing people to think more about China than they have.” 

As a result, people who oppose Trump and look for information that corresponds with their concerns over his presidency could be more exposed than before to the ideas put forward by organizations like The Grayzone. 

While underplaying China’s actions in Xinjiang fits neatly into Grayzone’s multipolar philosophy, such a position is more difficult to reconcile with a broader left-wing worldview that places primacy on the principles of equality, social justice and solidarity with oppressed people. 

“It makes it problematic, both because it undermines the Uyghur stories themselves, but also because it makes effective responses more difficult,” said Byler.

“I don’t mince words, it’s a matter of conscience,” said Turkel. “We’re talking about crimes against humanity.” Denying the systematic oppression in Xinjiang, he said, ignores its effect on the lives of millions of people who “have names and aspirations just like anyone else.” 

For Uyghurs in Xinjiang, mass imprisonment and surveillance, the separation of families and forced sterilization of women are all part of a grim reality. But even as new details come to light on the scale of these abuses, The Grayzone is sticking to its line. 

In an email responding to a request for comment for this article, Blumenthal wrote, “We consider Coda Story to be a NATO propaganda shop wrapped in a boring neocon blog, so we’re not interested in any back and forth. But we do encourage you to run the following statement: ‘The Grayzone does not favor re-education centers for anyone except smarmy warmongering neoconservative fraudsters.’”

Illustration by Gogi Kamushadze

The story you just read is a small piece of a complex and an ever-changing storyline we are following as part of our coverage. These overarching storylines — whether the disinformation campaigns that are feeding the war on truth or the new technologies strengthening the growing authoritarianism, are the crises that Coda covers relentlessly and with singular focus. But we can’t do it without your help. Today, you have the opportunity to double the impact of your support for Coda Story. From now through the end of 2020, a year’s worth of monthly payments or a one-time contribution will be matched, all up to $5,000. Support journalism that stays on the story.

Support Coda

Caitlin Thompson

Caitlin Thompson is the audience development fellow at Coda Story. She previously worked at Foreign Policy and WBUR's Here & Now.