“It is totally normal here,” reports Israeli vlogger Raz Gal-Or from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwest China. He then interviews two cotton farmers who state that there is no forced labour in the region. Through such videos, Gal-Or tries to show his personal view of political events in China.
As the co-founder of “Y-Platform,” Gal-Or is a successful media entrepreneur in China. The online network manages more than 30 influencers and video channels, followed altogether by more than 100 million subscribers on social media.
On YouTube alone, which is officially blocked in China, Gal-Or has with his “Ychina” channel more than 250,000 subscribers, from abroad and from within China, where users access YouTube via a virtual private network (VPN).
The Israeli media entrepreneur’s own channel started with videos on cultural differences in everyday life, but Gal-Or is increasingly commenting on current political issues such as protests in Hong Kong, the persecution of Uyghurs in Xinjiang and the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. His videos are often quoted by the Chinese state media as showing “the real China.”
But along with the praise, Gal-Or’s videos about Xinjiang have also been criticized by other social media users, who accuse him of “making blood money” and of having “staged” his content. His critics refer to reports from human rights organisations denouncing the persecution of Uyghurs, including through so-called re-education camps in Xinjiang. The US and other countries even accuse China of committing genocide in the region.
The government in Beijing rejects such accusations, yet does not authorise independent investigations in the area.
Gal-Or did not respond to DW’s interview request.
Is China funding vloggers for propaganda purposes?
Gal-Or is not the only well-known vlogger in China who claims to promote the “truth” and defames Western criticism.
British vlogger Jason Lightfoot also frequently posts videos with a similar narrative. His videos carry headlines such as “Western media lies about China” or “Western Media’s Baseless Xinjiang Claims.” This content is also reposted and quoted by state media.
Earlier this year, the British daily The Times reported on Beijing’s funding of various YouTubers from the UK to further support its propaganda war.
Vlogger Jason Lightfoot was among those mentioned in the article. Even though he did not respond to the Times‘ requests for comment, shortly after the publication of the piece, he did criticise it in an interview with Chinese state broadcaster CGTN. He subsequently posted a video titled “Freedom of Expression in China?” in which he thanked the “lovely” broadcaster CGTN for the opportunity to express his views on the issue.
Vlogger promotes a ‘perfect’ China
According to the Times, Lightfoot had 35,000 followers on YouTube in January. That number has since increased to over 178,000. Commenting under his videos, countless users thank him for showing “the real China.” Less frequent are comments in which viewers regret that Lightfoot no longer goes to different places with his wife to test food, as he used to do, but rather exclusively preaches about how perfect China is.
In July, the BBC listed Gal-Or and Lightfoot among vloggers spreading Chinese Communist Party (CCP) disinformation. Here again, even though he refused to answer the BBC’s questions, Lightfoot criticised the British broadcaster’s publication in one of his YouTube videos. The vlogger did not react to DW’s requests for comment either.
Old wine in a new glass
The Chinese government often tries to defuse Western criticism by explicitly referring to favorable foreign commentators — for example in press conferences or on Twitter. This procedure even has a name in China: It’s called “borrowing a mouth to speak.”
It is nevertheless difficult to determine whether a YouTuber defending China is simultaneously collaborating with Beijing.
For Bret Schafer, the strategy is to “find, promote, and amplify foreign voices that are essentially parroting China’s arguments.” Schafer is the head of the Information Manipulation Team at the Alliance for Securing Democracy in Washington, an institute that is part of the German Marshall Fund. “Regardless of whether the vloggers are funded (by the government or state media), they certainly receive benefits that average Chinese citizens or those who take a critical stance toward China are not entitled to,” Schafer told DW. The vloggers can for example gain internet fame or media attention and possibly an extension of their residence permit in China.
“Whether they are paid or not, I’d say it’s likely that their affinity towards China or at least their antipathy towards the West is genuine,” the expert adds, explaining that other countries too “have paid for-hire influencers to promote their causes/brands, but those tend to be short-term efforts.”
According to Schafer, Russia is another country that has been mobilising “useful idiots” for the West for its own propaganda purposes. But while it has been doing this for years, “obviously it is new for China, and you can see from the amount of coverage in Chinese state media of these online commentators that there is a clear effort by the Chinese government to promote them to audiences abroad.”
China’s ‘soft imperialism’
Mareike Ohlberg, a Berlin-based Sinologist, also understands the idea behind deploying “independent Western voices” to make Chinese narratives more credible. What’s new about the strategy, she says, is above all “an adaptation to the new media with their new channels and their new formats,” she told DW, pointing out that the number of videos has extremely increased in the past year or two.
Ohlberg has written her PhD thesis on Chinese foreign propaganda and is a Senior Fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin, which focuses on transatlantic relations. Together with author Clive Hamilton, she has written a book called Hidden Hand: How the Chinese Communist Party is Reshaping the World. In the book, the experts discuss the ways in which China is trying to increase its influence in the West to become more powerful.
On a short leash
Christoph Rehage is not surprised by the fact that the number of YouTubers like Gal-Or and Lightfoot is on the rise. The German author, who became famous for having walked through China and documenting his journey on Weibo (often described as the Chinese version of Twitter), had nearly 800,000 followers before censors deleted his account in 2015.
For Rehage, there are definitely financial resources backing the influencer market, simply because “it is a market,” he told DW. “At the end it’s always about money, but not directly from the Communist Party of China, but from monetising and advertisement,” he says.
Rehage has two YouTube channels, one in English and the other in Chinese, with a total of nearly 330,000 subscribers. The author not only knows China, he also speaks fluent Mandarin. He is certain that anyone who speaks good Chinese and has lived in China long enough would find it impossible not to know about the problems in the country.
Rehage says that when he was active on Weibo from 2013 to 2015, he was invited by various Chinese platforms to cooperate with them. Their only condition was that he should not cross certain red lines. He never accepted this demand, but he can imagine that other influencers would, he says.
But no one knows exactly where these red lines run. His impression is that as a result, everyone in China is constantly thinking about what can be said publicly and that this “keeps the population on a short leash.”
China’s image has deteriorated
Experts like Ohlberg classify some of Gal-Or and Lightfoot’s videos as clear propaganda, yet the researchers adds that it remains unclear “how such videos are received and who or where they are viewed because we don’t have the relevant data.”
Accounts with six-figure followers are not uncommon among foreign YouTubers who claim to show the “real China.” Many of their viewers who leave comments pose as grateful Chinese.
By making the politics of their countries of origin look bad, Western influencers valorise China’s politics through the back door, according to social media analyst Schafer. Nevertheless, opinion polls suggest that the strategy is not working: Even though China presents itself confidently online, its reputation in most Western countries has declined dramatically in recent years.