A Global Influence Operations Report (GIOR) investigation has found that YouTube is being flooded with hundreds of Chinese propaganda videos denouncing Western companies after they accused the Chinese government of using forced labor in the cotton-growing Xinjiang region. The videos, all of which feature English and Chinese subtitles and are aimed at a Western audience, were also found to whitewash China’s human rights violations against the province’s Uyghur minority. Western companies that source products from Xinjiang and that have spoken out against Chinese policies in the region have previously faced threats of a boycott by the Chinese government. In March 2021, US media reported that Britain, Canada, the European Union, and the United States announced coordinated sanctions on Chinese officials in an escalating row over the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. According to a New York Times article:
March 22, 2021 The United States placed sanctions on top Chinese officials on Monday, as part of a multinational effort to punish Beijing for human rights abuses against the largely Muslim Uyghur minority group, which American officials have called a genocide. The penalties — in coordination with the European Union, the United Kingdom and Canada — come days after the Biden administration’s heated encounter with Chinese officials in Alaska, and will most likely widen tensions between Washington and Beijing.
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Just a few days after these sanctions were first announced, the Chinese Communist Party’s youth wing launched a campaign against large Western brands which had previously stated they would not source products from Xinjiang anymore. According to a Lawfare report:
April 9, 2021 Days after the recent EU sanctions, the Chinese Communist Youth League reposted a November 2020 statement from H&M that the company does not source products from Xinjiang. The Communist Youth League commented, “Spreading rumors to boycott Xinjiang cotton, while also wanting to make money in China? Wishful thinking!” This post kicked off a larger boycott of Western brands including H&M, Nike, Adidas and Burberry. Chinese celebrities ended their affiliations with the brands, and popular online retailers including Alibaba and JD.com stopped carrying their products.
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GIOR has established that several fake YouTube channels, including some previously exposed as Chinese propaganda accounts, have started to flood the platform with hundreds of videos denouncing companies such as H&M, Adidas, and Nike while at the same time whitewashing China’s human rights violations. Hai Cham, one of the largest of these fake channels, was set up in January 2021 and so far has uploaded more than 261 videos, all of which allegedly portray ethnic minorities from Xinjiang. In April alone, Hai Cham uploaded more than 86 videos that feature Uyghur Muslims, and other ethnic minorities said to be working in Xinjiang’s cotton industry. The videos claim that Western companies were spreading lies about the working conditions there and carry titles such as “Some foreign brands start rumors on China,” “H&M, Don’t smear us or talk nonsense anymore,” or “Xinjiang cotton is not produced by forced labor.”
Lea Chou, another channel linked to the same network, has published strikingly similar-themed videos, with titles including “I think H&M Group is too ridiculous,” “Foreign Companies Boycotting Xinjiang Cotton are Totally Wrong,” and “We won’t allow our pure white and good quality cotton to be trash!”. Lea Chou’s videos say they depict “ordinary peasants” from Xinjiang, and most of the featured testimonials feature short monologues which accuse Western brands of spreading “lies” and “false statements.” The channel was set up in November 2020 and has uploaded more than 170 videos over the last two months.
Also part of this propaganda network Adax阿达西, a channel recently uploaded videos such as “Give a like for #Xinjiang cotton,” “Forced labor falsely claimed by H&M does not exist,” and “Stop rumors about Xinjiang Cotton and so-called forced labor.” Adax阿达西 was created in November 2020 and has uploaded more than 120 videos over the last two months.
GIOR has identified numerous similarities across the videos:
- All of the YouTube accounts linked to the network have covered similar issues at identical points in time.
- All are aimed at a Western audience and feature English and Chinese subtitles.
- Most videos are just one or two minutes long and depict a single person holding a short monologue that often sounds scripted.
The videos analyzed for this report also feature recurring themes and sequences: They often start with a person saying they had heard about the boycott by H&M and how the accusations made by the firm were lies. They then go on to praise the mechanization of cotton harvesting in Xinjiang, claiming the cotton was now picked very efficiently. This is usually followed by an explanation of how much money they earned with their work and how much better their lives were because of this. Often, they then would give a small tour through their house to prove that they are well-to-do. Several videos close with a final statement denouncing Western companies, mostly H&M, for their alleged lies.
The observed similarities across the network’s videos suggest they are part of a coordinated influence operation aimed at countering Western allegations of human rights violations in Xinjiang. So far, most of these videos have attracted little to no views, suggesting limited success in changing Western opinion.
Recent GIOR reporting on China’s YouTube influence operations includes:
- In March 2021, an exclusive GIOR investigation exposed a Chinese influence operation that included accounts mentioned in this article that had flooded YouTube with hundreds of propaganda videos whitewashing China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang and pushing the hashtag #StopXinjiangRumors.
- In the same month, we reported that YouTube had taken down almost 3,000 channels deemed part of a Chinese influence operation.
- In April 2021, the GIOR reported that China was using Western YouTubers to defend itself against accusations of human rights violations in Xinjiang.
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