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China is ‘cultivating’ western influencers to peddle propaganda..

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Facing global criticism for its authoritarian regime, oppression, treatment of ethnic minorities, and aggressive behaviour towards neighbours, the regime of President XI Jinping has “cultivated” a large pool of foreign influencers and content creators who peddle the Communist Party of China’s (CCP) online propaganda, counter-narratives, and sell the China dream.

Beijing has set up multilingual influencer incubator studios, tapped into a vast network of international students at Chinese universities, and created competitions among ambitious creators to push the pro- party-state’s narrative and combat global perception of China, according to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).

In a report authored by analysts Fergus Ryan, Matt Knight, and Daria Impiombato, the Canberra-based think tank said that Beijing has drafted more than 120 international influencers who are amenable to being ‘guided’ towards producing content that suits the CCP’s narratives promoting its values, policies, and ideology. They also build the party’s legitimacy for the Chinese audience and support its propaganda overseas.

The majority of these top pro-China influencers belong to the democratic world – the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Israel, and Taiwan.

For instance, US influencer Jerry Kowal – who enjoys 2.6 crore followers on YouTube and Chinese social media platforms like Bilibili, Douyin, Xigua, and Toutiao – has made several videos hailing China’s response to Covid-19 while berating America’s.

“I’m happy, I feel a sense of freedom! There’s no virus and no anti-maskers â€æ This is the most organised,” he said in a video when he arrived in Shanghai from San Francisco in early 2021.

His videos were picked up by Western media and he was invited to Chinese TV channels. In an interview, described himself as an “objective observer untainted by the foreign media’s bias against China” while calling Western media outlets like the New York Times as “fake news”.

Many foreign influencers have realised that appealing to Chinese nationalism can fast-track their popularity and hence revenue as China’s internet regulations encourage users to promote the CCP’s propaganda. Influencers like Bart Baker have tried to capitalise on that sentiment. Barker left his 10 million subscribers on YouTube in 2019 to create exclusively on Chinese video platforms. From parody video songs, he has now shifted to signing patriotic Chinese songs and displaying love for Chinese commercial brands.

In a video, Baker can be seen smashing his Apple iPhone and trampling it on the ground for a brand-new Huawei phone.

Similar is the case of Andy Boreham, a citizen of New Zealand with 18 lakh followers across Chinese social media platforms. On his YouTube account, he says he is “countering the Western anti-China narrative”. Among foreign influencers creating videos about Xinjiang, a Chinese province where the US said in 2021 that Beijing was unleashing a “genocide” against ethnic Uyghur Muslims. Boreham labels such accusations as “hideous trope”.

President Xi wants China’s huge propaganda machinery to “tell China’s story well” to increase Beijing’s “international discourse power”.

To contribute to this goal, state-run universities have cultivated in their own foreign students as video bloggers or vloggers to produce content for foreign audiences. For example, Huaqiao University’s ‘Overseas New Voice Generation’ new media studio aims to use students, especially from Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan, to ‘tell China’s story well, communicate China’s voice well, and give full play to their “others’ perspective” and “youth discourse” advantage in cross-cultural communication.’ In 2021, over 200 foreign students from 16 countries took part in a related video shoot.

Chinese efforts appear to have started bearing fruits. Content created by Chinese state media and foreign influencers about contentious subjects like Xinjiang has exploited mainstream social media companies’ algorithms that prioritise fresh content and regular posting. In two separate searches from the US and Germany, the ASPI found that the majority of the top 10 videos for keywords like “Xinjiang” and “Xinjiang cotton” – an industry allegedly employing forced labour – belonged to influencers and state media.

These influencers are not given direct instructions by the state media apparatus. Instead, they are guided and shaped by prizes, incentives, and controls. Their enthusiasm, however, is often not shared by Chinese audiences, a section of which has called out foreign influencers for using “wealth password” – a reference to overpraising China to attract views.

“The growing use of foreign influencers will make it increasingly difficult for social media platforms, foreign governments, and individuals to distinguish between genuine and/or factual content and propaganda,” the ASPI report observes.

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