The Chinese government won an important victory at the U.N. Human Rights Council on October 6, using its political and economic influence to defeat a motion that called for debate on the human rights situation in Xinjiang. The motion failed by a margin of two votes, paving the way for a smooth opening for the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th National Congress on October 16.
While the result ensured that the council would not examine a damning report by the former U.N. high commissioner for human rights, it did little to suppress the broader circulation of information about Beijing’s persecution of Uyghurs and members of other Muslim minority groups.
To further shield itself from accountability for the atrocities being committed in Xinjiang, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has worked vigorously to reshape media narratives around the world. A Freedom House report published last month, “Beijing’s Global Media Influence: Authoritarian Expansion and the Power of Democratic Resilience” (BGMI), assessed such efforts in 30 different countries. We found that Beijing is deploying considerable resources to counter criticism and boost its image abroad, and that it has gained traction in some areas. But there were also many cases in which its campaigns backfired or encountered notable resistance from local journalists, activists, and governments, raising questions about the durability of the CCP’s strategy.
An Array of Tactics to Spread Favored Narratives
Beijing’s efforts to influence media coverage of its human rights violations in Xinjiang include disseminating propaganda through traditional channels like Chinese state media and its diplomats’ social media accounts, but it has also adopted more covert and coercive tactics, including the laundering of its propaganda through more credible local outlets.
Coverage of Xinjiang is a major component of the CCP’s media influence campaign in Indonesia, home to the world’s largest population of Muslims. A significant amount of Chinese state-produced content about Uyghurs is published in Indonesia through content-sharing or cooperation agreements. For example, the Indonesian state news agency Antara has a content-sharing agreement with Xinhua, its Chinese counterpart, and Antara’s content is regularly republished by other outlets. The Chinese embassy in Indonesia has also subsidized or organized paid trips to Xinjiang and other parts of China for reporters from major national and Muslim media outlets, as well as for members of local Islamic groups, some of whom returned home and repeated CCP narratives. Coming from Indonesian journalists or Islamic scholars, such narratives may have resonated more with local audiences.
In Malaysia, another country with a large Muslim population, Chinese state actors have similarly used targeted influence tactics to shape coverage about Xinjiang. The Star, a popular English-language newspaper, republishes Xinhua and China Daily content and has adopted an editorial line that backs the Chinese government’s policies in Xinjiang. The paper’s largest shareholder is the Malaysian Chinese Association, which has signed a memorandum of understanding with the CCP. Over the past several years, a number of Malaysian journalists participated in trips to Xinjiang organized by the Chinese authorities and later wrote positive articles about government policies toward Muslims in China.
In Ghana, Senegal, and Tunisia, Chinese embassies have held press conferences for local journalists since 2019 to spread false or misleading information about the situation in Xinjiang, which was uncritically republished by some Ghanaian and Senegalese outlets.
In Kenya and South Africa, China Radio International employed African journalists in China to produce Xinjiang “diaries” and “journals” in Kiswahili and English, which were then disseminated in east and southern Africa to whitewash human rights abuses. Our report also found that international vloggers from the United Kingdom, Israel, and other countries were paid or otherwise used to promote CCP messaging on Xinjiang.
In France in March 2021, the Chinese state-run broadcaster China Global Television Network published an article by a French journalist identified as “Laurène Beaumond,” who allegedly lived in China and visited Xinjiang several times. The piece was a glowing endorsement of the CCP’s crackdown in the region. Journalists later discovered that the article was written by a former French presenter for China Central Television under a pseudonym that has not been used since. In this instance, the effort largely backfired by generating significant media discussion about the article’s dubious authenticity.
More coercive tactics employed by CCP-linked actors to manipulate global public opinion about Xinjiang include cyberbullying or trolling to suppress criticism and launching coordinated campaigns of inauthentic social media posts to drown out critics or create a false show of support. In Australia, researcher Vicky Xiuzhong Xu suffered from cyberbullying by nationalist Chinese users after she published a report about forced labor among Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
Civil Society and Independent Media Lead Resistance
As the close vote at the U.N. Human Rights Council suggested, there are limits to the effectiveness of Beijing’s influence efforts. The BGMI report found that while some political leaders are willing to cater to the CCP’s interests, independent news outlets and civil society play a crucial role in pushing back against the Chinese government’s media manipulation, including on its rights abuses in Xinjiang. This nongovernmental resistance in turn can help build up public pressure that compels governments to hold Beijing accountable for its abuses.
For example, although the government in Senegal has close relations with Beijing, the population is 95 percent Muslim, and the media have reported on public expressions of solidarity with Uyghurs. In Kenya, the independent Media Council publicly rebuked the public broadcaster Kenya Broadcasting Corporation for republishing Chinese government propaganda about Xinjiang. More recent efforts to directly disseminate the Chinese government’s response to the human rights commissioner’s report in Ghana have failed to gain traction on social media.
Indonesian media have critically covered Uyghur issues, and there have been several protests in front of the Chinese embassy in Jakarta. Many Muslim intellectuals in Malaysia reacted angrily to a 2019 campaign by China’s ambassador, who authored several op-eds denouncing “Western reports” about rights abuses in Xinjiang. A coalition of Muslim civil society groups wrote to the Indonesian and Malaysian foreign ministries ahead of the Human Rights Council vote this month, calling on them to support the motion for a debate (in the end, Indonesia voted no; Malaysia abstained).
A Temporary Victory
Ultimately, seven of the countries examined in the BGMI report abstained or voted with Beijing at the U.N. Human Rights Council. Five of them – Argentina, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, and Senegal – were assessed as being “vulnerable” to the CCP’s media influence efforts. The remaining two, Brazil and India, were both rated “resilient” by Freedom House, though their governments chose to abstain.
While the Chinese government succeeded in Geneva this time, global support for the fundamental rights of Uyghurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang is growing, as evidenced by statements from other U.N. experts and the “yes” votes from countries like Somalia, Honduras, Paraguay, Japan, and South Korea.
Journalists and activists in the countries that voted “no” or abstained should continue to push back on CCP media influence and encourage their governments to defend freedom and human rights at home and abroad. Our research clearly indicates that Beijing’s pressure campaigns can be blunted by robust democratic societies. This was the first vote on China at the Human Rights Council, but it need not be the last.