BEIJING: With YouTube videos “debunking” claims of human rights abuses and rants about Western “conspiracies” against China, an unlikely group of foreigners loudly defend Beijing against its international critics.
They’re teachers and business owners from Britain, Colombia and Singapore, a collage of YouTubers who became famous for their video takedowns of what they say are unfair accusations against Beijing.
The videos alternate between praising China’s rapid development and refuting negative foreign information about the country.
Experts say they are being deployed as a weapon in the information war against critics of China, with hundreds of videos reaching millions of viewers.
“I try to reach people who have been brainwashed,” Fernando Munoz Bernal, Colombian English teacher in Dongguan (southern China) and owner of the FerMuBe channel, told AFP.
Bernal, who arrived in China in 2000 and has nearly 30,000 subscribers on YouTube and 18,000 subscribers on the Chinese platform Bilibili, was among the vloggers who refuted allegations of human rights violations in Xinjiang this year.
In an April video, he accused the foreign media of distorting reporting on Xinjiang and defended the reluctance of local businesses to speak to correspondents against “all the lies and rumors that journalists concoct.”
Western media seek to avoid problems in their parts of the world by “creating enemies out of thin air” in China, he told AFP.
He is not alone.
“Does this sound like oppression? Take a look at this buffet! Briton Jason Lightfoot, with 173,000 subscribers, said in another similar video as he visits a restaurant in Guizhou province.
The United States and other governments allege genocide is taking place in Xinjiang while rights groups say Chinese authorities have imposed mass detention and forced labor in the region.
Beijing denies the allegations and has gone on the offensive against governments, individuals, media groups as well as companies that have promised investigations into their Xinjiang supply chains.
STOOGES PAID? NOT US
Vloggers deny being paid as spokespersons for the Chinese government, instead claiming to be on a self-proclaimed mission to dispel misconceptions about a country they love.
Their journeys are often in areas unrelated to current affairs or politics, while their videos blend everyday images with passionate commentary defending China.
Bernal, who speaks some Chinese, said he was motivated by fears of a conflict between China and the West sparked by what he calls a “disinformation campaign” against Beijing.
“If there is a war, it is my life in danger,” he told AFP.
YouTube is inaccessible in China without special VPN software.
Yet like other YouTubers, Bernal’s captioned videos receive a warm reception on Chinese social media platforms, including Bilibili, while state media frequently repost their content and feature the vloggers online.
The same media often engage in unfavorable reporting from accredited foreign journalists.
“As far as possible, the propaganda system is required to integrate them into their own propaganda efforts,” Florian Schneider, policy researcher and director of the Leiden Asia Center, told AFP.
Bernal said he and other YouTubers shared “opportunities to collaborate with state media,” but insisted he was not a Communist Party of China propagandist.
His videos have featured tours sponsored by the government-run China Radio International, where he interviews other YouTubers about criticism of China and explores rural development projects.
In a video, he calls the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong “terrorism” and suggests that the United States was trying to provoke a war with China by supporting the movement, while also referring to the conspiracy theories of the 11th. September.
PREACH TO CONVERTS
Lee Barrett of the Barrett Channel, which has more than 300,000 YouTube subscribers, recently raised the issue of reorienting its content by state media for public relations.
“If you create content that the government likes, or whatever, what’s the problem with reposting it?” he said in a video.
Barret declined to be interviewed by AFP after initially agreeing to speak.
Many vloggers have launched their channels with non-partisan lifestyle videos, but their content has, in recent months, become part of official narratives.
Lightfoot’s early videos focused on his travels in Asia as he ate street food and sang in karaoke lounges.
But last year, he began frequently posting Western “lies” about China, while making spoofed videos of an exaggerated and fictional BBC-style news network.
Beijing routinely condemns BBC reports for alleged prejudice, accusing it of fabricating human rights violations.
Lightfoot did not respond to AFP’s request for an interview.
It is difficult to quantify the influence of YouTubers outside of China, with many of their commentators expressing gratitude to the Chinese.
This raises a question about their target audience, explains analyst Schneider, because the videos “are hardly going to convince anyone who is not already a believer.”
While researchers have said China is using fake accounts and “bots” to manipulate online traffic, AFP has found no evidence that YouTubers were part of the effort.