Tyrants have always had useful idiots to whitewash their crimes but few have proven as useful and idiotic as those who support China in their oppression of the Uighurs.
The northwestern region of Xinjiang is where China’s Muslim minority is persecuted, and according to Human Rights Watch, this means mass arbitrary detention, torture, forced political indoctrination and surveillance using the collection of biometric data. Religious freedoms are severely curtailed under the guise of counter-terrorism measures, the charity says, with restrictions on facial hair, clothing, religious education and online speech. A bleak investigation this week by the BBC found evidence that China is forcing hundreds of thousands of Uighurs to pick cotton for the fashion industry.
A consensus is forming, but there is also a counter-narrative spun by Sinophilic sycophants sharing their own anti-Uighur propaganda online.
Watch Mario Cavolo, an unctuous public-relations man employed by the Center for China and Globalization think tank, who in a popular video tells viewers that claims of abuses in Xinjiang are ‘just another smear campaign’. Check out Daniel Dumbrill, a YouTuber living in China, who says human rights groups — even Uighur ones — ‘use misinformation and lies’. And see Nathan Rich, who in a video to his 500,000 subscribers, says Beijing is appropriately dealing with Uighur terrorism: ‘What I value even more than the right not to be detained is the right not to be murdered by terrorists.’
These kinds of mental gymnastics are perhaps expected from those whose livelihoods depend to an extent on appealing to Chinese audiences.
What is much weirder is that the same lines of propaganda are being parroted by the young American left. TikTok, the wildly popular video sharing app normally used by teens to show off dance routines and bedroom sketches, is also where a number of college kids defend China’s abuse of the Uighurs. It just so happens that TikTok is a Chinese-owned social media giant.
The talking points shared by TikTokers bear a remarkable similarity to the state-issued CCP ones. It’s a CIA hoax! The camps aren’t real! And if they are then they’re locking up terrorists, so that’s good! You’ve never even been to Xinjiang! And what about Guantanamo Bay? And so on.
Take an example from what looks like just another suburban American home. In a video series called ‘debunking western propaganda against China’, a young man named Maurcus, a self-declared Marxist-Leninist, tells his audience: ‘Leftists, you are doing something wrong if you are regurgitating the same talking points about foreign policy as conservatives and liberals.’
Why is the US suddenly interested in Muslim human rights when we have a history of 💣 them? #China xinjiang @agent.ofchaos conspiracy debunked
Another clip is from a user named Amy, and it’s a jokey skit where she plays two characters. The first says: ‘What about the people who escaped the camps?’ The other responds: ‘You mean, the ones that get CIA money? Guys, it’s not that hard to figure out, put two and two together.’
Are you laughing yet?
From her bedroom in North Carolina, another TikToker named Sarah tells her thousands of followers that news articles about prison camps are ‘simply not true’. She adds: ‘It’s fabricated by the CIA as part of an ongoing effort to destabilize China. Please educate yourself and please stop spreading lies about a country you’ve never been to.’
‘Educate yourself’ is a revealing if infuriating phrase. Studies on conspiracy theories suggest that believers tend to see themselves as a truth-seeking vanguard, who dress up their fantasies under a veneer of misguided research. As you might have guessed, this makes it almost impossible to dissuade Xinjiang-truthers with a smoking-gun fact. In their view, no satellite image of the many hundreds of prison camps will ever be accurate, nor any eyewitness testimony honest.
Amid the dross there are admirable videos by TikTokers trying to raise awareness about the plight of the Uighurs. Feroza Aziz, a teenager, posted a make-up tutorial interspersed with commentary about injustices in Xinjiang last year. Her viral video was briefly removed by TikTok — which it must be said is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese company — before it apologized and blamed a human moderating error. On that note, the Trump administration has accused ByteDance’s chief executive, Zhang Yiming, of being a ‘mouthpiece’ for the Chinese Communist party in its efforts to ban the app.
It doesn’t look like anti-Uighur propaganda has spread beyond this online world in the same organized way that, say, conspiracy theories in Syria have been given airtime on TV networks and newspaper columns. But given how many people are watching and liking these clips about Xinjiang, is it conspiratorial to ask if we are really that far away? What is contrarian and viral today can easily become mainstream opinion tomorrow.