Foreigners who depict China in a positive light are becoming increasingly important to Beijing’s counter-narrative to allegations of an ongoing genocide in the far-western region of Xinjiang.
In a rare move, China’s foreign ministry last week used a speech by a Shenzhen-based Canadian vlogger to hit home its point that Western countries are targeting Xinjiang to contain China, rather than because of alleged human rights abuses being committed against the region’s Uygur ethnic minority.
In a 12-minute presentation during a live online discussion on March 19, Canadian YouTuber Daniel Dumbrill, who runs a craft beer bar in the southern city of Shenzhen, explained why the US and Western countries wanted “to disrupt China and its relationships”. A video of the presentation was widely shared by Chinese state media, including broadcaster CGTN, as well as on social media platform Weibo. It was originally uploaded to YouTube, a platform blocked in China.
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In his speech, Dumbrill said China was set to overtake the US to become the world’s largest economy sooner than expected, making the country a non-Western option for cooperative partnerships with resource-rich countries. He also said there was an increasing risk the renminbi would challenge the US dollar’s global hegemony, given the potential for a digital Chinese currency.
“Add the context of Xinjiang being the site of Asia’s largest oil deposits, and the fact that it’s a key doorway to China’s Belt and Road Initiative – and that it suffered from pre-existing Islamic terrorism problems – the question suddenly becomes how could you possibly not expect America to take a special interest in Xinjiang – and not because of human rights, knowing full well America’s history,” he said.
China’s foreign ministry played Dumbrill’s video before its press conference last Friday, followed by the screening of part of a 2018 speech by former US secretary of state Colin Powell’s chief of staff Lawrence Wilkerson. The career army officer said if the US Central Intelligence Agency wanted to destabilise China, the best way to do so would be to mount an operation using Uygurs in the remote western region.
After the presentation, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying recapped Dumbrill’s points and said “over the years, there were only a few countries where the US has not interfered or instigated ‘colour revolutions’ directly, or caused political turmoil and regime subversion behind the scenes”.
“Now the same thing is happening in Xinjiang. The US Central Intelligence Agency, Australian Strategic Policy Institute and some Western academics and media all have a role in this show plotted and directed by the US. It’s time this show wrapped up,” she said.
Dumbrill frequently criticises the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) on Twitter, accusing the think tank’s funders, which include weapons manufacturer Raytheon, of directly benefiting from the anti-China sentiment ASPI allegedly stirs through its work.
Last year, an ASPI report on forced labour conditions imposed upon Xinjiang’s Uygur Muslims prompted several multinational companies to announce they were divesting their supply chains of any connections to the region. Many of these companies, including H&M and Nike, are facing Chinese consumer boycotts as a result.
On Monday, its main author, Australia-based researcher and journalist Vicky Xiuzhong Xu, became a trending topic on Weibo, where she was pilloried as a “devil woman” for her work on the report. In response, Xu took to Twitter to accuse China’s Ministry of State Security of an eight-month campaign of harassment which included fake investigative videos into her personal life.
China is under growing pressure over its treatment of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. In January, former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo accused Beijing of “genocide and crimes against humanity” for its treatment of Uygur Muslims there. The US, European Union, Canada and Britain imposed sanctions on China.
Beijing has repeatedly denied the allegations and defended its policies in the region, saying they are to contain terrorism and separatism. During his trip to the region this week, Chinese Public Security Minister Zhao Kezhi hit out at external attempts to use Xinjiang or terrorism to contain Beijing.
Dumbrill’s presentation was part of a panel discussion which also featured the Chinese consul-general in Calgary Lu Xu, Radhika Desai, professor of political studies at the University of Manitoba, Toronto-based activist Omar Latif who visited Xinjiang in 2019, and Max Blumenthal, founder and editor of US-based news website The Grayzone.
Blumenthal’s website has been accused of whitewashing the crimes of authoritarian countries, from Nicolas Maduro’s Venezuela to Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, while failing to highlight flaws in regimes that are staunchly opposed to US foreign policy.
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In his speech, Dumbrill said he had contacted nearly 80 members of Canada’s parliament who last month voted in favour of a motion that described China’s treatment of the Uygur Muslim minority in Xinjiang as genocide. No MP had agreed to join a discussion or interview, he said.
Dumbrill also warned against “brainlessly swallowing and regurgitating this propaganda” for a Western audience, which he said encouraged a more hardline, aggressive approach towards China.
Lu Xiang, a research fellow on US studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Dumbrill’s remarks in the video aligned with his own interpretation of US policy documents. “The Xinjiang issue recently provoked by the US and some Western countries is merely a continuation of the long-term political warfare against China,” he said, adding its purpose was to boost US credibility and legitimacy while weakening China’s.
“As China grows, the operations of the United States are bound to increase. This is an integral part of US power, and will not diminish as the US gets a new president. For China, dealing with such a political war is a long-term task,” Lu said.
Dumbrill’s YouTube channel has 140,000 subscribers while his videos, commentaries and interviews – on topics such as the Hong Kong protests – have previously appeared on CGTN. His long track record of providing fodder for Chinese state media to throw at the West has earned him special privileges not accorded to veteran foreign correspondents in the country.
Last year, he partnered with CGTN to travel the length of the Tibet autonomous region, interviewing residents and visiting schools to highlight the successes of the Communist Party’s poverty alleviation campaign. In contrast, foreign journalists who gain permission to enter Tibet are accompanied by government minders and forced to strictly adhere to an imposed itinerary, with little time for independent reporting.
While Chinese and foreign reporters do not need prior permission to enter the Xinjiang autonomous region, many journalists from Western media outlets have reported being tailed by security forces on arrival.
The number of pro-China vloggers, podcasters and social media personalities has increased in recent years. Another Shenzhen-based YouTube channel, run by British father-son duo Lee and Oli Barrett, gained 100,000 subscribers in 11 months, mainly posting videos debunking Western media “lies” and showing life in China in a positive light.
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Li Xing, a professor of international relations at Aalborg University in Denmark, said he frequently watched these pro-China content creators because they often showed what life was like on the ground, giving first-hand knowledge of the country.
The Chinese-born scholar said Beijing’s decision to highlight Dumbrill lay in the Canadian’s “symbolic value” as a foreigner criticising his own government and its allies’ policies towards China. “If you don’t believe your own country’s citizens then who will you believe? That’s what China is thinking when showing these videos,” he said.
Li said the impact of Dumbrill’s argument was in what he called the one-sidedness of Western media reports on Xinjiang, illustrated by his own experience with the Danish journalists who frequently approached him for comment on China-related issues. “Whenever I tell Danish journalists that there is no genocide in Xinjiang they just stop contacting me.”
While Li said he was critical of some Chinese government policies – such as its strict controls on speech and press freedoms – he believed ascribing the label of “genocide” to actions that in the past had affected Han Chinese, such as re-education through labour, did not reflect the complex relationship between Uygur Muslims and the state.
Li highlighted the Uygurs’ exemption from the one-child policy and affirmative action in university entrance examinations as a few examples of how China could not be perpetuating genocide. Li said Dumbrill’s arguments reflected just how much Beijing distrusted foreign criticism.
“While there are people in China who think there are problems in the way China has handled Xinjiang, the moment they hear the BBC say there is ‘genocide’ happening, they become so angry that they lose all will to criticise the Chinese government.”
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