China Spreading Xinjiang Disinformation on 'Global Scale': State Department

China is using its vast cyber army and a network of low-level diplomats to "manipulate and dominate" global public opinion on its repression of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, according to a new State Department report, which details the depth and scale of Beijing's most prominent disinformation campaign.

Online accounts affiliated with the People's Republic of China (PRC) are actively working to amplify positive narratives about the region while denying criticism and seeking to discredit independent sources, the Global Engagement Center (GEC) said on Wednesday. Much of it takes place on Western social media websites like Twitter, which is banned in China.

Rights groups say upward of a million Uyghurs and other members of predominantly Muslim minority groups have been detained in Xinjiang, in northwest China, as part of a years-long campaign Beijing says is to counter religious extremism. Survivors have testified to mass internment in so-called "reeducation" camps, and researchers have translated state-sanctioned plans to "optimize" China's Muslim population through coerced birth control measures.

Following a review of materials that included Chinese policy documents, a United Nations special report said last week it was "reasonable to conclude" that forced labor was taking place in Xinjiang, and Tibet, too.

U.S. Report Details China's Xinjiang Disinformation Campaign
Above, supporters and members of the East Turkistan National Awakening Movement rally outside the White House to urge the United States to end trade deals with China and take action to stop the oppression of the Uyghur and other Turkic peoples in the region of Xinjiang, on August 14, 2020. A State Department report published on August 24 said China was amplifying favorable narratives about Xinjiang as part of a disinformation campaign with global reach. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The United States, meanwhile, has determined Beijing's policies against Uyghurs amount to genocide and crimes against humanity, choice phrases that have implications under international law. A State Department report in April said Beijing's practices were ongoing, while the White House also saw the assessment as justification for banning products from Xinjiang as part of a law that took effect in June.

The Chinese government says accusations of human rights abuses are fabricated and continues to argue that the residents of Xinjiang are happier than before. However, Beijing failed to grant unfettered access to the region when U.N. rights chief Michelle Bachelet visited in May. Reports indicate China is now actively trying to block Bachelet's office from publishing its assessment of conditions in the region, a document that's due by the end of her term this month.

"PRC-directed and -affiliated actors lead a coordinated effort to amplify Beijing's preferred narratives on Xinjiang, to drown out and marginalize narratives that are critical of the PRC's repression of Uyghurs, and to harass those critical of the PRC," the GEC's report said.

China uses whataboutism and false equivalences in its attempts to deflect scrutiny on its policies in Xinjiang, the report continued. Beijing also "outsources and privatizes" its information operations to reach foreign audiences, using a mixture of bots, influencers and cyberbullying to achieve its aims.

U.S. Report Details China's Xinjiang Disinformation Campaign
Above, China’s Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs Hua Chunying attends during a press conference at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing, China, on August 3, 2022. A State Department report published on August 24 said China was amplifying favorable narratives about Xinjiang as part of a disinformation campaign with global reach. NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images

"PRC trolls' tactics include defending the PRC, attacking and trying to discredit critics, feeding controversies, insulting, and harassing," the GEC said. "The PRC floods conversations to drown out messages it perceives as unfavorable to its interests on search engines and social media feeds, and to amplify Beijing's preferred narratives on its treatment of Uyghurs.

"Pro-PRC stakeholders flood information ecosystems with counternarratives, conspiracy theories, and unrelated news items to suppress narratives detailing PRC authorities' atrocities in Xinjiang. Government social media accounts, PRC-affiliated media, private accounts, and bot clusters, likely all directed by PRC authorities, assist in this effort."

China's cyber and propaganda apparatus employs two million people nationwide and an additional 20 million part-time "network civilization volunteers," said the State Department report. But taking a more public-facing role is a number of diplomats who the report calls China's "aggressive messengers."

The lower-level officials engage frequently—sometimes confrontationally—on Twitter, and defend Beijing's policies in unconventional ways on platforms that are inaccessible to the majority of the Chinese public.

On Twitter in March 2021, Hua Chunying, China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson, compared smiling Uyghur cotton pickers in Xinjiang with plantation workers in the American Deep South in 1908.

"These individuals are most likely to try to deny, 'disprove,' and deflect narratives that run counter to PRC official messaging," said the GEC, whose report was the second on Chinese disinformation this year.

The U.S. has long been aware of Russian and, increasingly, Chinese attempts to shape discourse in the West via popular private social media services like Twitter and Facebook. But a solution hasn't been easy to find.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken referenced the issue in May: "For too long, Chinese companies have enjoyed far greater access to our markets than our companies have in China. For example, Americans who want to read the China Daily or communicate via WeChat are free to do so, but The New York Times and Twitter are prohibited for the Chinese people, except those working for the government who use these platforms to spread propaganda and disinformation."

"This lack of reciprocity is unacceptable and it's unsustainable," he said.