Chinese State Media’s Global Influencer Operation
Part 1/2: A taxonomy of CCP-aligned social media influencers
Log into Facebook or Instagram and you’ll undoubtedly find yourself scrolling through the curated profiles of social media influencers. The most successful ones almost feel like close friends, sharing their latest cookie recipe, posting vacation photos, or ranting about some hot-button political issue. They capture our attention, cultivate our trust, and convince us to buy, feel, do. Brands and businesses are the most evident beneficiaries of this recent marketing strategy, but they’re not the only ones: The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which has long struggled to find messengers that appeal to foreign audiences, has recently tapped into influencers’ remarkable power of persuasion in order to sell us the CCP itself and its controversial policies.
This influencer-focused strategy is deliberate and calculated, as evidenced by Chinese state media (CSM) leadership’s own words. In 2016, Zhu Ling, editor-in-chief of state-owned China Daily emphasized the importance of “borrowing mouths” to speak favorably about China.More recently, in June 2021, the head of China Media Group (CMG) Shen Haixiong made a speech promoting the use of “multilingual internet celebrity studios” to enhance China’s image in key regions. One such “influencer studio” affiliated with the CGTN state television channel has been producing foreign-language content since 2020. In addition, a research paper published in July 2021 by a Xinhua News Agency-sponsored academic journal profiled one Xinhua-affiliated influencer, Xu Zeyu, and advocated for greater use of “personal brands” to spread CCP propaganda.
CSM influencers build personal brands by publishing high-quality content that is produced by a professional company or team but presented as though it was created by the influencers by themselves. In China, this type of content is referred to as Professional User Generated Content (“PUGC” or “专业用户生产内容”). It is seen to be more appealing than either Professional Generated Content (such as studio-produced news segments) or User Generated Content (such as shaky, poorly produced vlogs) because it delivers professional-looking media while maintaining a focus on a single, seemingly genuine social media personality.
The purpose of this influencer-focused strategy is twofold: to circumvent attempts by Western social media to identify and limit the reach of CSM (including Facebook and Twitter “Chinese state-controlled media” labels), and to deliver CCP-aligned messaging via more trusted, more appealing messengers. The use of CSM-based “influencer studios” and “borrowed” foreign influencers to create and disseminate PUGC works well for this purpose because it allows the CCP to control content creators’ messages and capture audience attention with eye-catching stories, all while granting the CCP plausible deniability.
To execute this strategy, China has assembled a collection of pro-CCP content creators, including its own state media employees moonlighting as lifestyle influencers, foreigners paid by the CCP to toe the party line, and even members of Chinese ethnic minority groups used in domestic information operations. In total, we have found more than 200 such influencers. Partly owing to their sheer numbers, we have classified them according to their backgrounds, target audiences, and the particularities of their recruitment and management. China’s propaganda influencers fall into three broad categories: “honeypots,” “peers,” and “veiled CSM reporters.” This need for a taxonomy illustrates both the breadth and the ambition of China’s new peer-to-peer propaganda strategy. In a follow-up article, we will describe why this strategy in particular has the potential to succeed.
Agents of influence: A taxonomy
Honeypots are young, attractive lifestyle influencers who are highly interactive with their audiences. Honeypots are divided into two subcategories: majority-Han Chinese lifestyle influencers and ethnic-minority lifestyle influencers. While these two types of influencers differ in their backgrounds and primary target audiences, they share several key characteristics. Nearly all are women, their posts tend to be playful and easily digestible, and regular content seems largely apolitical to the uncritical eye (Figure 4). Honeypots present themselves as everyday Chinese citizens providing their audiences with a more intimate look at their personal lives, travels, and interests. However, this superficial openness conceals these messengers’ true purpose: to normalize the CCP’s worldview and policies, and portray China as a benevolent global power.
The majority-Han lifestyle influencers within the honeypot category make up the largest share of influencers in our overall sample. While presenting themselves as independent content creators, nearly all of these influencers are employed directly by a CSM outlet (most often China Radio International [CRI], a key pillar in China’s overseas propaganda campaigns). Lifestyle influencers generally target non-Chinese audiences: They speak their target audience’s language at a fluent and sometimes near-native level and have an intimate knowledge of their audience’s culture. In order to appeal to a wide range of viewers, influencers have varied personas. Some focus on technology, while others post mainly about travel, the environment, or business (Figure 5). We have identified lifestyle influencers messaging in as many as 40 languages, from globally influential languages like Arabic, French, and English, to less commonly spoken ones such as Lao, Albanian, and Esperanto. CSM outlets have made it a priority to expand coverage into multiple languages, as reflected by CRI’s broadcast services which are available in as many as 60 languages.
By developing an audience around certain target characteristics like language, culture, and interests, influencers are able to tailor their messaging to reflect the CCP’s strategic objectives for a given population. For example, lifestyle influencers whose target audiences live primarily in developing countries often seek to portray China as a potential benefactor and a trustworthy diplomatic ally, while influencers that speak Southeast Asian languages focus on Chinese infrastructure projects in that region (Figure 6). Europe-focused influencers frequently discuss environmental issues and China’s importance as a global trade partner. Arabic-language influencers, by contrast, often present cheerful images of Muslim life in China and downplay the overwhelming evidence of systemic human rights abuses targeting Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups.
A second, related group within the honeypot category are ethnic minority lifestyle influencers. While they bear some resemblance to majority-Han lifestyle influencers, their messaging is more narrowly focused on a single set of narratives. Ethnic minority influencer content is almost exclusively dedicated to highlighting their respective identities and communities. Most of this content is in Mandarin Chinese and is geared toward Chinese mainlanders and members of the Chinese diaspora, though a small amount is directed at English-speaking Western audiences.
This group’s primary messaging goal seems to be to convince their audiences that ethnic minority groups in China are not being oppressed or otherwise mistreated by the CCP. Ethnic minority influencers often refute criticism of the CCP’s treatment of minorities, either by denying human rights abuse accusations, or by using imagery that shows minorities in China going about their daily lives peacefully and happily. Narratives pushed by influencers are often harmonized with narratives appearing in CSM outlets, suggesting possible coordination (Figure 7).
Despite the overlap in content between ethnic minority influencers and CSM, and in contrast to the majority-Han influencers described above, this latter group of ethnic minority influencers does not appear to be directly employed by CSM outlets. In fact, some claim to be independently motivated. In an interview with CGTN reporter Li Jingjing (discussed below), popular Uyghur influencer Sabira Samat claims she was motivated by “Western media slanders” against Xinjiang and the Uyghur people which led her to create videos to “represent the normal people of Xinjiang.”Despite this, our investigation points to a possible private sector intermediary: 11 of the 14 ethnic minority influencers we have found appear to have ties to a Chinese PR firm that recruits young ethnic minority women to create such content. The use of private firms to recruit and manage CCP-aligned influencers is not limited to ethnic minorities, and may constitute an emerging trend as described below.
Peers comprise the second broad category in the influencer taxonomy. These are influencers who both speak and look like their target audiences, as opposed to majority-Han lifestyle influencers who merely have foreign language capabilities. Many peer influencers are Westerners, hailing from countries including the U.S., the U.K., Canada, and New Zealand. They often describe themselves as “expats” who have found a more hospitable and fascinating environment in China. They act as CCP voiceboxes, taking their viewers on tours of various locations around China while praising developments in technology, society, and even agrarian reforms.
By and large, peer influencers seek to achieve the same goals as majority-Han lifestyle influencers—that is, convincing their audience that the CCP is treating its people well, and that China is a global power whose policies are deserving of admiration. Beyond this broad objective, there is variation in messaging depending on the audience. Western, English-speaking peers often seek to convince their audiences that the image of China has been distorted by Western media. They provide their audience with on-the-ground reports seeking to refute Western allegations about issues like CCP human rights abuses or mistreatment of ethnic minorities. Non-Western peer influencer messages vary by country—for example Argentinian travel blogger “Ceci in China” offers tips and encouragement for those thinking of emigrating to China, while Egyptian influencer Haytham Abdul-Mati focuses on Chinese business and trade with the Arab world.
Some peer influencers have admitted to allowing CSM outlets to use their content, while others have even acknowledged taking payment and direction from CSM outlets. American content creator Matthew Tye (a.k.a. laowhy86) provided strong evidence that several peer influencers were contacted by CSM employees with offers to create content that adheres to specific guidelines in exchange for payment. Influencers accused of CSM cooperation attempt to downplay their actions by likening themselves to American influencers working with tourism agencies to promote travel destinations, but peer influencer content is markedly different given its underlying political nature. The “tourist destinations” that peer influencers promote are often located in less-developed ethnic minority regions, and this content appears to offer “proof” that the CCP’s rural development policies are improving quality of life in the respective regions.
While some peer influencers collaborate directly with CSM outlets as described above, others are approached in a more roundabout way. In December, an OpenSecrets report revealed that Vippi Media, an American consulting firm, was contracted by the Chinese consulate in New York to recruit American influencers for a massive social media campaign on TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter. The influencers involved in the campaign were to create content focusing on “Beijing’s history, cultural relics, modern life of people, new trends,” and the upcoming 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games, which have become the subject of significant international controversy.
Veiled CSM reporters are the final category in the influencer taxonomy. These influencers are CSM employees who identify as reporters and journalists but are not always forthcoming about their CSM affiliations on Western social media. In a recent report, China Media Project revealed that several of these journalists have even removed previously listed CSM outlet affiliations from their social media profiles.
These journalists’ personal styles range from presenting news in a straightforward fashion to addressing controversial topics with vitriol. Reporters that fall on the former end of the spectrum adhere rigidly to CSM talking points, sticking primarily to classic news reporting. Many host shows in which they interview public figures or discuss the latest news through a CCP-aligned lens. Like the honeypot influencers, veiled CSM reporters speak a variety of languages, including Thai, Arabic, English, and French. While some include posts about their personal lives and travels, their primary focus is current events. For example, CGTN reporter Wang Guan sometimes intersperses videos of his opera performances and visits to his hometown with posts featuring his journalistic work.
Reporters on the more fiery end of the spectrum are the most direct and provocative in their pro-CCP messaging. Some host American-style political commentary shows, primarily in English, that criticize Western countries and provide snarky rebuttals to Western reporting on China (Figure 10). Through this method, not only are they able to provide direct rebuttals to Western reporting, but they also go on offense, attacking Western democratic systems, accusing them of hypocrisy and human rights abuses. At times, their content veers into the outright conspiratorial and even racist. In 2017 Xinhua reporter Di’er Wang faced backlash after she appeared in a video that featured a Chinese actor wearing a turban and speaking in a mock Indian accent.
Next up: Why this new strategy matters
So why should we care about a couple hundred influencers pumping out CCP propaganda? The simple answer is that these influencers possess powers of persuasion that many other forms of propaganda employed by the CCP have been unable to achieve. In part two of this Substack post, we will analyze how the unique characteristics of these influencers allow their CCP-aligned messaging to reach audiences first, most, from a trusted source, and without rebuttal, making this a particularly effective method of propaganda dissemination.
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This metaphor was used by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) to title its report describing China’s use of foreign influencers to spread CCP-aligned propaganda: https://www.aspi.org.au/report/borrowing-mouths-speak-xinjiang
Sabira Samat’s Twitter account, @XinjiangGuli, was suspended by Twitter in May 2021. One of her Instagram accounts also appears to have been banned or deleted (see an archived version: https://archive.fo/9JZKA). For more details see ASPI’s report: https://s3-ap-southeast-2.amazonaws.com/ad-aspi/2021-12/Borrowing%20mouths%20to%20speak%20on%20Xinjiang-2.pdf, pg. 14.