Foreign video bloggers who cover highly controversial subjects such as Xinjiang are attracting large numbers of subscribers on platforms like YouTube.
In recent years, the “vloggers” have been increasingly presenting themselves as China-lovers, spreading Communist Party disinformation.
YouTube labels Chinese state media like broadcaster CGTN as government-funded. But there is little policing when it comes to individuals promoting similar narratives.
Some vloggers are suspected of co-operating with state-owned outlets to spread China’s rhetoric to the world. But it’s far from clear what really motivates them, or how effective this strategy is.
Who are the vloggers?
Co-ordinated videos have recently been appearing on foreign vloggers’ channels to counter investigative reports from independent media on the treatment of China’s Uyghur community in its north-west Xinjiang region.
There are well-documented allegations of systematic human rights abuses on a huge scale in the region.
The vloggers include British expatriates Barrie Jones, Jason Lightfoot and father-and-son team Lee and Oli Barrett, who use their platforms to comment on the West’s alleged “lies” and China’s government policies.
They have subsequently gone on to appear in videos for Chinese state broadcaster CGTN.
Earlier videos on their personal channels focus on navigating daily life within China. More recent videos, however, have become overtly political; they staunchly defend China’s rhetoric on topics ranging from Covid-19, to Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
Many of these YouTubers have hundreds of thousands of subscribers, and their videos are fiercely promoted and commented on by nationalist users.
‘Never been paid to go on a trip’
Vlogging is popular in China, but Chinese video platforms have strict terms and conditions, restricting what users can post. Thousands of internet moderators also screen content.
Consequently, many Chinese vloggers end up posting material filmed from within their homes.
China’s 1982 constitution guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the press. However, Chinese vloggers and citizen journalists are often detained or arrested for making videos deemed to be unfavourable by the authorities. In December 2020, citizen journalist Zhang Zhan was jailed for four years after making a number of vlogs during Wuhan’s coronavirus outbreak.
Expat vloggers like the Barretts and Jason Lightfoot, however, appear to be in a comparatively privileged position with significant access, and in some cases facilitated by local officials or state media in China.
image captionLee Barrett has been listed as a stringer on CGTN’s website in recent Xinjiang videos
The Barretts have attended multiple government-sponsored events.
In one of his videos, Lee Barrett comments that organisations like state-owned China Radio International will “offer to pay for the transport, the flights [and] accommodation” in exchange for him and his son commenting on their trip in state media.
In an email to the BBC, the Barretts strenuously denied they post disinformation on behalf of the Chinese government or being paid for content.
Lee Barrett has been listed as a “global stringer” on CGTN’s website in recent videos on Xinjiang – that is, somebody who reports for the broadcaster, but is not a staff employee.
Jason Lightfoot is also on its list of stringers. The station billed him as a vlogger critical of “distorted reports” by Western media outlets.
Mr Lightfoot recently appeared in a number of CGTN videos alongside multiple staff reporters on a visit to Hainan.
CGTN says in one such video that Mr Lightfoot “is grateful to CGTN for giving him the experience to explore Hainan” and that CGTN staff and expat vloggers “enjoyed working together, producing livestreams and videos as a team”.
Mr Lightfoot did not respond to the BBC’s request for an interview. However, in one of his videos he says he is “not funded by anyone but myself” and has “never been paid to go on a trip”.