Chinese Social Media Campaign Gaslights Uyghur Genocide
CJ Werleman and Katherine Denkinson investigate the strange Truman Show world of ‘Sabira Samat’ and her sister
There are no lengths to which the Chinese Government will not go to conceal evidence of its orchestrated effort to annihilate Uyghur culture, either in whole or in part, in Xinjiang Autonomous Zone. To date, these include sanctioning and threatening foreign governments, journalists, human rights organizations and Uyghur migrants who have spoken out against the regime.
It has also turned the Uyghur heartland into a macabre version of the 1998 film The Truman Show, which depicts an idyllic but fake American town – set up to fool the main character, as played by Jim Carey, into believing it’s real. In Xinjiang, a similarly phoney version of reality is presented to foreign journalists and officials in “Uyghur Land,” where singing and dancing Uyghurs, many of whom are Han Chinese actors, parrot rehearsed lines to their inquisitive guests.
The Chinese Government’s campaign to conceal and whitewash the Uyghur genocide has also extended into the online realm, as revealed in a recent months-long investigation by ProPublica and the New York Times, which found that Beijing has produced more than 3,000 videos in which Chinese citizens deny abuses and defend the Government’s human rights record in Xinjiang.
Our Byline Times investigation has found evidence the Chinese Government is also behind a network of social media accounts used to spread disinformation about the Uyghur people, and positively identified several key users that are operating as a shop-front for propaganda, including actors posing as “random travel bloggers” and ordinary Uyghur citizens of Xinjiang.
We were able to monitor and track the way in which several of these accounts emerged and evolved over the course of several years, including one which was created on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, in 2018 under the handle “SanBao5060” (aka “The Three Jewels”).
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The original owner of the account was Hurxida Abelikim, a 19-year-old Uyghur student at South West University of Nationalities in Szechuan, who along with her two friends, produced short, positive and funny videos about Uyghur culture. She not only gained a huge following but also was also awarded first place in the “Me and my Motherland – Voice of Xinjiang” competition by the Internet Information Office of Xinjiang.
In March 2020, Huxida’s channel was taken over by a state-controlled media company – the Yin Platform.
Notably, her friends disappeared from the videos, as did the comedy and the channel came to resemble something more akin to a Xinjiang travel guide. That is until January 2021, when Hurxida was joined by a previously unknown partner named Sabira Samat and the channel renamed “Xinjiang2030,” which began appearing on TikTok, YouTube and Twitter.
The pair introduced themselves as “Uyghur sisters,” and began producing videos that directly challenge Western media reports and allegations into the Uyghur genocide while appearing on camera dressed in traditional Uyghur clothing and playing up to cultural stereotypes.
The pair have denied they are funded or managed by the Chinese Government but are unable to explain why their content appears on US-based social media platforms that are banned in China. It’s also unlikely they would choose to use a VPN to circumvent local laws and reveal their identities to a global audience, given Uyghurs are charged under the country’s anti-terrorism laws for uploading content onto banned sites.
In May, Twitter suspended the account for spreading disinformation and Hurxida disappeared from the channel completely.
Now operating alone, Sabira Samat produces content under the name “Story of Xinjiang by GuLi” which is focused on denying genocide, criticising Western media and attempting to ruin the reputations of those who challenge her version of Uyghur life. Sabira speaks exclusively in English with a slight American intonation and repeatedly uses and a tattoo that reads “Yes, I am changing,” to suggest that Uyghurs live entirely without restrictions.
She also explains Hurxida’s absence by claiming that it is now her job to look after the Chinese market while Sabira handles the foreign audience and their PayPal account, simultaneously suggesting they are neither funded nor supported by the government.
Whereas Hurxida’s identity was confirmed via her media presence prior to “Story of Xinjiang”, Sabira is nowhere to be found. She does not appear in image searches and her name, whether written in Chinese or English, fails to produce results on any platform. The only Sabira Samat we did find, is listed on the exam roll for Xinjiang media company as having missed her journalism exam.
In July, Sabira posted an interview purported to be a Westerner’s first impressions of Xinjiang, titled, “Within German Guy’s Vision of Xinjiang,” where she introduces Patrick, a German national who we are told attended university in China and remained living there for ten years.
But Patrick Koellmer is a household name in China, having been a television presenter and resident heartthrob on the Chinese TV show A Bright World for several years. He currently resides in Xiamen, some 4000km away from Xinjiang, but for reasons undisclosed decided to take his first visit to the region with both Sabira Samat and another YouTuber named “Miss Wow” in the same month.
Koellmer is one of several Westerners in China who have participated in the publicised tours of Xinjiang in recent months, which are carefully curated to give the appearance of normal life in Xinjiang, showing foreigners “freely” visiting shopping malls and local restaurants while trying out traditional dancing, and staying clear of politics.
These channels are relatively new and appear to be a new arrow in the Government’s arsenal of discursive weapons to cast doubt and confusion about its human rights violations in Xinjiang. Having lost control of its narrative in the international press, China is now turning to social media.