The NY Times had a story about this topic last month. It highlighted China’s use of western social media sites to promote propaganda messages, particularly messages undercutting claims about the mistreatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang. Saturday the BBC published a similar story focused on the use of mostly white, western faces to promote Chinese disinformation.
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.
In most cases it’s not quite clear what the connection is between the video bloggers and the CCP. Some deny being paid for any content but one of them, Jason Lightfoot, is listed as a “stringer” for CGTN, a state media outlet. He also appeared in some CGTN travel videos where he thanked the outlet for giving him the opportunity:
Lightfoot didn’t respond to the BBC’s questions but did claim in another video that he’d never been paid to go on a trip. Maybe that’s true but was the trip itself a freebie? In the clip above he says he’s looking forward to seeing what comes next which sort of suggests he’s not completely in charge of his own travel itinerary.
Videos made by these foreign bloggers aren’t labeled by YouTube as having connections to the CCP, and yet the CCP often promotes them:
A video featuring Barrie Jones was not only uploaded to CGTN’s YouTube account, it was used by China’s foreign ministry in a daily government press briefing.
In the video – titled “How do some Western media twist facts about Xinjiang?” – Mr Jones claims to have “worked for a newspaper in England… Britain’s largest daily circulation newspaper for six years”. Some state media publications have referred to Mr Jones as a former British journalist, yet the BBC found no evidence to support this, and his channel is peppered with grammatical and punctuation errors.
When asked about his journalism experience, Mr Jones told the BBC “where and when” he worked as a journalist “is not your concern”.
Matthew Tye who lived in China for several years and is now a leading critic of China on YouTube refers to the bloggers who do this as “white monkeys” though he notes that they don’t actually need to be white, they just need to be foreign faces who are willing to flatter the Chinese government in some way for domestic consumption. Tye divides them into three categories from the lowest ranks who are there primarily as entertainment, to the mid-level vloggers like the folks mentioned in the BBC story. At the very top he places some western celebrities like John Cena who have made videos and commercials for China. Here’s his video from April on the new “white monkey jobs in China.” Stay tuned to the end of this clip for a cringey appearance by Tom Hiddleston (aka Loki) in a commercial selling multivitamins to Chinese women.