Friday, March 1, 2024
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The hired-gun influencers who are ‘ready to stand up for China’


“When you’re young, you do some things not even thinking of the end result,” Gulasi says.

The Auburn-raised English teacher has spent the past four years back in Australia after leaving China just before COVID struck in 2019.

“Then you cop the hate, and you think: could I have done something better? I wouldn’t say it’s regret. But I would say I don’t want people to think I don’t love my country.”

Three years on, the Chinese agencies that propelled English teachers such as Gulasi into local social media stars have evolved. His successors are increasingly joining a network of Chinese state-backed influencing operations covering universities, studios, competitions with thousands of dollars in cash prizes and major US networks including the Discovery Channel and National Geographic.

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“They are building up a group of foreigners who are ready at critical juncture points to stand up for China,” says Fergus Ryan, a researcher for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).

Ryan’s research on 120 foreign influencers, conducted with Matt Knight and Daria Impiombato and released on Saturday, shows the Chinese government has become more ambitious and sophisticated in its use of influencers to try to manage public opinion at home and abroad. The Australian think-tank receives some financial support from Washington – though not for this research – and has previously been accused by China’s Foreign Ministry of receiving “funding of foreign forces to support its concoction of lies against China”.

The goal, according to Chinese state media editor Du Guodong, is to cultivate a group of “foreign mouths”, “foreign pens” and “foreign brains”.

They are then transformed by Chinese state media into “objective observers of Western societies, maintaining the credibility of the state’s narrative within the confines of the Great Firewall”, Ryan says.

That gives the Chinese state power to ward off domestic criticism of its policies and, by highlighting the views of the in-house foreign voices, criticise international responses to Chinese-US competition, COVID-19 and human rights disputes.

Abroad, the combination of the volume of content being produced by some of these studios has meant that some of these videos on issues such as the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang have risen to the top of YouTube rankings.

Two videos “The Xinjiang THEY don’t want YOU to see” and “Xinjiang – a modern oasis” are now competing with investigative documentaries at the top of YouTube’s charts in Australia.

“Beijing is establishing multilingual influencer studios to incubate both domestic and foreign influencers to reach younger media consumers globally,” Ryan says.

In June last year, the Chinese state-linked Shanghai United Media Group announced an “Integrated Media Studio Empowerment Plan” that would funnel resources to develop stars and co-operation with leading Chinese tech companies including Douyin, a subsidiary of TikTok owner ByteDance, and Tencent’s WeChat Strategic Research Institute.

Andy Boreham, a Chinese social media influencer from New Zealand.

Andy Boreham, a Chinese social media influencer from New Zealand.Credit: YouTube

The Shanghai United Media Group also represents New Zealander Andy Boreham, who transformed from a food and pet blogger into a staunch defender of the Chinese government. Boreham has described Australia as “brainwashed” and accused the “West of a systemic slander campaign”. He was contacted for comment.

Others such as American influencer Nathan Rich, who goes by the nickname “Hotpot King”, have pumped out a steady stream of videos fuelling doubts about the origins of COVID-19. “Did the COVID-19 virus originate from Fort Detrick in the US? Is it a conspiracy theory or reasonable suspicion?” has more than 7.5 million views.

“These pseudo or entirely fictitious identities work to paint state narratives with a veneer of independence and spontaneity,” says Ryan.

The narrative is also being driven by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s push to tell “China’s story well”, which he frames as “establishing an international discourse power that aligns with our country’s comprehensive national strength”.

In a video shared by the Chinese embassy in Australia in December 2021, Italian international student turned media critic Rachele Longhi attacked the BBC for its reporting on Tibet by spending a day guided by Chinese government minders at a school in the capital, Lhasa. Longhi said she was “determined to tell the story of China” and “present a credible, lovable and respectable real China”.

Prizes awarded at the “My China Story competition” in Beijing.

Prizes awarded at the “My China Story competition” in Beijing.Credit: ASPI

“That sentence echoes a clear directive laid out by Xi Jinping earlier that year, in May, at a collective study session of China’s Politburo on external propaganda,” says Ryan.

The investment in foreign social media stars is being matched with prizes worth thousands of dollars and university training programs around the country to unearth the next generation of video bloggers.

The 2022 edition of the “My China Story competition” had a budget of $400,000, according to a government procurement document reviewed by ASPI. Sixty thousand short videos were submitted to the competition, covering US-China relations and China’s response to COVID-19. The Chinese government then had the right to use any of the submitted videos to “showcase a positive vision of China around the world”.

Later that year, top Chinese universities Fudan, Nanjing and Sun Yat-sen became the first “external discourse innovation research centres” under the direction of China’s propaganda department. Huaqiao University in Fujian established an “Overseas New Voice Generation” new media studio. This year, Tsinghua University asked international students to produce short videos destined for US social media as part of a competition titled “100 reasons to love Beijing”.

China’s influencer studios are now reaching beyond social media and into traditional broadcast networks.

Last year, a film executive-produced by China’s State Council Information Office and starring one of China’s most prominent influencers, Takeuchi Ryo, was broadcast on major US cable network National Geographic. The China International Communication Centre, a Party production unit, is now producing a six-part documentary series titled What makes China, China? for the Discovery Network.

“In the case of Discovery, co-operation with the People’s Republic of China propaganda apparatus appears to be exceptionally longstanding, prolific and tightly aligned with the Chinese Communist Party’s external propaganda objectives,” Ryan found.

Australian Harry Harding (right) with fellow GRT presenters in China.

Australian Harry Harding (right) with fellow GRT presenters in China.

But others argue that despite the extra resources, China’s use of Western influencers remains clunky, poorly managed and ineffective.

Harry Harding, a former Chinese state media presenter and pop star who returned to Australia last year, said the system was failing to turn the tide of global public opinion.

“I think that, in all honesty, they are getting fairly desperate in terms of what they’re doing because most of China’s outreach programs are just failures,” he said.

“I think for most non-Chinese people that are still in China working in a media-related field, it’s just getting more and more difficult for them to do stuff that isn’t propaganda. I think they might have a bit of a difficult future ahead because, for a lot of these people, I don’t know where they would go if China one day decides this kind of hostile content just isn’t working for us any more.”

Harding, known in China as “Hazza”, worked in Guangdong for a decade. He was reluctant to criticise China while he was living there as he transformed into a minor celebrity and paid tribute to Chinese officials, and said he hoped that Australian leaders could learn from them.

Harding now believes he was targeted for espionage work after he said he was sceptical of claims of human rights abuses in Xinjiang in a previous interview with this masthead. In October 2021, he was approached at a Starbucks in Guangzhou by a pair of representatives purporting to be from a think tank. The meeting was first reported by the ABC in May. The pair offered him a Dior wallet and $5000 per interview or essay on a prominent Australian that never had to be published. Harding suspected they were Chinese intelligence operatives. Australian security services confirmed his concerns were valid.

“I think sometimes we give China a little too much credit,” Harding said. “When it comes to some of its operations, a lot of the time things are sloppy.”

Gulasi now runs English lessons online and takes little personal responsibility for his past material. He claims he split with his agency after refusing to do some forms of content and disagreements over marketing and strategy:

“Becoming an influencer was awesome. I absolutely loved the influencer life. It was great. But I missed out on so many years with my kids. There’s nothing I can say about the content posted in the past because it’s already out there.”

But he has this advice for the next generation.

“Know what you post and check with people back home. Make sure you check everything you post is ethical,” he says. “Don’t forget you’re influencing. So influence well.”

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