Extending the reach of its propaganda beyond its borders, Chinese state-owned media is running ads on Facebook seemingly designed to cast doubt on human rights violations occurring under the government’s mass incarceration of Muslim minorities in the country’s northwest Xinjiang region.
BuzzFeed News found three ads — two active and one inactive — within Facebook’s ad library extolling the alleged success stories of detainees at the camps and claiming that the detention centers were not meant to interfere with religious beliefs and practices. The two active ads had been placed in the last four days and were targeted to an audience in the United States and other countries.
The Global Times placed one of the active Facebook ads on Monday, in which it claimed that “if the centers were set up earlier, fewer violent attacks would happen.” The state-controlled tabloid, which has both Chinese- and English-language editions, is best known for its nationalistic opinion and editorial page.
Since 2017, more than a million Uighur Muslims and other ethnic minorities have been detained in internment camps in the Xinjiang region in northwest China. While the United States government and the international community have decried the human rights violations within these camps, the Chinese government has dismissed these criticisms, billing the imprisonment as reeducation or vocational training. Last month, the Chinese government said that most of the detainees had been released, a claim disputed in a report in the New York Times.
Accompanying the Global Times’ ad is a one-minute, thirty-six-second video captioned “Xinjiang center trainees graduate with hope for future,” showing supposedly former detainees showcasing vocational skills by binding books or making bread. Footage purportedly from the centers shows Uighur detainees in classrooms, performing dances, and playing table tennis.
“Establishing vocational education and training centers helps Xinjiang maintain enduring social stability and fight religious extremism,” an English-language slide reads toward the end of the video. The message is clearly not intended for a Chinese audience — Facebook is blocked in the country.
BuzzFeed News discovered the ads after reviewing promoted Twitter and Facebook posts by Chinese state media that pushed an anti-protester narrative about the ongoing anti-extradition demonstrations in Hong Kong. On Monday, Twitter said it would no longer accept advertisements from state-owned media companies without independent editorial oversight. Facebook said it would continue to accept advertisements from such organizations, but would review individual ads about the Hong Kong protests to see if they violated the company’s content policies.
A spokesperson for Facebook declined to comment on the Xinjiang ads.
On Tuesday, the Intercept reported that the Global Times had placed more than 50 English-language ads on Twitter between June and August that “deliberately obscure the truth about the situation in Xinjiang and attack critics of the country’s ruling Communist Party regime.”
The Xinjiang ads on Facebook were not as prevalent, but promoted the same narrative. The earliest ad that BuzzFeed News found was from English-language Chinese cable network China Global Television Network (CGTN) and ran for a three-day period in January 2019.
The inactive ad, which quoted a Malaysian diplomat saying the Xinjiang camps “were an effective way to counter extremism and terrorism” and linked to a CGTN article, cost less than $100 and had fewer than a thousand impressions. It was shown mainly to men between 18 and 24 in Indonesia and India, according to statistics from Facebook’s ad library.
CGTN, which has nearly 84 million followers on Facebook and typically places ads featuring pandas, also bought a promoted post Friday that is still active.
“White paper: #Xinjiang’s vocational education and training centers never interfere in the freedom of religious belief,” the post read, though it doesn’t provide a link to any article. “Trainees’ basic rights are protected and they enjoy freedom of correspondence.”
Facebook’s ad library does not currently show how much was spent on the post or to whom it was shown, though BuzzFeed News determined it was delivered to US audiences.
There was also no demographic or ad spend data on the advertisement from the Global Times, which has more than 42 million followers on Facebook.
BuzzFeed News did not find ads addressing the situation in Xinjiang on the Facebook pages of other state-owned outlets, including Xinhua News Agency, China Daily, or People’s Daily China.
While Facebook remains blocked in China but still sells ads to companies there, its ad library shows that some of the page managers for state-owned outlets are based in the country. CGTN’s main Facebook page is managed by 14 individuals in China, one in Kenya, one in Turkey, and one in the US. The Global Times’ Facebook page is managed by three individuals in China, one in Canada, and one in the US.
A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment on how or why people in China were overseeing these pages. After spending years trying to enter the country, Facebook decided earlier this year that it would put those plans on hold, a senior executive told BuzzFeed News.
Megha Rajagopalan and Jane Lytvynenko contributed reporting to this story.