Aug 11, 2020 - World

The American blog pushing Xinjiang denialism

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Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

A website called The Grayzone has made a name for itself by denying China's campaign of cultural and demographic genocide in Xinjiang.

Why it matters: Chinese government officials and state media outlets are citing The Grayzone and its contributors with growing frequency as Beijing attempts to cast doubt on accusations of atrocities in its far Northwest region.

Details: American Max Blumenthal founded The Grayzone in 2015 and serves as its editor, describing his website as an independent news outlet. Blumenthal also frequently appears as a commentator on Russian state-affiliated news outlets including RT and Sputnik.

  • Grayzone drew the attention of Chinese diplomats and state media in December 2019, when it published a lengthy article attempting to discredit Adrian Zenz, a researcher whose work has helped uncover the existence and scale of mass internment camps in Xinjiang.

What's happening: Blumenthal has increasingly become a Chinese state media darling, giving interviews with Chinese state broadcaster CGTN and the Chinese tabloid Global Times.

  • He often claims that evidence of crimes against humanity in Xinjiang is exaggerated or manufactured as part of a U.S. government attempt to discredit China.
  • China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Hua Chunying tweeted a Grayzone article claiming to debunk what it calls "dubious" research into the mass internment camps that China has set up for Muslims in Xinjiang.
  • The Chinese embassy in Germany cited a Grayzone article in an April post on the embassy website claiming China's early handling of the early coronavirus outbreak was beyond reproach.
  • Chinese diplomatic Twitter accounts and other state-affiliated accounts show a high degree of engagement with Grayzone articles and Blumenthal's own tweets, according to data compiled by the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMFUS)'s Hamilton 2.0 dashboard, which tracks Chinese and Russian state-affiliated social media accounts.

It's not just the Chinese government that is amplifying Grayzone articles.

  • Gabby Stern, the World Health Organization communications director, retweeted a quote from a Grayzone article in July casting doubt on Taiwan's early transparency regarding the coronavirus.

The website has also attracted criticism from some U.S. elected officials.

  • Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said it was "deeply disturbing" to see a WHO-affiliated account tweeting out an article from The Grayzone.

The big picture: The Chinese government is increasingly adopting Russia's disinformation playbook, Laura Rosenberger, director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, told Axios in a March interview.

  • One classic Russian disinformation tactic is the amplification of "conspiracy websites," which Rosenberger said are third-party sites without funding transparency that promote the same theories the state aims to boost.
  • “Having westerners say things that are in line with the state narrative helps bolster their claims,” Darren Byler, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Asian Studies, said in a July 30 interview with Coda Story.

What they're saying: Blumenthal replied to a list of emailed questions from Axios with the following statement...

"Since The Grayzone — an independent outlet which, contrary to your McCarthyite insinuations, is not funded by any state — repeatedly exposed Washington's favorite Xinjiang expert Adrian Zenz not merely as a fraud, but as an anti-gay, far-right evangelical thirsting for the Rapture, Cold War ideologues like yourself who have relied on his dubious research have waged a desperate campaign to suppress our factual journalism."

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Editor's note: This story has been updated to include more information about the Hamilton 2.0 dashboard.

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