This article intentionally limits video links in order to avoid boosting viewership. 

The YouTube channel “Annie Guli” is run by Guli Abdushukur, a young woman in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region in western China. Her videos seem to cater to a global audience hungry for authentic snapshots of China’s rural life, and the sweeping beauty of its far-flung border regions. A video of Abdushukur making a mouthwatering dish of hand-rolled noodles has been viewed more than 600,000 times.

The channel claims to show a viewer the “real Xinjiang” through its videos. “The hometown of this pretty Xinjiang girl, with beautiful snowcapped mountains in the distance and delicious food — would you like to visit?” asks the title of one of the videos. In a region commonly shown as the subject of strict surveillance, cultural erasure, and human rights violations, this is not the case, Abdushukur appears to say; rather, it’s a land of rustic family traditions, clear blue skies, piles of freshly picked Xinjiang cotton. 

YouTube has been blocked in China since 2009. Accessing a blocked site by VPN is considered one of many “cyber pre-crimes,” with especially harsh consequences for ethnic Uyghurs. As a result of the Chinese government’s long-standing repression of the group, Abdushukur would normally be blacklisted for even opening YouTube, suffering hefty repercussions from state-issued threats to detention and political indoctrination. Even a globally celebrated creator like Li Ziqi — by far the best-known example of this rural genre, depicting a timelessly Chinese way of life — should not, by rights, be on the platform. 

So, how have creators from Abdushukur to Li Ziqi consistently skirted the Great Firewall to appear on YouTube? Through a content analysis of over 1,700 videos posted by 18 YouTube accounts, my colleagues Fergus Ryan, Hsi-Ting Pai, and I traced the journey that this content makes from usually remote areas of China’s borderlands onto YouTube’s feeds.

These “frontier influencers,” as we call them in our latest report for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, are typically closely vetted by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Creators, mostly young women, post videos about ethnic-minority lifestyles, representing carefully honed efforts to support party-aligned messages such as rural revitalization, ethnic unity, or Mandarin fluency. Their content then enters an international distribution machine via tens of thousands of media companies, offshore and in China, which monetize and help distribute their videos to a global audience. 

Abdushukur’s channel, for instance, is contracted with WebTVAsia — the same influencer media company that managed Li Ziqi’s YouTube content — a Beijing-based agency owned by Malaysian entertainment company Prodigee Media. (Li Ziqi disappeared from the platform in July 2021, reportedly from a dispute with local management company Hangzhou Weinian.) Prodigy Media is officially certified by YouTube, which, importantly, allows it to bypass the platform’s monetization restrictions for Chinese accounts. (Technically, China is not part of YouTube’s Partner Program, which impedes China-based accounts from monetizing their content.) WebTVAsia alone runs over 600 channels for influencers based in mainland China. 

Companies like WebTVAsia are known in the industry as multi-channel networks, or MCNs. They act as middlemen that enable domestic internet celebrities to access the international market, providing a back door through the Great Firewall via a presence in a neighboring country and often directly managing the publishing of content on platforms like YouTube. According to a report on China’s short video industry, a local boom in MCNs began around 2018, and by 2020, China had over 28,000 such registered companies.

Headquartered in Kuala Lumpur, WebTVAsia claims to be one of the top MCNs in Asia, breaking 5 billion monthly views and reaching over 600 million people around the world. In November 2019, Zhou Xinni, the international business and marketing director of WebTVAsia, took part in a panel with other industry representatives. One of the topics discussed was the importance of “firmly practicing core socialist values, starting from ourselves, to help the healthy development of the industry.”

MCNs are closely linked to the Chinese party-state, particularly the departments of information and propaganda, and cyberspace administration. In addition to managing influencers, they also operate non-influencer channels: WebTVAsia devises content for official party-state media outlet People’s Daily. Like most other companies operating in China, they are obliged to run internal party meetings, and even carry out the socialist tradition of criticism and self-criticism sessions. We know through the companies’ social media posts on Weixin, along with government documents, that they follow party regulations, and must abide by the strict censorship rules applied to all Chinese media.

Because frontier influencers’ videos are first published on Chinese domestic platforms and  produced with the help of MCNs, they go through several layers of censor and regulatory scrutiny. This ensures that only stories either overtly or indirectly resonating with official CCP perspectives make it — eventually — onto international platforms. Some of Abdushukur’s most popular videos, picked up and amplified by state media, praised cotton produced in Xinjiang, an industry tainted by forced labor allegations.

In a video posted on October 17, 2021, Abdushukur shared brief footage of a Zoom conference in which she had taken part to discuss coverage by “dishonest foreign media outlets” on human rights abuses in Xinjiang. These videos are stylistically integrated into the myriad of lifestyle videos that Abdushukur regularly posts, clearly aimed at an international audience and, in particular, the Chinese diaspora.

In the longer term, YouTube and other platforms’ search-engine algorithms factor in fresh content, prioritizing channels that post regularly. The continuous stream of videos from these accounts contributes to the filtering-out of dissenting Uyghurs and other ethnic groups, ensuring that credible — but stale — content gets swamped by a parallel litany of Xinjiang’s beautiful scenery and delicious food. 

This type of content is growing in volume and popularity: Inside China, many of these accounts have millions of followers. It helps that they’re continuously amplified by authorities and associated accounts across multiple platforms. In the words of Chinese media scholar Zeng Qingxiang, the nation’s YouTubers, TikTok stars, and other wanghong (internet celebrities) are “guerrillas or militia,” fighting on the flanks in “the international arena of public opinion.” What we’re seeing is an ever-evolving information contest, where the borderlands are also the frontlines.