How China Used American Influencers To Shill for the 'Genocide Games'

Chinese president Xi Jinping (Getty Images)
April 6, 2022

The Chinese government paid a sports management company co-owned by Apple heiress Laurene Powell Jobs as part of a broad public relations campaign for the Beijing Olympics.

China Central Television, which operates under the Chinese Communist Party's propaganda department, paid Monumental Sports and Entertainment for a promotional blitz at a Washington Capitals hockey game on Jan. 10, according to Justice Department filings. Jobs, the widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs, owns a 20 percent stake in Monumental, which in turn owns the Capitals, the Washington Wizards, and Capital One Arena. In another promotional effort, the Chinese consulate in New York hired 11 social media influencers to tout the Olympics and China's business climate on TikTok and Instagram.

The promotional activity was part of China's aggressive but subtle propaganda campaign to promote the Olympics amid calls to boycott the games over Beijing's human rights abuses. Human rights groups urged Olympics sponsors and television networks to either boycott the games or publicly condemn the Chinese government over its genocide against Uyghurs in western China.

The Washington Free Beacon previously reported China's Olympics promo efforts, but the Justice Department filings provide fresh details about the extent of those activities.

China Central Television disclosed that it spent $26 million in the past six months producing television and promotional content in the United States. The amount paid to Monumental is not disclosed, but the TV company lists a $53,000 payment for advertising and promotion. Monumental broadcast a video message from China's ambassador and displayed pro-China graphics at Capital One Arena during the Capitals game.

The payments to Monumental mark another financial link between China and Jobs, whose $18 billion fortune was largely derived from cheap Chinese labor. Apple, which was accused last year of relying on slave labor, lobbied against legislation aimed at punishing China for operating forced labor camps in Xinjiang, the region home to millions of Uyghurs.

China used more subtle tactics to promote the Olympics through social media influencers. According to foreign agent filings, the consulate in New York paid $300,000 to public relations firm Vippi Media to have TikTok and Instagram users promote the Beijing Olympics and China's business climate.

One TikTok influencer, Anna Sitar, released a video on Feb. 11 that used the hashtags #Beijing2022 and #WinterOlympics. In the clip, Sitar mentioned that Beijing is the only city to host both the winter and summer Olympics. According to Vippi Media, the video received 2.2 million impressions.

Vippi Media also hired Ryan Dubs, a TikTok influencer who uses the site to promote his line of beauty products. Dubs touted China's business climate, at one point praising China's "high tech and forward thinking." In the same video, Dubs said it would be "impossible" to make his products elsewhere.

Dubs also published an interview he conducted with Huang Ping, the Chinese consul general in New York. Dubs said he was "really impressed" with Huang's comments about China's climate change goals. He and Huang expressed their mutual opposition to U.S. tariffs against Chinese products, which were enacted during the Trump administration in response to China's unfair trade practices. Huang has denied China is engaged in human rights atrocities and said that internment camps housing Uyghurs are legal "education training centers."

Vippi Media also recruited a cast member of the reality show Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and American Paralympian swimmer Jessica Long to promote the games.

Crystal Kung Minkoff, the Real Housewives star, promoted the games on her Instagram account, noting that Beijing would be the first city ever to host the summer and winter Olympics.

None of the social media influencers hired by Vippi Media registered as foreign agents with the Justice Department. None of the video spots reviewed by the Free Beacon included disclosures that their content was funded by the Chinese government. TikTok and Instagram did not respond to questions about whether the content violated their policies regarding sponsored content.

Vipp Jaswal, the owner of Vippi Media, told the Free Beacon the influencers were told they were working for the Chinese government. He declined to say how much they were paid, citing the need to protect the confidentiality of the influencers. Jaswal defended the initiative, saying it received largely positive feedback from TikTok users and that the content of the influencer videos was "harmless."

Sitar and Dubs did not respond to requests for comment. Monumental Sports also did not respond to a request for comment.

Update April 7, 10:35 a.m.: This piece has been updated with more information about the influencers.