China hires western TikTokers to polish its image during 2022 Winter Olympics

An army of western social media influencers, each with hundreds of thousands of followers on TikTok, Instagram or Twitch, is set to spread positive stories about China throughout next month’s Winter Olympics.

Concerned about the international backlash against the Beijing Games amid a wave of diplomatic boycotts, the government has hired western PR professionals to spread an alternative narrative through social media.

In November, as Joe Biden mulled a diplomatic boycott, Vipinder Jaswal, a US-based Newsweek contributor and former Fox News and HSBC executive, signed a $300,000 contract with China’s consulate general in New York to “strategise and execute” an influencer campaign promoting the Beijing Winter Olympics and Paralympics in the US.

The contract, which has been registered with the US Department of Justice, lays out a detailed public relations strategy. According to the agreement, between 22 November and 13 March, when the Winter Paralympics end, each influencer would be asked to produce three to five “deliverables”, meaning content that is crafted to fit the targeted audience. Jaswal claims his company has received up to 50 pitches from influencers ranging from former Olympians to entrepreneurs.

The contract states that 70% of the content will be culture-related, including Beijing’s history, cultural relics, modem life of people and new trends. Another 20% will highlight “cooperation and any good things in China-US relations”, including high-level bilateral changes and positive outcomes.

Jaswal, who was born in the UK, received $210,000 shortly after the contract was sealed with Chinese diplomats, he told the Observer. He promised Beijing that his influencers would bring an estimated 3 million impressions on social media platforms frequently used by young Americans.

He said he was well aware of the controversies that surround China’s policies in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, but “what we are trying to do is to simply highlight the integrity and dignity of the Olympics”, he said. “Boycotts don’t help mutual understanding … I don’t support boycotts. They are ineffective, irrelevant and inconsequential.”

Jaswal’s Beijing contract comes at a time of precarious bilateral relations between China and the US. He is under heavy scrutiny since his contract with the Chinese consulate. On 3 January, Republican senator Rick Scott urged in a letter to Newsweek’s top brass to “reconsider its relationship with Vipp Jaswal”.

Last month, Biden announced his administration will stage a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics, in a show of disagreement with the Chinese government’s treatment of people in the Xinjiang Uyghur region. Several US allies, including the UK and Australia, have since joined calls not to send government officials to China.

For more than a decade, China has been ramping up its overseas messaging effort through state-sponsored media outlets. It spent nearly $60m in the US in 2020, according to Open Secrets, an organisation based in Washington DC that tracks money in American politics. The funding included money for the state broadcaster CCTV’s US branch and the China Daily newspaper.

American businesses, including Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, Airbnb, Intel and Visa, are among the 13 top partners of the forthcoming Games. Other sponsors range from the Japanese carmaker Toyota, to German financial services firm Allianz, and French information technology consultancy Atos.

In November, human rights organisations accused western corporate sponsors of “squandering the opportunity” to pressure China to address its “appalling human rights record”.

“Businesses need to know that under the UN guiding principles on business and human rights, they have a responsibility to identity and mitigate human rights risks, and that helping [the] Chinese government’s reputation laundering is risking being complicit in those abuses,” said Wang Yaqiu, a senior researcher on China at Human Rights Watch.

The Chinese government has consistently denied allegations of human rights abuses within its own territory.

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