Chinese journalist vowed to fight on despite becoming target of the Chinese smear campaign for reporting on Xinjiang

Over the last few weeks, while Beijing launched the Xinjiang cotton initiative, some Chinese media outlets have launched a smear campaign against Australian Chinese journalist Vicky Xu. Some Chinese Australians who have experienced similar attacks from China said they don’t think these smear campaigns can help Beijing achieve its goal.

As the Xinjiang cotton initiative continues to wreak havoc across the world, some Chinese media outlets and social media users have shifted their attention to Vicky Xu, a Chinese Australian journalist, and researcher who has been known for her reporting and research about the human rights crisis in Xinjiang.

In recent days, several articles about her emerged on Weibo, and she was characterized as a “female traitor that has betrayed the country” or a “female demon” in these articles. Many articles even accused her of being the initiator of western businesses’ boycott of cotton from Xinjiang.

Xu began to write for the New York Times and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in 2017 as a freelancer. Apart from focusing on topics related to China, she has also interviewed many Uyghurs in Australia, using their testimonies to reveal Beijing’s persecution of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.

In 2019, she joined the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) as a researcher, and she conducted in-depth research about China’s use of AI technology to carry out mass surveillance and the forced labor situation in Xinjiang.

In March 2020, she and the team at ASPI published a report about the issue of forced labor in Xinjiang, and the report revealed that at least 83 global companies’ supply chains may have some elements of forced labor from Xinjiang. The report was widely cited in media reports and it also laid the foundation for other relevant research.

Smear campaign

In recent days, China launched a “safeguard Xinjiang cotton” initiative online, forcing many celebrities to publicly support Xinjiang cotton and terminating collaboration with international brands that haven’t expressed their stance on this topic. Chinese diplomats and state media also released videos and reports to refute criticisms related to forced labor in Xinjiang from western media and governments.

On March 29, Chinese online media Wang Yi News published an article that accused Xu of betraying the country, using drugs, and participating in group sex. She was described as “a female Chinese race traitor born after 1990” and the article accused her of being the initiator of the western businesses’ boycott of Xinjiang cotton. They use the report published in March 2020 as evidence to claim that the report laid the foundation for the United States to ban importing cotton from Xinjiang and passing legislation related to Xinjiang.

The article also claimed that the ASPI report contains false information and said that Xu received permanent residence in Australia due to her anti-China stance.

Wang Yi News even used her family life and personal life as materials for the article, accusing Xu of not being appreciative of her parents’ support and claiming that she participated in group sex after using drugs. The report was widely copied and shared on Chinese social media and more comments attacking her also emerged on Weibo over the last few days.

On April 1, Xu broke the silence on Twitter and responded to the smear campaign in a series of Mandarin and English tweets. She reiterated her intention to keep reporting about the persecution against the Uyghurs, emphasizing that more than one million Uyghurs have been sent into re-education camps in Xinjiang.

“The root cause of China’s policy of sending Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities into ‘vocational training centers’ is the destruction of the Uyghur people and culture by the government led by Han Chinese,” Xu wrote in a tweet. “As a human being, as a Han Chinese who grew up in China and enjoys most of the resources, it is impossible for me to stand by and do nothing.”

Xu wrote about how she began to freelance for several foreign media outlets in 2017 and how she heard that writing in English may help her to avoid becoming the Chinese government’s target. However, after some of her reports were translated into Mandarin, she also began to feel concerned about the consequences.

After she joined ABC in 2018, she made several trips to Adelaide and interviewed Uyghur families there. After she published a report about Uyghurs being sent to re-education camps in 2019, the Chinese government began to harass and intimidate her family members in China. “At the time, my Uyghur friends told me that my situation has become similar to their situation,” Xu wrote.

“Beijing views her as a primary target”

Chinese Australian artist Badiucao said Xu is a young, brilliant, and influential overseas Chinese that will be seen as a primary target by Beijing. “Vicky’s life almost shows that even though you are educated in this system for a long time, you still have the potential of seeking freedom and democracy and turn it into action,” Badiucao said.

“This transformation within the younger generation is the biggest fear for the Chinese government, so they have to eliminate role models like Vicky with all the power they have.”

He thinks that the Chinese government wants to affect Xu psychologically through the smear campaigns but he thinks that their tactics won’t work for western media or western audiences. “Beijing wants to first destroy her within China, so it becomes clear to others that if you are a Chinese, they shouldn’t do similar things like what Vicky did or they will be subjected to attacks or threats,” Badiucao said.

He also points out that the Chinese smear campaign reflects a different value system, since picking on others’ personal lives or calling people slut will be viewed as something very low and nasty in the western context.

“The smear campaign is also designed to put more pressure on Vicky’s family because they are living in China and they want to use this kind of thing to hurt them and punish Vicky,” Badiucao said. “They hope to stop her from what she’s been doing but all of that is very despicable.”

Australian activist Erin Chew thinks that the other reason why Xu was targeted by the Chinese smear campaign is that she is female, and women have always been perceived as weaker. “I don’t condone the attacks against Vicky,” Chew said.

“We know like any global superpower, China has its own political agenda and wants the narrative to be what they want. This type of propaganda attack is a form of bullying and bullying an individual is wrong in my view.”

Determined to fight on

Badiucao talked about his experience of facing similar threats over the last few years. According to him, the target of these smear campaigns was never his art, as the goal is to create fake stories to denounce his personal life. “I was accused as a pedophile in China and I was accused of sharing nudes on the internet,” he said. “This is a tactic that the Chinese government has been using throughout the years.”

He said since the Chinese government knows it is hard for them to challenge high-quality research like the ones produced by Xu, they need to use a different approach to denounce the individual first in order to stain their works.

“Vicky is not just attacking back, but she is using a humorous and lighter way to respond to it without losing all her sharpness,” Badiucao said. “Vicky is telling them that this is not working, so stop doing it. I admire her statement.”

In the Mandarin tweet thread she sent out on April 1, Xu emphasized that she has never written anything about Xinjiang cotton and she clarified that her research focuses on the forced labor scheme that Beijing has rolled out across the manufacturing industry in China.

“Many apparel companies, electrical companies, medical appliance companies, and even food companies have been involved in forced labor in Xinjiang,” Xu wrote. “This issue is much more far-reaching than the “Xinjiang cotton” issue. China is trying to conflate the issue of forced labor in Xinjiang with the issue of competition between China and the United States, ignoring the fact that Australian, American, European, Japanese, and even some Chinese consumers do not want to buy forced labor products.”

Xu also said that Chinese state security has begun to intimidate people close to her in China in recent years. In addition to being detained, interrogated, harassed, and isolated, she was “slut-shamed” by a self-proclaimed detective who spread sex-related stories about her on Youtube.

“Now I feel helpless and amused to see myself being called a ‘slut’ and a ‘traitor’ by dozens of Chinese media,” she wrote. “From a journalist who ‘uses English to leave a mark on history secretly,’ I have now been characterized by state machine as a ‘female demon’ who harms millions of Chinese people.”

Xu vowed to keep reporting on the persecution of the Uyghurs until “the vocational training centers have been closed,” or “when the forced labor scheme has been terminated” or until “the end of time.” “From a personal level, I will continue to do the right thing and all the prices that I have to pay will be worth it,” she wrote. “If I harm people around me because I do the right thing, I will pay them back what I owe them.”

This piece was first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.