An army of Western social media influencers, each with hundreds of thousands of followers on TikTok, Instagram or Twitch, are expected 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 public relations professionals to spread an alternative narrative via social media.
In November, as Joe Biden considered a diplomatic boycott, Vipinder Jaswal, a Newsweek contributor and former Fox News and HSBC executive, signed a $300,000 contract with the Chinese Consulate General in New York to “strategize and execute” an influencer campaign promoting the Olympics and Paralympics in Beijing winter in the United States.
The contract, which has been registered with the US Department of Justice, sets out a detailed public relations strategy. According to the agreement, between November 22 and March 13, at the end of the Paralympic Winter Games, each influencer will be asked to produce three to five “deliverables”, i.e. content designed to adapt to the target audience. Jaswal says his company has received up to 50 pitches from influencers ranging from former Olympians to entrepreneurs.
The contract stipulates that 70% of the content will be culture-related, including Beijing’s history, cultural relics, people’s modern life and new trends. Another 20% will highlight “cooperation and all good things in China-US relations“, including high-level bilateral changes and positive results.
Jaswal, who was born in the UK, received $210,000 shortly after signing the contract with Chinese diplomats, he told the Observer. He promised Beijing that his influencers would bring about 3 million impressions on social media platforms frequently used by young Americans.
He said he was well aware of the controversies surrounding China’s policies in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, but “what we’re trying to do is just highlight the integrity and dignity of the Games. Olympics,” he said. “Boycotts don’t help mutual understanding… I don’t support boycotts. They are ineffective, irrelevant and inconsequential.
Jaswal’s contract in Beijing comes at a time of precarious bilateral relations between China and the United States. He has been under close surveillance since his contract with the Chinese consulate. On January 3, Republican Senator Rick Scott urged in a letter to Newsweekto “reconsider his relationship with Vipp Jaswal”.
Last month, Biden announced that his administration would hold a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics, in a sign of disagreement with the Chinese government’s treatment of residents of the Uyghur region of Xinjiang. 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 stepping up its overseas messaging efforts through state-sponsored media. He spent nearly $60 million in the United States in 2020, according to Open Secrets, a Washington DC-based organization that tracks money in American politics. The funding included money for the US arm of state broadcaster CCTV and the China Daily newspaper.
American companies, including Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, Airbnb, Intel and Visa, are among the 13 main partners of the upcoming Games. Other sponsors range from Japanese automaker Toyota to German financial services firm Allianz to French IT consultancy Atos.
In November, human rights organizations accused Western companies of ‘squandering the opportunity’ to pressure China to address its ‘appalling human rights record’. .
“Businesses should be aware that under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, they have a responsibility to identify and mitigate human rights risks, and that to help [the] Chinese government reputation laundering risks being complicit in these abuses,” said Wang Yaqiu, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch.
The Chinese government has always denied allegations of human rights violations on its own territory.