How China Uses Western Influencers As Pawns In Its Propaganda War

from the chaos-and-suspicion dept

China’s efforts to subdue the turkic-speaking Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region will be familiar to Techdirt readers. International awareness is increasing, too, not least thanks to the diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics that the US and other countries have announced. That presents an interesting challenge to the Chinese authorities: how to counter the growing evidence of pervasive surveillance and large-scale arrests of the Uyghurs. Using official outlets like China’s Global Times is one way, but its articles are easily dismissed as crude propaganda. Much more interesting is the approach described by the New York Times, which looks at how China is helping Western YouTubers to report on the country:

The videos have a casual, homespun feel. But on the other side of the camera often stands a large apparatus of government organizers, state-controlled news media and other official amplifiers — all part of the Chinese government’s widening attempts to spread pro-Beijing messages around the planet.

State-run news outlets and local governments have organized and funded pro-Beijing influencers’ travel, according to government documents and the creators themselves. They have paid or offered to pay the creators. They have generated lucrative traffic for the influencers by sharing videos with millions of followers on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.

Typically, the Chinese government support comes in the form of free organized trips around China, particularly in Xinjiang. By showing the influencers a carefully sanitized image of life in the country, the authorities don’t need to worry about negative stories. They simply make it easy for the YouTubers to present images of jolly peasants and happy city-dwellers, because that’s all they are allowed to see.

One of the authors of the New York Times piece, Paul Mozur, noted on Twitter another important way that the authorities are able to help their influencer guests. Once produced, the China-friendly videos are boosted massively by state media and diplomatic Facebook and Twitter accounts:

One video by Israeli influencer Raz Gal-Or portraying Xinjiang as “totally normal” was shared by 35 government connected accounts with a total of 400 million followers. Many were Chinese embassy Facebook accounts, which posted about the video in numerous languages.

A new report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, “Borrowing mouths to speak on Xinjiang“, has some more statistics on this practice:

Our data collection has found that, between January 2020 and August 2021, 156 Chinese state-controlled accounts on US-based social media platforms have published at least 546 Facebook posts, Twitter posts and shared articles from [China Global Television Network], Global Times, Xinhua or China Daily websites that have amplified Xinjiang-related social media content from 13 influencer accounts. More than 50% of that activity occurred on Facebook.

Mozur says that the use of Western influencers in this way also allows employees of Beijing-controlled media, like the journalist Li Jingjing, to present themselves as independent YouTubers. On Twitter, however, she is labeled as “China state-affiliated media“. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute sees this as part of a larger problem (pdf):

labelling schemes adopted by some video-sharing and social media platforms to identify state-affiliated accounts are inconsistently applied to media outlets and journalists working for those outlets. In addition, few platforms appear to have clear policies on content from online influencers or vloggers whose content may be facilitated by state-affiliated media, through sponsored trips, for example.

According to Mozur, China’s state broadcaster is actively looking for more influencers, offering bonuses and publicity for those who sign up. In the US, China’s consulate general is paying $300,000 to a firm to recruit influencers for the Winter Olympics, ranging from Celebrity Influencers with millions of Instagram or TikTok followers, to Nano Influencers, with merely a few thousand. The ultimate goal of deploying these alternative voices is not to disprove negative stories appearing in Western media, but something arguably worse, as the New York Times report explains:

“China is the new super-abuser that has arrived in global social media,” said Eric Liu, a former content moderator for Chinese social media. “The goal is not to win, but to cause chaos and suspicion until there is no real truth.”

As if we needed any more of that?

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter, Diaspora, or Mastodon.

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Comments on “How China Uses Western Influencers As Pawns In Its Propaganda War”

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Arijirija says:

oh the irony

It reads like a badly-done copy of what Dr Linebarger wrote in his magnum opus Psychological Warfare on propaganda, that the US managed during the Second World War. By using independent news media at a time when the Axis countries only had state media, the US stamped a mark of trustworthiness on their news.

Where it all falls down is when the influencers uniformly parrot the same line, at times when things are uniformly reported independently as completely different. But as we know from the unpleasant experience of the doctor who first reported the Covid-19 virus, the PRC apparatchiki will channel Trump as his most Trumpian. What a let-down for Sun Yat Sen, if he were so unfortunate as to still be alive! (BTW, FWLIW, it’s no surprise to see one of their prize fools being an Israeli, Raz Gal-Or. The PRC line on the Uyghur and Xinjiang is not that different from that of Israel on the Palestinians and the West Bank and Gaza.)

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"Following the Russian psyops model, but with their own spin, I see."

With one vital difference – The russian model was by far more clumsy. Everyone could see the USSR falling apart since they actually tried to be communist.
China, otoh, wears communism as flimsy window dressing while running a marketplace more red in tooth and claw than the US these days and have a large proportion of their citizenry catapulted from impoverished lower class to prosperous middle class to use as a backdrop for their spin.

That means the underlying message is "Our Country Works". After that it’s just a matter of spinning the criticisms into silence through massive obfuscation and swarms of red herring. The best lie is the one with a good deal of truth in it, after all.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

"It’s worse when ypu realize that Singapore has taught them that."

Oh, the PRC didn’t really have to learn anything new so much as just dust off old Qing or Ming dynasty statecraft.

Chinese government has, for millennia, been as pragmatic as a knife fight. First, make sure the country works. Then comes ideology. Rather than the old soviet method which tried to run ideology first which never worked.

That makes the job of PRC spin doctors oh so much easier – because they don’t have to lie about the prosperity or functionality of the country, just about the authoritarian atrocities committed by it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Yes and no.

Sure, the underlying concepts is there, but the more modern approaches, like buying influence, total information control and the like?

The new crop of CCP officials had to learn those. They simply can’t afford more "Treasure fleets", I mean, navies, in this day and age. At least without proper doctrine, protocol and logistics.

And what they didn’t crib or take notes on during the Cold War, they learnt from willing toadies like Singapore.

WarioBarker (profile) says:

Li Jingjing, one of the people covered in the New York Times article, may not be aware of the truth. As an employee of state-sponsored/run media, it’s in West Taiwan’s best interest to present her with the state-approved version of things. I’m sure some of her "out and about"-type videos are assigned to her by her bosses and she considers them fun (such as the scuba diving video) or informative (a number of the more serious ones) – unwittingly pushing the party line.

According to Mozur, China’s state broadcaster is actively looking for more influencers, offering bonuses and publicity for those who sign up. In the US, China’s consulate general is paying $300,000 to a firm to recruit influencers for the Winter Olympics, ranging from Celebrity Influencers with millions of Instagram or TikTok followers, to Nano Influencers, with merely a few thousand.

I kinda wish it was an "anyone can apply no matter your social media stature" thing – free money, free trip, free food, see some sights, and nothing’s stopping you from coming back to the States and editing your videos prior to uploading to mention "I was paid by China to create propaganda, but f-ck ’em. I got their money, a free trip, got to meet some nice people, and I’ll be telling the truth about how sh-tty West Taiwan is because it’s pretty bad."

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"As an employee of state-sponsored/run media, it’s in West Taiwan’s best interest to present her with the state-approved version of things."

Which is made all the easier since in China, for about 90% of the citizenry, things are pretty good. It’s that old imperial model well known in the west as the rule of bread and games. Keep the majority of the citizenry happy and you can do whatever you want with the dissidents and the ones falling between the cracks because revolutions won’t start when Life Is Good for Zhang San.

"I got their money, a free trip, got to meet some nice people, and I’ll be telling the truth about how sh-tty West Taiwan is because it’s pretty bad.""

Which also plays right into the hands of chinese PR because you won’t ever have seen something bad to mention despite criss-crossing the country and a hundred other influencers will just call you an anti-sino bigot with a hateboner against asians…without the chinese Ministry of Truth even raising a finger. Before you know it the US blogosphere will imply you were the guy handing the gun to Robert Aaron Long of the Atlanta Spa shootings.

No, if you want to get to China you need to stick with the hard facts because unlike the USSR the chinese spin doctors mix their PR with a lot of truth to make the medicine go down easier.

That means it’s counterproductive calling Taiwan "China" – when there are 1,4 billion chinese claiming otherwise against Taiwan’s 23 million. I mean if we’re claiming democracy here we might not get away with claiming 1,6% of the citizenry should determine which area gets to inherit the name of the country.

Similarly we can’t claim the chinese majority citizenry suffers. They don’t. The vast majority of them is just A-OK with their government being an ultra-authoritarian bureaucracy/dictatorship because their living standard and purchasing power keeps rising, their kids all go to school, and the global economy is point proof their colleges aren’t exactly substandard third world soviet knockoffs.

Stick with the parts where China doesn’t have a leg to stand on. Even Xinjiang and Hong Kong are subject to gaslighting given the history of both areas.

Personally I’d say the one place where China literally can’t make any claim of reason is Tibet. Tibet has a long history of not being a traditional part of Hua Xia and when tibetan dissidents have the habit of publicly setting themselves on fire as a means of protest you know things are bad.

Xinjiang, otoh, has been in a tug-of-war between chinese empires and warlord predecessors of mongols and turks for about two thousand years – and later on their independence movements were allied to Stalin in the 50’s and Al-Quaeda/Daesch in modern times, effectively making western political intervention impossible – because all China needs to do when questioned about it is to reply "So, tell me about Iraq and Afghanistan" and the US falls conspicuously silent.

Hong Kong was extorted from China by british drug lords in the 18th century, again making it difficult to claim high ground.

And to top it off the west can’t sanction China that much either – because for the last 40 years we’ve moved all our manufacturing there to the effect that any harm caused to their economy instantly rebounds to ours.

China won. Game, set and match. All that’s left is for them to sanitize their image to save face. That at least we can prevent. But we’re going to have to be smart about it and take the wins we can, because there’ll be a thousand well-paid voices calling bullshit on every assertion against them.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

"May God help America if China ever does turn into a Western style democracy… They will not greet you as liberators. "

Depends on which western-style democracy.

If China were to copy the US as is in that regard we’d be talking about a radical downgrade of living conditions for about 700 million people, a sudden influx of incarcerations to match the US permanent prison population – which would mean jailing another 8 million people or so. The abolition of subsidized education and health care…and the sudden emergence of about 350 million people all convinced of the merits of dictionary-definition fascism as the cure against the baby-eating cult of lizard-worshipping liberal satanists.
And the "democracy" would consist of half the body politic doing their damndest to make sure as many people as possible can’t vote.

They’d also have to build internment camps not subject to their own national charters of legislative jurisprudence, like gitmo and Abu Ghraib…oh wait, they already have those.

Here’s the thing. The US in the 60’s and 70’s could stand against the USSR and point out all the misery of their people compared to the freedoms in the US.
Contemporary US can’t say the same against contemporary China and that is increasingly a problem as it means the chinese ultra-authoritarian model is gaining a lot of credibility in all the wrong places.

It leaves a dangerous power gap when the non-failed democracies worldwide have to watch the until-now leader among them displaying a total shit-show of failed democracy at home.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

"In some ways the CCP is actually holding China back."

Yes and no. The "CCP" is more or less just a new iteration of the same old bureaucracy which has held China in an iron grip for thousands of years. Emperors may come and go but the unassuming army of civil servants executing the policy are the ones passing down the real lasting legacy.

In one way this bureaucracy does hold China back. Any entity or phenomenon threatening total control over the culture and population is struck down. Anyone refusing to bend knee to rules and regulations will be knelt by force.
On the other hand that same mechanism is what let China plan for generations to take their current role as the world’s indispensible supply chain. Something which would have been impossible to accomplish with a more dynamic power structure as it meant China had to abstain from quick gains and lose every battle of commerce for a long time.

China’s government is centered around long-term stability. The common wish on celebrations since ancient times has been to wish the current dynasty a ten thousand year reign.

The concept that a government is trying to make sure the country still exists and thrives ten thousand years down the road is, to westerners, a thoroughly alien mindset. We simply don’t get it. Especially so in the US where the focus, from humblest of smallfolk to highest DC elite is Fuck You, Got Mine and Need to make the Big Bucks THIS year.
That mindset, imho, may just be the most harmful mindfuck to emerge from market capitalism – the idea that long-term sustainability is unimportant compared to the margins of next quarter. And we’re certainly hurting from that now.

Anonymous Coward says:

Some of the propaganda works on me to be honest, Xi is talking about "shared prosperity" while the other side is talking about the gig economy.

The cold war was won because the West offered a better life than the USSR. Can we just try that again? It was socialism that killed communism. Every worker a house, dog, wife, kids and a car.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"Some of the propaganda works on me to be honest, Xi is talking about "shared prosperity" while the other side is talking about the gig economy."

And that’s the problem. Go look at China’s "Belt and Road" project. Sure, China will gain massively – but roughly half of Africa will get instantly bootstrapped out of third world status as a result of that project alone.

This leaves social democracies who curb their corporations worst excesses with regulations seeing China sail up presenting a pseudo-feudal autocracy as an unstoppable success story…and then they look at the "leader of the free world" and see a shit-show where democracy has become a joke and the 25% of the citizenry which believes in fascism somehow retains parity with the 75% who very clearly don’t.

"The cold war was won because the West offered a better life than the USSR. Can we just try that again? It was socialism that killed communism. Every worker a house, dog, wife, kids and a car."

Well, yeah, but these days if you talk about socialism in the US the half of the country in dire need of more socialism thinks the Kenyan Muslim and his sidekick villain Killary will traffick your daughters, eat your sons, take your guns and turn your frogs all gay. Because chemtrails.

And we can all thank Reagan for that.

50-50? says:

Have you ever watched socially backwards, or impoverished Uyghur kids crawl around in the dirt, and mudpuddles alongside dogs- half clothed, in the rain nonetheless, heads shaved due to parasite infestations; as their parents skin sheep bones for every scrap of meat, to sell to ethnic Han?

Even they are more free than 70% of the US and it’s various debt-slavery schemes and hollow, bullshit jingoism.

Xinjiang today is directly comparable to how the US TVA projects displaced hillbillies ( or Pillibillies, as the medical mafia calls them today) and built prisons to “house and care for” blacks in the post-Plessy Ferguson era.

You might recall that 90 year period from 1896 onward? What “cotton picking mess”the US is in, even today, with its for profit prisons, two tiered society and so on.

Black men in the USA never got their shot, as they were passed over in favor of white women, and anyone other than black men in leadership roles- an ongoing cultural genocide on the part of the US.

And last I checked, the only “education” in US prisons is a Bible or some eerily similar fanatical religious text laying around during Prison AA/NA/ etc.- the country doesn’t even attempt actual rehabilitation or education anymore, preschool to prison pipeline is a real cash cow!

Maybe if you didn’t have those deep, unchecked racial biases against mainland Chinese, you might be able to note the direct comparison, in between Mike Pompeo’s exact talking points (above) and other US police state rhetoric.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

A case to be made related to the OP is that ^THAT right up there could be considered both very accurate AND exactly what a skilled pro-china shill would say.

Because the leader of the free world is in that bad a state.

If you want to change the world – especially if you want to address the failings of an other nation – then you need to do so from moral high ground and a position where you can reasonably point to your own methods being better.

I at least can’t say that’s the case. From an EU member state perspective I would fear the US way of life as much as the Chinese one. And I doubt I’m alone in this.

Now consider how this looks like from the perspective of most of Africa which will gain massive benefits from China’s "Belt and Road" project while the memory is still fresh of the former US president calling them all a "shithole".

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

"Massive benefits… for China only."

Not entirely. The loans are one-sided, certainly; the jobs are half of what they should have been, chinese industries are favored over local ones at every turn and the collateral offered against the loan the country often couldn’t afford in the first place severe.

But without those loans those countries wouldn’t have had dams, railroads, airports, water treatment plants, or other vital infrastructure. At all.

"It’s a massive landgrab scam."

Yes and No. It’s an unscrupulous bank going to a beggar with a zero credit rating and telling him he can get a million bucks up front to clean himself up and living expenses…but for the next twenty years he’ll be working as a janitor for that bank as an indentured servant.

Without that unscrupulous bank the beggar remains homeless and impoverished.

It’s not ethical, nor is it the rosy-tinted deal China insists it is…but it’s still a better love story than Twilight.

"Africa can’t repay those loans. And those that can would have refused it already."

Plenty of those countries can in fact repay those loans. The standard interest on them is either zero or way lower than the international standard of banking suggests. For most african countries that money is just a gagging bagful of cash in hand they don’t ever have to repay fully – but which provides, instantly, the ability to build that dam, railroad, port, hospital, or telecommunications network they otherwise wouldn’t have afforded for the next 30 years.

What China gains in collateral is preferred status – monopoly or close to it on purchasing oil, rare metals, rare earth minerals, ores…and of course a loyal vote in the UN assembly. You know, the same the US used to get out of a number of middle-east countries in exchange for similar deals.

Just that China is less heavy-handed and doesn’t insist on a military presence or for the country to align their internal politics according to the PRC.

Make no mistake, these loans are a win-win…just that China’s side is by far the larger win. What is fearsome about it is that this charity act means that every African nation’s political influence internationally is aligned with Chinas interests.

And that what is being built by these loans is the platform for China’s "Belt and Road". Meaning that twenty years from now, China owns the global marketplace.

Now if the EU and the US had been willing to invest similarly this would be a race. But they can’t. The EU is too conservative and the US president to suggest giving away hundreds of billions of dollars to the "african shithole" will be impeached – or lynched on the white house lawn by #45’s fans.

As it is, China wins this one on walkover.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

And land as collateral.

Poor economic policies from the lenders already make it even more lopsided than it already is.

Reminder that ITALY also has taken out those loans as well.

Pakistan has already given away a military base, I believe one of the Pacif8c Islands has given up its ports as well.

And to countries that CAN afford to pay the bills, what’s a little military coercion, div8ding and conquering, and, oh, supporting like-minded dictators? They’ve won i Southeast Asia, and it’ll take nukes to drive them out.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

I reiterate – "You know, the same the US used to get out of a number of middle-east countries in exchange for similar deals."

Or the USSR, for that matter. The difference being China is subtler about what they’re doing. The yoke not as visible nor heavy. No soldiers in alien uniforms walking the streets, no military bases taking over the borders.
On the contrary, the bait is delicious, the hook fine enough to not even sting…unless the country tries to strain its leash at which point pain sets in.

50-50? says:

Re: Re: Re:

Thanks for the compliment. I do in fact confess to being a paid shill at one time many years ago. And, as a US citizen, who could know better about the comparison? The George Floyd riots started in front of my very own “last job” in the USA, as the PR guy at a world-focused restaurant named after Gandhi.

Hell, Derek Chauvin and his “gang” even stalked me too. The US and it’s dime store pundits, tin badge gangs of cops HATE freedom, much less democracy.

But a correction: since Abu Ghraib/Guantanamo/ the US surveillance capitalism explosion (preceded by its debtors prisons), and the resurgence of neocon theology expressed in every facet of life there the US lost its claim to being a leader of anything, anywhere. Cointelpro didn’t end with the Church commission, not by a long shot.

Have you noticed all those Pacific Island nations jumping ship? It’s because China doesn’t come in, bigger the boys,and hook all the people on dope, pimp the women, sell the children, and then say “if only you would accept Jesus!”

It was Jesus own “followers” (and their ever watchful Pharisees) that did that to them in the first place- I am still laughing about Ferdinand Magellan “saving” the Philippines, lol. It’s all just debt schemes, backed by bullets, torture, enslavement and bank robbery.

Nope- China will build both the bridge, and the brothel, but the latter will be called a salon- and provided the people improve their own economy, regardless of methods. No groveling in that, and the common people often have their first shot at enjoying capitalism too.

As for Africa, yeah- tons of them go to college in various parts of China, all expenses paid- no student loan schemes to trap them as debt slaves either.

As for you being an E.U. citizen, trust me: the USA is indeed something to fear. There is no rule of law below the 70% mark, where most US citizens live, and it is exactly what I stated above: a multi-level debt slavery and peonage system, especially for males.

China has no such system, and even ex-cons can make a living in the streets- no cowardly little Daniel Pantaleos to strangle their Eric Garners- just the market police, telling them “move along” with the rest of the vendors during a street sweep.

And of course, the vendors rapidly re-occupy the streets as soon as the cops put their electric cars into gear, lol.

As for the comments below? As I said, I am a US citizen, who discovered that democracy is dead in the US-FVEYs, but I ONLY discovered that because I experienced those slavery systems I describe. As a “liberal,” nonetheless!

Like Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Chris Hedges, or Julian Assange, many of us woke up to our own unreality- that democracy illusion that tricks us into believing that one voice can make a difference- against multi-billion dollar crisis PR factories, all funded by the far right, clogging Twitter, and deleting Facebook accounts after FVEYs PSYOPs cause a guy to go bonkers, whereupon they murder him in his sleep (Duncan Lemp), or gun him down after years of “police investigation privileged stalking” (Ahmaud Arbery, Gavin Long, Darren Seals and the Ferguson Activists, et Al.)

And really, who can beat the NSA/ military industrial complex/ police unions/ crisis’ PROTESTERS firms on the federal dollar for trolling and shitposting. Just look below, and there “they” are posting from Fort Hood, and other true shithole locations in the US Cybercommand, none of which are morally, religiously or economically more “free” than any street, anywhere in China, where at least the common folk can still sell their vegetables, or panhandle without being murdered for it.

Like I said, I spent most decades of my life in the USA, but one can never get past all of those Anonymous Cowards, aptly named, who stalk your every word, and will kill you for it, along with their second amendment whining.

None of these like the first amendment rights, or speakers, and all of them itching to kill you with their second amendment “rights.”

So, nope, no one can beat Americas cowards who can’t bare knuckle it with guys like me. Cowards, who built both the biggest gulags, and the biggest surveillance apparatus in history.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

"Thanks for the compliment. I do in fact confess to being a paid shill at one time many years ago. And, as a US citizen, who could know better about the comparison?"

Well, I had to point out that the issue the west currently faces is that criticizing China isn’t like going after the USSR. As you underline, above, the problem is that China foreign policy may be exploitative but still produces a better win for an impoverished african nation than any other on the table. Zero interest on the loan? A significant chunk of resources they wouldn’t have been able to utilize at all? Genuine world-class education or vocational training for the have-nots?

The real collateral is of course the foreign policy of the nation (Taiwan assumed to be a PRC "autonomous district", for instance). And that the people taught will grow up thinking of the middle kingdom as the center of the world.

And that’s the problem, of course;
Want to complain about how Chinese citizens suffer oppression, poverty, lack of choice? Yeah, most americans have no hill to die on on that score.
China builds KZ camps in Xinjiang and Tibet? Remind me about Gitmo and Abu Ghraib again.
China imprisons dissidents? Right, and there are some 2 million permanent convicts in the US prison population, all under conditions fully equivalent to old style slavery.

Problem is, factual reporting often ends up sounding like a 50-cent army members these days. Especially in comparison to current US standards.

I’m no fan of whataboutism and the atrocities in Xinjiang and the lack of political freedom in China is a huge damn problem – but the usual method of leveraging the superiority of the home team lacks traction.

Concerning Africa…well, the US and the EU both had the option of going in with better deals than China is offering. Still do, in fact. This is the price of being the cheap bum in foreign politics.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Not necessarily. The main problem with China’s astroturf brigade is that when it comes to a lot of what China does visibly all they have to do is haul out the observable facts to make China look good. Just according to plan by the PRC Ministry of Truth.

Start talking about Xinjiang? Bring the whataboutism and the gaslighting to bring any accusation down – because after Abu Ghraib you can spin any atrocity into oblivion. And that’s not just a gift to chinese spin doctors, as the russian trolls have found.

Hong Kong? Same. Start harping about how the place was extorted at gunpoint by british 18th century druglords and suddenly the case for independence vanishes, as does any debate which centered around the PRC abolishing the last vestiges of democracy there.

The 50-centers don’t need to find this article. Which is why "Valios" is missing from the comment field, I guess.

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