News & Politics

YouTube Blocks Videos Exposing China's Slow-Motion Genocide in Xinjiang

AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

A human rights group focused on exposing China’s slow-motion genocide of the Uyghur people and others in Xinjiang is moving videos from YouTube to another platform after YouTube repeatedly blocked some of its videos for ostensibly violating the company’s terms of service. In one case, YouTube claimed the videos promoted violent criminal organizations, echoing the Chinese Communist Party’s attacks on dissenters.

“There is another excuse every day. I never trusted YouTube,” Serikzhan Bilash, one of the founders of the human rights group Atajurt, told Reuters. “But we’re not afraid anymore, because we are backing ourselves up with LBRY. The most important thing is our material’s safety.”

Atajurt attracted millions of views on YouTube to testimonies from people who say their families have disappeared in Xinjiang. The nonprofit is moving its videos to the alternative video service Odysee after Google-owned YouTube took them down.

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Atajurt, which international organizations like Human Rights Watch have credited with drawing attention to the human rights crisis in Xinjiang, has faced hostility from the authorities in Kazakhstan since its founding in 2017.

Bilash, the Atajurt co-founder, was himself born in Xinjiang. Kazakh authorities have arrested him multiple times, and in one instance government advisors told him to stop using the word “genocide” to describe the CCP’s efforts against the Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in the northeast Chinese province. Bilash suspected that this demand traced back to the CCP, which had likely pressured Kazakh authorities.

Referring to Atajurt’s videos, Bilash told Reuters, “They’re just facts. The people giving the testimonies are talking about their loved ones.”

Atajurt Kazakh Human Rights’ channel has published nearly 11,000 videos on YouTube, racking up over 120 million views since 2017. Thousands of those videos feature people speaking to the camera about relatives who they say have disappeared without a trace in Xinjiang. Human rights groups estimate that the CCP has detained over a million people there in recent years.

On June 15, YouTube blocked Atajurt, claiming the channel had violated its guidelines. Twelve of Atajurt’s videos had been reported for breaching the platform’s “cyberbullying and harassment” policy.

Between April and June, YouTube had blocked the videos and Atajurt had appealed the censorship. The platform had reinstated some of the videos, but it did not provide an explanation as to why others remained out of the public view.

YouTube removed the channel, but the platform restored it after Reuters asked for comment about the removal. YouTube said that Atajurt had received several “strikes” for videos containing people holding up ID cards to prove that they were related to missing persons, violating a YouTube policy that prohibits personally identifiable information in its videos. The platform reinstated Atajurt on June 18, asking the human rights group to blur the IDs.

The channel’s administrator said he is hesitant to comply, fearing that blurring the videos would jeopardize their trustworthiness. Fearing another YouTube block, the organization decided to back up its content to Odysee, a website built on the blockchain protocol LBRY. It has moved about 975 videos so far.

As administrators started moving the videos, they received another series of messages from YouTube stating that the videos in question had been removed from public view due to concerns that they may promote violent criminal organizations.

Bilash himself fled to Istanbul last year after suffering repeated threats from Kazakh authorities. Bilash said the police in Kazakhstan had repeatedly confiscated his hard disks and mobile phones, making YouTube the only place he could preserve the video collection.

YouTube insisted that the messages about promoting violent criminal organizations were automated and not related to Atajurt’s content, but the platform allowed administrators to make edits to the videos, which remained private.

Atajurt fears that pro-China groups that deny the very existence of human rights abuses in Xinjiang are using YouTube’s reporting features to remove the human rights group’s content by blocking it en masse, triggering an automatic block.

Even while Atajurt uses Odysee as a back-up, Bilash said the group plans to continue using YouTube, as well.

“We will never delete it,” Bilash said of the YouTube channel, citing the importance of Atajurt’s big audience on YouTube. “The day YouTube deactivated our channel, I felt I’d lost everything in the world… the new channel does not have so many subscribers, but it is safe.”

The Chinese Communist Party has allegedly imprisoned 1 million members of Muslim minority groups in what China defends as de-radicalization and retraining centers. Human rights activists have compared the camps to prisons and worse, claiming that inmates are sentenced there with little due process. The Uyghurs (the largest Muslim minority targeted) and others are compelled to denounce their religion, language, and culture and to pledge allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party and President Xi Jinping. According to an Associated Press investigation, Uyghur women are forced to use birth control or undergo involuntary sterilizations.

Experts have described China’s efforts in Xinjiang as a form of “demographic genocide.”

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The CCP’s oppression of the Uyghurs, combined with its malfeasance during the COVID-19 pandemic, its aggression against its neighbors, its crackdown on Christianity, and its imposition of communism in China, arguably set the Chinese Communist Party in the same league as the Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler. Sadly, Hunter Biden’s history with China undermines President Joe Biden’s efforts to oppose this heinous regime.

In this context, YouTube’s occasional crackdown on Atajurt — even if somewhat automated — is particularly damning for the social media platform.