Xinhua News, China’s largest state-run news agency, is currently buying ads on Facebook that feature a video of Bill Gates talking about China. The video ad is a fascinating example of the ways in which the Chinese government is using Facebook, which is banned in mainland China, to spread propaganda online while headlines around the world are more focused on Beijing’s horrifying human rights abuses.
The new ad, which was previously available to watch on Facebook’s Ad Library but has been deleted, features an almost 7-minute video interview with Bill Gates that touches on issues like public health, education, and tech innovation. To hear it from Gates, China’s rise is something that the rest of the world should emulate.
“The success of China in so many ways is amazing,” Gates says in the Facebook video ad. “Starting with agricultural productivity, improving the health, a very strong education system with some of the top universities in the world, and now contributing innovations that are going to help us, not only with health but things like climate change.”
Gates continued that China would be able to help other countries “based on the lessons that come from China.” Gates also talks about the Gates Foundation’s work in China to eradicate TB and battle poverty.
The ad is a jarring piece of propaganda that contrasts sharply with the reality in China today—a place where there are concentration camps for Uyghurs in Xinjiang and violent crackdowns on pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
“Now we’re involved in the poverty work, where China’s got a very impressive goal to completely get rid of extreme poverty in the country and has a dedicated group that’s working on that, keeping track of the progress,” Gates says in the video.
Gates also speaks highly of China’s political engagement with the rest of the world.
“Since 1980, the growth of the economy, including lots of innovation—now China’s one of the top two economies in the world. Lots of countries are trading with China. Lots of Chinese companies are going out into the world with their products,” Gates says.
“And so, yes, on the political side, engaging with the UN institutions, engaging with those institutions, thinking about foreign aid, the conference with the African countries [...] that’s a great example of how China’s now a big part of countries working together,” he explained.
Anywhere from 1 million to 3 million predominantly Muslim Uyghurs are currently being held in concentration camps in China’s western Xinjiang region, something that’s never mentioned in the video. There are also reports of forced marriages and even Han Chinese men who are assigned to Uyghur families, sleeping in the same bed as Uyghur women while their husbands are in detention.
Beijing also has a hand in the oppression of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong who have been protesting against police brutality and China’s influence in the semiautonomous region since June. And just today, a new report surfaced about a former worker at the British consulate in Hong Kong who was tortured for 15 days by Chinese authorities.
The Gates Foundation did not respond to a request for comment Thursday. The Xinhua ad was available on Facebook’s Ad Library before Gizmodo reached out to the Gates Foundation by email and it was deleted shortly after we sent our inquiry. Gizmodo has uploaded the ad to YouTube so that readers can see it for themselves.
Notably, the Xinhua ads aren’t being run in the U.S., where they’d likely be greeted with significant scepticism about the role of China in advancing a positive agenda on the world stage.
Politically speaking, there’s a rare bipartisan agreement in the U.S. that China’s current human rights abuses are reprehensible. The only people who seem to tip-toe around talking about China’s authoritarian aggression are those with a strong financial stake in the region—whether it’s the NBA punishing the general manager of the Houston Rockets for supporting freedom in Hong Kong or Apple deleting apps in Hong Kong that the Chinese government doesn’t like.
Xinhua has previously purchased ads on Facebook to smear protesters in Hong Kong and Facebook doesn’t have a great record when it comes to the sphere of politics and authoritarian governments. Even domestically, Facebook is partnering with websites like the far-right outlet Breitbart to spread “trusted” news to Americans who may not be aware of Breitbart’s history.
China will continue to push out propaganda to distract from its human rights abuses in virtually every corner of its domain, but it’s a little bizarre to see it happening on Facebook, a platform that’s banned in China, to say nothing of the involvement of Bill Gates. But that’s just the world we live in. Any platform that can be used to exercise so-called “soft power” in liberal democracies will be used by authoritarians if they’re given the chance.