Enter the Grayzone: fringe leftists deny the scale of China's Uyghur oppression
30 July 2020
On July 25, Max Blumenthal, the founder and editor of the far-left news site The Grayzone, went on Going Underground, a current affairs show broadcast by the Russian state-controlled TV channel RT. On air, he questioned the scale of the detention of Uyghurs in camps in China’s northwestern Xinjiang province.
“I don’t have reason to doubt that there’s something going in Xinjiang, that there could even be repression,” said Blumenthal. “But we haven’t seen the evidence for these massive claims.” He went on to describe reports of Beijing’s abuse of Uyghurs as “the hostile language of a Cold War, weaponizing a minority group.”
Blumenthal’s statements met with outrage online and many social media users accused him of ignoring one of the largest-scale human rights violations of the 21st century.
This is not the first time a writer from The Grayzone has sought to refute or downplay reports of Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang, and there is precedent for Blumenthal’s words. With a hardline anti-imperialist ideology and a deep-seated antagonism towards U.S. interventionist foreign policy, The Grayzone has followed a similar path on Syria, challenging reports of atrocities by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. What is more, these fringe views appear to be creeping into other areas of the American left.
In April, a small left-wing blog named LA Progressive began to publish articles denying the persecution of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. In one, Margaret Kimberely wrote that widespread reports on the mass detention of Muslim minorities are “a falsehood.” In a subsequent essay, Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers dismissed such narratives as “vast exaggerations used to stoke anti-China views.”
LA Progressive’s denial of human rights abuses in Xinjiang is particularly jarring considering the rest of its content. Most of the site’s articles concentrate on issues of racial and economic inequality, LGBTQ rights and healthcare reform. But, in recent months, it has run three pieces stating that the Chinese state is being subjected to a disinformation campaign over its treatment of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.
Founded in 2008 by husband and wife Dick Price and Sharon Kyle, LA Progressive states that it is “committed to advocating for the public interest, as opposed to the corporate agenda.” Price and Kyle are active in Los Angeles left-wing circles and have ties to groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, on whose national board of directors Kyle represents Southern California.
When asked why the site had published the pieces cited above, Price said, “We don’t necessarily agree with every sentence in every opinion piece we publish, but we do feel these two articles are worthy of people’s consideration.”
Small but loud
While the number of left-wing voices denying China’s ongoing repression of the Uyghur people is few, those that do exist are vociferous and well-organized. Of these, The Grayzone is by far the most influential. In recent years, it has taken a variety of contrarian stances on world affairs, from supporting the Assad regime in Syria to backing Venezuela’s authoritarian leader Nicolas Maduro.
Blumenthal began his career as part of the more mainstream left. The son of Sidney Blumenthal, a former aide to President Bill Clinton, he has written for The New York Times, The Nation and The Daily Beast on subjects ranging from Sarah Palin’s 2008 vice-presidential campaign to the Arab-Israeli conflict. He has also published a number of books, two of which are based on his experiences in Palestine.
Once a supporter of the Syrian revolution and a critic of Assad, Blumenthal has made frequent appearances on state-run broadcasters such as Russia’s RT and Sputnik radio, and China’s television news channel CGTN. In December 2015, he attended a 10th anniversary party for RT in Moscow. Around this time, he became a fervent advocate for the Syrian regime and set up The Grayzone.
Initially hosted by the progressive website AlterNet, The Grayzone left the platform in early 2018. In March 2020, Wikipedia marked The Grayzone as a “deprecated source” and discouraged editors from linking to it — a designation shared with RT, the far-right TV channel One America News Network and Alex Jones’ conspiracy theory site InfoWars.
While many of The Grayzone’s ideas push hard at the edges of left-wing discourse, it still commands a significant audience. The project has 112,000 YouTube subscribers and over 67,200 followers on Twitter. Blumenthal was recently retweeted by President Donald Trump. He has also appeared on the Fox News show Tucker Carlson Tonight and Rolling Stone magazine’s popular podcast Useful Idiots.
Unsurprisingly, The Grayzone is viewed favorably in Beijing. Blumenthal was recently the subject of a three-part interview with Global Times, a newspaper run under the auspices of the Communist Party of China. Ajit Singh, who has written two articles for The Grayzone questioning reports that Uyghurs were being held in camps in Xinjiang, has appeared on the state-owned news channel CGTN multiple times. Meanwhile, between December 2019 and March 2020, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokespeople Hua Chunying and Lijian Zhao both tweeted a Grayzone article that claimed reports of Uyghur oppression were unreliable and overblown.
The existence of U.S.-based outlets, run and staffed by American residents who are ready and willing to refute criticism of China’s actions in Xinjiang is of great benefit to Beijing, according to experts.
“Having westerners say things that are in line with the state narrative helps bolster their claims,” explained Darren Byler of the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Asian Studies. “It’s coming from Grayzone, rather than from Chinese state media, although it’s saying the same thing.”
Nury Turkel, a Uyghur lawyer and the Commissioner of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said that The Grayzone goes one step further than simply repeating Beijing’s line. “It’s almost like these guys are providing talking points to the Chinese propaganda machine,” he said.
Since 2018, The Grayzone has published at least four articles undermining reports of the repression in Xinjiang. “Information about camps containing 1 million prisoners has originated almost exclusively from media outlets and organizations funded and weaponized by the U.S. government to turn up the heat on Beijing,” wrote Singh and assistant editor Ben Norton in one August 2018 piece.
In recent months, a blog named Black Agenda Report has taken similar stances. Founded in 2006 by veteran broadcaster Glen Ford, and activists Margaret Kimberely and Leutisha Stills, the site gained some recognition in progressive circles around 2012 for its critiques of President Barack Obama from a radical left-wing African-American perspective.
In January, contributing editor Danny Haiphong published an article titled “My Trip to China Exposed the Shameful Lies Peddled by the American Empire.” In it, he explained that he had taken a two-week tour of the country with an organization named the China-U.S. Solidarity Network. While there, he visited a number of cities, including Beijing and Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang.
“I did not see concentration camps for Uyghurs in Xinjiang,” he wrote. “In fact, it is difficult to walk more than a mile without running into a mosque. Every street sign in the city is translated in both Mandarin and Uyghur languages.”
Haiphong later repeated these points on Grayzone’s YouTube show Red Lines, which is hosted by Anya Parampil, a former correspondent for RT America and Blumenthal’s wife.
In a response to questions for this piece, Haiphong wrote, “Shouldn’t reporters be curious, rather than assume the dominant narrative peddled by US intelligence and corporate media? If you want to cover disinformation, you may want to redirect your attention to those with power rather than come question me.”
The left-wing magazine CounterPunch has published a significant number of articles condemning Beijing’s repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. However, it has also occasionally featured pieces that deny any such thing is taking place.
“The deluge of fake news from Western corporate media since the beginning of this year seeks to demonize the Chinese government, painting it as a gross violator of human rights, when the truth is the exact opposite,” wrote Thomas Hon Wing Polin and Gerry Brown in September 2018.