When 17-year-old Feroza Aziz smuggled criticism of the Chinese government into a recent TikTok beauty tutorial, she couldn’t have predicted the viral post would make international headlines.
But after a million views and one very controversial account suspension, Aziz won an unexpected admirer: Vicky Xiuzhong Xu, a researcher at an Australian think tank, who copied Aziz’ eyelash-curling video to highlight TikTok’s ties to Chinese state propaganda.
“It’s just good to have that sort of awareness, to have that sort of publicity of this issue on a platform like TikTok, that is mainly used by the younger generation,” Xu told PEDESTRIAN.TV.
American teen Aziz took hopped on TikTok last month to discuss China’s treatment of the Uighur Muslim ethnic minority, which has been hailed as a major abuse of human rights.
While the Chinese government zealously guards its internal affairs, recent leaks suggest the existence of “re-education” programmes dotted across the Xinjiang province. United Nations experts estimate as many as one million Uighurs have been detained in those facilities, and in October, Australia joined 22 other nations in condemning China’s human rights practices.
Outlining the oppression of ethnic minorities is not standard fare on the meme-spawning app, so Aziz had to get clever. In a sparkling example of ingenuity, Aziz hid her claims – that China is “getting concentration camps, throwing innocent Muslims in there” in what amounts to “another Holocaust” – inside a faux beauty tutorial.
As Aziz racked up the views, the secret got out.
Before too long, her account was suspended, temporarily preventing her from posting more provocative videos on the app.
A TikTok spokesperson told the BBC the suspension had nothing to do with Aziz’ video about Uighurs. Instead, the platform apparently took issue with a ten-day-old video posted on Aziz’ old account.
Aziz said it was suspicious that TikTok, a subsidiary of Chinese company ByteDance, would meddle with her new account over the older video.
“I made multiple posts on [the new account] and nothing happened. Right when I posted about the Uighurs in China, my account was suspended,” she told the BBC.
Then the Uighur video disappeared entirely.
It was reinstated after an hour, with TikTok issuing a public apology for the “human moderation error” and assurances the company “does not moderate content due to political sensitivities”.
As you might expect, Aziz called BS on that explanation.
UPDATE: tik tok has issued a public apology and gave me my account back. Do I believe they took it away because of a unrelated satirical video that was deleted on a previous deleted account of mine? Right after I finished posting a 3 part video about the Uyghurs? No. pic.twitter.com/ehUpSJiyy1
— Feroza Aziz (@ferozaazizz) November 27, 2019
As Aziz wrestled for control of her TikTok account, Vicky Xiuzhong Xu and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute were gearing up to launch their new report on the growth of China’s tech giants – including ByteDance.
The paper claims ByteDance recently signed a deal to promote the “influence and credibility” of police departments, including those in Xinjiang, through the Douyin video app. Then there’s the claim ByteDance also vowed to “increase its offline cooperation with the police department”.
The landmark report and its bold claims deserved a broad audience, Xu thought.
Inspired by Aziz, she grabbed her eyelash-curler and got to work.
After sharing her tribute to Aziz, Xu expressed doubts over TikTok’s official narrative.
“Of course I’m not surprised that this activist’s account was temporarily suspended,” she said.
“The company claims that the suspension has nothing to do with the Uighur video. I mean, I think [Aziz] herself doesn’t really buy this, no-one really buys this.”
Xu also expressed concerns for TikTok’s capacity to monitor political communications, and ByteDance’s continual involvement in the “absolute control” of Xianjiang.
“On the Chinese version of TikTok, you would sometimes see people post things that are anti-government, or critical of the government, you can see other users trying to report this content to the police,” Xu said.
“The content that is anti-government gets taken down very quickly.
“If [TikTok] wants to continue to develop, if it wants to continue to profit in China, it has to stay in the good graces of the Chinese government. That’s just the reality for most Chinese homegrown companies. So I would not have any fantasy about TikTok.”
In a statement obtained by the ABC, TikTok denied ever censoring posts at the behest of the Chinese government.
Still, the platform may have to brace for a new wave of young activists, who aren’t afraid to demand awareness while flexing their cosmetic skills.