‘YouTube censorship actually works a lot like Chinese Communist Party censorship: the rules are vague and the enforcement is arbitrary. They want to encourage you to self-censor because you don’t know where the red line is.’

Washington, D.C.: In this edition of “Indo-Pacific: Behind the Headlines” we speak with Chris Chappell, the New York City-based creator and host of the popular and respected China Uncensored YouTube channel (1.67 million subscribers).

China Uncensored has just launched an edition subtitled in Hindi.

China Uncensored has earned a reputation for fearless and well-researched coverage of all things China. Helping to ensure editorial independence, Mr Chappell co-owns America Uncovered LLC—along with co-producers Matt Gnaizda and Shelley Zhang. Together the team not only produces China Uncensored, but two other shows as well, the longer form podacst China Unscripted and America Uncovered.

Q: How did you get the idea to start China Uncensored?

A: I started China Uncensored in 2012 because I wanted to talk about how much China affects all of us, no matter where we are in the world. I realized most people think of China as just a normal country, similar to any liberal democracy. But it’s actually ruled by an authoritarian communist party. It’s like North Korea, but with better PR.

But I didn’t just want to make a show that exposed the Chinese Communist Party and their plan to take over the world. I also wanted to make the show entertaining and funny, so people would actually watch it. And as a bonus, authoritarian regimes hate being laughed at.

Q: What other YouTube channels do you have, and what are they about?

A: I produce China Uncensored with Matt Gnaizda and Shelley Zhang. We also started a podcast on YouTube called China Unscripted, where the three of us interview experts on China issues. And we also created a YouTube channel called America Uncovered where we try to cover US news in an entertaining, nonpartisan way.

Q: What has the reaction been from viewers? 

A: I’ve been absolutely blown away by the interest in China Uncensored, even when we were first getting started. We went to Hong Kong in 2014 to cover the Umbrella Revolution. At the time, we were a tiny YouTube channel. We were excited when a video hit 10,000 views. That first night in Hong Kong, a young woman came up to me and thanked me for doing China Uncensored. Then a young man stopped us and told us his university professor was showing our videos in his class. It was the first time I realized we were actually having an impact.

In 2019, we spent a lot of time in Hong Kong covering the extradition bill protests. During one protest, we met an American fan of the show. He told us that after seeing our coverage in Hong Kong, he flew to Hong Kong to support the protesters. I felt really touched to hear that.

I originally started China Uncensored to help Americans learn more about China. But we get viewers from all around the world now, especially from English-speaking countries that are dealing with China. We’ve had tens of millions of views from India.

Q: What has the reaction been from YouTube?

A: We started having problems with YouTube in 2017, when they began restricting advertising on channels covering current events. Our revenue plummeted. If it weren’t for direct support from our viewers, we would not have been able to keep making our show.

And YouTube censorship has gotten worse. We had a lot of trouble with our coverage of the 2019 Hong Kong protests. YouTube demonetized and age-restricted videos, which means they reached far fewer people. YouTube also removed several of our videos about China’s coronavirus crackdown in 2020. But when we made a fuss about it on social media, YouTube often reversed their decisions.

YouTube censorship actually works a lot like Chinese Communist Party censorship: the rules are vague and the enforcement is arbitrary. They want to encourage you to self-censor because you don’t know where the red line is.

But it goes beyond YouTube. The Chinese Communist Party puts their censorship pressures on any company that does business in China. That in turn incentivizes those companies to censor on the Party’s behalf.

Back in 2017, we had an Apple TV app for China Uncensored. Apple removed it from their app store in China, which we expected. But they also removed our app in Hong Kong, which they shouldn’t have done, because Hong Kong was supposed to be free from Chinese censorship. And the worst part is they even removed our app from Taiwan, a completely different country. We started an online petition and Apple eventually restored our app in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

The biggest problem with this kind of Big Tech censorship is that it restricts the audience we are able to reach. China Uncensored would never get on a major US TV network, because they all have too many business interests in China. That’s why we own and produce China Uncensored ourselves. Our show used to be broadcast on NTD, a television network started by Chinese dissidents. But it’s not broadcast there anymore, so we really have to rely on YouTube, which has the largest audience for video content on the internet.

Q: What is coverage of China usually like in the US?

A: The China coverage that reaches most Americans doesn’t reflect the reality of what’s happening in China. There are Western journalists inside China who are doing their best under difficult circumstances. But the Chinese Communist Party is making it harder and more dangerous to report from China.

And it’s scary to see how easily the Chinese Communist Party can get their narrative into American media. For example, when it comes to the coronavirus, everyone knows that the Chinese authorities are not reporting the real outbreak numbers, but no one knows what the real numbers are. So media end up reporting the fake numbers, because that’s all they have. The Chinese regime also relies on “friends of China” to present opinions in US media that align with the regime’s narrative.

Q: Are there other China stories that you think need to be covered?

A: I think we’ve really seen a rise of Chinese Communist Party-style authoritarianism around the world. Every time we talk to activists from authoritarian countries, they have a story about how the Chinese Communist Party is supporting their dictator. The Party supports these regimes financially and also by teaching them their censorship and surveillance techniques. In return, China gets resources, trade, and political support in the UN.

The Chinese Communist Party’s style of authoritarianism is creeping into liberal democracies as well. And that’s because most people have a distorted impression of China, like it’s all glittering skyscrapers and high-speed trains. They don’t see the true dysfunction of the Chinese regime’s rule, and all of their human rights atrocities that paved the way for such rapid development. So it’s easy for people to think the Chinese system is one we should all adopt.

Q: You recently interviewed Major Gaurav Arya on your show and have started a Hindi subtitled version. What do you think American audiences can learn from India about China?

A: India is really on the front line with China. I think the Indian public understands the threat from the Chinese regime in a way that most Americans don’t. And that can translate into policy, too. Look at what the Indian government did with banning TikTok and other Chinese apps versus how the US government treated the issue.

When Chinese troops started a conflict last year along the Line of Actual Control, people not just in India, but around the world saw what could happen if we don’t keep the Chinese regime’s aggression in check. It was a real wake-up call for our American audience. Seeing India push back and not give in to those claims, and eventually force China to withdraw, showed that there is a way to confront the Chinese Communist Party successfully.

Cleo Paskal is Special Correspondent with The Sunday Guardian as well as Non-Resident Senior Fellow for the Indo-Pacific at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.