At first glance, Feroza Aziz’s videos look pretty typical for a 17-year-old girl on TikTok, the Chinese-owned social media app.
Most of Aziz’s videos show her looking into the camera, either smiling or striking a model pose for her 20,200 followers. The New Jersey-based teen’s most popular video has more than 1.5 million views, and it starts with her holding an eyelash curler up to her face.
But Aziz is not a typical TikTok star, and her hit video is actually a brilliant bait-and-switch meant to highlight how China is persecuting the Uighurs, a Muslim minority within the country. The video has garnered millions of views on other social media platforms, despite what Aziz says is an attempt by China to censor it on TikTok.
“Hi guys, I’m going to teach you how to get long lashes,” she says at the beginning of the video, which she posted on Nov. 24. “Grab your lash curler, curl your lashes obviously, then … search up what’s happening in China.”
Aziz goes on to highlight a long list of China’s atrocities that have surfaced through a wealth of leaked documents, United Nations investigations and in-depth reporting. China has downplayed or denied most of the reports as “fake news,” but the evidence strongly suggests otherwise.
“They’re getting concentration camps, throwing innocent Muslims in there, separating their families from each other, kidnapping them, raping them, forcing them to eat pork, forcing them to drink, forcing them to convert to different religions, if not, or else they’re gonna of course get murdered,” Aziz says. “This is another Holocaust, yet no one is talking about it. Please be aware. Please spread awareness.”
China has reportedly detained more than one million Uighurs in what it calls “vocational” camps, where prisoners are allegedly subjected to physical violence and brainwashing tactics. The Chinese government has also allegedly forced Uighurs to live with new “family members,” who are said to be spies belonging to the Han ethnic majority.
Many Uighurs, including at least one Canadian, have been imprisoned in China for years.
China claims the Uighurs are a terrorist threat to the country.
Aziz says her account was briefly suspended earlier this week in an act of alleged censorship by TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance.
“TikTok suspended my account for trying to spread awareness,” Aziz tweeted on Monday. She later posted a screenshot that appeared to show the suspension.
China typically imposes strict political censorship on social media apps within its borders, as part of a policy known as the Great Firewall.
However, ByteDance has denied blocking Aziz’s account over the China video in statements to multiple outlets.
“TikTok does not moderate content due to political sensitivities and did not do so in this case,” a spokesperson told The Washington Post on Wednesday.
Aziz was suspended because one of her older videos contained an image of Osama bin Laden, another spokesperson told the New York Times.
Global News has reviewed all 17 videos on Aziz’s current TikTok account, @getmefamouspartthree. None of the clips contained an image of bin Laden, although one includes a robotic voice saying his name.
Aziz writes in her profile that her last account was deleted.
She told the New York Times that most of her videos aim to make light of the racism and discrimination she faces as an Afghan-American girl in the United States. Many of her videos poke fun at stereotypes like marrying a cousin or marrying bin Laden, she told the paper in an email.
“I think that TikTok should not ban content that doesn’t harm anyone or shows anyone being harmed,” she said.
ByteDance is in the middle of trying to separate TikTok from its Chinese operations to calm U.S. concerns about safety and personal data, Reuters reported on Wednesday.
Aziz says she’s shared her political videos to Twitter and Instagram, just to make sure that TikTok can’t wipe them out whenever it wants.
China’s human rights abuses have been reported in mainstream media for years, but the stories have begun spreading to new audiences through grassroots campaigns on social media. In Japan, for example, a viral comic depicting one Uighur woman’s harrowing story has been read millions of times. The manga comic, which has been translated into English, describes how the woman was sterilized in a camp where her child also died.
Aziz touted the value of sharing these stories on social media in a followup to her first video on Tuesday.
“Spreading awareness does wonders,” she says in the video. “Generations before us didn’t have the same power as we do now, and that’s technology.”
She also urged her followers to raise their voices about human rights abuses around the world, from the crisis in Venezuela to child separations at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“It doesn’t matter if we’re not 18 or of age to vote, we have our voices,” she said. “Our voices can do so much.”