Melbourne woman to ‘debunk’ Xinjiang



To many online, Maureen A Huebel almost doesn’t seem like a real person.

The vociferously anti-American Twitter account posts a constant stream of pro-China — and more recently, pro-Russia — messages to her 3000 followers, with an unusual focus on debunking claims of Uyghur repression in Xinjiang.

In one viral tweet over the weekend that sparked particular backlash, Mrs Huebel — whose bio lists a series of academic qualifications from universities including Monash — claimed she was planning to travel to the troubled northwestern region to study the “happiness” of the local population.

“I am travelling to Xinjiang in 2024 to study how the Uighurs have contributed to the substantial growth in the Xinjiang GDP and look at their population growth,” she wrote, adding, “Analyse their happiness and expression through dancing.”

Author Idrees Ahmad, associate editor of New Lines Magazine, replied, “You are a cheap propagandist. And it would be useless to say that you should be ashamed of yourself since you clearly have no shame.”

At times almost comically pro-Beijing — regularly retweeting Chinese Communist Party officials while decrying American “propaganda” about everything from the Ukraine war to Taiwan — Mrs Huebel has in the past been accused of being an elaborate fake account, part of China’s sophisticated online influence operations.

“I’m very much a real person — I’m not a bot,” the 75-year-old said in a phone interview on Tuesday from her home in the affluent beachside Melbourne suburb of Brighton. “I’m bona fide and a lot of people don’t like it that I’m bona fide. I’ve got a lot of qualifications, they’re all real.”

Mrs Huebel, a mother-of-four who said she is not retired but has “passive income so really I can do what I like”, denied being a “propagandist” for Beijing. “Everyone’s a propagandist — everyone’s got their propaganda in their own self-interest,” she said.

“I don’t care. I would have died a long time ago if I got upset because someone called me a Chinese bot on Twitter. We have a lot of anti-China propaganda that’s not true and it doesn’t serve us. It might serve the oligarchs, it might serve the military-industrial complex and their profits.”

Mrs Huebel says she is friends with Jerry Grey, a British-born Australian retiree living in China who emerged as a star in state propaganda several years ago after bicycling through Xinjiang, where he claimed he saw no evidence of any camps.

Mr Grey, who has more than 80,000 followers on Twitter — which is banned in China — told in 2020 that “if anyone thinks I am telling a lie, please come over here and show me what it is that you see”.

Mrs Huebel flatly denies being paid by or having any relationship with the Chinese government, and says she intends to take a tour of the region with Mr Grey — without any involvement of CCP officials.

“I talk to a lot of Chinese officials, I know a lot of Chinese officials, but I will not have them plan my trip, I do not want them to plan my trip,” she said. “I talk to Chinese people and I have Chinese friends, and some of those people on Twitter are in the CPC.”

She said she talked to them “because they give me intelligence, they teach me about their government — because we need to learn about their government”.

“I don’t get any money from them, and what’s more I would love the Australian government to finance my research through a legitimate institution like ANU or Melbourne University, but they won’t,” she said.

“But I don’t need to be funded. If I was to accept money from China I would immediately be tainted. I have to keep my academic independence.”

According to Mrs Huebel, she had been in discussions with the ANU’s Centre on China in the World about conducting research, before its director Jane Golley sparked a firestorm in 2021 after claiming at a National Press Club event that she had read a “convincing” but anonymous paper that “debunks” claims of human rights abuses against Uyghurs.

Professor Golley later apologised and stepped down from the role, writing in The Australian that “at no point have I denied that human rights abuses are occurring in Xinjiang, on a scale that is horrifying”.

Mrs Huebel says she intends to approach Melbourne University “to publish my Xinjiang postgraduate material”, which will focus on “poverty alleviation” but “by the mere fact of doing it and as a side product will debunk Zenz”.

Adrian Zenz is the German researcher behind the influential 2018 report that laid out the alleged size and scope of the Xinjiang internment camps.

Now with the US government-funded Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation think tank in Washington DC, Mr Zenz was the first to estimate Beijing may have detained up to one million Uyghur Muslims in brutal “re-education camps”, where international observers have alleged widespread human rights abuses including torture and forced sterilisation.

Mr Zenz personally took aim at Mrs Huebel in 2021 after she questioned his methodology, accusing her of being a fake account.

“Whoever this person — who uncritically shares state propaganda on Xinjiang — is or pretends to be, her Twitter profile is entirely misleading as she has no actual affiliation with the named academic institutions. Nothing,” he wrote.

In response, her husband Robert Huebel threatened to take legal action, after posting a lengthy thread of photos documenting his wife’s academic records and publications.

Mrs Huebel said after the exchange with Mr Zenz her Twitter account was taken down for “impersonation”, and was only restored after Monash University wrote to the social media platform at her request to confirm she had done research there. (Monash University has been contacted for comment.)

Asked why she appears to have such strong feelings about China, Mrs Huebel said she was not “only China-focused, I would say I’m interested in geopolitics in general”.

“Why China? China’s the rising power,” she said. “America’s rotting on the inside. The standard of living in America is dropping as the average standard of living in China is growing.”

She said she did think there were “some people that have been treated badly in Xinjiang” because “they had terrible terrorism there and there was a clampdown”. “I believe there were some innocent people in the clampdown with real grievances,” she said.

“I do see faults in China. It’s not perfect, it has a lot of problems, but overall its economy is growing, its GDP is growing, its standard of living is growing. There’s miraculous poverty elimination. I want to talk to the cadres, how do you do it.”

In August, a long-awaited United Nations report alleged China may have carried out “crimes against humanity” against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang but stopped short of calling it “genocide” — a term used since January 2021 by the United States and since embraced by a number of other Western nations.

Foreign Minister Penny Wong said the report was “pretty harrowing” and had confirmed Australia’s long-held fears about “serious human rights violations” in the region.

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China immediately denounced the report as “lies and disinformation”, saying the UN “wantonly smears and slanders China, and interferes in China’s internal affairs” and releasing its own 122-page document detailing the “extremism” threat of the Uyghur people and the “counter-terror” operations against them.

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