Propaganda Films Attempt to Cloak Xinjiang in Disinformation

The Chinese government has made painstaking efforts to obscure and distort information about its crackdown on Xinjiang’s ethnic minorities. The propaganda campaign is double-edged—aimed at both Chinese citizens and the world at large. Two new state-backed films purport to dispel reporting on events in Xinjiang: the first a musical inspired by “La La Land”, the second the fourth and final episode in a documentary series on terrorism and separatism in the region. At The New York Times, Amy Qin reported on the “The Wings of Songs,” a musical depicting a Xinjiang conspicuously absent of Islamic cultural influence yet retaining trite stereotypes about Uyghur culture:

The film, which debuted in Chinese cinemas last week, offers a glimpse of the alternate vision of Xinjiang that China’s ruling Communist Party is pushing to audiences at home and abroad. Far from being oppressed, the musical seems to say, the Uyghurs and other minorities are singing and dancing happily in colorful dress, a flashy take on a tired Chinese stereotype about the region’s minorities that Uyghur rights activists quickly denounced.

[…] The movie depicts Xinjiang, a predominantly Muslim region in China’s far west, as scrubbed free of Islamic influence. Young Uyghur men are clean-shaven and seen chugging beers, free of the beards and abstinence from alcohol that the authorities see as signs of religious extremism. Uyghur women are seen without traditional head scarves.

[…] Anne-Marie Brady, a professor of Chinese politics at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand who was not involved in the ASPI report, called China’s Xinjiang offensive the biggest international propaganda campaign on a single topic that she had seen in her 25 years of researching the Chinese propaganda system.

“It’s shrill and dogmatic, it’s increasingly aggressive,” she said in emailed comments. “And it will keep on going, whether it is effective or not.” [Source]

The second film, also released in the past week, is a documentary purporting to reveal a vast conspiracy by a number of Uyghur intellectuals and Party members to inculcate young children with “separatist beliefs.” It went viral inside of China, but faced criticism abroad for including forced confessions of Uyghur intellectuals. At The Financial Times, Christian Shepherd reported on the CGTN documentary series:

CGTN, the international arm of China’s state broadcaster, on Friday aired the final episode in a four-part documentary series that sought to justify the government’s policies by blaming international terrorist groups for violence in the region.

[…] The CGTN documentary series, which began in 2019, interviewed police from Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, about a 2014 attack in which two sports-utility vehicles killed 39 in a crowded market using homemade bombs. The officers claimed the attacks must have been planned by an unspecified organisation.

The final part of the series set out why China has imprisoned Uyghur officials and academics who compiled Uyghur-language textbooks in the 2010s for life. The promoted “separatism” by failing to include pictures of China’s national flag and including what it called “fictional” stories about Han Chinese soldiers attacking Uyghur women. [Source]

At The South China Morning Post, Guo Rui provided further detail on the contents of the CGTN documentary:

It said the “poisonous” textbooks in minority languages have been used in primary and middle schools for 13 years, blaming the director of the education department Sattar Sawut.

[…] The deputy director of the education department Alimjan Memtimin, who was shown confessing that “I am a double-dealing, two-faced man”, was given a life sentence.

[…] The documentary also sought to reinforce the narrative that the network of detention facilities in the region, which China insists are vocational training centres, can be compared to facilities to counter extremism in countries such as Britain and Singapore. [Source]

On Twitter, Dr. Chenchen Zhang pointed out that the “evidence” of extremism was farcical. David Brophy noted falsehoods in the documentary:

At his blog The China Collection, Donald Clarke curated and lightly edited the above threads.

The CGTN documentary also seemed to include forced confessions—a practice which got the broadcaster banned from the United Kingdom’s airwaves earlier this year. CGTN is reportedly also under investigation in France, and the airing of forced confessions may have run afoul of French rules:

Safeguard Defenders, a human rights NGO that played an integral part in the U.K.’s decision to ban CGTN, has filed formal complaints with regulators in both the United States and France (the FCC and the CSA, respectively). Safeguard Defenders alleges that a recent CGTN documentary aired to discredit a CNN investigation into Uyghur family separations involved the coercion of minors. ”Severe pressure and coercion was applied on these minors to defame their parents,” claimed Safeguard Defenders.

The television push is accompanied by a broad internet campaign of disinformation and intimidation. A new investigation by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute found that the Chinese government made a massive push to spread disinformation through American social media companies like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. At The Wall Street Journal, Eva Xiao contextualized the ASPI report:

Harnessing its popularity, CGTN was the Facebook page with the most likes on posts mentioning Xinjiang for three years in a row, totaling about 5.8 million likes in 2020, according to ASPI, which analyzed more than 270,000 public Facebook posts. That year, the top six pages posting on the topic all belonged to Chinese .

[…] With Xinjiang, one of Beijing’s strategies is attempting to shape discourse in ways that support China’s policies, said Jacob Wallis, a co-author of the report. But the other is a “much more combative discourse” against critical investigations of Xinjiang to dissuade others, along with sanctions, he said.

[…] It is difficult to gauge how effective Beijing’s social-media activity is, as posts could be artificially amplified, such as by bot networks, said Mareike Ohlberg, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund think tank in Berlin. [Source]

Beijing has also engaged in a harassment campaign against Uyghurs abroad, both on- and offline. The BBC reported that some Uyghurs living abroad received calls from policemen in Xinjiang threatening to detain their families if they speak out against persecution. Facebook recently took down a sophisticated effort to hack into Uyghurs’ phones that included malicious software, fake accounts posing as journalists and activists, and phishing attacks. Yet Facebook has continued to accept advertising money from CGTN, sharing the network’s propaganda about Xinjiang widely across its platform. At The Wall Street Journal, Newley Purnell reported on dissension in the Facebook ranks about the social media giant’s continued commercial relationship with the Chinese state broadcaster:

A Facebook spokesman said that the ads taken out by Beijing pertaining to Xinjiang don’t violate current policies so long as the advertisers follow Facebook’s rules when purchasing them. He said the company is monitoring reports of the situation in Xinjiang “to help inform our approach and due diligence on this issue.”

[…] One Facebook employee posted this year in the social-media giant’s internal group for Muslim staff, called [email protected], to point out that the had declared Beijing’s treatment of Uyghurs a genocide, and that Twitter Inc. had taken action against the account of China’s U.S. Embassy for a tweet about Uyghurs that violated its policies.

“It’s time our platform takes action to fight misinformation on the Uighur genocide,” the employee wrote in the post, which was viewed by The Wall Street Journal. The employee described it as a “plea to our leadership.”

[…] “These ads provide a vehicle for Beijing’s propaganda,” said a spokesman for New York-based human-rights group Avaaz, which has studied Xinjiang and the Chinese government’s Facebook advertising practices. “Even if the amounts aren’t huge, it’s a direct profit stream” for Facebook, he said. “That’s what’s particularly troubling.” [Source]

The most vigorous propaganda and censorship campaigns are directed at Chinese citizens. Nationalist outbursts on the Xinjiang like the recent “H&M Incident” may have the side effect of raising awareness about the Xinjiang issue within China—the episode sparked some reflection on how “resentment breeds only resentment” and prompted calls to “support Xinjiang people,” not just Xinjiang cotton. Yet such awareness can be perilous. At The Los Angeles Times, Alice Su profiled Li Lin, a man arrested and sentenced to four years in prison for tweeting about Xinjiang:

A few days later, plainclothes police showed up at Li’s ’s home. They detained him for six months on charges of “disrupting public order” and “inciting ethnic discrimination and separatism.” They later charged him with “inciting subversion of state sovereignty.” In December 2018, he was sentenced to four years in prison.

[…] Seeking her son’s release from prison, Li Lin’s mother, Li Xinhua, a Han Chinese retired businesswoman in the of Urumqi, shared documentation of his detention and sham trial online. In February, an official told the mother that her son’s foot shackles had been removed after three years. He then warned her to stop speaking about his case in public.

[…] “All the Chinese people in Xinjiang know what is happening,” said another Han Chinese citizen from Henan who worked in Kashgar from 2014-2015. He had since returned to inland China but visited Kashgar in 2018 and still had friends there, he told The Times in an interview. He asked to withhold his name for protection from authorities. [Source]

In a harrowing long-form essay for The New Yorker, meanwhile, Raffi Khatchadourian traced the Xinjiang crackdown through the life of Anar Sabit and reported that Uyghur activists abroad have faced threats on their life:

All their work seemed geared toward pageants that were organized for visiting Party dignitaries, who would come to inspect the women’s progress and the camp’s efficacy. During these events—held at first in a room where the guards slept, with beds pushed to one side—the women had to recite maxims of Xi Jinping, sing patriotic anthems, dance, and make a show of Han cultural pride. “You need to have a smile on your face,” guards would say. “You need to show that you are happy.”

[…] The detainees, too, began to buckle. They joked that the state was merely keeping them alive. Some went gray prematurely. Many stopped menstruating—whether from compulsory injections that the camp administered or from stress, Sabit was unsure. Because they could shower only infrequently and were never provided clean underwear, the women often developed gynecological problems. From the poor food, many suffered bad digestion. One elderly woman could not use the bathroom without expelling portions of her large intestine, which she had to stuff back into herself. The woman was sent to a hospital, but an operation could not be performed, it was explained, because she had high blood pressure. She was returned, and spent most of the time moaning in bed.

[…] Ilshat Kokbore, an Uyghur activist who immigrated to America in 2006, told me that some men recently drove up to his home, in suburban Virginia, and overtly began to photograph it; they tried to go through his mail, until they noticed a neighbor watching them. On another occasion, he was attending a protest at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, when a woman he did not know approached him and began speaking in Mandarin. “She said, ‘If you get poisoned, do you know how to treat yourself?’ ” he told me. “I said, ‘Why should I know that?’ And she said, ‘You know, the Chinese government is very powerful. You could die in a car accident, or get poisoned.’ ”[Source]

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