CCP Seeks Control Over Xinjiang Narrative As Xi Visits the Region

Over the past month, Xi Jinping concluded a “victory tour” of Xinjiang and Hong Kong, where his visits after years of absence signaled the CCP’s firm control over the two peripheral regions. The spectacles also served to burnish Xi’s credentials for assuming a third term later this year and to defy international critics of his human rights policies in both regions. However, recently documented CCP attempts to influence international opinion about these topics betray the government’s insecurity about letting its human rights record speak for itself. 

On Wednesday, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) released a report detailing how the CCP’s disinformation operations have deterred states, businesses, and civil society organizations from criticizing the CCP’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Here are some of the main findings: 

Social media companies have taken different approaches to mitigating social media manipulation, resulting in CCP information operations being more effective on some platforms than on others. ASPI analysed 613,301 Facebook posts and 6,780,809 Twitter tweets and retweets mentioning ‘Xinjiang’ between 1 January 2020 and 1 January 2022. Of the top 400 Facebook posts with the most interactions (including reactions and shares), 60.3% were posted by Chinese state media and diplomats. Of the top 1,000 Twitter tweets with the most interactions (including likes and retweets), 5.5% were posted by Chinese state media and diplomats, and 4% were from accounts suspended by Twitter for platform manipulation. 

News articles in different languages have varied significantly in the tone of their reporting about Xinjiang and reflected differences in global public opinion about the CCP’s policies in the region. ASPI analysed 494,710 articles, published in more than 65 languages, mentioning Xinjiang from the Global Database of Events, Language and Tone (GDELT) between 1 January 2021 and 1 January 2022. Most articles were published in Chinese (55%) or English (35%). Of the top 20 language sources, Chinese-language articles were more likely to convey positive assessments of Chinese state policy and action on Xinjiang. Statistically similar results came from analyses of articles published in Urdu (one of the official languages of Pakistan), Japanese, Thai and Turkish. [Source]

The Chinese government has also tried to stop the release of a long-overdue report on Xinjiang compiled by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, who promised to publish it before her term expires in late August. In May, Bachelet participated in a highly choreographed visit to the region, which Chinese state media instrumentalized by proudly claiming that she had discovered the “real Xinjiang” and found no evidence of abuses. However, Emma Farge from Reuters reported on Wednesday that the Chinese government penned a letter to Bachelet’s office calling on her to bury the report:

The letter authored by China expressed “grave concern” about the Xinjiang report and aims to halt its release, said four sources – the three diplomats and a rights expert who all spoke on condition of anonymity. They said China began circulating it among diplomatic missions in Geneva from late June and asked countries to sign it to show their support.

“The assessment (on Xinjiang), if published, will intensify politicisation and bloc confrontation in the area of human rights, undermine the credibility of the OHCHR (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights), and harm the cooperation between OHCHR and member states,” the letter said, referring to Bachelet’s office.

“We strongly urge Madame High Commissioner not to publish such an assessment.” [Source]

Xi’s visit to Xinjiang, which took place from Tuesday to Friday of last week, was loaded with symbolism. As stated by Bradley Jardine, a fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, “Xi’s unannounced visit to Xinjiang was designed to project an image of stability and progress both internationally and domestically. […] This was a move designed to show international audiences that the Communist Party is consolidating its grip on Xinjiang and that the region will remain under Beijing’s control.” Chris Buckley and Amy Qin at The New York Times described the aura of success and stability surrounding Xi’s visit

Chinese state media also showed Mr. Xi waving at cheering crowds of Uyghur and Han residents; speaking to students standing to attention in the region’s main university; and admiring cotton grown by the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a quasi-military conglomerate whose products have been banned by the United States as tainted by coercion and forced labor. He wore a cowboy hat and dark sunglasses as he toured ancient ruins on the outskirts of Turpan, a city in northern Xinjiang surrounded by desert.

“It suggests that the party is obviously very confident in what it has achieved in Xinjiang,” said Michael Clarke, a senior fellow with the Center for Defense Research at the Australian Defense College who researches Xinjiang. “They have ensured security and ‘stability,’ and they are well on their way toward accomplishing their longer-term objective, which is cultural assimilation.” [Source]

Xi’s Xinjiang visit also provided an opportunity for him to tout his personal accomplishments in the region ahead of the 20th Party Congress this fall, when he is expected to begin a third term as General Secretary of the CCP. Li Mingjiang, an associate professor at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said: “The point of Xi’s Xinjiang trip is to see the results of the policies he has put in place in recent years to stabilise Xinjiang and to conclude that his approach and strategy for Xinjiang had been successful.” Teddy Ng and Josephine Ma from the South China Morning Post described how this perceived success will help solidify Xi’s position, particularly after an unusual two-week absence from the media which fueled speculation about his authority:

Xi’s trip also came just months ahead of a Communist Party congress that will see a major leadership reshuffle, with the president expected to start an unprecedented third term.

“Xi’s visit may also signal to the 20th Party Congress that he has been able to bring stability to both Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and has been able to counter the pressure from the West regarding both places, despite criticisms within China over his robbing Hong Kong of its special and free status, and despite international criticism of his heavy-handed crackdown on freedoms in Hong Kong and the mass detention of Uygurs and other minorities in Xinjiang,” [said Lai Hongyi, associate professor of social sciences at the University of Nottingham].

“Xi also wants to send a message that he deserves the third term, the third term is the key word,” said [Alfred Wu, associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore]. [Source]

The Associated Press reported that another prominent theme of Xi’s Xinjiang visit was the continuing drive to Sinicize ethnic minorities

Xi, on what was described as an “inspection tour” from Tuesday to Friday, said that enhanced efforts should be made to uphold the principle that Islam in China must be Chinese in orientation, Xinhua said.

While the needs of religious believers should be ensured, they should be united closely to the Communist Party and the government, the official news agency quoted him as saying.

He called for educating and guiding people of all ethnic groups to strengthen their identification with the Chinese nation, culture and Communist Party. [Source]

As James T. Areddy and Chun Han Wong reported in The Wall Street Journal, Xi’s calls for Sinicization were coupled with the visible appearance of cultural preservation, likely in response to international criticism: 

Omer Kanat, an ethnic Uyghur who directs the Uyghur Human Rights Project in Washington, in an email criticized the president’s visit. “To see Uyghurs smiling and dancing in front of the man responsible for atrocities is difficult to bear, especially given how far the government has gone to erase genuine expressions of culture,” he wrote.

Mr. Xi made an effort to be seen as working to preserve the culture of minority populations during his trip, said Georgetown University historian James Millward, author of “Eurasian Crossroads,” a history of the Xinjiang region.

“This is likely a response to ample evidence and international criticism of PRC policies that have repressed cultural expression and bulldozed non-Chinese traditional architecture,” Mr. Millward said, referring to the People’s Republic of China. [Source]

In the context of Xi’s visit to Xinjiang, James Millward and Vincent Wong shared Twitter threads this week describing how the CCP’s assimilationist and neocolonial policies are expected to evolve in the face of international pressure:

The period surrounding Xi’s visit has seen the publication of many new documents regarding the forced assimilation of Uyghurs. Earlier this month, Amnesty International published testimony from relatives of almost 50 Uyghur and Kazakh detainees in Xinjiang, detailing individual stories of abuse. Last week, a new database titled “Everybody Is Gone” was launched as part of an effort (accompanied by an upcoming live performance in Germany) to catalog the CCP’s ongoing campaign against the Uyghurs. On Saturday, The Atlantic’s Yasmeen Serhan shared poems from acclaimed Uyghur poet Gulnisa Imin, who is serving a 17-year sentence for allegedly inciting separatism via her poetry. Two of these poems were translated by Joshua L. Freeman, who noted, “Poetry for many Uyghurs is not just a form of resistance; it’s a form of self-expression in an environment where self-expression is nearly impossible in many contexts.” 

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