Online Influencers Promote Han “Colonization” in Xinjiang

European broadcasting outlet ARTE recently released a short investigative documentary titled “China: Colonization Influencers,” about influencers on Chinese social media who promote Han settlement in Xinjiang. The investigation is part of ARTE’s “SOURCES” series, which uses OSINT methods to uncover human rights abuses. It is the latest evidence of the CCP’s efforts to dislodge Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities of the region, and part of a broader set of policies that the U.N. has concluded may constitute crimes against humanity, if not genocide. Here is the introduction of the ARTE investigation:

In China, Xinjiang is the historic cradle of the Uyghurs, a Muslim minority persecuted by the central government. SOURCES reveals how Chinese influencers are inciting people from all over the country to come colonize this province.

On social media, hundreds of videos promote Xinjiang and the financial benefits offered to those who settle there. SOURCES’ investigation shows that these influencers who promote the colonization of Xinjiang are in fact mouthpieces of Chinese propaganda and President Xi Jinping’s vision.

While the Uyghurs are locked up in re-education camps or transferred to eastern China, the Chinese government encourages the inhabitants of eastern China to come and live in Xinjiang. The stated objective is to attract more Han Chinese to combat separatism and religious extremism. In reality, this settlement policy is contributing to the destruction of Uyghur identity. [French]

Among the influencers highlighted in ARTE’s investigation is one who works for a public-facing division of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), a paramilitary organization operating numerous cities in Xinjiang and sanctioned by the U.S., Canada, and the E.U. for human rights abuses. As stated in one of its recruitment brochures, the XPCC attracts settlers by promising them benefits such as two hectares of arable land, apartments with four years of free rent, and up to 1,000 RMB per month in subsidies, all on the condition that settlers come from interior China. This particular influencer came from Shandong and settled in Alar, where entire neighborhoods with hundreds of housing units have been newly built and advertised.

A mere 3.5 miles from Alar lies the First Division Nankou Prison (第一师南口监狱), overseen by the XPCC. Just to the southeast lies a large pre-trial detention center. The Xinjiang Victims Database has documented at least 235 Uyghur and other ethnic minority inmates of this prison, where detainees are subject to forced labor. Among them is 26-year-old Urayimjan Tursun, who was flagged by the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP) in July 2017 and sent to “transformation through education,” before being sentenced to ten years in prison for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Also in this prison is 26-year-old Hezreteli Emet, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for allegedly inciting and preparing terrorist acts. Alongside him is 38-year-old Memettursun Yasin, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison for similar reasons. 

Despite the well-documented abuses and victims of Xinjiang’s concentration camp system, influencers backed by Chinese state-propaganda entities have participated in coordinated campaigns on social media to present a gilded image of the region. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute published several in-depth reports on this phenomenon, analyzing “frontier influencers” and foreign influencers who disseminate social media content about Xinjiang with direct and indirect support from Party-state entities. ChinaFile also analyzed numerous accounts by young Uyghurs that promote CCP narratives on Xinjiang. Looking at a related influence tactic, Frederik Kelter from Al Jazeera wrote this week about how the Chinese government continues to organize visits to Xinjiang for friendly journalists and diplomats who help amplify Beijing’s narratives

Since as early as 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping has called for “telling the story of Xinjiang” and “confidently propagating the excellent social stability of Xinjiang“.

Canadian-Uighur activist Rukiye Turdush sees the media tours as integral to that mission.

“He wants to change the narrative about Xinjiang,” she told Al Jazeera.

Henryk Szadziewski is a senior researcher at the NGO Uyghur Human Rights Project. He says media tours, like the ones in Xinjiang, are a common tactic employed by countries that have something to hide.

“The purpose is to contradict the criticism of the human rights record by getting others to amplify your narrative which garners more credibility,” he told Al Jazeera. [Source]

Chinese state media has also continued to portray Xinjiang as a tourist hotspot. In the last two days alone, various English-language official media outlets have published at least seven articles (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7) boasting about the popularity of Xinjiang’s winter attractions and their economic dividends. The tourist (re)branding is part of a larger strategy. In May of last year, Eva Xiao explained in Foreign Policy how the Chinese government has been working to transform Xinjiang into a tourist destination for Han Chinese in order to Sinicize the region and propagate a positive image abroad:

The Xinjiang government’s efforts to expand tourism and the resulting uptick in spending are an important part of what appears to be a new stage in Beijing’s strategy to secure control over Xinjiang and reshape the region’s culture and inhabitants to resemble the Han-dominant parts of the country.

In government procurement documents and Chinese state media, tourism is presented as a way to “culturally replenish” Xinjiang with traditions and customs from other parts of China, as well as a channel for instilling in local residents a unitary Chinese identity. And as foreign reporting on the region declines, tourism is becoming ever more important and influential in shaping how people outside of the region view Xinjiang, especially after more than five years of draconian policies, including mass internment and incarceration.

According to official figures, in 2022 the Xinjiang Department of Culture and Tourism increased its spending budget by more than 90 percent compared to the year prior. This year, the department is planning to spend 701 million renminbi, or more than double the planned budget in 2019. [Source]

The University of British Columbia’s Xinjiang Documentation Project has cultivated a list of academic resources that examine in more detail topics related to ARTE’s investigation, such as the political economy of racialized dispossession and exploitation in Xinjiang; settler ecotourism and dispossession in Xinjiang; the “Hanification” of Xinjiang through the “Great Leap West”; “colonization with Chinese characteristics” in Xinjiang; XPCC’s ethnic frontier governance; and the ”Palestinization” of Xinjiang.


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