From cover-up to propaganda blitz: China's attempts to control the narrative on Xinjiang
April 17, 2021. Summarized by summa-bot.
Compression ratio: 21.9%. 5 min read.
China's Foreign Ministry this week issued the most forceful defense of its policies in Xinjiang to date, calling allegations of "genocide" in the region the "lie of the century."
Hong Kong (CNN)China's Foreign Ministry this week issued the most forceful defense of its policies in Xinjiang to date, calling allegations of "genocide" in the region the "lie of the century. "
This evolving strategy, from outright denial to hardened public defense, is closely tied to the Chinese government's own increased sense of confidence on the world stage, and its willingness to confront its critics in the West head on, be it over Xinjiang, the South China Sea or Hong Kong, a CNN analysis shows.
She didn't know it at the time, but Hojamet, along with over a dozen other women from her village in Shufu County, in western Xinjiang -- whose story was recounted in a report by the state-run Xinjiang Daily -- would serve as proof of concept for an "anti-extremism" campaign that has engulfed the Chinese region since 2017.
While she was not alone in criticizing or exposing China's policies in Xinjiang, or even in calling out Beijing's attempt to conflate ethnic unrest with global terrorism, Gauthier appears to have been caught up in a shifting policy on Xinjiang, as the government became far more sensitive to outside scrutiny.
Even as people began disappearing into the camp system, which was built up between 2014 and 2017, before massively expanding that year, the heavy surveillance in Xinjiang, ongoing intense censorship of Uyghur issues on the Chinese internet, and its relative remoteness compared to the rest of the country, meant the news did not immediately spread.
But as human rights groups and members of the Uyghur diaspora started reporting increased disappearances and people being taken away for "political education," a number of foreign journalists were able to travel to Xinjiang to see if the stories were true.
While officials defended security measures in Xinjiang as necessary for preventing terrorism, at first, Beijing denied reports about the camp system, with a foreign ministry spokesman telling Rajagopalan "we have never heard about these measures taken by local authorities. "
While China has sought, sometimes successfully, to muddy the waters on Xinjiang, attacking individual researchers and think tanks, and trotting out family members of survivors to criticize them in dubious videos, much of the evidence showing the scale of the camp system is in fact open source.
As scrutiny over Xinjiang increased, reports in state media about the "de-radicalization" program, as well government announcements about the various camps and tenders for supplying them appear to have been scrubbed from the internet, with only a small proportion surviving in archived form.
Two years later, Gerry Shih and Josh Chin, who wrote early reports on Xinjiang for the AP and WSJ respectively, were among a number of American reporters expelled from China in retaliation for Trump administration limits on US-based Chinese state media.
While it would continue to officially deny any "camps" exist in Xinjiang, with Foreign Ministry officials reprimanding reporters who used those terms, from late 2018 onwards, there has been a concerted shift in China's messaging on this issue.
In October of that year, the Xinjiang government all but acknowledged reports about the "re-education" system were correct, calling on local officials to expand the number of "vocational skill education training centers" and "carry out anti-extremist ideological education. "
The following week, Shohrat Zakir, a high-ranking Xinjiang government official, told state media the Chinese government was fighting "terrorism and extremism" in its own way, and in accordance with UN resolutions.
In a white paper published by the State Council Information Office in August 2019, China's top administrative body wrote "Xinjiang is a key battlefield in the fight against terrorism and extremism in China. "
"(The government) has established vocational education and training centers in accordance with the law to prevent the breeding and spread of terrorism and religious extremism, effectively curbing the frequent terrorist incidents and protecting the rights to life, health, and development of the people of all ethnic groups," the paper said, adding "worthwhile results have been achieved. "
Sean Roberts, an expert on Central Asia at the George Washington University and author of "The War on the Uyghurs: China's Internal Campaign against a Muslim Minority," said many officials in Xinjiang appeared to have internalized Beijing's narrative on the issue.
Months after censors scrubbed stories like Amina Hojamet's from the internet in an apparent attempt to cover-up evidence of what was going on in Xinjiang, a new wave of propaganda was pushed out by Beijing, emphasizing both the supposed terrorist threat and the success of the government's so-called "anti-extremism" program in tackling it.
Foreign diplomats from countries close to China -- including Iran, Pakistan and Russia -- have been invited to tour Xinjiang, even visiting camps, though representatives from the US and other countries have complained of being denied unfettered access to the region.
China's propaganda organs have also organized tightly-controlled press trips to Xinjiang, again mostly for media thought to be sympathetic, though early on, several international press agencies were invited to visit a camp, resulting in embarrassment for Beijing when they reported the situation there largely matched the testimony of survivors.
Such visits have been denounced as "Potemkin-style propaganda tours for unwitting foreigners" by Amnesty International, producing a stream of positive stories about the situation in the camps and China's success in fighting terrorism which often blindly repeat official propaganda.
Writing of visiting the government-run "Exhibition of Major Terrorist Attacks and Violent Crimes in Xinjiang," Thompson said the experience was "eye-opening, I had no idea the PRC was dealing with extremist activity. "
A Canadian-Albanian writer and historian, Jazexhi said he wanted to visit Xinjiang after reading reports in Western media which he felt were exaggerated.
After showing his writing and YouTube channel to the Chinese embassy in Tirana, the Albanian capital, Jazexhi was approved to join a trip to Xinjiang in August 2019, along with 20 other journalists, most of whom were from Muslim countries, he said.
"The desire of the Communist Party was that when we go back to our home countries we would say things are fine in Xinjiang and the Americans and whoever are lying about the Uyghur issue," Jazexhi said.
"The narrative was Xinjiang has always been a part of China and these Turks and Islam are latecomers," said Jazexhi.
Similar claims have been made in Chinese government documents, and in interviews given by officials to state media, such as one where the mayor and deputy Party chief of Urumqi described the idea of Uyghurs being native to Xinjiang as a "ridiculous, ignorant and condemnable" fallacy.
"From our visit to two camps, in Kashgar and Aksu, we saw beyond doubt that China is openly eradicating the Islamic identity and Turkish identity of these people," Jazexhi said.
A spokesman for the Xinjiang government accused Jazexhi of being unethical and "spreading false information," while China's ambassador to Turkey denounced an article by Jazexhi as one "in which facts are distorted and basic knowledge is absent. " Chinese state media suggested Jazexhi was driven by "malice" and his actions "went against the basic professional ethics as a reporter. "
Another critic, Gulchehra Hoja, a prominent Uyghur journalist who previously spoke to CNN about her family's experiences in the camp system, said she recently discovered she had been placed on a terrorist wanted list, after China's foreign ministry publicly denounced her and claimed she lied about her parents having been detained.