Debate | Opinion
China’s propaganda narrative focuses on Uyghurs’ personal transformations, removing cultural and ethnic markers that Beijing finds unpleasant.
A tourist takes photos of Uyghur artists outside the entrance gate to the renovated downtown Kashgar in Xinjiang on April 19, 2021.
Credit: AP Photo / Mark Schiefelbein
In December 2019, CGTN, China’s overseas television service, broadcast a four-minute report titled “What does the Chinese “re-education camp” in Xinjiang really consist of?In the segment, CGTN presenter Wang Guan asks about the internment camps in the Uyghur region: “Was this a campaign of religious repression, or an unprecedented de-radicalization effort?” To seek an answer, he visits Kashgar and introduces four former internees from the Uyghur camp. Each person presents a professional competence acquired in the camps; there is an artist, a real estate agent, a cashier and someone in “hotel”. It’s time to meet the “new” Uyghurs.
Over the past five years, the world has learned about the horrific scale of the Chinese state’s crackdown on Uyghurs and other Turkish peoples. The Uyghur homeland has been turned into a land of arbitrary detention, high-tech surveillance and forced sterilizations. China has aggressively denied accusations of crimes against humanity targeting Uyghurs and other Turkish peoples through its media proxies, diplomatic corps, social media amplifiers and some partner states.
However, in 2019 a new discourse emerged about Uyghurs, especially those who had lived in “vocational education and training centers,” which survivors refer to as concentration camps. Xinhua, the Global Times and CGTN have promoted a narrative centered on the personal transformations of Uyghurs. These “new” Uyghurs are fluent in Mandarin, have marketable skills, and have left Islam behind.
The Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) examined 307 texts including CGTN’s production on Uyghurs and Xinjiang from 2017-2020. One of the clearest patterns to emerge was this tale of purified Uyghurs, which manifested itself in two ways. The first was the ideological purification of the Uyghurs, allowing them to participate in the social and economic productivity defined by the state. The second was the representation of a virgin Uyghur homeland cleared for economic exploitation. Combined, these discourses propagate uprooted Uyghurs and a sanitized Xinjiang open to tourism and state-run investment.
Like Chinese state documents leaked revealed that top Chinese leaders, including Xi Jinping, have given the green light to the human rights crisis in the Uyghur region. In addition, many of Xi’s speeches emphasize how “stability” in Xinjiang is essential to the success of the Belt and Road Initiative and the Chinese state’s ambitions in the 21st century. Stability would be achieved through a “round-up” of “all who should be gathered” and showing “absolutely no mercy” to the “enemies”. These enemies, we found, included all Uyghurs as the main Chinese leaders engaged in a collective criminalization of ethnicity. It resulted in genocide and an obscuring discourse of a reinvented people. The most desirable Uyghurs in Beijing’s eyes are those who neither speak Uyghur nor believe in Islam, but express gratitude for a version of modernization steeped in human rights violations. The new CGTN Uyghur screens are as many victims as any other Uyghur.
Why should we care that CGTN is broadcasting these tales of a purified people and land to the world? Does anyone even watch CGTN, or even take it seriously? CGTN’s low audience is only part of the story. Disinformation needs a platform, a space to record unhindered propaganda. In a December 2016 message to the newly launched CGTN, Xi advised the organization to speak from a clear Chinese point of view and the broadcaster did not fail him. However, we have to be concerned about this as CGTN increases its credibility, or at least its influence, through its partnerships abroad. For example, the CGTN has agreements, through a Global Partner Program, to share or host content with other media, such as Euronews.
Other global partners include news agencies, communications service providers, multimedia device manufacturers, hotel chains, terminal managers, international broadcasting unions, think tanks and research institutes. In the United States, CGTN’s channels are distributed by various cable, satellite and Internet protocol television providers.
As media companies find increasingly salient methods of connecting global media audiences, the availability of unbiased and reliable reporting can get lost in the sea of storytelling tactics of media entities with a state-sponsored program. CGTN’s narrative creation of “new” Uyghurs is just one example of a type of global information war that threatens freedom around the world. The foreign partners of the CGTN must not be complicit.