As China faces increasing global scrutiny on a slew of issues, including its inhuman treatment of Uyghur minorities in Xinjiang, it has launched an aggressive campaign to vigorously defend its policies in the region, and rubbish the allegations of repression being levelled against it.
China’s Foreign Ministry last month issued the most assertive defence of its policies in Xinjiang to date, calling accusations of “genocide” in the region the “lie of the century”. The statement marks a stark shift in China’s strategy to reshape the narrative regarding its treatment of Uyghurs.
Until now, China had been denying and dismissing the allegations of state-sponsored oppression of Uyghur minorities in Xinjiang. However, this has changed as China’s strategy to counter such allegations has now evolved from outright denial to unabashed public defence. This hardened public posturing can be attributed to a growing sense of confidence in Beijing and its eager alacrity to be combative in taking on its critics in the West on issues ranging from COVID-19 cover-up, South China sea, its repression in Hong Kong or its subjugation of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
China’s shift to belligerence was precipitated by the onset of the coronavirus outbreak that first emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, and from their spread across the world. The virus hit the Western nations particularly hard, with the death toll rising to hundreds of thousands. The outbreak also brought in its wake crippling lockdowns, causing indescribable economic hardships. It forced Western countries to reassess their relationship with China, which used its newly gained economic heft to browbeat nations that demanded an impartial inquiry into the origins of the virus.
China’s menacing moves in the South China sea, its surreptitious activities in the greater Himalayan region bordering India, and its brutal crackdown of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong only served to embolden the several western nations to bell the cat and hold China responsible for its misdeeds that were so far swept under the rug, most glaringly its atrocities on the Uyghur population.
As a consequence, it drew a sharp response from Beijing, which then launched a propaganda campaign to control the narrative surrounding Xinjiang even as it staunchly denied the suppression of Uyghur minorities. State media reporters were hurriedly dispatched to Xinjiang to show that everything is hunky dory and to discredit the allegations of mistreatment of Uyghurs.
The glowing accounts of state media reporters were then firehosed on Chinese social media websites to disprove the allegations of the harsh treatment meted out on the Uyghur population and rally support from the Chinese masses against the Western nations, whom they accused of tarnishing the image of China.
The Chinese Communist Party also deployed censorship—one of the powerful tools that Beijing uses to control the narrative. Stories of Uyghur suppression by credible western media outlets were banned in China so that Chinese citizens do not have access to the articles that described in excruciating details Beijing’s cruel treatment of the Uyghur minorities.
Besides, a ‘whataboutery’ campaign was also launched where the Chinese officials raised questions on the state of human rights in the countries that dared to question China’s poor human rights record. This was most evident against the United States as Chinese diplomats known for indulging in wolf warrior diplomacy questioned America on its treatment of people of colour in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter movement.
When it fails to control the narrative by propaganda and censorship, it uses disinformation to achieve its ends. A case in point is the disinformation campaign surrounding the origin of the coronavirus. A senior Chinese spokesperson publicly called the US military the source of the coronavirus. Soon after the Chinese spokesman ascribed the virus to the US military, all the arms of the media warfare coalesced to amplify the disinformation that the US military was responsible for unleashing the pandemic.
Censorship, Propaganda and Disinformation are the pillars of the Chinese Communist Party’s strategy to control the narrative domestically, as well as globally. China has one of the world’s most restrictive media environments and it relies heavily on these three pillars to add ballast to the growing dominance of the CCP and Xi Jinping over the Chinese people.
China’s attempt to cover-up repression of Uyghur Muslim population in Xinjiang
From the last few years, several reports have emerged detailing the cruel treatment subjected to Uyghur Muslims living in the restive province of Xinjiang. According to a 2017 report by the head of the Institute of Sociology at the Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing considers the increasing Muslim population in Xinjiang a threat to its political hegemony.
It took elaborate measures to contain this threat. The strategy of the Communist Party of China (CCP) was to strip Uyghurs of their religious and ethnic identity and assimilate them into the dominant Han Chinese ethnicity. While Uighur Muslims are often subjected to re-educational programs, forced labour, and digital surveillance, their children are indoctrinated in orphanages.
A report by the Associated Press shed light on the reasons and measures taken by the Chinese State to ensure a ‘demographic genocide’ of its Uyghur population. With several ‘draconian measures’ in place, China ensured a significant decline in the birth rates of Uighurs (mostly comprising of Muslims).
The measures included regular pregnancy tests, sterilisation, abortion, forced insertion of IUDs (intrauterine devices), huge penalties, and incarceration in detention camps for having three or more children. Reportedly, the number of people held up in such camps range from hundreds and thousands of ethnic minorities to millions.
Another report published by The Intercept threw light on the lengths that China goes in not only scrutinising the minority Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang but also their relatives and friends, along with those who are living abroad. Artificial Intelligence, sophisticated surveillance systems, new-age technology and human intelligence are all employed by the Chinese Communist Party to track and monitor the Uyghur Muslims and those associated with them.
Beijing’s use of censorship, propaganda and disinformation to discredit reports of pervasive oppression of Uyghurs
To counter these damning reports, the CCP scrubbed all the Western reports that detailed the horrors meted out on the Uyghurs in the internment camps. Multiple foreign journalists who reported on the forced incarceration of the Uyghurs were expelled from China, while academics, activists and survivors who sought to expose China’s chicanery were denounced and harassed. Those who dared to speak against the illegal detention of Uyghurs inside China have been silenced or detained.
The crackdown against the Uyghur Muslims was accompanied by a propaganda campaign, where the internment campaigns were portrayed as “vocational training” education centres, with choreographed media tours for state outlets, who interviewed the “graduates” lauding the system. Simultaneously, the CCP’s disinformation arm also swung into action, terming the persecution of Uyghur minorities as a figment of Western imagination and sowing confusion about the scale of the “education centres” and abuses experienced by the detainees, while also painting Beijing as the victim of violent extremism and Western propaganda.
Initially, the CCP was secretive about its concentration camps for Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. When the news about their existence started making the rounds in the global media, China’s first response was to use censorship to limit its spread in the Chinese media and vehemently deny their existence.
When the mounting evidence to the contrary became irrefutable, China flip-flopped and launched a propaganda campaign to claim they were just “education centres” to impart valuable skills to the backward Uyghur people. The Chinese government portrayed the camps as humane and launched a disinformation blitz to paint the criticism as a Western conspiracy meant to vilify China.