From cover-up to propaganda blitz: China's attempts to control the narrative on Xinjiang
Updated 6:59 PM ET, Sat April 17, 2021
Hong Kong (CNN)China's Foreign Ministry this month issued the most forceful defense of its policies in Xinjiang to date, calling allegations of "genocide" in the region the "lie of the century."
The statement -- made in response to ongoing calls for a possible boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympics -- represents the culmination of a long evolution of China's official narrative regarding its treatment of Uyghurs.
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.
In recent months, Xinjiang has become something of a patriotic litmus test, in which those wishing to do business with China must pick a side -- either stand with Beijing in implicit defense of its policies, or face the consequences.
The propaganda campaign has also reached a fever pitch, with state media reporters dispatched to Xinjiang to supposedly "prove" there is no oppression there, a "La La Land"-inspired musical released to make Beijing's case, while critics overseas have faced sanctions and harassment.
While China has always maintained a sophisticated propaganda apparatus at home, its recent campaign over Xinjiang, particularly disinformation and harassment of critics overseas, is more in keeping with similar efforts by Russia, including deploying "whataboutism" in claiming any US denouncements are tainted by the legacy of slavery and genocide on the American continent.
After she was "de-radicalized," Amina Hojamet swapped her burqa for a silk dress, put a traditional flower-patterned hat on her head, and sang "Without the Communist Party, there would be no New China."
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.
According to reliable scholarly estimates, up to 2 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities have passed through a system of detention camps set up throughout Xinjiang in recent years. In the camps, they have been subjected to intense "re-education," designed to strip them of their Islamic faith and ethnic identity in the name of fighting religious terrorism and separatism.
Survivors of the camps report experiencing or witnessing widespread abuse, and incidents of torture, rape and forced sterilization. The crackdown has been denounced as "genocide" by the United States government and the Canadian and Dutch parliaments for its effects on the Uyghur people and their culture.
When reports of the camp system first began to emerge around 2017, China issued staunch denials, or refused to comment altogether. As this has become increasingly impossible in the face of mounting international attention and subsequent condemnation, Beijing has shifted to an angry defense of its "de-radicalization" program, which it has even started to tout to like-minded countries as a way of dealing with their own Muslim "problem."
Meanwhile, evidence of the camp system, such as early reports in state media like one which gave Hojamet's story in late 2014, have been scrubbed from the internet altogether and are accessible only in archived form, a CNN analysis shows. Other materials researchers relied on to expose the camp system -- such as government tenders and official documents -- have also been deleted.
Multiple foreign journalists who reported on the camp system have been expelled from China, while academics, activists and survivors who sought to expose its reach have been denounced, and harassed. Those who have dared speak out inside of China have been silenced or detained.
The clampdown has been accompanied by a new, coordinated propaganda campaign touting the successes of the "vocational training" system, with heavily choreographed media tours for sympathetic outlets, interviews with "graduates" praising the system, and disinformation which aims to sow confusion about the scale of the camp system and the abuses experienced by detainees, while painting Beijing as the victim of both violent extremism and Western misinformation.
Located in the far west of the People's Republic of China, Xinjiang is among China's most ethnically diverse regions. It is home to about 11 million Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority, who speak a language closely related to Turkish and have their own distinct culture, as well as significant populations of Kazakhs.
Rich in natural resources, especially oil and gas, the region has seen a large influx of Han Chinese, the country's majority ethnic group, amid recent, concerted efforts by the government to tie Xinjiang closer to the wider economy.
Xinjiang -- the name means "New Frontier" in Chinese -- has long been of strategic importance for its rulers in Beijing. The vast region borders Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan, as well as Mongolia and Russia in the north and Pakistan and India in the south. Its importance has only increased with the advent of President Xi Jinping's Belt and Road Initiative, a trade and infrastructure mega project connecting China to markets across Central Asia to Europe and beyond.
In the 1990s and 2000s, as the number of Han migrating to Xinjiang increased and the government ramped up efforts to integrate the region, protests and occasionally violent ethnic unrest became more common.
Information about such incidents was often hard to come by, with reports in state media sporadic and sparsely detailed. Few foreign journalists ever visited Xinjiang, both due to the region's remoteness from Beijing and the harassment and surveillance by local authorities of those journalists who did travel there.
Such controls only increased as the situation became more unstable and the authorities cracked down harder. In 2009, following deadly ethnic riots in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi, the entire region was cut off from the internet for almost a year, and many Uyghur writers and intellectuals were jailed.
In October 2013, a group of Uyghurs were alleged to have driven a sports-utility vehicle into pedestrians on Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Five people died in the incident, described by authorities as a terror attack, including three in the car. Some 40 people were injured.
Following the incident, Xinjiang's anti-terrorism budget doubled. The regional government, meanwhile, said it was "determined to curb the spread of religious extremism as well as prevent severe violent terrorist attacks." As part of this, what was called "vocational training" could be provided to those "more easily manipulated by religious extremism."
In early 2014, 31 people were killed, and more than 100 were injured, during a knife terror attack in a crowded train station in Kunming, in China's southwestern Yunnan Province. Four people were convicted of plotting the attack, which the government blamed on Uyghur separatists.
During a visit to the region in April 2014 in the aftermath of the Kunming attack, President Xi called for an all-out "struggle against terrorism, infiltration and separatism," according to leaked internal speeches published by the New York Times.
Around this time, in a village in Shufu County, near the ancient Silk Road trading stop of Kashgar in western Xinjiang, local officials identified 16 women in need of "educational transformation," according to the Xinjiang Daily article. Their offense? Wearing the burqa.
These women, one of whom was Hojamet, were initially "very resistant and unwilling," but "gradually realized the essence and harm of religious extremism," eventually choosing to abandon conservative Islamic dress for regular clothing.
Another woman also told the paper her husband had been detained by the police for religious extremism and taken for "de-radicalization" in an unspecified location. "I hope that he will receive a good education, transform well, and reunite with us soon," she was quoted as saying.
While in 2014 and 2015 the burgeoning "re-education" system was still years away from reaching its current scale, or from becoming public knowledge, it was clear the situation in Xinjiang had escalated following the high-profile Kunming attack.
Visiting the region weeks later, Ursula Gauthier, a journalist with the French magazine L'Obs, reported an intense system of surveillance, police checkpoints, and widespread fear of being reported or denounced among any Uyghurs she spoke to.