China pushes back against critics of its policies in Xinjiang

N OT LONG before the Beijing Olympics of 2008, the Chinese government carried out a vicious crackdown on demonstrations in Tibet. Foreign media drew attention to it, and people outside China held protests. A Chinese academic popularised the idea of “three afflictions”: two that China had faced in the past (“being beaten” by foreign powers and “being starved” by poverty) and a third that it faces now: “being scolded” by the rest of the world. Later President Xi Jinping adopted the concept, arguing that China faces a “fight for international discourse”.

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On no subject has China been more scolded than Xinjiang, where it has interned some 1m Uyghurs, a mostly Muslim ethnic group, for such things as being too pious or talking to relatives overseas. Media in democracies uniformly portray this as a grotesque abuse of human rights. The Communist Party is pushing back, in an effort to break what it calls the “discourse hegemony” of the West. To treat the “third affliction” it has marshalled vast resources, including official media, think-tanks, diplomats and security organs, and spent billions of dollars over the past decade.

A notable feature of recent propaganda about Xinjiang has been relentless attacks on China’s critics. In March the government imposed sanctions, such as bans on visiting or doing business with China, on elected officials, researchers and think-tanks in Europe and North America that had caused offence. Chinese officials also stirred up online nationalist boycotts of Western firms that had acknowledged the possibility of Uyghur forced labour in Xinjiang’s cotton industry.

Since then authorities have made Uyghurs in China make videos begging their dissident relatives overseas to shut up; announced a lawsuit against Adrian Zenz, a prominent researcher into the abuse of Uyghurs; and harassed a BBC journalist, John Sudworth, into leaving China.

The campaigns are getting personal. In April Xinhua, the official news agency, called Mr Zenz a “puppet of anti-China forces”. An entity called the Xinjiang Development Research Centre issued a report titled “Slanderer Adrian Zenz’s Xinjiang-related Fallacies Versus the Truth”. Global Times, a party tabloid, denounced Vicky Xu, an Australian researcher who has written about forced labour. It accused her of stoking sentiment that puts Chinese people in Australia “in peril”, and quoted a Chinese student who said she was “bewitched by the anti-China forces in the West”.

In the past, when the party was accused of specific abuses, its propagandists would issue general denials. They would also try to recast repressive policies as examples of the party’s wisdom and munificence, producing what a vice-president of Xinhua once called “fairy tales”. And they have long tried to change the subject by playing up human-rights abuses in America. State media still produce fairy tales about happy Uyghurs doing traditional dances. But now, at almost any critical mention of Xinjiang, China pushes back hard.

David Bandurski of the China Media Project, a research group in Hong Kong, says this verbal ferocity is partly aimed at a nationalist audience within China, which likes to hear the motherland robustly defended (as does Mr Xi). That helps explain a blustery performance by Yang Jiechi, China’s top diplomat, at a summit in Alaska in March with America’s secretary of state, Antony Blinken. After Mr Blinken raised the subject of Xinjiang, among other concerns, Mr Yang unleashed an 18-minute tirade about the virtues of “Chinese-style democracy” and the effrontery of those who try to “smear” it.

A fragmented global media landscape makes it easier to spread disinformation. Conventional outlets are struggling financially, and conspiracy theories proliferate on social media and YouTube. China has spent hundreds of millions of dollars annually over the past decade to take advantage of this, expanding its media footprint abroad under a “Great Foreign Propaganda Campaign”, says a working paper for the Brookings Institution by Rush Doshi (now a China specialist on America’s National Security Council). He notes that, since 2009, Xinhua has doubled the number of its foreign bureaus to 200; China Radio International, a state broadcaster, has more than tripled its hours of programming in 65 languages; and China Global Television Network ( CGTN ) has established itself as a new brand overseas, with 24 channels in five languages.

Equally important have been state media’s deals to place content in other media outlets around the globe—what propaganda officials call “borrowing the boats to reach the sea”. China Daily paid handsomely to place inserts in such newspapers as the Washington Post and The Economist (though both ended the arrangement in 2020). Since 2018, Xinhua has struck content-exchange deals with print, radio and television outlets in Australia, Egypt, India, Italy and Nigeria, to name just a few, writes Sarah Cook of Freedom House, a watchdog. She adds that many consumers of these outlets may not know that some of their news (especially about China) comes from Chinese state media.

The authorities in Beijing recognise that the most persuasive voices are not their own. They prefer to “borrow a mouth to speak”—promoting online the voices of useful foreigners, some of whom have made YouTube videos about their travels in Xinjiang, challenging reports of Uyghur suffering. A particular favourite is the Grayzone, an outlet that has sought to discredit the Western narrative on Xinjiang as a product of American imperialism.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the propaganda push does not appear to have won hearts and minds in rich democracies. But bullying critics may work in a way that is hard to measure—that is, in future silence. Many firms were quiet in the wake of the online boycott in China. The Better Cotton Initiative, a global apparel-industry consortium, took down an online statement of concern about Xinjiang cotton. In 2019, after an executive of a National Basketball Association team tweeted in support of protests in Hong Kong, China’s main broadcaster stopped showing NBA games. Since then, players and executives have been almost completely silent on China.

“Not only Adrian Zenz, but all anti-China forces who attempt to inflict pain on Xinjiang through slanders must pay the price,” Xinhua wrote on April 30th. Such threats may cow some critics, but others will be emboldened. The new scold war could last a while. ■