In one scene, Uyghur women are seen dancing in a rousing Bollywood style face-off with a group of Uyghur men. In another, a Kazakh man serenades a group of friends with a traditional two-stringed lute while sitting in a yurt.
Welcome to “The Wings of Songs,” a state-backed musical that is the latest addition to China’s propaganda campaign to defend its policies in Xinjiang. The campaign has intensified in recent weeks as Western politicians and rights groups have accused Beijing of subjecting Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang to forced labor and genocide.
The film, which debuted in Chinese cinemas last week, offers a glimpse of the alternate vision of Xinjiang that China’s ruling Communist Party is pushing to audiences at home and abroad. Far from being oppressed, the musical seems to say, the Uyghurs and other minorities are singing and dancing happily in colorful dress, a flashy take on a tired Chinese stereotype about the region’s minorities that Uyghur rights activists quickly denounced.
“The notion that Uyghurs can sing and dance so therefore there is no genocide — that’s just not going to work,” said Nury Turkel, a Uyghur-American lawyer and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington. “Genocide can take place in any beautiful place.”
Western sanctions, the Chinese government has responded with a fresh wave of Xinjiang propaganda across a wide spectrum.The approach ranges from portraying a sanitized, feel-good version of life in Xinjiang — as in the example of the musical — to deploying Chinese officials on social media sites to attack Beijing’s critics. To reinforce its message, the party is emphasizing that its efforts have rooted out the perceived threat of violent terrorism.
In the government’s telling, Xinjiang is now a peaceful place where Han Chinese, the nation’s dominant ethnic group, live in harmony alongside the region’s Muslim ethnic minorities, just like the “seeds of a pomegranate.” It’s a place where the government has successfully emancipated women from the shackles of extremist thinking. And the region’s ethnic minorities are portrayed as grateful for the government’s efforts.
reality on the ground, in which the authorities maintain tight control using a dense network of surveillance cameras and police posts, and have detained many Uyghurs and other Muslims in mass internment camps and prisons. As of Monday, the film had brought in a dismal $109,000 at the box office, according to Maoyan, a company that tracks ticket sales.
initially denied the existence of the region’s internment camps. Then they described the facilities as “boarding schools” in which attendance was completely voluntary.
Now, the government is increasingly adopting a more combative approach, seeking to justify its policies as necessary to combat terrorism and separatism in the region.
Chinese officials and state media have pushed the government’s narrative about its policies in Xinjiang in part by spreading alternative narratives — including disinformation — on American social networks like Twitter and Facebook. This approach reached an all-time high last year, according to a report published last week by researchers at the International Cyber Policy Center of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, or ASPI.
The social media campaign is centered on Chinese diplomats on Twitter, state-owned media accounts, pro-Communist Party influencers and bots, the institute’s researchers found. The accounts send messages often aimed at spreading disinformation about Uyghurs who have spoken out, and to smear researchers, journalists, and organizations working on Xinjiang issues.
Anne-Marie Brady, a professor of Chinese politics at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand who was not involved in the ASPI report, called China’s Xinjiang offensive the biggest international propaganda campaign on a single topic that she had seen in her 25 years of researching the Chinese propaganda system.
“It’s shrill and dogmatic, it’s increasingly aggressive,” she said in emailed comments. “And it will keep on going, whether it is effective or not.”
In a statement, Twitter said it had suspended a number of the accounts cited by the ASPI researchers. Facebook said in a statement that it had recently removed a malicious hacker group that had been targeting the Uyghur diaspora. Both companies began labeling the accounts of state-affiliated media outlets last year.
The party has also asserted that it needed to take firm action after a spate of deadly attacks rocked the region some years ago.Critics say that the extent of the violence remains unclear, but also that such unrest did not justify the sweeping, indiscriminate scope of the detentions.
Last week, the government played up a claim that it had uncovered a plot by Uyghur intellectuals to sow ethnic hatred. CGTN, an international arm of China’s state broadcaster, released a documentary on Friday that accused the scholars of writing textbooks that were full of “blood, violence, terrorism and separatism.”
The books had been approved for use in elementary and middle schools in Xinjiang for more than a decade. Then in 2016, shortly before the crackdown started, they were suddenly deemed subversive.
The documentary accuses the intellectuals of having distorted historical facts, citing, for example, the inclusion of a historical photo of Ehmetjan Qasim, a leader of a short-lived independent state in Xinjiang in the late 1940s.
“It’s just absurd,” said Kamalturk Yalqun, whose father, Yalqun Rozi, a prominent Uyghur scholar, was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2018 for attempted subversion for his involvement with the textbooks. He said that a photo of Mr. Rozi shown in the film was the first time he had seen his father in five years.
“China is just trying to come up with any way they can think of to dehumanize Uyghurs and make these textbooks look like dangerous materials,” he said by phone from Boston. “My father was not an extremist but just a scholar trying to do his job well.”
H&M faces a boycott. Tommy Hilfiger, Adidas, Nike, Converse and Calvin Klein have lost their brand ambassadors. Burberry has had to give up an online video game partnership.
Western brands are suddenly feeling the wrath of the Chinese consumer, the very shoppers who for years have clamored for their products and paid them vast amounts of money. Egged on by the ruling Communist Party, Chinese online activists are punishing foreign companies that have joined a call to avoid using cotton produced in the Chinese region of Xinjiang, where the authorities are waging a broad campaign of repression against ethnic minorities.
The sudden bout of rage lays bare the vulnerability of foreign companies as tensions worsen between China and the United States and other countries. Lawmakers in the United States in particular who have been increasingly critical of China have pressured international companies to take a public stance on China’s human rights practices, including in Xinjiang. That makes the companies convenient targets for Chinese officials who are aggressively pushing back against American officials.
“A lot of Western countries and China are pretty black-and-white on this issue. There’s not a lot of gray,” said Trey McArver, a co-founder of Trivium China, a consultancy that helps foreign businesses sell in China, referring to the opposing stances over Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang. “You can’t agree with both of them, so I don’t think it’s an easy answer.”
imposed fresh sanctions on top Chinese officials this week. These sought to punish Beijing for abuses against the Uyghurs and other minorities, which have been well documented by foreign media and rights groups. There is also growing evidence that cotton from Xinjiang is linked to coercive labor programs and mass internment of as many as one million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other largely Muslim minorities, the U.S. government and rights groups say.
It isn’t clear what the long-term impact might be on Western companies that depend on China to make or buy their products. On Thursday, there was still a steady stream of shoppers at several popular H&M and Nike outlets in Shanghai and Beijing. Previous state media-driven pressure campaigns against companies like Apple, Starbucks and Volkswagen failed to dent Chinese demand for their products.
Still, their position could become increasingly precarious as Beijing looks for ways to counter the narrative. And it is no stranger to flexing its economic muscle for political ends.
Years earlier, after South Korea embraced an American antimissile defense system, the Chinese government fed anti-South Korean sentiment in the country that forced Lotte Mart, a popular South Korean supermarket, to shut many of its outlets. The missile system stayed, but Beijing was still able to exact pain.
Such tactics have become a common feature of China’s increasingly aggressive brand of diplomacy. Chinese diplomats now routinely deploy a mix of threats and nationalistic messages to browbeat Beijing’s critics and assert the country’s interests.
phrase traced to Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, who, in demanding loyalty to the party, said in 2014: “Never allow eating the Communist Party’s food and then smashing the Communist Party’s cooking pots.”
raised concerns about labor in Xinjiang. She said she was now skeptical of the brand. “I probably would not buy it from now on,” she said.
Chinese state media outlets have overtly stoked the outrage with hashtags on social media and bold headlines. Government officials have sought to depict the outcry as authentic, with a Commerce Ministry spokesman saying on Thursday that Chinese consumers were “hoping that the relevant companies would correct their wrong practices.”
For decades, foreign companies operating in China have been largely wary of appearing critical of the Chinese government. And in recent years, several of them have been besieged by a growing army of nationalistic online users, who have been ready to pounce on the three T’s: Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen. All have been quick to apologize, and emerged largely unscathed.
an alliance to curb China’s influence, Beijing, emboldened by its success in curbing the coronavirus outbreak at home, is pushing back hard against what it perceives as hypocrisy.
“It might get more heated,” said Jörg Wuttke, the president of the European Chamber of Commerce in China, in an email. More European companies are going to be caught between a rock and a hard place, he said. “Everybody has to service their domestic crowd.”
But for many of these companies, the issue is more complicated than a matter of managing public relations.
To obtain cotton, the companies almost certainly need to get it from Xinjiang, which produces 87 percent of the material in China. Roughly one in five cotton garments sold globally contains cotton or yarn from Xinjiang.
But in January, the Trump administration announced a ban on imports of cotton from Xinjiang, as well as all products made with those materials, putting pressure on brands to check their supply chains. Rights groups such as the Uyghur Human Rights Project have also been pushing American lawmakers to enact sweeping legislation that would block imports from Xinjiang, unless companies can prove that their supply chains are free of forced labor.
Ms. Hua, the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, on Thursday denounced the accusations of forced labor, saying Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang provided employment opportunities to lift people out of poverty.
“The accusation of ‘forced labor’ in Xinjiang is entirely a lie concocted by certain anti-China forces,” she said. “The purpose is to discredit China’s image, undermine Xinjiang’s security and stability and impede China’s development.”
Communist Youth League, an influential Communist Party organization, and state media highlighted a statement that the company made eight months ago setting out its concerns about forced labor in Xinjiang. That prompted Chinese internet users to call for a boycott.
The company responded on Wednesday by saying its statement last year on Xinjiang did not “represent any political position.” That made internet users, who were baying for an apology, only more furious.
On Thursday, a mall in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, shut an H&M outlet, urging the company to apologize formally to people in the region. In the southwestern city of Chengdu, workers dismantled the company’s sign from a store.
“I don’t expect this to die down,” said Surya Deva, an associate professor at the City University of Hong Kong and a member of the United Nations working group on business and human rights. “This is a different trajectory and a different era.”
Justine Nolan, a professor in Sydney at the faculty of law and justice at the University of New South Wales, said it was also an opportunity for foreign companies to demonstrate their support for human rights.
“They are now being put to the test,” she added. “This is the red line for them — and it’s not an issue that they can afford to be halfhearted about.”
Reporting and research were contributed by Coral Yang, Claire Fu, Chris Buckley and Elsie Chen.