In one scene, Uyghur women dance Bollywood style, in front of a group of Uyghur men. In another, a Kazakh man seated in a typical tent performs for a group of friends with a traditional two-stringed lute.
Welcome to “The Wings of Songs,” a Chinese state sponsored musical. It is the latest addition to Beijing’s propaganda campaign to defend its policies in Xinjiang. The campaign has intensified in recent weeks, as Western politicians and human rights organizations accuse Beijing of subjecting Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the region to forced labor and genocide.
Released in Chinese theaters last week, the film provides a glimpse into the alternative vision of Xinjiang that the Chinese Communist Party wants to promote to audiences inside and outside the country. Far from being oppressed, the musical seems to say, Uyghurs and members of other minorities happily sing and dance, dressed in cheerful and colorful clothes. It’s a showy version of a discredited Chinese stereotype about minorities in the region, something Uyghur rights activists immediately denounced.
“The idea that Uyghurs can sing and dance, so there’s no genocide, it just doesn’t work,” said Uyghur American lawyer Nury Turkel, a senior researcher at the Hudson Institute in Washington. “Genocide can happen anywhere, it’s beautiful.”
Following Western sanctions, the Chinese government responded with a new wave of propaganda on Xinjiang broadcast through a wide range of media. The approach ranges from posting a clean, cute version of life in Xinjiang, like in the musical, to having Chinese officials on social media sites to attack critics in Beijing. To reinforce its message, the party stressed that its efforts have quashed the alleged threat of violent terrorism.
According to the government’s version, Xinjiang is now a peaceful place where Han Chinese, the country’s dominant ethnic group, coexist in harmony with the region’s Muslim ethnic minorities, “like the seeds of a pomegranate.” It is a place where the government has freed women from the shackles of extremist thought. And ethnic minorities in the region are presented as appreciative of the government’s efforts.
The musical takes the narrative to a new level of lying of the genre that causes repudiation. The film tells the story of three boys, a Uyghur, a Kazakh and a Han Chinese, who come together to try to make their musical dreams come true.
Xinjiang, a predominantly Muslim region on the western outskirts of China, is shown in the film as having been “cleansed” of Islamic influence. The Uyghur boys appear to be shaved and drinking beer, with no beards or abstinence from alcohol, which authorities see as signs of religious extremism. Uyghur women are shown without a traditional headscarf.
Seen through the lens of the film, Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Central Asia would be fully assimilated into the majority. They are fluent in Chinese and little or no of their native language is heard. They get along well with ethnic Han Chinese – there is no indication of the resentment that has long existed among Uyghurs and other minorities over the systematic discrimination against them.
The account presents a very different picture of the reality of the region, where the authorities maintain tight control through a dense network of surveillance cameras and police stations, in addition to keeping many Uyghurs and other Muslims in prisons and mass internment camps.
Until Monday (5), according to Maoyan, a company that monitors ticket sales, the film had collected just 109 thousand US dollars (617.4 thousand reais) at the box office.
Chinese authorities initially denied the existence of internment camps. Then they described the camps as “boarding schools” where attendance was entirely voluntary.
Today the government has taken an increasingly combative approach, seeking to justify its policies, saying they are necessary to fight terrorism and separatism in the region.
Chinese officials and state media are spreading the government’s narrative of its Xinjiang policies, in part through the dissemination of alternative narratives (including disinformation) on U.S. social networks like Twitter and Facebook. This approach culminated last year, according to a report released last week by researchers at the International Center for Cyber Policy at the Australian Institute of Strategic Policy (ASPI) think tank.
Researchers at the institute found that the social media campaign focused on Chinese diplomats on Twitter, state-owned social media accounts, influencers and pro-Communist bots. The accounts send messages containing disinformation about Uyghurs who have reported or messages defaming researchers, journalists and organizations working on issues related to Xinjiang.
Anne-Marie Brady, professor of Chinese politics at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, and not involved in the ASPI report, described the Chinese offensive on Xinjiang as the largest single-topic international propaganda campaign that ‘she had ever seen in 25 years. study China’s political propaganda system.
“It is a dogmatic, acute and increasingly aggressive campaign,” she commented via email. “And it will continue whether it is effective or not.”
In a statement, Twitter said it had suspended several accounts cited by ASPI researchers. Facebook said in a statement that it recently shut down a group of malicious hackers who attacked Uyghurs who had left China. The two companies began labeling the accounts of state-affiliated media last year.
The Communist Party has said it must take firm action after a wave of deadly attacks rocked the region a few years ago. Critics said the extent of the violence is not yet clear, but the unrest does not justify the broad and indiscriminate scope of the Uyghur arrests.
Last week, the Chinese regime widely reported that it had uncovered a plot by Uyghur intellectuals to sow ethnic hatred. The CGTN, the international branch of the Chinese public broadcaster, released a documentary last Friday (2) accusing intellectuals of writing textbooks full of “blood, violence, terrorism and separatism”.
The books have been approved for use in primary and secondary schools in Xinjiang for over a decade. But suddenly in 2016, shortly after the Uyghur repression began, they branded themselves as subversive.
The documentary accuses intellectuals of distorting historical facts, citing, for example, the inclusion of a historic photo of Ehmetjan Qasim, the head of an independent state in Xinjiang who existed briefly in the late 1940s.
“It’s just absurd,” said Kamalturk Yalqun, whose father, Yalqun Rozi, a renowned Uyghur scholar, was sentenced in 2018 to 15 years in prison for attempting to subvert, due to his involvement in the textbooks. . Yalqun said a photo of Rozi seen in the film was the first time he’s seen his father in five years.
“China just wants to invent whatever it can to dehumanize Uyghurs and make these textbooks look like dangerous material,” he said, speaking from Boston on the phone. “My father was not an extremist, just an academic trying to do his job right.”