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Why China’s Xinjiang Propaganda Fails

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Why China’s Xinjiang Propaganda Fails

China’s defense of its Xinjiang approach as a necessary counterterrorism strategy has fallen flat abroad.

Why China’s Xinjiang Propaganda Fails

A Xinjiang dancer performs after a press conference by Shohrat Zakir, chairman of China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, at the State Council Information Office in Beijing, July 30, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Andy Wong

The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act on December 3. In response, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying denounced the bill, saying it “deliberately smears the human rights condition in Xinjiang, slanders China’s efforts in de-radicalization and counter-terrorism and viciously attacks the Chinese government’s Xinjiang policy.” A few days later, China Global Television Network (CGTN) released two documentaries showing past violence from political extremists in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The two documentaries, titled “Fighting Terrorism in Xinjiang” and “The Black Hand — ETIM and Terrorism in Xinjiang” were likely released as a counter to the passage of the Uyghur bill in the U.S. as well as mounting accusations of inhumane treatment of Uyghur minorities based on the release of documents concerning “vocational training centers” in Xinjiang.

Brushed off by some as political propaganda, the documentaries — with footage of the Urumqi riots on July 5, 2009, the terrorist attack in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on October 28, and another attack in Kunming on March 1, 2014 — depict China as a victim of terrorism, joining the United States, France, and other countries on the list of jihadist targets. It is especially perplexing and frustrating to Chinese officials that, despite China’s victimhood, the United States and EU countries largely sympathize with the Uyghur separatist movements and seldom address the terrorist attacks the extremists have employed. The U.S., despite having led the “war on terror” and having labeled the East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM) as a terrorist organization, supports Uyghur independence groups and criticizes China’s anti-separatist policies, which has further consolidated the idea that Washington is seeking to undermine the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership. Complaints about the “double standards of some Western media organizations and politicians” were repeated throughout the two documentaries.

The documentaries avoided vague official discourse and political concepts and used clear English narration to “tell a good story about China” to foreign audiences. The documentaries also made an effort to detach Islamic extremism from the religion itself, dedicating a section of the video to interpret peaceful teachings within the Quran. These traits demonstrate an effort to counter the image-damaging accounts of religious persecution repeated by Western officials and media without alienating the global Muslim population, also observed in the way the Chinese Foreign Ministry and state media scurried to criticize “Western mainstream” for “remaining deaf and blind to facts.”

The videos were arguably successful in narrating Chinese victimhood but still fall short of being good propaganda. For one thing, the documentaries lacked strong, verifiable evidence to disprove accusations of rights abuses and remained obscure on how the vocational centers purge the “extremist elements” of the detainees. In addition, the timing of the documentaries’ release was easily perceived as an organized response to mounting global criticisms rather than as part of an active and prolonged commitment to combat terrorism in the region. The terrorist threat that Chinese civilians face may have been better recognized if China had communicated a full picture of its ongoing terrorism problems early on. Instead, China only recently rushed to face the overwhelming global pressure over its Xinjiang policy with combative but poor countercriticisms, which Western audiences have easily brushed off as propaganda aimed to defend CCP’s legitimacy.

The documentaries’ biggest flaw lies in the lack of justification for responding to terrorist threats with grandiose and intensive measures that flout international human rights standards, which further fueled the perception of the CCP’s disregard for religious freedom and minority rights. What makes China’s propaganda so ineffective is that it takes the form of passive self-defense and doesn’t address international concerns directly. As seen in the initial censorship of the SARS breakout and the swine flu cover-ups, China has exhibited a marked tendency to conceal its domestic issues rather than actively reaching out to communicate its interests and provide justification for its measures. China more often combats criticisms aggressively but very obliquely, by demanding the “biased and hostile West” to “respect its sovereignty” rather than elaborating on its policy practices. This tactic fails to form a narrative that may possibly foster an understanding of Beijing’s interests.

China’s failed propaganda on Xinjiang most likely stems from the confusion within the publicity department on how Xinjiang’s Uyghur unrest should be communicated to both foreign and domestic audiences. As officials of the department are often pressured to not stray away from core political ideas, the bureaucracy is torn between presenting a good image of China’s governance by covering up problems and actively justifying its controversial policy measures. For most officials, the risk-reward calculus would tilt toward concealing issues, guiding domestic popular opinion, and combating foreign criticisms with a risk-averse repetition of slogans. The result is that the CCP’s propaganda has at most enforced domestic opinion rather than communicating its domestic interests with international audiences.