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Meet the New Uyghurs

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The Debate | Opinion

Meet the New Uyghurs

China’s propaganda narrative centers on the personal transformations of Uyghurs, removing the cultural and ethnic markers Beijing finds distasteful.

Meet the New Uyghurs

A tourist snaps pictures of Uyghur performers at the front gate of the remodeled city center of Kashgar in Xinjiang, April 19, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

In December 2019, CGTN, China’s overseas television service, broadcast a four-minute report entitled “What’s China’s ‘re-education camp’ in Xinjiang really about?” In the segment, CGTN anchor Wang Guan poses a question about internment camps in the Uyghur region: “Was that a campaign of religious repression, or an unprecedented effort of deradicalization?” To seek an answer, he visits Kashgar and showcases four Uyghur former camp internees. Each person exhibits a vocational skill learned in the camps; there’s an artist, a real estate agent, a cashier, and someone in “hospitality.” It’s time to meet the “new” Uyghurs.

In the past five years, the world has learned about the horrific scale of Chinese state repression against Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples. The Uyghur homeland has been transformed into a land of arbitrary detention, hi-tech surveillance, and forced sterilizations. China has aggressively denied accusations of crimes against humanity targeting Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples through its media proxies, diplomatic corps, social media amplifiers, and some partner states.

However, in 2019, a new discourse emerged about Uyghurs, particularly those who had experienced time in “vocational education and training centers,” which survivors call concentration camps. Xinhua, the Global Times, and CGTN promoted a narrative centered on the personal transformations of Uyghurs. These “new” Uyghurs are fluent in Mandarin, have marketable skills, and have left Islam behind.

The Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) examined 307 texts comprising CGTN’s output on Uyghurs and Xinjiang from 2017-2020. One of the clearest patterns to emerge was this narrative of cleansed Uyghurs, which manifested in two ways. The first was the ideological purification of Uyghurs, enabling them to participate in state-defined social and economic productivity. The second was the representation of a pristine Uyghur homeland cleared for economic exploitation. Combined, these discourses propagate deracinated Uyghurs and a sanitized Xinjiang open for state-managed tourism and investment.

As leaked Chinese state documents have revealed, China’s senior leadership, including Xi Jinping, green-lighted the human rights crisis in the Uyghur region. What’s more, many of Xi’s speeches outline how “stability” in Xinjiang is critical to the success of the Belt and Road Initiative and the Chinese state’s 21st century ambitions. Stability would be achieved through a “round up” of “all who should be rounded up” and by demonstrating “absolutely no mercy” toward “enemies.” Those enemies, we discovered, included any Uyghur as China’s top leaders engaged in a collective criminalization of ethnicity. What emerged was a genocide and an obscuring discourse of a reinvented people. The most desirable Uyghurs in Beijing’s eyes are those who neither speak Uyghur nor believe in Islam, but express gratitude to a version of modernization soaked with human rights violations. The new Uyghurs CGTN displays are victims as much as any other Uyghur.

Why should we care that CGTN broadcasts these narratives of a cleansed people and land to the world? Does anyone even watch CGTN, or even take it seriously? CGTN’s poor viewership is only part of the story. Disinformation needs a platform, a space to put on the record unfettered propaganda. In a December 2016 message to the newly launched CGTN, Xi counseled the organization to speak from a clear Chinese perspective and the broadcaster has not failed him. However, we should care because CGTN accrues credibility, or at least influence, through its overseas partnerships. For example, CGTN has agreements, through a Global Partners Program, to share or host content with other media outlets, such as Euronews.

Other Global Partners include news media agencies, communication service providers, media device manufacturers, hotel chains, terminal device managers, international broadcasting unions, think tanks, and research institutions. In the United States, CGTN’s channels are distributed through a variety of cable, satellite, and internet protocol television providers.

As media corporations find ever more salient methods for connecting global media audiences, the availability of unbiased and sound reporting may find itself lost in the sea of narrative tactics by media entities with a state-sponsored agenda. CGTN’s narrative creation of “new” Uyghurs is just one example of a type of global information warfare that threatens freedom around the globe. CGTN’s overseas partners should not be complicit.