This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
A new musical film by China’s government that portrays life as harmonious and blissful in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) illustrates the need to allow independent monitors into the region to investigate reports of an ongoing genocide there, experts said.
Last week, a musical called “The Wings of Song” opened in Chinese cinemas, telling the story of three young men—a Uyghur, Kazakh, and Han Chinese—who together draw inspiration from life in the XUAR to write a song that will propel them to fame throughout the nation.
The region is depicted as a land of natural beauty where all ethnicities live happily side-by-side under the leadership of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and spend their days dancing and singing in unity. The ethnic minorities in the film appear homogenized, with clean-shaven Muslim men drinking beer and Muslim women devoid of head coverings, much like their Han comrades.
Uyghur activists were quick to reject the new film as an abhorrent effort by Beijing to whitewash its crackdown in the XUAR.
“The use of a musical to attempt to disprove genocide is an offensive attempt by the Chinese regime to imply that a scripted film, music, and scenery can negate the immense harm that is being inflicted on Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples,” said Rushan Abbas, executive director of the Washington-based Campaign for Uyghurs advocacy group.
“For those of us who have been separated from our families for years and left wondering if they are alive or dead, seeing these images is infuriating and agonizing. No pathetic film can ever do away with the CCP’s genocidal crimes.”
Critics say such imagery depicts how the XUAR would look as idealized by the apparatchiks of Beijing if their policies of repression and cultural assimilation in the region were to succeed—a sharp contrast with reports of discrimination, forced sterilization, extralegal mass incarceration, and coerced labor that led the U.S. and parliaments in other Western nations to label the situation as state-backed genocide in recent months.
The film has been panned by experts in the West as mindless propaganda while more and more information trickles out of the XUAR about rights abuses that include the detention of up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslims in a vast network of internment camps in the region since early 2017 and a pervasive surveillance system that monitors the every movement of ethnic minorities.
While Beijing initially denied the existence of the camps, China last year changed tack and began describing the facilities as “boarding schools” that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, discourage radicalization, and help protect the country from terrorism.
But reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media outlets suggest that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often-overcrowded facilities.
Insight into CCP strategy
Experts told RFA that the cringe-inducing musical may provide an insight into the calculations of the CCP as it works to control the narrative of what is taking place in the XUAR. They say it appears to have been produced for consumption mostly by the very upper echelons of the CCP that produced it.
Ticket sales had barely amounted to U.S. $110,000 as of Monday, according to box office tracker Maoyan, suggesting little interest in the world’s second biggest film market.
Sophie Richardson, China director for New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) called the film “grotesque, appalling, laughable, and ludicrous,” noting that most legitimate governments would investigate allegations of abuses in a transparent manner.
“Not only has Beijing been profoundly dishonest and said that there aren’t abuses and it’s not committing violations and that this is all made up, but the fact that they are making song and dance videos to try to suggest that everything in the region in fact is fine, is a really pathological response,” she said.
“It’s hard to tell why Chinese authorities think that making videos like that will convince anybody outside the propaganda bubble. And maybe the answer is that it’s only for people inside the propaganda bubble. But really I think releasing videos like that just raises even more questions and further suggests that the government has something to hide rather than that it’s serious about the problems.”
Richardson said that such efforts by Beijing place a larger onus on credible media outlets to publish factual information that can be used to “make the case that we need to see a proper investigation” into reports of abuses.
Henryk Szadziewski, director of research at the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP), suggested that producers of The Wings of Song were less concerned with the “effectiveness” of their propaganda in refuting reports of genocide in the XUAR than about “creating new narratives for others to justify turning a blind eye to what’s going on.”
“It gives those people who are wishing to deny what’s happening in the region some sort of pretext, some sort of reason, to continue business as usual,” he said.
But as an increasing amount of evidence emerges of rights violations in the XUAR, Szadziewski said the ball is now in Beijing’s court to “come clean” about what is happening there.
“We need clear, objective, independent information and this is certainly not the environment that we’re in, particularly [when it comes] from a state source,” he said.
“We’ve heard a lot of talk about independent visitors to the region, particularly from the U.N. side, and I think that this really needs to be resolved and the observers need unfettered access so that we can judge and assess this information that’s coming from China.”
Last month, Jiang Duan, China’s delegate to the U.N. Human Rights Council, said Beijing was discussing a visit to the XUAR by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, but that “the aim of the visit is to provide exchanges and cooperation rather than … so-called investigation based on ‘guilty before proven.’”
The “invitation” followed a statement by Bachelet in which she said that the situation in the XUAR necessitated a thorough and independent assessment of the situation. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has previously told RFA that she would not accept unless given access to the camps on her own terms.
Larger propaganda campaign
HRW’s Richardson said that The Wings of Song is part of a larger propaganda campaign by Beijing that has included coerced testimonies carried by state media from ethnic minorities expressing appreciation for the CCP’s role in the development of the XUAR, orchestrated tours to Potemkin “vocational schools” in the region that include singing and dancing detainees in traditional clothing, and social media promotion of the state’s perspective led by Chinese government officials, diplomats, and celebrities.
In particular, she pointed to the Chinese government’s use of social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook that it does not allow its own citizens to use because of the threat of uncensored criticism of its policies.
“I think pointing that fact alone out regularly is helpful because again, it just suggests that the government has something to hide,” she said.
“If it really was confident, why aren’t your or my Twitter feeds accessible to people inside China? If we all believe that facts matter, let’s decide who’s got better facts and proceed accordingly.”
Beijing’s propaganda campaign has also involved harassment of foreign journalists such as BBC China correspondent John Sudworth, who won awards for his reporting on the treatment of Uyghurs in the XUAR, but recently left Beijing where he had worked for nine years together with his family for Taiwan because of what he said was pressure and threats from Chinese authorities.
Other foreign nationals who investigate the situation in the region, such as Vicky Xiuzhong Xu, an Australia-based analyst who last year co-wrote an Australian Strategic Policy Institute report on Uyghur labor in supply chains, have also faced what they say are coordinated efforts by Beijing to harass them, even from abroad.
She told the Washington Post that over the past week, she had been targeted with thousands of negative comments on Chinese social media calling her “promiscuous” and “drug infested,” and even threatening to have her killed.
Adrian Zenz, a German researcher who is widely considered one of the leading experts on mass incarceration in the XUAR and who published a report last year suggesting that birth control measures forced on Uyghurs amounted to genocide under U.N. definitions, was recently sanctioned by Beijing following a long smear campaign against him that included a threat of a libel lawsuit by China’s government.
Nonetheless, China’s propaganda machine continues to roll out new content.
On Wednesday, the official English-language Global Times reported that a recently released documentary on China’s “anti-terrorism fight” in the XUAR that highlighted “problematic Uyghur language textbooks” and enemies of the CCP received criticism from “Western media and anti-China forces [that] sought to gain fame by smearing [it] as a ‘propaganda campaign’ to justify the Chinese government’s policies in the region.”
The report cited “Chinese experts” as saying that they were “not surprised by such hype,” writing the response off as a resort to “‘low playbook and logic’ to slander China over Xinjiang, which is a cliché and hilarious.”