When Chinese President Xi Jinping last visited Xinjiang in 2014, he went everywhere flanked by soldiers and urged officials to conduct an all-out “struggle against terrorism, infiltration and separatism,” showing “absolutely no mercy.”
Mr. Xi’s return to the region last week could not have been more different. Gone were the military uniforms and stern-faced generals, replaced by happy ethnic minorities dressed in traditional costumes, all hailing the success of Mr. Xi’s hard-line approach.
Blanket coverage of Mr. Xi’s trip in Chinese state media in recent days has exposed the outlines of a new propaganda campaign to reframe perceptions of Xinjiang, emphasizing development and “ethnic unity” to drown out international criticism over human-rights abuses against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities.
“Our ethnic theories and policies are sound and effective,” Mr. Xi said last week. “We should stay committed to the correct and Chinese way to address ethnic issues.”
Since 2014, those policies have involved an intense crackdown on the region’s Uyghur population. Hundreds of thousands of the mostly Muslim minority have passed through re-education camps and Uyghur religion, language and culture have been suppressed in a campaign Canada’s parliament and other international bodies have said amounts to genocide.
That campaign peaked in 2019 and Beijing has since said all those sent to “vocational training centres” have now “graduated” and been released, though a substantial minority appear to have been transferred to regular prisons.
While access to Xinjiang remains largely curtailed for foreign observers and journalists – except on government-run propaganda tours – there does seem to have been a gradual easing up in recent years. In 2021, Mr. Xi replaced Xinjiang leader Chen Quanguo, the official most associated with the crackdown, with Ma Xingrui, who has emphasized economic development alongside security.
Mr. Ma accompanied Mr. Xi for much of his recent trip and coverage in state media made clear that one major reason for the visit was to try and improve Xinjiang’s image, including for potential investors.
“We must communicate Xinjiang to the world in a multilevel, comprehensive and multidimensional manner, do a better job in letting the world see Xinjiang with their own eyes,” Mr. Xi said, urging officials to “tell Xinjiang’s stories well.”
Part of that involves recasting the region’s ethnic minorities, particularly Uyghurs – a Turkic people with a history of self-rule – as indelibly and historically Chinese, in a way experts said could indicate further forced assimilation policies to come.
Xinjiang means “New Frontier” in Chinese, a name that dates back to the nineteenth century when it was conquered by the Qing empire. Many Uyghurs prefer the term “East Turkestan,” a name used by two short-lived independent republics in the 1930s and ‘40s, which reflects Uyghurs’ stronger ethnic and cultural ties to Central Asia than China.
Today, Beijing asserts – just as it does with Tibet or its sprawling claims in the South China Sea – that Xinjiang “has been an inseparable part of China since ancient times.” Under Mr. Xi, this has expanded to claiming non-Chinese peoples of the region are culturally linked or related to the country’s Han majority, eliminating any claim they might have to self-determination.
“Chinese civilization is the foundation of all ethnic cultures in Xinjiang,” Mr. Xi said last week. He said the country “must make full and effective use of historical facts” to prove “that various ethnic groups in Xinjiang have been important members of the big Chinese family in weal and woe.”
James Millward, an expert on Chinese ethnic policy at Georgetown University, said that “just a few years ago it was not taught that Uyghurs have been ‘Chinese’ for all time.”
“Xi has decreed a new history of Xinjiang, even more Sino-centric than past versions,” he wrote on Twitter after last week’s visit.
Mr. Millward predicted a new propaganda campaign emphasizing the “Chinese-ness” of both Xinjiang and its various ethnic groups, to counter accusations of cultural genocide and perceptions of the region as a Han colony.
Such efforts will not be confined to China. Beijing has already invested heavily in overseas propaganda to counter claims of genocide and forced labour, spreading disinformation and enlisting sympathetic governments to support its policies in the region.
This has also involved “mobilizing community organizations in the diaspora to counter international criticism of repressive policies in Xinjiang,” researchers Lin Li and James Leibold write in a new report for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
“These organizations purport to represent and speak on behalf of ‘Xinjiang’ and its indigenous peoples,” they wrote. “They subsume Uyghur and other minority cultures and identities under a nebulous yet hegemonic ‘Chinese-ness’, which is defined by and connected to the Han-dominated Communist Party.”
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