China tries to counter Xinjiang backlash with a musical
In one scene, Uyghur women are seen dancing in a rousing Bollywood style face-off with a group of Uyghur men. In another, a Kazakh man serenades a group of friends with a traditional two-stringed lute while sitting in a yurt.
Welcome to “The Wings of Songs,” a state-backed musical that is the latest addition to China’s propaganda campaign to defend its policies in Xinjiang. The campaign has intensified in recent weeks as Western politicians and rights groups have accused Beijing of subjecting Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang to forced labor and genocide.
The film, which debuted in Chinese cinemas last week, offers a glimpse of the alternate vision of Xinjiang that China’s ruling Communist Party is pushing to audiences at home and abroad. Far from being oppressed, the musical seems to say, the Uyghurs and other minorities are singing and dancing happily in colorful dress, a flashy take on a tired Chinese stereotype about the region’s minorities that Uyghur rights activists quickly denounced.
“The notion that Uyghurs can sing and dance so therefore there is no genocide — that’s just not going to work,” said Nury Turkel, a Uyghur American lawyer and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington. “Genocide can take place in any beautiful place.”
In the wake of Western sanctions, the Chinese government has responded with a fresh wave of Xinjiang propaganda across a wide spectrum. The approach ranges from portraying a sanitized, feel-good version of life in Xinjiang — as in the example of the musical — to deploying Chinese officials on social media sites to attack Beijing’s critics. To reinforce its message, the party is emphasizing that its efforts have rooted out the perceived threat of violent terrorism.
In the government’s telling, Xinjiang is now a peaceful place where Han Chinese, the nation’s dominant ethnic group, live in harmony alongside the region’s Muslim ethnic minorities, just like the “seeds of a pomegranate.” It’s a place where the government has successfully emancipated women from the shackles of extremist thinking. And the region’s ethnic minorities are portrayed as grateful for the government’s efforts.
The musical takes the narrative to a new cringe-inducing level. It tells the story of three young men, a Uyghur, a Kazakh and a Han Chinese, who come together to pursue their musical dreams.
The movie depicts Xinjiang, a predominantly Muslim region in China’s far west, as scrubbed free of Islamic influence. Young Uyghur men are clean-shaven and seen chugging beers, free of the beards and abstinence from alcohol that authorities see as signs of religious extremism. Uyghur women are seen without traditional headscarves.
The Uyghurs and other Central Asian ethnic minorities, seen through this lens, are also portrayed as fully assimilated into the mainstream. They are fluent in Chinese, with few, if any, hints of their native languages. They get along well with the Han Chinese ethnic majority, with no sense of the long-simmering resentment among Uyghurs and other minorities over systematic discrimination.
The narrative presents a picture starkly different from the reality on the ground, in which authorities maintain tight control using a dense network of surveillance cameras and police posts, and have detained many Uyghurs and other Muslims in mass internment camps and prisons. As of Monday, the film had brought in a dismal $109,000 at the box office, according to Maoyan, a company that tracks ticket sales.
Chinese officials had initially denied the existence of the region’s internment camps. Then they described the facilities as “boarding schools” in which attendance was completely voluntary.
Now, the government is increasingly adopting a more combative approach, seeking to justify its policies as necessary to combat terrorism and separatism in the region.
Chinese officials and state media have pushed the government’s narrative about its policies in Xinjiang in part by spreading alternative narratives — including disinformation — on American social networks like Twitter and Facebook. This approach reached an all-time high last year, according to a report published last week by researchers at the International Cyber Policy Center of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, or ASPI.
The social media campaign is centered on Chinese diplomats on Twitter, state-owned media accounts, pro-Communist Party influencers and bots, the institute’s researchers found. The accounts send messages often aimed at spreading disinformation about Uyghurs who have spoken out, and to smear researchers, journalists and organizations working on Xinjiang issues.