ARTE, a European media platform, recently published a brief investigative film called “China: Influencers of Colonization.” The film focuses on Chinese social media influencers who promote the Han population’s settlement in Xinjiang. This investigation is part of ARTE’s “SOURCES” series, which utilizes open-source intelligence techniques to uncover human rights violations. It is further evidence of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) efforts to forcibly remove Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities from the region. These actions have been deemed by the United Nations as possible crimes against humanity and potentially even genocide. Below is the introduction to ARTE’s investigation.
In China, the region of Xinjiang has been the ancestral home of the Uyghurs, a Muslim minority group who have faced persecution from the government. SOURCES shows how Chinese influencers are actively encouraging individuals from different parts of the nation to migrate and settle in this province.
Numerous videos on social media tout the advantages of relocating to Xinjiang and the economic perks available. After conducting an investigation, SOURCES has revealed that these influencers advocating for the settlement of Xinjiang are essentially promoting Chinese propaganda and President Xi Jinping’s agenda.
The Chinese government is promoting the relocation of Han Chinese to Xinjiang, while the Uyghur population is being detained in re-education camps or relocated to eastern China. This strategy aims to suppress separatism and religious extremism, but in reality, it is eroding Uyghur cultural identity.
One of the influencers featured in ARTE’s inquiry is employed by a public-facing branch of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), a paramilitary group that controls multiple cities in Xinjiang and has been sanctioned by the U.S., Canada, and the E.U. for violations of human rights. As stated in a recruitment brochure, the XPCC entices settlers by offering benefits such as two hectares of fertile land, four years of free rent for apartments, and up to 1,000 RMB per month in subsidies, but only to those from mainland China. This particular influencer originated from Shandong and relocated to Alar, where large neighborhoods with hundreds of housing units have been recently constructed and advertised.
Just 3.5 miles away from Alar is the First Division Nankou Prison, which is managed by the XPCC. Nearby is a large detention center for pre-trial detainees. The Xinjiang Victims Database has recorded at least 235 Uyghur and other ethnic minority prisoners in this facility, where they are forced to work. Among them is 26-year-old Urayimjan Tursun, who was identified by the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP) in July 2017 and sent to a “transformation through education” program before receiving a 10-year prison sentence for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Also imprisoned here is 26-year-old Hezreteli Emet, who received a 20-year sentence for allegedly inciting and preparing terrorist acts, and 38-year-old Memettursun Yasin, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison for similar reasons.
In spite of documented instances of abuse and victims within Xinjiang’s concentration camp system, influencers supported by Chinese state propaganda have joined together on social media to portray a positive image of the region. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute has released multiple detailed reports on this trend, examining both “frontier influencers” and foreign influencers who share social media content regarding Xinjiang with direct or indirect support from Party-state entities. ChinaFile has also analyzed various accounts of young Uyghurs who promote CCP perspectives on Xinjiang. In a related tactic, Frederik Kelter from Al Jazeera discussed this week how the Chinese government continues to arrange visits to Xinjiang for sympathetic journalists and diplomats, who then help spread Beijing’s narratives.
Starting in 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping has emphasized the importance of “sharing the narrative of Xinjiang” and “promoting the remarkable social stability of Xinjiang with confidence.”
Rukiye Turdush, a Canadian-Uighur activist, views media tours as essential to achieving their goal.
She informed Al Jazeera that he desires to alter the story surrounding Xinjiang.
According to Henryk Szadziewski, a leading researcher at Uyghur Human Rights Project, conducting media tours, such as the ones in Xinjiang, is a common strategy used by nations trying to conceal information.
He stated to Al Jazeera that the goal is to challenge criticism of the human rights record by convincing others to share your version of events, which increases its validity.
Chinese state media continues to promote Xinjiang as a popular tourist destination, with various English-language official outlets publishing multiple articles in the past two days alone. This rebranding of tourism is part of a larger strategy to Sinicize the region and improve its image internationally. According to Eva Xiao’s article in Foreign Policy from last year, the Chinese government has been actively working towards this goal by developing winter attractions and highlighting their economic benefits.
The Xinjiang government’s initiatives to promote tourism and the consequent increase in expenditure play a significant role in what seems to be a fresh approach by Beijing to establish authority over Xinjiang and transform the region’s culture and population to mirror the dominant Han areas of the nation.
According to government documents and Chinese media, tourism is promoted as a means of bringing cultural enrichment to Xinjiang by incorporating customs and traditions from other regions of China. It is also seen as a way to instill a unified Chinese identity in local residents. With a decrease in foreign coverage on the region, tourism is gaining even more significance in shaping the perception of Xinjiang to those outside, particularly after years of strict policies such as widespread detention and imprisonment.
In 2022, the Xinjiang Department of Culture and Tourism has reported a significant increase in its spending budget, which has risen by over 90% compared to the previous year. For the current year, the department has budgeted 701 million renminbi, which is more than double the budget planned for 2019. [Source]
The Xinjiang Documentation Project at the University of British Columbia has compiled a collection of academic resources that delve deeper into subjects explored in ARTE’s investigation. These topics include the political economy of race-based dispossession and exploitation in Xinjiang, the impact of settler ecotourism on dispossession in Xinjiang, the implementation of “Hanification” through the “Great Leap West” in Xinjiang, the concept of “colonization with Chinese characteristics” in Xinjiang, XPCC’s ethnic frontier governance, and the parallels between the situation in Xinjiang and that of Palestine.