Under renewed pressure from around the world, the Beijing PR machine is deploying enormous resources to depict a positive image of Uighurs in Xinjiang - but the West is not buying it.
China this week subjected the Canberra press gallery to a two-hour propaganda blitz designed to counter the backlash against its treatment of ethnic Uighur Muslims.
It was an uncomfortable reminder of my trip two years ago to Xinjiang, where I witnessed a nine-day parade of non-stop smiling, singing and dancing Uighurs prepared with scripted narratives about how good life was under the Chinese Communist Party.
The video, titled Xinjiang is a Wonderful Land, screened in Canberra is just a snapshot of the extraordinary amount of resources at the Chinese government’s disposal when it is determined to deliver a message.
In July 2019, I was part of a group of international journalists invited by the state to tour Xinjiang on what was billed as a “fact-finding mission”. We were closely supervised at all the times and could only speak to the Uighurs our government minders introduced us to.
On the rare occasion another journalist and I snuck out of our hotel room to have a look around, we were tailed by plainclothes security agents.
The focal point of the trip were visits to what our hosts called “vocational training centres” where sunflowers grew in courtyards, biscuits were baking in the kitchen and classrooms were full of Uighurs of all ages chanting phrases in Mandarin.
Like the people in the video screened in Canberra this week, the “students” we were allowed to interview had scripted stories about about their desire to “kill pagans” and make bombs before their salvation from a life of extremism.
It was a piece of theatre on the scale of the 1998 Jim Carrey movie The Truman Show, set in an idyllic, but fake, US town with a cast of thousands. Like the journalists in Canberra this week, I didn’t believe a word of it.
The Chinese Embassy news conference this week was part of a new global campaign to push back against growing international condemnation of the treatment of 11 million ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang. Last week, China released a musical in cinemas called “The Wings of Songs” featuring elaborate Bollywood-style montages of minorities in colourful dress.
While videos like this might resonate with a domestic audience, they are never going to wash with cynical Western journalists. They cannot visit Xinjiang unsupervised and the few who do, such as the BBC’s Jon Sudworth, are harassed to the point where they have to leave China.
China’s campaign has also extended to smearing critics of its policies in Xinjiang. Vicky Xiuzhong Xu, an outspoken journalist and analyst for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) who has been documenting the treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang, has been the target of a vicious tirade of abuse on social media and in Chinese state media.