From cover-up to propaganda blitz: China's attempts to control the narrative on Xinjiang

Updated 2259 GMT (0659 HKT) April 17, 2021

Hong Kong (CNN)China's Foreign Ministry this month issued the most forceful defense of its policies in Xinjiang to date, calling allegations of "genocide" in the region the "lie of the century."

The statement -- made in response to ongoing calls for a possible boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympics -- represents the culmination of a long evolution of China's official narrative regarding its treatment of Uyghurs.
This evolving strategy, from outright denial to hardened public defense, is closely tied to the Chinese government's own increased sense of confidence on the world stage, and its willingness to confront its critics in the West head on, be it over Xinjiang, the South China Sea or Hong Kong, a CNN analysis shows.
In recent months, Xinjiang has become something of a patriotic litmus test, in which those wishing to do business with China must pick a side -- either stand with Beijing in implicit defense of its policies, or face the consequences.
The propaganda campaign has also reached a fever pitch, with state media reporters dispatched to Xinjiang to supposedly "prove" there is no oppression there, a "La La Land"-inspired musical released to make Beijing's case, while critics overseas have faced sanctions and harassment.
While China has always maintained a sophisticated propaganda apparatus at home, its recent campaign over Xinjiang, particularly disinformation and harassment of critics overseas, is more in keeping with similar efforts by Russia, including deploying "whataboutism" in claiming any US denouncements are tainted by the legacy of slavery and genocide on the American continent.
The Chinese flag flies over the Juma mosque in the restored old city area of Kashgar, in China's western Xinjiang region, on June 4, 2019.

Warning signs

After she was "de-radicalized," Amina Hojamet swapped her burqa for a silk dress, put a traditional flower-patterned hat on her head, and sang "Without the Communist Party, there would be no New China."
She didn't know it at the time, but Hojamet, along with over a dozen other women from her village in Shufu County, in western Xinjiang -- whose story was recounted in a report by the state-run Xinjiang Daily -- would serve as proof of concept for an "anti-extremism" campaign that has engulfed the Chinese region since 2017.
According to reliable scholarly estimates, up to 2 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities have passed through a system of detention camps set up throughout Xinjiang in recent years. In the camps, they have been subjected to intense "re-education," designed to strip them of their Islamic faith and ethnic identity in the name of fighting religious terrorism and separatism.
Survivors of the camps report experiencing or witnessing widespread abuse, and incidents of torture, rape and forced sterilization. The crackdown has been denounced as "genocide" by the United States government and the Canadian and Dutch parliaments for its effects on the Uyghur people and their culture.
When reports of the camp system first began to emerge around 2017, China issued staunch denials, or refused to comment altogether. As this has become increasingly impossible in the face of mounting international attention and subsequent condemnation, Beijing has shifted to an angry defense of its "de-radicalization" program, which it has even started to tout to like-minded countries as a way of dealing with their own Muslim "problem."