An exposed text message appears to show Chinese authorities instructing Uyghurs to deny claims of serious human rights abuses in the far-western province of Xinjiang.
Beijing has repeatedly challenged claims from several Western nations suggesting it is responsible for genocide, thanks to its program to eradicate extremism which has placed more than one million Uyghurs in internment camps across the expansive province in recent years.
And in another attempt to dispel the claims of Western governments and academics, Chinese state media have published dozens of videos praising the Communist Party and showing Uyghurs angrily denouncing genocide claims pushed by former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo.
Yet while the short clips appear to be genuine on the surface, a text message obtained by the Associated Press from government offices in Xinjiang suggests those filmed may have been forced into it or at the very least their words chosen for them.
“Express a clear position on Pompeo’s remarks, for example: I firmly oppose Pompeo’s anti-Chinese remarks, and I am very angry about them,” the text said.
“Express your feelings of loving the party, the country and Xinjiang (I am Chinese, I love my motherland, I am happy at work and in life, and so on).”
While it’s not impossible officials were able to find Uyghurs willing to be in such a public relations campaign, China’s track record in Xinjiang and its documented abuses of Uyghurs have led many experts to conclude it’s more likely those in the videos were forced to take part.
“There’s something instinctive about these videos which feels ingenuine, but the significance is that there’s hard evidence here that the Chinese government is requesting these kinds of videos,” Albert Zhang, a researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute who recently co-authored a report on Beijing’s disinformation campaign on Xinjiang, said.
Xinjiang spokesperson Xu Guixiang did not directly deny the authenticity of the text, but said it didn’t follow the usual format of state orders and that his understanding was that “the government has never issued this kind of notice, or made this kind of request.” He suggested the videos were made voluntarily.
“This didn’t require government organisation. Many among the masses made this totally spontaneously,” Xu said in a recent interview.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi has repeatedly refuted claims from the West of abuse in Xinjiang, and has invited the West to visit to witness Xinjiang for itself.
Yet journalists in China who do attempt to see the 'real' Xinjiang are often restricted as to what they can access and often accused of a smear campaign, notably the BBC and China correspondent John Sudworth who earlier this year fled to Taiwan over fears for his safety.
The Associated Press has been unable to verify the text message however the man who shared the message has been detained, Xinjiang authorities confirmed. It is unclear if his arrest is related to the text.
Videos part of online propaganda campaign, experts believe
Experts say the videos of supportive Uyghurs ordered up by authorities are part of a broader state-coordinated disinformation campaign aimed at whitewashing their policies in Xinjiang.
Beijing is increasingly under fire for a campaign of mass detention, cultural destruction and forced assimilation of Uyghurs and other largely Muslim minorities native to the province which neighbours Kazakhstan.
Western governments have levied sanctions against top Chinese officials, while the US government has banned imports of cotton and tomatoes from Xinjiang, citing concerns over forced labor.
Twitter and Tiktok accounts portraying Xinjiang as an idyllic, vast area with no sign of suppressed human rights are now commonplace.
Some purport to be run by Uyghurs from Xinjiang, even though merely downloading those apps has landed others in detention.
Such accounts coincide with similar official content shared by state-linked pages and state-run media.
Mr Zhang said it was "concerning" the lengths the Chinese government was going to, to change the narrative around Xinjiang.
A seven-month investigation by the Associated Press and the Oxford University's Internet Institute found China’s rise on Twitter has been powered by an army of fake accounts that have retweeted Chinese diplomats and state media tens of thousands of times, providing significant amplification.
The accounts are designed to covertly amplify propaganda that can reach hundreds of millions of people, usually without disclosing the fact that the content is government-sponsored.
Dr Lennon Chang, senior lecturer of Criminology at Monash's School of Social Sciences said it was time for the West to crack down on such content.
"Social media platforms are being used for information operations such as spreading fake news and disinformation," he said.
"We see governments using social media to promote certain ideologies and messages. We need to consider how to regulate social media platforms, and to use or create alternative channels of information, encouraging Australians to learn how to verify news and discover trustworthy sources."
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