China targets overseas Uyghurs, academics amid pressure over Xinjiang


China has increasingly pushed back against global criticism of its Xinjiang policies amid mounting Western pressure, including U.S. sanctions and accusations of genocide, as Beijing prepares to host the 2022 Winter Olympics in February.

Beijing’s propaganda campaign, which has included 11 media briefings in the capital since December, has repeatedly included efforts to discredit overseas Uyghurs who speak to media.

At one such event on Friday in Beijing, Chinese officials aired a video of a thin Uyghur man with a shaved head, wearing an oversized uniform and speaking directly to the camera.

“I will try my best to change myself and receive the leniency of the party and the government,” says the man, Erkin Tursun, a former TV producer who, the officials said, is serving a 20-year sentence in Xinjiang on charges of “inciting ethnic hatred, ethnic discrimination and covering up crimes”.

Tursun, almost unrecognisable from photos shared online before his 2018 arrest, is addressing his son, who now lives abroad and has publicly advocated against Tursun’s detention, which he says is arbitrary.

It was one of over half a dozen such segments showing Uyghurs, a mostly Muslim ethnic minority in the western region, pleading with relatives abroad to come home and stop speaking out against China and the ruling Communist Party.

China has also conducted overseas press events, including one this week in Canberra, released state media documentaries and a musical movie, invited diplomats from friendly countries including Iran, Malaysia and Russia to visit Xinjiang, and promoted sympathetic foreign YouTubers and news sites.

It has also targeted individual overseas think tank analysts, journalists and academics with sanctions, amplifying critical social media comments and aggressive state media coverage.

Officials in China’s Foreign Ministry and the Xinjiang government say the efforts are necessary to counter “lies and slander” released by a network of “anti-China forces” abroad.

Last month the United States, the European Union, Britain and Canada imposed sanctions on Chinese officials over human rights abuses in Xinjiang. China retaliated with its own sanctions.

Some big Western brands like H&M, facing boycotts in China over their previous statements on Xinjiang, are struggling to strike a balance between consumers in the world’s second-largest economy and public opinion at home.

The United Nations and human rights groups estimate over a million people, mostly Uyghurs, have been detained in a vast network of camps throughout Xinjiang since 2017.

China initially denied the camps existed but has since said they are vocational centres and that all the people who had been there have “graduated”.

Uyghurs living overseas has said videos of relatives, often produced by Chinese state media outlets, are staged.

“The piece is basically pushing a narrative that it is us Uyghurs overseas who suddenly abandoned our families, which is laughable,” said Australia-based Mamutjan Abdurehim on Twitter in March after a Chinese state broadcaster released footage of his family in Kashgar.

On Friday, Chinese officials shared clips of Mamutjan’s daughter, sitting beside her grandparents.

“Daddy, when will you come back? We all miss you,” she said. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)