China is using a new tactic in fighting unfavourable news coverage by western media of its policy in the far western region of Xinjiang by calling it “fake news”, in addition to the heavy restrictions it places on foreign journalists who report on its treatment of its minority Uyghur population.
This is what a team of BBC journalists found out while trying to produce a report on forced labour in Xinjiang’s cotton field.
BBC journalist John Sudworth said that “while travelling for hours along Xinjiang’s desert highways, the unmarked cars that had been following us from the moment we arrived would tailgate us at speed, driving dangerously close with their headlights on full beam”.
“Their occupants – who never identified themselves – forced us to leave one city by chasing us out of restaurants and shops, ordering the owners not to serve us.”
He said that despite these difficulties, the report they produced showed that thousands of Uyghurs and other minorities are being forced to pick cotton in a region responsible for a fifth of the world’s crop, much of the evidence based on China’s own policy documents.
“But now China’s Communist Party-run media have produced their own report about our reporting, accusing the BBC of exaggerating these efforts by the authorities to obstruct our team and calling it fake news,” Sudworth said.
The video, made by the China Daily – an English-language newspaper – has been posted on both Chinese social media sites, as well as international platforms banned in China.
Hannah Bailey, who specialises in China’s use of state-sponsored digital disinformation at the Oxford Internet Institute, suggests that such a fiercely critical attack in English, but with Chinese subtitles, makes it unusual.
“It has clearly been produced with both international and domestic users in mind,” she told me, “which is somewhat of a departure from previous strategies.
“Previous content produced for mainland audiences has been more critical of Western countries, and more vocally nationalistic, whereas content produced for international audiences has struck a more conciliatory tone.”
Sudworth said that over a period of less than 72 hours in Xinjiang, they were followed constantly and on five separate occasions, approached by people who attempted to stop them from filming in public, sometimes violently.
In at least two instances, they were accused of breaching the privacy of individuals on the basis that their attempts to stop them from filming had led them to walk in front of our camera, Sudworth said.
The uniformed police officers attending these “incidents” twice deleted their footage and, on another occasion, the BBC team were briefly held by local officials who claimed they have infringed a farmer’s rights by filming a field.
China’s propaganda efforts may be a sign of just how damaging it believes the coverage of Xinjiang has been to its international reputation.
Hannah Bailey from the Oxford Internet Institute says, like China’s domestic propaganda, its international push-back may be becoming “increasingly critical and defensive”.
“China has previously demonstrated its use of a variety of tools to manipulate international and domestic discourse, from Twitter bots to state-controlled international media outlets to the vocal so-called “Wolf Warrior” diplomats,” she told me.
“Attempts to discredit foreign media are also a part of this toolkit.” (Source: BBC)