The 20th national congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in October 2022 (Photo: Xinhua)
Western media are waging a systematic propaganda campaign against China, to manufacture consent for the US-led new cold war.
This article was originally published in Friends of Socialist China.
The following detailed article by Carlos Martinez explores the escalating propaganda war being waged by the imperialist powers against China. Carlos notes that “propaganda wars can also be war propaganda”, and that the torrent of anti-China slander has a clear purpose of manufacturing broad public consent for the US-led New Cold War.
Carlos shows how the propaganda model described in Herman and Chomsky’s classic work Manufacturing Consent has been updated and enhanced using modern communication techniques, and how it is being applied today against China, in particular in relation to the allegations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Carlos introduces the most frequently-hurled slanders on this topic and debunks them in detail.
The author concludes that this propaganda campaign is serving to “break the bonds of solidarity within the global working class and all those opposed to imperialism”, and that all progressives must resolutely oppose and expose it.
If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing. - Malcolm X
The Western media is waging a systematic and ferocious propaganda war against China. In the court of Western public opinion, China stands accused of an array of terrifying crimes: conducting a genocide against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang; wiping out democracy in Hong Kong; militarising the South China Sea; attempting to impose colonial control over Taiwan; carrying out a land grab in Africa; preventing Tibetans and Inner Mongolians from speaking their languages; spying on the good peoples of the democratic world; and more.
Australian scholar Roland Boer has characterised these accusations as “atrocity propaganda – an old anti-communist and indeed anti-anyone-who-does-not-toe-the-Western-line approach that tries to manufacture a certain image for popular consumption.” Boer observes that this propaganda serves to create an impression of China as a brutal authoritarian dystopia which “can only be a fiction for anyone who actually spends some time in China, let alone lives there.”
It’s not difficult to understand why China would be subjected to this sort of elaborate disinformation campaign. This media offensive is part of the imperialist world’s ongoing attempts to reverse the Chinese Revolution, to subvert Chinese socialism, to weaken China, to diminish its role in international affairs and, as a result, to undermine the global trajectory towards multipolarity and a future free from hegemonism. As journalist Chen Weihua has pointed out, “the reasons for the intensifying US propaganda war are obvious: Washington views a fast-rising China as a challenge to its primacy around the world.” Furthermore, “the success of a country with a different political system is unacceptable to politicians in Washington.”
Propaganda wars can also be war propaganda. In this case, the war in question is the escalating US-led New Cold War. The various slanders against China – particularly the most lurid accusations, such as that of genocide in Xinjiang – have much in common with the 2003 allegations regarding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, or the 2011 allegation that the Libyan state under Muammar Gaddafi was preparing a massacre in Benghazi. These narratives are constructed specifically in order to mobilise public opinion in favour of imperialist foreign policy: waging a genocidal war against the people of Iraq; bombing Libya into the Stone Age; and, today, conducting a wide-ranging campaign of economic coercion, political subversion and military threats against the People’s Republic of China.
In his book Neo-Colonialism, the Last Stage of Imperialism, Kwame Nkrumah, Pan-Africanist and first President of Ghana, discusses how “ideological and cultural weapons in the form of intrigues, manoeuvres and slander campaigns” were employed by the Western powers during the Cold War in order to undermine the socialist countries and the newly-liberated territories of Africa, Asia and Latin America. “While Hollywood takes care of fiction, the enormous monopoly press, together with the outflow of slick, clever, expensive magazines, attends to what it chooses to call ‘news’… A flood of anti-liberation propaganda emanates from the capital cities of the West, directed against China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Algeria, Ghana and all countries which hack out their own independent path to freedom.”
The mechanisms for such “intrigues, manoeuvres and slander campaigns” have changed little since Nkrumah’s day. British media analysts David Cromwell and David Edwards explore the concept of the propaganda blitz – “fast-moving attacks intended to inflict maximum damage in minimum time.” These media attacks are “communicated with high emotional intensity and moral outrage” and, crucially, give the appearance of enjoying consensus support among experts, academics, journalists and politicians. This consensus “generates the impression that everyone knows that the claim is truthful.” Such a consensus is most powerful when it includes not only right-wing ideologues but also prominent leftist commentators. “If even celebrity progressive journalists – people famous for their principled stands, and colourful socks and ties – join the denunciations, then there must be something to the claims. At this point, it becomes difficult to doubt it.”
When it comes to China, many such commentators are only too happy to oblige: British columnist Owen Jones for example, writing for the Guardian, has asserted that “despite the denials of the Chinese regime, the brutal campaign against the Uighurs in the Xinjiang region is real.” Jones backs his assertion up with links to two other Guardian articles, both of which rely on research provided by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) – a hawkish anti-China think tank funded by the Australian government, the US government and various multinational arms manufacturers (of which more below). That is, this self-described socialist relies on the same sources as the most extreme China hawks in Washington. Yet his public endorsement of anti-China slander, along with that of NATO-aligned commentators such as Paul Mason, serves to create the impression that such slander is entirely credible, as opposed to being what it in fact is, namely yet another unhinged far-right conspiracy theory.
Although the various anti-China slanders clearly lack evidentiary support, they are nonetheless powerful, persuasive and sophisticated. It requires no great skill to persuade hardened reactionaries and anti-communists to take a hard line against China, but the propaganda war is carefully crafted such that it actively taps in to progressive ideas and sentiments. The accusation of genocide is particularly potent: by accusing China of perpetrating a genocide against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, imperialist politicians and journalists are able to mobilise legitimate sympathies with Muslims and national minorities, as well as invoking righteous indignation in relation to genocide. An emotional-intellectual environment is created in which to defend China against accusations of genocide is equivalent to being a Holocaust denier. Solidarity with China thus incurs a hefty psychological, and perhaps material and physical, cost.
Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s 1988 work Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media remains an authoritative and indispensable analysis of how the so-called free press works in the capitalist world. In particular, the book explores the connection between the economic interests of the ruling class and the ideas that are communicated via mass media. “The media serve, and propagandise on behalf of, the powerful societal interests that control and finance them. The representatives of these interests have important agendas and principles that they want to advance, and they are well positioned to shape and constrain media policy.”
Herman and Chomsky develop a propaganda model, in which a set of informal but entrenched ‘filters’ determine what media consumers read, watch and hear. These filters include:
- The ownership structure of the dominant mass-media firms. Media owners are members of the capitalist class, and they consistently privilege the interests of that class.
- Reliance on advertising revenue. Since most media operations can only survive, meet their costs and turn a profit if they carry advertising from large corporations, they must be sensitive to the political views of those corporations.
- Reliance on information “provided by government, business, and ‘experts’ funded and approved by these primary sources and agents of power.” The authors note that the Pentagon, for example, “has a public-information service that involves many thousands of employees, spending hundreds of millions of dollars every year and dwarfing not only the public-information resources of any dissenting individual or group but the aggregate of such groups.”
- A system of ‘flak’, or negative feedback, in response to news stories that don’t conform to the values of those in power. This “may take the form of letters, telegrams, phone calls, petitions, lawsuits, speeches and bills before Congress, and other modes of complaint, threat, and punitive action.” With the advent of the internet – and particularly social media – methods of ‘flak’ have multiplied, and provide an important means of conditioning what information is consumed by the public.
- The pervasive ideological framework of anticommunism, which serves as “a national religion and control mechanism”. Here the authors are referring specifically to the United States, but the point holds elsewhere in the West.
According to Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model, “the raw material of news must pass through successive filters, leaving only the cleansed residue fit to print.” The resulting news output serves to “inculcate and defend the economic, social, and political agenda of privileged groups that dominate the domestic society and the state.”
Western mainstream media coverage of China fits comfortably within this model. Almost without exception the major media operations – from Fox News to the Guardian, from the BBC to the Washington Post – present a narrative consistently hostile to China. For example, in relation to the 2019 protest movement in Hong Kong, the Western press was universal in its one-sided condemnation of the Hong Kong police and authorities, and in its effusive support for ‘pro-democracy’ protestors. Violence by the protestors – storming the parliament building, attacking buses, throwing petrol bombs, vandalising buildings and intimidating ordinary citizens – was either totally ignored or written off as the actions of a small minority, whereas the local Hong Kong government was subjected to an extraordinary level of scrutiny and condemnation. A Guardian editorial went so far as to state that “China is crushing any shred of resistance in Hong Kong, in breach of its promises to maintain the region’s freedoms” – unironically citing Chris Patten, the last (unelected like all his predecessors) British governor of Hong Kong, in support of its claim. It apparently didn’t occur to the author to contrast the Hong Kong police’s incredibly restrained response to the protests with the US police’s shockingly violent repression of Black Lives Matter protests during the summer of 2020, which saw several fatalities at the hands of the US police, compared to precisely zero at the hands of their Hong Kong counterparts.
No major Western news outlet seriously explored the violence of the protestors; nor did they mention the protest leaders’ extensive links with some of the most reactionary US politicians; nor did they choose to investigate the role of the National Endowment for Democracy in providing financial support to the movement. Meanwhile they shamelessly ignored the millions of Hong Kong residents who didn’t support the protests, who saw that “rioters and mobs were everywhere destroying public facilities, paralysing railway systems and so on but they were called ‘Freedom Fighters’ by Western countries.”
Conversely, what should be positive stories about China – for example in relation to poverty alleviation, or its progress in the field of renewable energy, or suppressing the Covid-19 pandemic – are either ignored or magically transformed into anti-China stories. The announcement that China had succeeded in its goal of eliminating extreme poverty was “delivered with much bombast but few details”, and the whole program was written off as part of a cunning strategy by Xi Jinping “to cement his position as the country’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong”. Literally millions of lives have been saved as a result of China’s dynamic Zero Covid strategy, and yet according to the New York Times, the CPC is simply trying to “use China’s success in containing the virus to prove that its top-down governance model is superior to that of liberal democracies”. While acknowledging that a policy of saving millions of lives unsurprisingly “still enjoys strong public support”, this is put down to a familiar trope that Chinese people have “limited access to information and no tools to hold the authority accountable”.
Veteran political scientist Michael Parenti wrote in Blackshirts and Reds about the absurdity of Western propaganda against the socialist world during the Cold War, and how refraction through the lens of anti-communism could “transform any data about existing communist societies into hostile evidence.” He notes:
“If the Soviets refused to negotiate a point, they were intransigent and belligerent; if they appeared willing to make concessions, this was but a skilful ploy to put us off our guard. By opposing arms limitations, they would have demonstrated their aggressive intent; but when in fact they supported most armament treaties, it was because they were mendacious and manipulative. If the churches in the USSR were empty, this demonstrated that religion was suppressed; but if the churches were full, this meant the people were rejecting the regimes atheistic ideology. If the workers went on strike (as happened on infrequent occasions), this was evidence of their alienation from the collectivist system; if they didn’t go on strike, this was because they were intimidated and lacked freedom. A scarcity of consumer goods demonstrated the failure of the economic system; an improvement in consumer supplies meant only that the leaders were attempting to placate a restive population and so maintain a firmer hold over them.”
Parenti’s observation certainly resonates with the contemporary media consensus against China. For such a media consensus to be coincidental would be a statistical impossibility. It represents precisely the current political agenda of the “privileged groups that dominate the domestic society and the state” (that is, the imperialist ruling classes); it aims precisely to manufacture consent for the New Cold War on China.
Nowhere is the propaganda model more visible than in relation to the mainstream media coverage of Xinjiang. The accusation that China is committing a genocide (or “cultural genocide”) in Xinjiang has been repeated so frequently as to become almost an accepted truth in large parts of the West. Although the accusation is backed up with precious little evidence, the story has become a global media sensation and has led to the introduction of an escalating program of sanctions, plus a “diplomatic boycott” by various imperialist countries of the Beijing Winter Olympics in February 2022. Furthermore, it has filtered into popular consciousness, fuelled by sophisticated social media campaigns. It has become the quintessential example of a propaganda blitz. As noted above, and consistent with Edwards and Cromwell’s description, this propaganda blitz is consistent across the corporate media’s conservative-liberal spectrum, from Fox News to the New York Times, from the Daily Mail to the Guardian.
Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model explains how such a story picks up steam:
“For stories that are useful, the process will get under way with a series of government leaks, press conferences, white papers, etc… If the other major media like the story, they will follow it up with their own versions, and the matter quickly becomes newsworthy by familiarity. If the articles are written in an assured and convincing style, are subject to no criticisms or alternative interpretations in the mass media, and command support by authority figures, the propaganda themes quickly become established as true even without real evidence. This tends to close out dissenting views even more comprehensively, as they would now conflict with an already established popular belief. This in turn opens up further opportunities for still more inflated claims, as these can be made without fear of serious repercussions.”
The mass media is supplemented by much of the radical left in the imperialist heartlands. Popular progressive news outlet Democracy Now has parroted every lurid accusation against China in relation to Xinjiang. Jacobin in 2021 gave a sympathetic interview to Sean R Roberts, author of The War on the Uyghurs: China’s Campaign Against Xinjiang’s Muslims, in which he claims that “what we see right now in the Uyghur region is a lot like the process of cultural genocide elsewhere in the world from a century ago, but benefitting from high-tech forms of repression that are available now in the twenty-first century”. Meanwhile Britain’s Socialist Worker claims that “up to one million Uyghurs are locked up in internment camps.” Somewhat ironically, Noam Chomsky himself is not immune to the imperialist propaganda model, stating in a 2021 podcast episode that China’s actions in Xinjiang are “terrible” and “highly repressive”, and repeating the assertion (discussed at length below) that “there are a million people who have gone through reeducation camps.”
Meanwhile in the sphere of parliamentary politics, right and left have formed an unholy alliance in pursuit of the New Cold War on China. Besides right-wing fundamentalists such as Mike Pompeo, progressive Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar has been hawkish regarding Xinjiang, calling on US businesses to study an Australian Strategic Policy Initiative (ASPI) report condemning China and ensure that their companies are not connected to Uyghur forced labour. Omar said: “No American company should be profiting from the use of gulag labor, or from Uyghur prisoners who are transferred for work after their time in Xinjiang’s concentration camps.”
What is China accused of in Xinjiang?
Of all the claims that are made in relation to China’s treatment of Uyghur people, the most serious is that it is perpetrating a genocide. One of the last acts of Trump’s State Department was, in January 2021, to declare that the Chinese government is “committing genocide and crimes against humanity through its wide-scale repression of Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in its northwestern region of Xinjiang, including in its use of internment camps and forced sterilisation.” The Biden administration doubled down on this slander, claiming in its 2021 annual human rights report that “genocide and crimes against humanity occurred during the year against the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang”, and that the components of this genocide included “the arbitrary imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty of more than one million civilians; forced sterilisation, coerced abortions, and more restrictive application of China’s birth control policies; rape; torture of a large number of those arbitrarily detained; forced labor; and the imposition of draconian restrictions on freedom of religion or belief, freedom of expression, and freedom of movement.”
Canada’s House of Commons quickly followed suit, as did the French National Assembly. The European Parliament adopted a somewhat less adventurist resolution claiming that Muslims in Xinjiang were at “serious risk of genocide.”
Genocide has a detailed definition under international law, which can be summarised as the purposeful destruction in whole or in part of a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. It is rightly considered to be one of the gravest crimes against humanity. As such, it is not the sort of accusation that should be thrown around carelessly and without evidence. And yet imperialist ideologues routinely do exactly that. As Herman and Chomsky pointed out decades ago, “genocide is an invidious word that officials apply readily to cases of victimisation in enemy states, but rarely if ever to similar or worse cases of victimisation by the United States itself or allied regimes.”
Prominent scholar and economist Jeffrey Sachs has written in relation to the Biden administration’s accusations of genocide that “it has offered no proof, and unless it can, the State Department should withdraw the charge.” Continuing, Sachs writes that the charge of genocide should never be made lightly. “Inappropriate use of the term may escalate geopolitical and military tensions and devalue the historical memory of genocides such as the Holocaust, thereby hindering the ability to prevent future genocides. It behoves the US government to make any charge of genocide responsibly, which it has failed to do here.”
What is the nature of the actual genocide charge? A 2021 report by a highly dubious Washington think-tank, the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, claims that the Chinese government has implemented “comprehensive state policy and practice” with “the intent to destroy the Uyghurs as a group.” The report doesn’t claim that Uyghurs are directly being killed, but that coercive birth control measures are being selectively applied such that the Uyghur population slowly dies off.
However, there is no credible data to support these claims. It is the case that the birth rate has been trending downwards in Xinjiang, but the same is true for every Chinese province. Meanwhile, the Uyghur population from 2010 to 2018 increased from 10.2 million to 12.7 million, an increase of 25 percent. During the same period, the Han Chinese population in Xinjiang increased by just 2 percent. Reflecting on the reasons for the marginal downturn in Uyghur birthrate, Pakistani-Canadian peace activist Omar Latif noted that the causes are “the same as elsewhere; more women acquiring higher education and participating in the workforce; less necessity for parents to have more children to take care of them in old age; urbanisation; lessening of patriarchal controls over women; increased freedom for women to practice birth control.”
China’s one-child policy was first implemented in 1978, at a time when China was relatively insecure about its ability to feed a large population (China has 18 percent of the global population but only around 12 percent of the world’s arable land, along with chronic water scarcity). The policy was in place until 2015, and largely serves to explain the long-term decline in the birth rate in China. However, national minorities – including Uyghurs – were exempt from the policy. Indeed the Uyghur population doubled during the period the one-child policy was in force. This pattern is replicated throughout China – according to the latest census data, the population of minority groups increased over the last decade by 10.26 percent (to 125 million), while that of Han Chinese grew at by 4.93 percent (to 1.3 billion) – less than half the rate.
Another data point that tends to belie the claims of a genocide in Xinjiang is that average life expectancy in the region has increased from 30 years in 1949 to 75 years today.
One question that the various anti-China think tanks have not addressed is: if there were a genocide taking place in Xinjiang – including the ‘slow genocide’ of discriminatory coercive birth control – would this not lead to a refugee crisis? There is certainly no evidence of such a crisis; no camps along the border with Pakistan or Kazakhstan, and so on. Repression, war, poverty and climate change have combined to produce numerous current refugee crises in Africa, Asia and the Middle East; it is highly implausible that a full-blown genocide in Western China would not lead to any such issue. A Time article in 2021 confirmed that, in spite of both the Trump and Biden administrations’ outspoken criticisms of human rights abuses in Xinjiang, the US had not admitted a single Uyghur refugee in the preceding 12 months. Given that, in the same time period, Biden offered a refuge to people “fleeing Hong Kong crackdown”, it’s unimaginable that the US would not offer refugee status to thousands of Xinjiang Uyghurs fleeing persecution – if they existed.
Lamenting the fact that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights ‘Assessment of human rights concerns in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region’, issued in August 2022, fails to even mention the charge of genocide, Yale Law School academic Nicholas Bequelin lets slip that there simply is not a credible evidentiary basis for such a charge. “For the crime of genocide, you need to have several elements. One of the elements is intent. You need to be able to demonstrate, and to demonstrate convincingly, before a court, that the state had the intent of committing genocide. That’s the first thing. The second is that you have a number of elements for the crime of genocide – which is that it has to be a systematic, widespread extermination, or attempted extermination, of a national, racial, religious, or ethnic group. There are elements that are present in the Chinese case, but it’s not clear that the intent is to lead to the extermination of a particular ethnic group.”
The handful of reports on which the genocide charge is based do not provide anything like compelling evidence. What they put forward are some highly selective birth rate statistics, and the testimony of a small number of Uyghur exiles who claim to have been subjected to abuse. Working on the basis of ‘innocent until proven guilty’, China can by no means be considered as guilty of genocide.
An aside: at the time of writing, the total number of deaths caused by Covid-19 in Xinjiang is three. It is very difficult to believe that state forces conducting a genocide against a given ethnic group would fail to take advantage of a pandemic in support of their project; indeed that the regional health authorities would go to significant lengths to prevent the people of this group dying from Covid-19.
A somewhat more sophisticated accusation against the Chinese government is that is perpetrating a cultural genocide in Xinjiang – not wiping out the Uyghur population as such but the Uyghur identity, Uyghur traditions, Uyghur beliefs. Although cultural genocide is not defined under international law, it apparently refers to “the elimination of a group’s identity, through measures such as forcibly transferring children away from their families, restricting the use of a national language, banning cultural activities, or destroying schools, religious institutions, or memory sites.”
While the accusation seems less extreme than the accusation of physical genocide, the claims of cultural genocide are nonetheless similarly lacking in evidentiary basis. For example, all schools in Xinjiang teach both Standard Chinese and one minority language, most often Uyghur. Chinese banknotes have five languages on them: Chinese, Tibetan, Uyghur, Mongolian and Zhuang. Thousands of books, newspapers and magazines are printed in the Uyghur language. What’s more, there are over 25,000 mosques in Xinjiang – three times the number there were in 1980, and one of the highest number of mosques per capita in the world (almost ten times as many as in the United States).
Turkish scholar Adnan Akfirat observes that the Quran and numerous other key Islamic texts are readily available and have been translated into the Chinese, Uyghur, Kazakh and Kyrgyz languages. Further, “the Xinjiang Islamic Institute, headquartered in Urumqi, has eight branches in other cities such as Kashgar, Hotan and Ili, and there are ten theological schools in the region, including a Xinjiang Islamic School. These schools enrol 3,000 new students each year.” Akfirat states that Muslims in Xinjiang freely engage in their religious rituals, including prayer, fasting, pilgrimages, and celebrating Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.
These details have been confirmed by a steady stream of diplomats, officials and journalists that have visited Xinjiang in recent years. A diplomatic delegation in March 2021 included Pakistani Ambassador to China, Moin ul Haque, who explicitly rejected the accusations of religious persecution: “The notable and important thing is that there’s freedom of religion in China and it’s enshrined in the Constitution of China, which is a very important part… People in Xinjiang are enjoying their lives, their culture, their deep traditions, and most importantly, their religion.”
Fariz Mehdawi, Palestinian Ambassador to China, commented that there were a huge number of mosques and one could see there was respect for religious and ethnic traditions, saying: “You know, the number of mosques, if you have to calculate it all, it’s something like 2,000 inhabitants for one mosque. This ratio we don’t have it in our country. It’s not available anywhere.” It was put to Mehdawi that he could simply have been shown a Potemkin village. He replied: “Are we diplomats so naive that we could be manoeuvred to believe anything … Or are we part of a conspiracy, that we would justify something against what we had seen? I think this is not respectful… There is no conspiracy here, there is facts. And the fact of the matter is that China is rising and developing everywhere, including Xinjiang. Since some people are not happy about that, they would like to stop the rise of China by any means.”
Looking at different countries’ voting records at the UN in relation to human rights in China, it’s striking that the only Muslim-majority country that consistently votes in support of US-led slanders is NATO member Albania. During the 50th session of the Human Rights Council in 2022, members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation overwhelmingly co-sponsored the statement supporting China’s position (by 37 to 1). This pattern is mirrored in Africa (33 to 2) and Asia (20 to 2). It is very difficult to believe that the vast majority of Muslim-majority countries, and countries of the Global South, would stay silent in the face of a cultural genocide committed against Uyghur Muslims in China.
Given the lack of evidence for a cultural genocide; the data and reports concerning the protection of minority cultures in China; the large number of diplomatic missions to Xinjiang; and the near-consensus voice of Muslim-majority countries defending China against slander; the accusations of cultural genocide appear to be wholly insupportable.
The specific charge most frequently levelled against the authorities in Xinjiang is that they operate prison camps where Uyghur Muslims are locked up in huge numbers – the most oft-mentioned figure is one million, out of a population of 13 million. The alleged purpose of these prison camps is to eradicate Uyghur Muslim culture and to brainwash people into supporting the government – to “breed vengeful feelings and erase Uyghur identity”.
The “million Uyghurs in concentration camps” story is a quintessential propaganda blitz. Through sheer repetition across the Western media, along with support from the US State Department, this startling headline has acquired the force of a widely-accepted truth. And yet the sources for this “news” are so spurious as to be laughable.
A 2018 China File article attempting to locate the source of this one million figure identifies four key pieces of research, by the German anthropologist Adrian Zenz; Washington DC-based non-profit Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD); the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI); and US-based media outlet Radio Free Asia (RFA). A new player entered the game in 2021: the Newlines Institute, a think tank based at the Fairfax University of America, which issued the “first independent report” to authoritatively determine that the Chinese government has violated the UN convention on genocide. It is worthwhile considering whether these individuals and organisations most responsible for these high-profile accusations against China have any vested interests or ulterior motives.
Adrian Zenz was the first person to claim that a million Uyghurs were being held in concentration camps. He is also something of a trailblazer in relation to allegations of forced labour and forced sterilisation. His relentless work slandering China has received an appreciative audience at CNN, the Guardian, Democracy Now, and elsewhere. It is difficult to find a news report about China’s alleged use of concentration camps that does not reference Zenz’s work.
A hagiographic report in the Wall Street Journal highlights the outsized role of this one individual in the construction of a global anti-China slander machine: “Research by a born-again Christian anthropologist working alone from a cramped desk … thrust China and the West into one of their biggest clashes over human rights in decades. Doggedly hunting down data in obscure corners of the Chinese internet, Adrian Zenz revealed a security buildup in China’s remote Xinjiang region and illuminated the mass detention and policing of Turkic Muslims that followed. His research showed how China spent billions of dollars building internment camps and high-tech surveillance networks in Xinjiang, and recruited police officers to run them.”
Casually hinting at Zenz’s ideological orientation, the article notes that “his faith pushes him forward” and that his previous intellectual activity includes co-authoring “a book re-examining biblical end-times.” He “feels very clearly led by God” to issue anti-China slanders. In other words, Zenz is not simply a politically-neutral data scientist with a passion for human rights. Rather he’s a hardened anti-communist and Christian end-timer; he is employed as the Director in China Studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, an arch-conservative organisation set up by the United States Congress in 1993 in order to memorialise “the deaths of over 100,000,000 victims in an unprecedented imperial holocaust” such that “so evil a tyranny” as state socialism would ever again be able to “terrorise the world.” His book Worthy to Escape: Why All Believers Will Not Be Raptured Before the Tribulation, he urges the subjection of unruly children to “scriptural spanking” and describes homosexuality as “one of the four empires of the beast.”
Given Zenz’s ideological affiliations and intellectual record, it would not be unreasonable to demand that his research be subjected to serious scrutiny. In reality, however, his evaluations regarding Xinjiang have been uncritically accepted and widely amplified by the Western media and political machine.
Another organisation lending its support to the accusation that “more than a million Uyghurs and members of other Turkic Muslim minorities have disappeared into a vast network of ‘re-education camps’” is the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). ASPI is a think-tank set up by the Australian government, and has become highly influential in terms of moulding the Australian public‘s attitude towards China. Its reports about Xinjiang are among the most-cited sources on the topic.
ASPI describes itself as “an independent, non-partisan think tank”, but its core funding comes from the Australian government, with substantial contributions from the US Department of Defense and State Department (earmarked specifically for “Xinjiang human rights” work), as well as the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin and others. In summary, ASPI is knee-deep in the business of Cold War and the militarisation of the Pacific, and there is a clear conflict of interest when it comes to discussing human rights in China.
The most recent “non-partisan think tank” to amplify anti-China propaganda in relation to Xinjiang is the Newlines Institute, described by Jeffrey Sachs as “a project of a tiny Virginia-based university with 153 students, eight full-time faculty, and an apparently conservative policy agenda.” The Newlines report – “the first independent expert application of the 1948 Genocide Convention to the ongoing treatment of the Uyghurs in China” – received extensive coverage in the Western media as the smoking gun proving China’s culpability in relation to concentration camps, forced labour and cultural genocide. The report was put together by the institute’s Uyghur Scholars Working Group, an illustrious group led by none other than Adrian Zenz. Canadian journalist Ajit Singh, in a detailed investigation for The Grayzone, points out that “the leadership of Newlines Institute includes former US State Department officials, US military advisors, intelligence professionals who previously worked for the ‘shadow CIA’ private spying firm, Stratfor, and a collection of interventionist ideologues.” Further, the institute’s founder and president is Ahmed Alwani, otherwise best known for having served on the advisory board for the US military’s Africa Command.
The BBC, the Guardian, the New York Times, the Washington Post and others all treated the Newlines report as if it represented the very pinnacle of academic rigour, without mentioning even in passing its connection with the US military-industrial complex.
It is abundantly clear that the popular narrative about Xinjiang prison camps rests on highly dubious sources. The evidence offered up by Zenz, ASPI and the like is a handful of individual testimonies along with a small selection of photographs and satellite pictures purporting to show prison camps. These pictures do appear to prove that some prisons exist, but this is not a terribly interesting or unusual phenomenon. China has some prisons, although its incarceration rate – 121 per 100,000 people – is less than 20 percent that of the US.
Several commentators have pointed out that it is not easy to hide a million prisoners – approximately the population of Dallas. As Omar Latif comments: “Imagine the number of buildings and the infrastructure required to house and service that number of prisoners! With satellite cameras able to read a vehicle license plate, one would think the US would be able to show those prisons and prisoners in great detail.”
Perhaps the most iconic image purporting to show a Xinjiang prison camp is that of a group of men in a prison yard wearing blue boiler suits. This turns out to be a picture of a talk given at Luopu County Reform and Correction Centre, in April 2017. The Luopu Centre is an ordinary prison, with ordinary criminals, but it has been “fallaciously used to prove, show, or insinuate either concentration camps or slave labor of Xinjiang people”.
The Chinese authorities claim that what Western human rights groups are calling concentration camps are in fact vocational education centres designed to address the problem of religious extremism and violent separatism. They combine classes on sociology and ethics – focused on trying to undermine ideas of religious hatred – with classes providing marketable skills such that the attendees can find jobs and improve their standard of living. The basic idea is to improve people’s life prospects so that they are less likely to be radicalised by fundamentalist sectarian groups.
The threat from such groups is real enough. The biggest among them is the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which up until October 2020 was classified by the US State Department as a terrorist group. It has sent thousands of its militia to fight alongside Daesh and assorted al-Qaeda groups in Syria and Afghanistan.
Between the mid 1990s and mid 2010s, there was a sequence of terrorist attacks in China carried out by Uyghur separatist outfits – in shopping centres, train stations and bus stations as well as Tiananmen Square, killing hundreds of civilians. This corresponds with an increase in terrorism across Middle East and Central Asia, in no small measure related to the West’s proxy wars against progressive or nationalist states in the region. Like any population, the Chinese people demand the right to safety and security; as such, terrorism is not a problem China’s government can simply ignore.
The vocational centres were therefore set up as part of a holistic anti-terrorism campaign aimed at increasing educational attainment and economic prosperity, thereby addressing the disaffection that is known to breed radicalisation. Educational methods have been combined with a focus on improving living conditions: in the five years from 2014 to 2019, per capita disposable income increased by an average annual rate of 9.1 percent.
China’s approach to tackling terrorism is based on the measures advocated in United Nations’ Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism, which “calls for a comprehensive approach encompassing not only essential security-based counter-terrorism measures but also systematic preventive steps to address the underlying conditions that drive individuals to radicalise and join violent extremist groups.” Thus China is actively attempting to operate within the framework of international law and best practices. This approach compares rather favourably with, for example, the US’s operation of a torture camp for suspected terrorists, not to mention innocent victims snatched more or less at random, in Guantánamo Bay – itself an illegally-occupied area of Cuba.
Without conducting extensive investigations on the ground, it is obviously not possible to verify the Chinese authorities’ claims about how the vocational education centres run. What we can say with certainty is that the accusations about genocide, cultural genocide, religious oppression and concentration camps are not backed by anything approximating sufficient proof. Meanwhile the most prominent accusers all, without exception, have a known axe to grind against China.
None of the foregoing is meant to deny that there are any problems in Xinjiang; that Uyghur people are never mistreated or ethnically profiled by the police; or that there has never been any coercion involved in the deradicalisation program. But these problems – which are well-understood in China and which the government is actively addressing – are in no way unique to China. Certainly any discrimination against Uyghurs pales in comparison with, for example, the treatment of African-Americans and indigenous peoples in the United States, or the treatment of Dalits, Adivasis and numerous other minorities in India.
The perverse propaganda campaign around Xinjiang serves multiple purposes. It is a component of the US-led New Cold War – a project of hybrid warfare designed to slow down China’s rise, to maintain US hegemony and prevent the emergence of a multipolar world. It also connects to a century-old pattern of vicious anti-communism that aims to disrupt the natural solidarity the working classes in the capitalist countries, and oppressed people generally, might otherwise feel towards the socialist world. Lastly, Xinjiang’s geostrategic importance means that it has a special role in any overall strategy of weakening China. Bordering Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Xinjiang constitutes a key point along the major east-west land routes of the Belt and Road Initiative. It connects China to Central Asia and therefore also to the Persian Gulf, the Middle East, and Europe. Xinjiang is China’s largest natural gas-producing region, is the centre of China’s solar and wind power generation, and is crucially important for China’s security.
British political scientist Jude Woodward noted that Xinjiang’s location puts it at the heart of China’s blossoming trade relationship with Central Asia – “part of the world where the confrontation between China’s win-win geo-economics and the US’s old style geopolitics are playing themselves out with the starkest contrast… China has proposed that Central Asia should be at the crossroads of a reimagined Eurasia connected by oil and gas pipelines, high speed trains and continuous carriageways, with stability underpinned by growth and fuelled by trade. China offers a vision of a world turned on its axis, placing not the ‘middle kingdom’ but the entire Asian continent at the centre of the next phase of human development.”
In order to disrupt this progress, the US has resorted to destabilisation and demonisation. The maximum goal is to lay the ground for a pseudo-independent Xinjiang which would in reality be a US client state and a powerful foothold for further aggression against China and other states in the region. The minimum, and far more likely, goal is to disrupt the value chains connecting China to the Eurasian land mass, thereby slowing down the Belt and Road Initiative and damaging China’s trade relationships with Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe.
As an aside, the West’s stoking of instability in Xinjiang and its imposition of sanctions expose the shallowness of its commitment to the fight against climate breakdown. In 2021, Xinjiang generated 2.48 trillion kilowatts of electricity from renewable sources (primarily solar and wind) – nearly 30 percent of China’s total electricity consumption. Around half of the world’s supply of polysilicon, an essential component in solar panels, comes from Xinjiang.
If the US and its allies were serious about pursuing carbon neutrality and preventing an ecological catastrophe, they would be working closely with China to develop supply chains and transmission capacity for renewable energy. China’s investment in solar and wind power technology has already led to a dramatic reduction of prices around the world. Instead, they are imposing blanket sanctions on China and attempting to cut Xinjiang out of clean energy supply chains. This indicates rather clearly that the imperialist ruling classes are prioritising their anti-China propaganda war over preventing climate breakdown. It seems the slogan “better dead than red” lives on in the 21st century.
Malcolm X, the African-American civil rights leader and revolutionary, famously said that “if you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”
China is rising. Its life expectancy has now overtaken that of the US. Extreme poverty is a thing of the past, and people increasingly live well. China has established itself as a leading force in the fight against climate breakdown; in the fight to save humanity from pandemics; and in the movement towards a more democratic, multipolar system of international relations. It is “now the standard-bearer of the global socialist movement,” in the words of Xi Jinping.
The US and its allies are pursuing a New Cold War with the aim of weakening China, limiting its rise, and ultimately overturning the Chinese Revolution and ending the rule of the Communist Party. The barrage of anti-China propaganda provides the marketing for this New Cold War. The Western ruling classes want Chinese socialism to be associated with discrimination, authoritarianism and prison camps; not with ending poverty and saving the planet. Readers in the imperialist countries should consider whether they want to have their consent manufactured in this way; whether they share the foreign policy objectives of their ruling classes.
What would the likely repercussions be if the US and its allies were successful in their aims and the People’s Republic of China suffered the same fate as the Soviet Union?
For one thing, the consequences in terms of the climate crisis would potentially be catastrophic. A capitalist government in China would have neither the will nor the resources to continue the projects of renewable energy, afforestation and conservation at the level they are currently being pursued. A pandemic on the scale of Covid-19 would be utterly devastating, resulting in several million – rather than a few thousand – Chinese deaths. Meanwhile malaria, cholera and other diseases could all be expected to make a comeback, given the perfect storm of poverty, overcrowding, rising temperatures and sea levels – ‘Goldilocks conditions’ for pathogens.
Poverty alleviation and common prosperity would be relegated to history. Hundreds of millions would be pushed into destitution by a ruling class that had no reason to prioritise their interests. Homelessness, violent crime and drug addiction would once again become commonplace, as they did in Russia following the Soviet collapse. Furthermore a capitalist China, desperate to earn the friendship and protection of the US, would end its international role promoting multipolarity and opposing imperialism.
We must resolutely oppose and expose anti-China slander, which aims to break the bonds of solidarity within the global working class and all those opposed to imperialism; which seeks to malign and undermine socialism; and which serves to perpetuate a moribund capitalist system that everyday generates more poverty, more misery, more oppression, more violence, more environmental destruction, and that increasingly threatens the very survival of humanity.
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 Discussed in detail in Martinez, C 2021, The left must resolutely oppose the US-led New Cold War on China, Invent the Future, accessed 27 August 2022, <https://invent-the-future.org/2021/06/the-left-must-resolutely-oppose-the-us-led-new-cold-war-on-china/>.
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Carlos Martinez is an independent researcher and political activist from London, Britain. His first book, The End of the Beginning: Lessons of the Soviet Collapse, was published in 2019 by LeftWord Books. His main area of research is the construction of socialist societies, past and present. He is a co-editor of Friends of Socialist China and co-founder of No Cold War.