After months of outright silence and even denial on the subject of Xinjiang and the mass detention of ethnic Uighurs, China's state broadcaster CCTV aired a 15-minute documentary on October 16, 2018. Not only did it acknowledge the existence of internment camps but it vigorously defended them.

The segment marked a major shift in the government's messaging on its policy in the region.

"It told the story of what the Chinese government wanted to communicate about what was happening in Xinjiang," says Shelley Zhang, a writer for China Uncensored and observer of the country's media trends.

"In Xinjiang, there was radical extremism, there was terrorism, there was ethnic separatism. And the government is fighting this as part of a 'worldwide battle against terrorism'. This was how the government framed it."

The piece did not stop at defending the need for the camps as a proportionate response to a terrorist threat. CCTV's coverage also highlighted their role not in suppressing the Uighur population - as has been reported in the international press - but rather in promoting minority culture and providing valuable vocational training opportunities.

"Western reports are fake news and misleading," Victor Gao, vice president of the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing told The Listening Post's Meenakshi Ravi.

"The Chinese government has all along been consistent in expressing that there are no concentration camps - there are facilities and these facilities are mostly meant for education and training purposes."

"There was also the cultural aspect which is the idea that they are not you know 'stifling' Uighur culture, they are 'preserving' it," says Zhang. "People are allowed to do ethnic dances, make their traditional bread, make their traditional rugs."

The CCTV piece set the tone for future coverage of Xinjiang in the Chinese media.

As a senior research analyst at Freedom House with a focus on China, Sarah Cook has tracked the evolution of the Chinese narrative over time.

"You had a number of pieces in nationalist publications like Global Times and Xinhua. So all of a sudden you see both this Chinese language media push, now not so much acknowledging that there are Uighurs who are in detention, but trying to spin it basically into a softer, more voluntary form of detention."

The Chinese government has doubled down on its justification of the camps in recent months, leaving little room for deviation in Chinese media reporting of the story.

For those that do stray too far from the official line, harsh punishment awaits. The latest numbers compiled by human rights campaigners show that 58 Uighur journalists have been locked up in Xinjiang alone.

"The Chinese government has been very effective in its misinformation campaign. It is still ongoing as we speak," says Nury Turkel, a Uighur activist based in Washington, DC.

"Xi Jinping's government has shown zero tolerance for political dissent. It would be difficult for anyone to come out and express sympathy for an issue as sensitive as the Uighur issue."

Foreign reporting on this topic may have finally forced the Chinese authorities to acknowledge the existence of the camps. But just about everything else about this story - the extent of the camp system, the people held there, the truth of what is happening to them and the flow of information - remains under Beijing's control.


Victor Gao - vice president, Center for China and Globalization

Sarah Cook - senior research analyst, Freedom House

Nury Turkel - chairman & founder, Uyghur Human Rights Project

Shelley Zhang - writer, China Uncensored

Source: Al Jazeera News