Xinjiang province, located in far western China, is one of the most restricted and talked-about areas in the world. Various international media outlets have reported in horrific detail about the vast Uyghur re-education camps in the province along with firsthand accounts on the oppressive Chinese surveillance system and forced sterilization.
According to the Chinese government, this narrative is both false and hypocritical. In Xinjiang, Uyghurs, a Muslim Turkic minority ethnic group, are the majority demographic over the Chinese. Over the years, this dynamic has resulted in a simmering ethnic tension. For the Chinese government, Xinjiang is a counterterrorism operation. The government’s primary adversary is the Turkistan Islamic Party (formerly East Turkestan Islamic Movement). The group’s main goal is the establishment of an independent state including parts of Central Asia and Xinjiang. In the words of China’s ambassador to the EU, Zhang Ming, China’s “radicalization centers” are not dissimilar to its peers in the West. The ambassador stated: “Countries like the U.S., the U.K., and France have established deradicalization centers or correction centers. China’s measures are not entirely different from theirs.”
It’s this counterterrorism stance that headlines China’s military media content about Xinjiang. Uyghurs are part of the “Five Poisons” of Chinese national security, the others being the Tibetan independence movement, Taiwan independence, pro-Democracy activists, and the Falun Gong religion.
Tensions in Xinjiang have existed for decades between Uyghurs and the Chinese. These simmering conflicts exploded in the 2009 riots in Urumqi, Xinjiang, which left an estimated 197 dead, and the 2014 Kunming Station attack in Southern China where Uyghur separatists stabbed and killed 31 people.
Because of these incidents, much of the military media released by the Chinese government in Xinjiang highlights a counterterrorism message. A prominent character in China’s Xinjiang media content is the People’s Armed Police (PAP). A national paramilitary force that’s primarily concerned with domestic security, the PAP has gone through a series of reforms in recent years, modernizing its equipment and organization. In a 2016 recruitment commercial, the PAP showcased these reforms by conducting a series of modern military operations, including scuba infiltration, helicopter insertions, and a hostage rescue mission in a building.
Despite YouTube being officially blocked in China, a variety of Chinese military videos can be found on the website through independent fan channels or China’s state-owned international media outlet, the CGTN (China Global Television Network). A July 27, 2017 video from the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, shows a joint counterterrorism exercise with the PAP and Kyrgyzstan frontier forces. Parts of the exercise are routine – Chinese forces reacting to convoy ambushes and training with K-9 units. But there’s a flamboyant flair to the military exercise, evidenced by footage of the PAP assaulting a rural hut with a flamethrower and a clip of PAP members doing an Australian rappel down a hill.
One of the more interesting PAP pieces of content on YouTube is a Chinese language combat footage video from 2016. The five-minute video, which combines interviews with Chinese soldiers along with action footage, is centered on a PAP mission in Xinjiang against a group of armed Uyghurs. Much of the footage follows an element of PAP soldiers as they chase the Uyghurs across different terrain. There’s footage of a gun battle in a series of caves and a Chinese commander is interviewed describing the intensity of the fight as “something none of us [had] ever experienced.”
According to the video, 13 Uyghurs were killed during the cave assault. The PAP then chases the surviving Uyghurs, eventually cornering them in a snow-covered forest. The mission finally ends with the Uyghurs being wiped out. However, besides a brief blurred shot of what appears to be a Uyghur KIA, none of the armed Uyghurs are given any screen time, nor are their identities made known in the video.
Besides the PAP, Chinese police units at the local or provincial level in Xinjiang are also highlighted by the Chinese media. Many of these videos purposely showcase ethnic Uyghur officers in the Chinese police forces. For instance, the SWAT team of Hotan, a city in southern Xinjiang, is featured in several videos. In one CGTN news clip, titled “Hotan SWAT Team in China’s Xinjiang Well-prepared to Combat Terrorism,” a Uyghur SWAT commander named Murat Sheripjan (nicknamed the “Desert Falcon”) is lionized as a hero who battles the “Three Evil Forces” (separatism, religious extremism, terrorism). Only ethnic Uyghur police officers appear in the video and all of them are interviewed in Mandarin Chinese.
This targeted emphasis on diversity also extends to portraying female officers. A YouTube video titled, “A Look at Hotan’s Female SWAT Team in Xinjiang” focuses exclusively on a team of female Uyghur SWAT officers. In the video, the female officers are shown training, patrolling, and living their daily lives. The video makes a concentrated effort to emphasize how valuable these female officers are to Xinjiang security and stability with one officer stating: “Compared with ordinary girls when I wear the police uniform, I feel a special sense of identity, a kind of glory and duty.”
Official Chinese media has a clear strategy for this curated content: to counter Western media portrayals of Xinjiang, to justify Xinjiang military crackdowns as counterterrorism, and to project soft power (through the English-language CGTN content). A 2020 documentary by CGTN titled, “Footage of Suicide Bombing in China’s Xinjiang Released for First Time,” focused on a series of satchel and suicide bombings in Xinjiang. The content is sensational – multiple videos of explosions, blood, carnage, and interviews with civilians. From the perspective of the Chinese government, any draconian crackdown of Xinjiang is warranted for stability, no matter the consequences.