Strikingly, Chinese state-owned media have reveled in the hostility of Alaska, the accusations of genocide and the multicountry sanctions. In the aftermath of those sanctions, the Communist Youth League regurgitated a year-old statement from European clothing giant H&M saying that it would “not source products” from Xinjiang over worries about forced labor.
This led to a heated backlash on Chinese social media site Weibo against H&M, as well as companies such as Nike and Adidas — for a time last Thursday, eight out of the top nine hashtags on the site related to human rights in Xinjiang.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has shown little tolerance for dissent and China has created a powerful censorship apparatus. So it may seem surprising to see stories that highlight accusations of sensitive issues like forced labor and genocide dominating Chinese social media, and to see Chinese authorities promote these stories heavily. But my research shows that — despite its risks — foreign pressure over human rights may be a potent propaganda tool for the Chinese government.
Chinese authorities regularly broadcast foreign criticism on human rights
In theory, international pressure on human rights is damaging for autocrats. It tells the public about violations going on at home and about the international community’s disapproval. Domestic media coverage may open up a window for people to talk about normally off-limit topics.
Yet the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda department, throughout its history, has not just allowed this kind of external criticism to go uncensored, at times state-run media has even widely publicized these stories — and that’s what’s happening now.
Here’s an example from 1961: The United Nations passed a resolution condemning Chinese forces’ “violation of the fundamental human rights of the Tibetan people, and the suppression of [their] distinctive cultural and religious life.” The language was highly critical, and very few Chinese citizens at this time would have known what was going on up on the Tibetan plateau. The People’s Daily, the official publication of the Chinese Communist Party, issued dozens of articles about the vote, even repeating the resolution’s criticism verbatim.
The media response follows distinct patterns
I analyzed 23 years of People’s Daily stories and found that the newspaper would regularly highlight human rights pressure when it appears most “hostile” — when it came from geopolitical rivals like the United States at times of high bilateral tensions, or when it targeted territorial flash points like Xinjiang or Hong Kong. In contrast, Chinese media regularly censored criticism that came from allies or neutral parties.
In 2021, the government’s Xinjiang propaganda campaign appears to be betting that “hostile” international pressure will change the lens through which people see human rights in the region. Concerns about forced labor and religious persecution are instead framed as part of a geopolitical battle. And in a geopolitical battle, citizens are supposed to fight back — by boycotting offending companies, patriotically supporting Xinjiang cotton or buying T-shirts that proclaim “China will not take this.”
Do people care about this criticism?
And this type of bet seems to pay off. In survey experiments I conducted with Chinese users online between 2016 and 2018, U.S. criticism of women’s rights in their country made Chinese respondents significantly less likely to believe that women’s rights needed to be improved, and significantly less willing to “like” social media posts calling for those improvements. Notably, this reaction was limited only to the United States — when people were told the criticism came from a less “hostile” party like the African Union, there was no such backlash.
In another study, Chinese citizens surveyed just after the Dalai Lama’s 2011 meeting with President Barack Obama — a visit the Chinese media widely denounced as a threat to China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity — were more likely to say their country was democratic and had freedom of speech, compared with respondents surveyed just before the meeting.
What does this mean for Xinjiang?
The recent sanctions on China were probably less about influencing domestic Chinese public opinion than raising the costs for those individuals involved in human rights abuses in Xinjiang. At this stage, we don’t know the impact of these costs — though after facing his own sanctions last year, Xinjiang’s police chief was quickly promoted.
It’s also possible that the Chinese government could change tack in Xinjiang to calm international disapproval. For example, after African countries protested against racial discrimination in Guangzhou last year, Chinese officials hastily announced new regulations to address these concerns on embassy websites across Africa.
But the campaign over Western pressure makes it more likely that domestic voices inside China will compete to defend their country against Western hostility. A more vocal nationalist outcry certainly won’t hurt Chinese authorities’ efforts to bat away any domestic opposition to their more coercive policies. The volume of coverage of Chinese officials’ retorts in Alaska may also make giving in to Western countries’ appeals over human rights now harder to justify within China (although not impossible).
As my research shows, non-Western criticism is less likely to be used as propaganda. It is also less likely to evoke a backlash. To avoid fueling an “us-versus-them” reaction from Beijing, one option might be to work with a broader group of non-Western countries. Looking back to last year’s reaction to racial discrimination in Guangzhou, for instance, Chinese authorities decried the brief U.S. criticism as “extremely immoral” but remained remarkably silent over the high-profile pushback from African countries.
At the moment, however, a broader global pushback on human rights in Xinjiang seems unlikely. During last October’s U.N. General Assembly, 39 countries delivered a joint statement of concern about human rights in Xinjiang. But in contrast to the 45 countries that responded with a statement of support for China’s “counterterrorism measures,” the 39 were almost exclusively Western nations. For now, the international pressure on Xinjiang seems likely to remain a prominent part of the Communist Party’s domestic propaganda campaigns.
Jamie Gruffydd-Jones is a lecturer at the University of Kent. His current book project addresses the impacts of human rights pressure within authoritarian states.