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Uyghur Foreign Travel Vlogs Likely a Feature of Chinese Government Propaganda

Members of the Uyghur American Association rally in front of the White House, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020, in support of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. The bill prohibits some imports from Xinjiang and imposes sanctions for human rights violations. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Members of the Uyghur American Association rally in front of the White House, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020, in support of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. The bill prohibits some imports from Xinjiang and imposes sanctions for human rights violations. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Uyghurs have been unable to travel freely for several years

A man slowly meanders through an airport terminal as he talks about his upcoming trip to Istanbul. Sporting a white polo shirt and yellow jacket, he speaks with excitement about visiting his daughter in Turkey. He says he hasn’t seen her since 2019.

It could be any other travel vlog.

But this man is Uyghur, and he’s speaking from a curiously empty Chinese airport.

Few Uyghurs have been able to leave the northwestern region of Xinjiang, let alone China, for years. The Chinese government stands accused of perpetrating genocide and crimes against humanity against Uyghurs and other groups in the region.

One element of the campaign has been barring Uyghurs from traveling abroad and persecuting those who have traveled abroad — especially to countries deemed sensitive, like Turkey.

That’s why this recent video and others like it appear to be part of a new propaganda campaign from Beijing in which Uyghurs vlog about their travels abroad to create the impression that all is well in Xinjiang, experts on the human rights crisis there told VOA.

“This is just another desperate attempt by the Chinese Communist regime to conceal its atrocities against the Uyghurs,” Rushan Abbas, founder of the rights group Campaign for Uyghurs, told VOA. “The Chinese government is using all different kinds of tactics to cover up its very egregious violations, and they try to project an image of normalcy.”

While it’s difficult to definitively confirm whether these videos are a concerted campaign orchestrated by the Chinese government, multiple experts on the Uyghur human rights crisis told VOA it’s nearly impossible that a Uyghur person would be able to travel abroad, especially in such a public way, without official approval.

This particular airport video was posted on May 10 on Kuaishou, a social media app for short videos that is partially owned by the state. The man speaks in the Uyghur language, but the video also includes Chinese subtitles.

The man in question, known by the username Seherdin, has over 34,000 followers on the Kuaishou platform. Since the airport vlog — which has garnered over 23,000 likes — he has posted over 30 more videos documenting his travels abroad.

Seherdin appears to be the most prominent person to make these vlogs to date, but he isn’t alone. In another video, for example, a Uyghur man vlogs about his travels to Japan.

Chinese propaganda about Xinjiang is nothing new. For years, Beijing has disseminated disinformation about the region, which Uyghurs prefer to call the Uyghur Region or East Turkistan. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has long claimed that its policies in the region are for counterterrorism purposes.

In a statement emailed to VOA, Liu Pengyu, the spokesperson for China’s Washington embassy, denied reports of genocide in Xinjiang.

Beijing has previously used Uyghur lifestyle YouTubers as part of its propaganda campaign.

Travel vloggers are also key to China’s propaganda aimed at covering up rights abuses in Tibet, as a recent fact check revealed.

But these recent travel vlogs are putting forth a new narrative — that Uyghurs can travel freely. The goal of this narrative, like the rest of the propaganda, is to whitewash Beijing’s human rights abuses, according to Zubayra Shamseden, who works at the Uyghur Human Rights Project, or UHRP.

“I was really shocked,” Shamseden told VOA, speaking about when she first viewed Seherdin vlogging from the airport about his trip to Turkey. That was mainly because the notion that Uyghurs can freely leave China is completely at odds with reality.

Since 2016, Uyghurs have been increasingly targeted with exit bans, largely through the confiscation and denial of passports, to restrict their travel abroad, according to a report last month from the Safeguard Defenders human rights group. Uyghurs who have traveled abroad, especially to places deemed sensitive like Turkey, are targeted for persecution.

“So how does that square with these people going abroad, vlogging from an airport? It just doesn’t,” said Peter Irwin, who works with Shamseden at the UHRP.

Liu, the Chinese Embassy spokesperson, told VOA: “Xinjiang has never restricted the freedom of movement of Uyghurs or people of any other ethnic group.”

The spokesperson did not reply to VOA’s query about whether Beijing was involved in these recent vlogs.

“We hope that the relevant personnel can let go of their preconceived prejudices and view Xinjiang and China under the principle of truthfulness, objectivity and fairness,” Liu said.

Shamseden said China’s frequent use of Uyghurs and Uyghur voices to whitewash reported abuses is common — and disturbing.

“To me, it’s alarming as well as very painful to hear Uyghurs say that the genocide is not happening to them,” Shamseden said.

It’s unclear whether the Uyghurs in the videos were forced to create them, Shamseden said. But she added that they were likely coerced.

“Maybe his parents, other relatives, family members are in the concentration camps,” she said. Between 1 million and 3 million people, mainly Uyghurs, have been arbitrarily detained in Xinjiang since 2017.

Abbas said this international travel vlog campaign underscores the lengths to which Beijing is going to cover up its abuses in Xinjiang.

“What the CCP is doing right now is they are using numerous tactics to manipulate public opinion and distort the truth and downplay the severity of the genocide and atrocities in our homeland,” Abbas said.