On a sunny summer day in the South Australia city of Adelaide in late January 2018, scores of community groups marched through the streets in a parade to celebrate Australia Day.
Among them was the South Australia Xinjiang Association, a non-profit organization set up in 2009 that provides a platform for Chinese migrants from the region in north western China to meet one another and network.
The group also has a more nefarious purpose, two researchers say in a new report on China’s efforts to tamp down global criticism of its policies in Xinjiang, where well-documented reports have uncovered widespread abuses toward Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups.
The Han Chinese-dominated South Australia Xinjiang Association, which has the backing of China’s diplomatic mission to Australia, “claims the right to speak on behalf of the Xinjiang diaspora while neutralizing the legitimate concerns of the Uyghur community about Beijing’s human rights abuses in the Uyghur homeland,” write Lin Li, and independent researcher, and James Leibold, a senior fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s International Cyber Policy Centre,
Dozens of SA Xinjiang Association members displayed a huge banner bearing the group’s name as they marched wearing the traditional attire of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities, despite objections from some of the city’s 1,500 Uyghur residents that the Han Chinese were appropriating their culture, which Chinese authorities back home were working to extinguish through a harsh campaign of forced assimilation.
Adding insult to injury, the association won the best costume award, its members triumphantly posing for photos with Jay Weatherill, who was then the premier of South Australia, boosting the group’s public profile.
Some Uyghurs later complained to the Adelaide City Council that the parade march by the Han Chinese was an intentional by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) effort at “a soft propaganda publicity act” to distract from the communist Chinese government’s persecution of Uyghurs, including members of their own families.
The CCP uses deceptive and coercive influence operations around the globe to undermine Uyghurs living outside China, often through the United Front Work Department (UFWD), say Li and Leibold in their 65-page policy paper, titled “Cultivating Friendly Forces: The Chinese Communist Party’s Influence Operations in the Xinjiang Diaspora.”
The UFWD gathers information about and attempts to influence individuals and organizations inside and outside China to ensure they are supportive of or useful to the party’s interests.
The information collected is also used to harass Uyghurs and other minorities living overseas, the report says. Community organizations with innocuous-sounding names serve as conduits for propaganda about Xinjiang in an effort to dispute the well-documented human rights abuses in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), the researchers say.
“What we were trying to do in this report is to open up another window onto the strategy of the Chinese Communist Party in its very complex and decentralized united front system,” Leibold told RFA in an interview. “And that is the efforts to co-opt Chinese overseas community organizations who would have members which had some links to Xinjiang.”
Since 2017, Chinese authorities have ramped up a clampdown on Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in the XUAR through arbitrary arrests and lengthy detentions. An estimated 1.8 million members of these groups have been held in internment camps, where some experienced severe human rights abuses, torture, rape and forced labor.
“The SA Xinjiang Association, which is part of a large network of Xinjiang-linked overseas groups, might not be immediately recognizable as closely aligned with the CCP and its united front system, but our research demonstrates how the CCP actively cultivates community organizations, such as the SA Xinjiang Association, as conduits for advancing the party’s agenda abroad and obscuring — or even silencing — the voices of Uyghurs and other critics of its policies in Xinjiang,” the report says.
‘Tool to exert influence’
The report cites three other case studies of organizations like the SA Xinjiang Association that work to neutralize or silence criticism of CCP policies in Xinjiang.
“It’s a tool of the Chinese Communist Party to exert its influence amongst the entire diasporic community and really undermine democratic values and institutions in places like the United States, Canada and Australia,” said Leibold, who has been blacklisted by the CCP. “The starting point really is to expose the way the system operates, its aims, its ambitions and its strategies.”
“By offering up four case studies, we tried to expose the kind of inner workings of these community organizations and their direct links back to the united front system and the Chinese Communist Party,” he said.
The CCP gathers intelligence on its critics, maintains databases of former and current Xinjiang residents with overseas connections, and establishes research institutes that suggest policies to lawmakers in their respective countries, the report states.
The tactics also include cultivating overseas community leaders and sending officials tasked with qiaowu — overseas Chinese affairs —to conduct united front work, while inviting targets residing abroad to China.
The CCP taps into business networks, offers political honors for its backers, and stages cultural performances to “nurture friendly forces for China” through language schools and summer camps in a widespread public relations campaign.
“It’s easy to get duped into thinking these are just normal cultural activities,” Leibold said.
The researchers used Chinese-language media reports, government documents and social media posts to track groups and individuals promoting the CCP’s Xinjiang narrative and policies overseas.
They urge other researchers to document human rights abuses in the XUAR and call on governments to hold China accountable for its repressive policies there.
They also recommend that media, NGOs and research institutes increase public awareness of the links between community organizations in the Xinjiang diaspora and the CCP and ask on law enforcement and civil society groups to disrupt the CCP’s ability to interfere.