After strenuously denying it for many months, China’s government in mid-October suddenly admitted that the Xinjiang concentration camps exist. However, it now tries to present a propaganda picture of benign “vocational training centres,” rolled out to deal with people who pose a threat to social order.

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Chinese state media last week purported to show life in a Xinjiang “education centre.” Photo: CCTV screenshot.

At this point, we should remember that both the Nazis and the Soviets also tried to present their horrific concentration camps to the world in very similar terms — as benign and necessary.

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Camp prisoners must sing the Chinese song “If there was no Communist Party there’d be no New China”, or they get no food. Screenshot of a smuggled-out image via RFA.

And what is more, many foreigners believed them – in both cases. Foreign journalists visited, and were duly fooled into believing that what they were shown of the camps was typical. Editors printed their glowing assessments — along with pictures that had been meticulously arranged for them by those running the camps:

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The Illustrated London News from 1934, showing happy trainees in the first Nazi camp, at Dachau. From the Dachau memorial site exhibits. Photo by the author, 21 September 2018.

The Nazis scored many such propaganda victories: Getting foreigners to visit and fooling them to write that prisoners were well cared for – even “better than at home” in the concentration camps. Everything was clean and orderly:

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From the Dachau memorial site exhibits, citing a Dutch pastor and even a Red Cross official. Photo by the author, 21 September 2018.

The Nazi camps were not a secret at home, either: Just like in China now, the Nazi regime justified the lawless camps to an obliging general population by whipping up fear, and also by showing them a (fake) “enforced order” in the camps:

Illustrierter Beobachter
Camp scene in the Illustrierter Beobachter, 1938. From the Dachau memorial site exhibits.

We should note that this Nazi projection is very similar to the domestic propaganda circulated by Chinese authorities, before they realized that foreign scholars were paying attention, and that it could be used as evidence against them.

This includes the perhaps most iconic photo from inside the camps, originally published by the Chinese authorities themselves. But like many other pieces of evidence, it is no longer found on China’s internet:

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Photo posted by the Xinjiang Judicial Administration to its WeChat account, April 2017, showing detainees at a camp in Lop county, Hotan prefecture, Xinjiang. Photo: RFA, Oct. 2, 2018; cf. WaybackMachine Internet Archive, April 17, 2017.

The image is similar to the Nazi domestic propaganda above: It plays on the fears among the general Chinese population, showing them that “see, we are very harsh to these people, innocent or not – we have armed guards, who force them to sit on the ground; in rows; behind barbed wire.”

The Chinese state TV propaganda film broadcast on October 16 by CCTV 13 was obviously directed primarily at foreigners ahead of the UN human rights review of China’s case on November 6, in Geneva.

Large amounts of satellite imagery and other research, along with many eyewitness accounts, have amply confirmed the existence and the horror of the camps (see here, here, here, and here; and you must see this) — so, something had to be done, beyond the earlier blanket denial.

So, we now have this production. Similar to Nazi propaganda, it avoids the punitive horror camps, or aspects such as the many elderly people that are interned there; instead, it shows young students’ coerced testimonies, and images of the camps as if they were schools. The whole conceit has been thoroughly analysed and debunked.

Photo: CCTV screenshot.

When I see clips from this revolting piece re-broadcast on Swedish public television and elsewhere, without the editors telling its viewers that these are pictures heavily arranged by the regime propagandists, I wonder how this is possible:

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Screenshot from Swedish television, 18 October 2018, showing Chinese propaganda images.

This time around, will free news media be able to refrain from “taking the bait,” and instead critically assess the camps propaganda served to them?

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Where the prisoner barracks once stood in Dachau. Photo by the author, Dachau memorial site outside Munich, 21 Sept. 2018.

Or will we once again see news media help play concentration camp cover-up?

After a trip to China in 1977-78, Magnus Fiskesjö studied Chinese at Lund University in his native Sweden. He's been a student of all things Chinese ever since. From 1985-88, he served as Cultural Attaché at Sweden's embassy in Beijing, and from 2000-2005 as Director of Sweden's Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, in Stockholm. Since 2005, he has taught anthropology and Asian studies at Cornell University in the US. His recent research has focused on China's forced confessions, including as practiced in the Xinjiang camps.