As further reports of torture and systemic rape emerge from Xinjiang, the PRC’s propaganda machine is hard at work in New Zealand. Laura Walters looks at why a Chinese New Year performance in Wellington was more than just cultural appropriation.
State-sponsored appropriation of Uyghur culture has been labelled “disgusting” and “disrespectful” by those whose families and communities are being persecuted by the Chinese Communist Party.
As part of Chinese New Year celebrations, the China Cultural Centre in Wellington put on a multicultural display, which was attended by Wellington Mayor Andy Foster, and supported by Council City Housing.
The Chinese Cultural Centre is part of the Chinese state’s united front apparatus. While it is a New Zealand incorporated society, it was founded and is managed by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of the People's Republic of China.
The new year display included New Zealand Han Chinese dancers, dressing up in the cultural dress of Uyghur Muslims, and performing a Uyghur dance.
The Uyghur community and China experts say this display goes further than cultural appropriation.
The greater concern is the concerted effort by the Chinese state to downplay the human rights abuses of more than a million Uyghur people, with endorsement from (probably unwitting) New Zealand politicians.
It's also noteworthy that Uyghur people only celebrate Chinese New Year under duress.
New Zealand Uyghurs who spoke to Newsroom said the display was offensive and showed China’s disregard for their culture.
New Zealand-based Uyghur man Shawudun Abdulgofur said he was "disgusted" at the appropriation of his people’s dance and culture as a Chinese state propaganda tool. But he wasn't surprised.
“This is very very disrespectful, considering that Uyghurs cannot practice our culture in East Turkestan.”
As reported by global media, Uyghur Muslim minority people in Xinjiang (also known as East Turkestan) are being subjected to mass detention, torture and systemic rape.
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Part of this persecution is the suppression of culture, language, religion and traditions.
International law specialists say China’s treatment of the Uyghur amounts to genocide.
Abdulgofur said this performance was an example of the Chinese Communist Party demonstrating its power to Chinese people living in New Zealand.
“That is to say, even within New Zealand territory, it can violate the traditions of other nations, and the New Zealand Government will allow it.”
He described it as “an aggression against the Uyghur customs and national identity”.
Abdulgofur said it also showed support for the genocide and cultural assimilation being carried out by China in the Xinjiang province.
Both New Zealand Uyghurs and China experts have questioned Andy Foster’s attendance at the event.
While he’s not the first politician to be used as part of Chinese state-sponsored propaganda, his attendance is at odds with the stance of a Government that has repeatedly criticised China’s treatment of Uyghur people.
Victoria University of Wellington Asian Studies lecturer Catherine Churchman said it was unlikely Foster realised he was endorsing Chinese state-backed propaganda when he attended the event and posed with the dancers.
But given the events in Xinjiang, his attendance was “tone deaf”, she said.
“Yes, it’s just a tiny little photo in a local Chinese newspaper, but Foster’s participation in these types of state-sponsored cultural activities can be used for propaganda purposes back home.”
Pictures with high-profile representatives would be used to imply China’s approach had the backing of New Zealand politicians.
“If nothing was going on in Xinjiang, I probably wouldn’t have complained about it other than with a sarcastic comment – it’s the fact that mass internment and state-backed elimination of Uyghur language and culture is going on right now that makes the dancing so utterly distasteful,” Churchman said.
Foster said it was a privilege to represent the city at this year’s Chinese New Year celebrations.
This particular event was held at the City Housing Tenants Chinese New Year celebrations in the Central Park Community Rooms, and received support from Council City Housing. The Chinese Cultural Centre itself did not receive any council funding.
Foster said the event was viewed as a way to encourage community connectivity.
“In the spirit of goodwill and in my role as the Mayor for all people of Wellington City, I appeared in a number of photos featuring the many groups at this event.”
Foster did not say whether he was aware the dancers were appropriating Uyghur culture, and whether he believed this was appropriate given the global context.
While Foster is the latest New Zealand politician to be used in this way, he's not the first.
In July last year, Grant Robertson, and other Wellington politicians Nicola Willis, Greg O'Connor and Brett Hudson, also posed with the cultural centre's dancers.
The politicians attended a similar display, which included Han Chinese performing a Uyghur dance, for Matariki.
Wellington MPs pictured with members of the China Cultural Centre, and a Han Chinese dancer dressed as a Uyghur Muslim, in 2020. Photo: Facebook
The China Cultural Centre said it had been teaching Chinese folk dance, including Uyghur dance, since its establishment in 2015.
“As promoters of Chinese culture we hope to celebrate and enjoy the different dance cultures that exist within China, thereby enhancing friendship and mutual understanding between New Zealand and China.”
The centre did not respond to specific questions about the decision to perform a Uyghur dance in the context of the mass detention in Xinjiang.
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The centre’s decision to showcase a Uyghur dance, and its comments about celebrating the country’s 56 ethnic groups, are in-line with Beijing’s messaging on this issue.
In a recent interview with POLITIK, China’s Ambassador to New Zealand, Wu Xi, made similar comments about the celebration of Uyghur culture, while denying the mass detention and attempts to erase religion, tradition and language.
“Xinjiang ethnic cultures make up an inseparable part of Chinese culture,” she said.
“All ethnic groups in China, regardless of their size or levels of development, are equal. They enjoy equal rights and are required to fulfill the same obligations in accordance with the law.”
Again, in sticking to the oft-repeated lines from Beijing, Wu pointed to economic growth, reduction of “separatist and extremist forces”, stating the concentration camps are actually re-education centres that did not breach human rights or international laws.
Similar points were made by Wu a year ago when the Chinese government used the Lunar New Year celebrations to remind New Zealand’s Chinese community of what the ambassador called the “great success” of its “counter-terrorism and deradicalization” programme in Xinjiang.
In 2020, the embassy hosted a propaganda exhibition at Te Papa about Xinjiang, where Wu told a mainly diaspora community that “the rights and interests of minority ethnic groups, women, children, seniors and the disabled have all become better protected".
“Not a single terrorist attack has occurred over the past three years.”
Aupito William Sio, as Associate Minister of Ethnic Affairs, was the only politician to attend that event, with the Prime Minister and other ministers attending an event in Auckland organised by the longstanding community organisation, the Chinese Community Centre.
University of Canterbury China expert professor Anne-Marie Brady said politicians should not be lending their prestige to China’s propaganda activities in New Zealand.
Politicians should avoid events like that held at Te Papa last year, and the China Cultural Centre performance in Wellington this year, she said.
“They should find ways to signal that they support the silent majority of New Zealand Chinese, and especially at this time, signal that they are in solidarity with the Uyghurs living in New Zealand, who are under massive pressure.”
Brady has repeatedly raised the issue of China’s United Front work in New Zealand, and how the state uses local organisations, like the China Cultural Centre, to help spread its desired messaging.
Her research and submissions to Parliamentary select committees have detailed practical examples of this, including how politicians have been used as part of the propaganda machine.
These organisations were used to control the diaspora community by setting and policing the boundaries on what constituted Chinese culture, Brady said.
And this practice was on display in Wellington earlier this month.
“Han Chinese dressing up as Uyghurs and performing traditional Uyghur dances is as offensive as blackface,” Brady said.