A Guardian study in propaganda

19 Oct

The Guardian on Tuesday, October 19:

Chinese effort to gather ‘micro clues’ on Uyghurs laid bare in report

Helen Davidson in Tapei  and Vincent Ni

A vendor selling naan bread waits for customers on a street under surveillance cameras in Shule county, Xinjiang.

I’ll start with the byline. Vincent Ni – his grandfather fought with Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang against the communists – has a profile here. For her part, Helen Davidson featured in my April 11 post on the Uighurs. I began that post with a general observation:

Few things are more predictable than the demonising by corporate media of ‘regimes’ which obstruct Wall St. And nothing has rattled Wall St more than the rise, faster than foretold, of China from sweatshop for the West to global challenger of dollar hegemony.

In demonising China, the strand on Xinjiang’s Uighurs is front runner 1Here’s Roderic Day under the header, The Xinjiang Propaganda Blitz:

  1. The rise of Xi Jinping and the Belt & Road Initiative posed a serious challenge to American supremacy much earlier than they were expecting, so
  2. the US amped up its funding of terrorism, as per Brzezinski’s Afghan Trap but
  3. instead of sending in the PLA, repeating the error of the Soviets, China reacted by building schools and vocational programs.
  4. So the US desperately pivoted to crying “genocide” despite lack of evidence. 2

I then went on to a story the Guardian had run two days earlier:

We learned this week of suspended death sentences for two former education officials. This April 9 report by the Guardian’s Helen Davidson, based in Taiwan, begins:

A Chinese court has issued a suspended death sentence to the former directors of the Xinjiang education department for charges including writing and publishing school textbooks it said were designed to “split the country”.

[Two] were given death sentences with a two-year reprieve, while five other Uyghur men … were given lengthy jail terms, according to state media … amid a PR offensive pushing back on international criticism of its abuses in the Xinjiang region.

I note that “charges including”. Why does she not say what the other charges were? (Or what steps she took to find out.) Could “charges including writing and publishing text books” also include murder, treason or incitement to the same? Assuming she is honest – which I will until shown to be wrong – why won’t she do her job?

That was in April. Here again is the opening image, a Xinjiang street scene, for this Tuesday’s story. The caption has one purpose: to alert us to the surveillance camera.

A vendor selling naan bread waits for customers on a street under surveillance cameras in Shule county, Xinjiang.

Subtext: see how a paranoid Beijing spies on its own! As with all propaganda, advertising not excepted, it bypasses conscious thought to tap primal beliefs, fed in this case by lifetimes of absorbing – in school, family and church; from press and news broadcast, page-turning thriller and onscreen entertainment – the message that states with socialised property relations, and by that fact anathema to the privatised relations the Guardian’s business model obliges it to serve, are invariably and necessarily brutal and repressive.

There’s a self fulfilling aspect to this. States on which the most powerful capitalisms declare war, hot or cold, adopt a siege mentality unconducive to civil liberties. Not that this applies solely to imperialism’s enemies. Has it not legitimated the West’s own inroads – on habeas corpus, internment without trial, extraordinary rendition, ‘enhanced interrogation’ and much besides – all made in the name of the ‘War on Terror’?

Propaganda works below the radar of critical reasoning. If we were to subject its subtexts to rational scrutiny their grip would weaken. We might ask awkward questions. Like why, in this case, the Guardian saw fit to alert us to spy cameras in Xinjiang as something creepily exotic – when we in the West have long been subject to these and other surveillance tools beyond the wildest dreams of 20th century totalitarianism. 3

If we in the West weren’t so historically and geographically uninformed we might actually know how our own rulers have used Islamist extremism, to further imperial ends, in an unbroken line from Lawrence of Arabia, through the Mujahadeen of cold war Afghanistan and Israel’s use of Hamas against Fatah, to those ‘moderate Islamists’ – what US economist Michael Hudson calls America’s Foreign Legion – deployed to bring down Ba’athism in Syria.

We might even get out a map to see just why the US Empire would be up to its old tricks in this neck of the woods …

… and recall Roderic Day’s words:

Belt & Road posed a serious challenge to US supremacy earlier than expected, so the US amped up its funding of terror in the region, as per Brzezinski’s Afghan Trap but instead of sending in the PLA, as the Soviets had, China reacted by building schools and vocational programs so the US and its allies desperately pivoted to accusing them of “genocide”.

I should make something clear. When I say “the Guardian saw fit to alert us to spy cameras in Xinjiang as creepily exotic”, I don’t mean Davidson, Ni and caption writer set out to advance a war-mongering agenda. On the one hand they will have spent their own “lifetimes absorbing the message that states with socialised property relations are repressive …”

On the other, journalists who know what’s good for them please editors. Editors who know what’s good for them please owners. Owners not only crave honours and a seat at the high table. More fundamentally, they need advertisers and/or wealthy donors.


But what did Ms Davidson and Mr Ni actually say in Tuesday’s Guardian? Here are their two opening paragraphs:

Authorities in … Xinjiang are using predictive policing and human surveillance to gather “micro clues” about Uyghurs and empower neighbourhood informants to ensure compliance at every level of society, according to a report.

The research by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) thinktank detailed Xinjiang authorities’ expansive use of grassroots committees, integrated with China’s extensive surveillance technology, to police their Uyghur neighbours’ movements – and emotions.

To be fair, the article’s penultimate paragraph does slip in a word or two on ASPI:

The ASPI report – funded partly by the UK, Australian and US governments [my emphasis] – adds to a growing body of evidence of Beijing’s crackdown in Xinjiang. China’s government has been accused by Human Rights Watch and legal groups of committing “crimes against humanity”, while some western governments have formally declared the government to be conducting a “genocide”.

But as the lowliest cub reporter knows, news stories are written to the pyramid principle. The most important content is top-loaded for busy readers who will take in the first two or three paragraphs then move on. Many of those who scan this story will never get to learn that its entire basis is the report of a think-tank funded by the very imperialist powers whose super-exploitation of the global south is threatened by China’s rise. 4

And those who do get to that information will encounter it tucked away in an embedded sub-clause saying ASPI is part funded by said imperialist powers. But why the silence on who else part funds ASPI?

In my August 13 post I cited Caitlin Johnstone on warmongering “think tanks” in general, and ASPI in particular.

our consciousness is pummelled with think tank narratives on China. See a headline about the Chinese boogeyman and it will almost always be authored by a sleazy think tank or based on the work of one. A few weeks ago 60 Minutes Australia ran a hysterical segment branding New Zealand “New Xi-Land” because its government didn’t perfectly align with Washington on one aspect of its cold war agenda. It featured an interview with an Australian Strategic Policy Institute spinmeister as well as the ASPI office ...

… Says APAC News’ Marcus Reubenstein:

ASPI is funded by the governments of Britain, Japan and Taiwan as well as NATO. Among corporate supporters are ThalesBAE Systems RaytheonSAABNorthrop GrummanMDBA Missile Systems Naval Group.

The military industrial complex – its revolving door/pork barrel access to political processes making a nonsense of democracy – will of course weaponise ‘human rights’. But although Ni and Davidson rely pivotally on ASPI, they also say in this penultimate paragraph that:

China’s government has been accused by Human Rights Watch … of committing “crimes against humanity” …

Two points here, one general and one specific. The use of such smear constructs as “has been accused of …” – variants include “it is thought that …” and “sources say …” – are evidentially worthless. But when they chime with overarching narratives, they do their work on the more dimly lit corridors – no smoke without fire – of consciousness.

(I speak here of a macro instantiation of a trend I’ve noted more than once at the micro end of things in a sly erosion, frequently in the name of high ideals, of the presumption of innocence. All too often, to be accused of something – anti-semitism, say, or transphobia – is to be guilty of the same.)

More specifically, HRW and other NGOs uncritically viewed as serving no ulterior agendas can and do advance the imperial interests of their more powerful funders. See Edinburgh University Professor Tim Hayward on this subject.

Tim’s context is Syria but this goes wider. In those murky worlds where empire agendas, media propaganda, ideology-as-common-sense and agencies genuinely seeking to alleviate suffering all interact on informational battlefields, they do so in ways which serve the interests of power. The ‘think tanks’ lambasted by Caitlin are corrupt through and through. But while I would not say the same of HRW or Amnesty, these entities are immune neither from powerful ideological currents nor the corruptions, gross or subtle, of moneys accepted For The Greater Good.

But let’s not get too complicated about all this. The bottom line is a Guardian which purports to stand for humanitarian and progressive values (but is best understood as a business catering to markets which want these things in selective and watered down forms) basing a news story – one more small piece in a lethal mosaic – on nothing more than the report of a risible source.

And not coming clean about the fact.

But of this we can be sure. Should the worst actually happen, the Guardian will be doing what it does best – wringing its hands over outcomes it did so much to bring about.

* * *

  1. In recent months, claims of Uighur ‘genocide’ have been ousted from Sinophobia’s top slot by escalations over Taiwan. More recent still, Business Insider, Economist, Wall Street Journal et al have opened another front in piece after doom-saying piece – aimed at Western investors drawn to Belt & Road – on China’s economy running out of puff. I doubt that’s true, though given the crucial role in capitalism of market confidence, such claims can also be self fulfilling. Which is undoubtedly the point. But in the unlikely event China’s economy really is hitting the skids, expect to hear a good deal less of Xinjiang, Taiwan and all those other arenas in a propaganda war which may serve a Bill Gates or George Soros but brings us closer to the triggering, whether by design or miscalculation, of war between nuclear powers.
  2. The Roderic Day piece is one of several comprehensive take-downs of a Xianjiang ‘genocide’ narrative reliant on the methodologically appalling work – an African-American damning of its flaws is given by Alabama’s Birmingham Post, a Chinese dissection by CGNT here – of Adrian Zenz, a Christian evangelist who says God has ordered him to fight the scourge of communism. Another closely argued take-down of Mr Zenz is this analysis by Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research. More telling yet, even senior officials in the US State Department have rejected the genocide thesis championed by Mike “we lied, we cheated, we stole” Pompeo and recycled by Team Biden. But weak or disproved evidence has never stood in the way of propaganda blitzes on challenges to empire. That all Uighur genocide claims draw crucially on Zenz is obscured by a Ponzi of stacked and circular-referencing sources which – as with the propaganda blitz on Syria – conjure up a seemingly incontestable indictment sheet, diversely sourced and hugely corroborated. That’s how propaganda works, given corporate media’s business models.
  3. On “surveillance tools beyond the wildest dreams of 20th century totalitarianism”, it’s not just the ubiquitous spy cams – estimated here at between four and six million in the UK; one for every dozen or so citizens. Other aspects are our addiction to smart-phones and use of plastic for the smallest and most mundane of purchases. We swim in a goldfish bowl. This is irreversible but what we could – conceivably – change are the agendas and interests served by those who spy on us. Rule by and for the few, or rule by and for the many?
  4. Here I apply my standard definition of imperialism as the export of monopoly capital from global north to south, and the repatriation of profits from south to north. As for it being threatened by China’s rise, let me give a key example. It is the explicit purpose – see footnote 1 of my post of June 13 – of IMF and World Bank loans to ‘developing’ countries that repayment terms oblige them to privatise state sectors at fire sale prices snapped up on Wall Street. The Belt & Road vision of lifting the global south from centuries of impoverishment, informed by a CCP view that rising prosperity for all is good for China too, is reflected in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and similar entities. Like the major non US imperialisms, with which it has similarities as well as marked differences, China can’t absorb its own surpluses. (Arising as they do from trade with a USA which, since Bretton Woods 1945 and Nixon’s 1973 delinking of dollar from gold, has made both debt and deficit profitable via what France’s Valery Giscard d’Estaing called “America’s exorbitant privilege”.) As with the ‘developed’ world, China’s surplus dollars are recycled through US Treasury bonds. Now it seeks to reduce these holdings, and the attendant exposure. AIIB, and other state-private collaborations like the Shanghai Pudong Development Bank, are looking to reinvest elsewhere. One consequence, as other big economies – with even EU states tempted to jump ship – prepare for a de-dollarised world, is an end to America’s long decades of free-lunching at the expense of creditor economies. Another, more to the point here, is China offering debtor nations in the global south a less punitive alternative to the Chicago School medicine of IMF/ World Bank loans. While the West slumbers on, dreaming its dreams of America’s essential goodness, those of us who are halfways awake are taking stock of just how far, on past form, USA Inc. will be prepared to go to avert either consequence.

6 Replies to “A Guardian study in propaganda

  1. Good work Phil. I saw the article and couldn’t bring myself to read it – so thanks once again for doing the hard yards.

  2. Two observations:

    1. Its not just the Guardian pushing these kinds of narratives. To a varying degree, depending on the specific issue, it is certainly the case that vociferous sections of the self-referenced political ‘left’ are doing a great deal of heavy lifting and water carrying for the imperialist and other narratives of the political right – whether neo-liberal or neo-conservative.

    On both the Uighur genocide claims and Syria, for example, the Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL) are doing a sterling job for the empire. Whether this is down to the naivety of useful idiots or the AWL, and possibly others, being yet another in a long line of cuckoos in the nest remains to be seen.

    As analysed here: https://davehansell.substack.com/p/cuckoos-in-the-nest

    2. This is occurring across a range of issues at multiple levels. From Israel/Palestine/Zionism/Anti Antisemitism moral panics through to the conveniently labelled (as with the old chestnut ‘Conspiracy Theory meme) ‘culture wars’ around sex/gender.

    Whether its officially supported narratives across multiple organisations and institutions about ‘official enemies’ to justify imperial adventures/war crimes; the smearing of the politically inconvenient – see here for example – the weaponisation of AntiSemitism; or the class politics destruction to be found in multiple ‘woke’ hierarchies of oppression which merely serve to perpetuate a capitalist and imperialist model; the key features and process used and at work are the same.

    A rejection of all notions of due process in favour of a controlled mob rule and non-negotiable imposition of official narratives backed by institutional force. Whether its Kathleen Stocks former Trade Union; the entity formally known as the Labour Party at war with its own members and voters; Jo Phoenix’s employer, the Open University or the police in the case of Marion Miller and others – the latest being the PSNI v Ceri Black – elites, using sections who claim to be on the political left as shock troops, have seemingly declared war on anyone who is not them.

    As Alastair Crooke observes in one of the above provided links:

    The liberals, the bien pensants (as Thomas Frank has called them) — the ‘winners’, that is — who read The New York Times and The Washington Post and listen to NPR and watch MSNBC and CNN, who went to good colleges and got all kinds of professional credentials, are certainly well-informed enough to know that the future is all about global capitalism. And they know that, if they play by the rules, global capitalism has a place for them. Furthermore, they know (or could easily figure it out), that global capitalism does not have a place for life’s losers. But that’s just tough shit, isn’t it? (ditto in the UK)

    The bottom line is a concerted institutional level gaslighting across Oceania designed to divide and rule with the objective of destroying class based unity and with it any internal opposition to a narrowing Overton Window. Disguising this as ‘progressive’ and using sections of the self-identifying ‘left’ to own and push what is at heart a Randian approach is sheer bloody genius on the part of the political right.

    • From the limited experience I have of Workers Liberty, I would say – cuckoo. They seem to have a pro-zionist-apologetics agenda, with all the associated attributes.

      As for NGO culpability in Western apologetics, you don’t need to look any further than the OPCW, whose leadership has been so rudely exposed by the investigators on the ground. I imagine that this is symptomatic of them all – why would it not be? I currently support Médecins Sans Frontières, but I have recently come across reports that they too are not as pure as presumed. Not inspiring!

      • Is the OPCW, a body tasked by the UN to investigate allegations of chemical weapons use, a NGO? Whatever, I take your point. Seemingly impartial bodies, whether through naivete or something darker, can do sterling work for empire.

        Everybody heard of its report on Douma. But the revelations of how the most senior OPCW officials were arm-twisted by US State Department and caved in – doctoring the Douma Report by distorting the findings of its investigations team and then lying about the latter – received scant coverage other than in Peter Hitchen’s Daily Mail column.

        MSF – doctors without borders – are the subject of another of Tim Hayward’s pieces. Here’s the link.

    • Thanks for the Cheri Black link, Dave. My, how things have changed within living memory! Her challenge to the “Northern Ireland” police – no longer cracking ‘taig’ skulls but enforcing a highly contentious ‘social inclusion’ – is powerful.

      You picked on the wrong lesbian!

      • These two different but related pieces also highlight the gaslighting propaganda processes whose narratives are being imposed across and at every level of social discourse:



        The first from the recent LGB Conference, picketed by signs which in any other context would see those pickiting arrested for what is in reality selectively applied ‘hate crime”*; and which also featured official Amnesty logo signage (‘I am what I say I am’ – which, from a purely self interested point of view provides some measure of optimism that Amnesty might well be amenable to supporting my campaign to be officially recognised as 120 years of age so I can access fifty odd years of pension ‘back pay’ and other benefits, like winter fuel allowance?).

        The second from the recent Belmarsh Tribunal featuring a powerful and salient contribution from Snowden.

        * The latest example being the reported complaint to the police about the banner displayed by Crystal Palace spectators at their home game with Newcastle on Saturday which highlighted the appalling Human Rights record of those behind the Saudi fund which has recently been permitted tp purchase Newcastle. Apparently, in oligarchical capitalisms hierarchy of oppression they rank higher than Yemenis, opposition journalists and the LGB and T communities.

        Who’d have thought?

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