In August 2018, the United Nations reported serious concerns over human rights violations taking place in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the Northwest of China. At the same time, an international film crew was hard at work, shooting scenes for Walt Disney Pictures’ $200 million live action version of “Mulan” — a story based on a traditional Chinese folk tale about a young girl who impersonates a man, in order to join the military in battle against invading forces.

Just a short distance away from the cameras lay barbed-wire-fenced camps, where thousands of people were being held simply for belonging to majority-Muslim ethnic groups. The film’s credits include the Public Security Office of Turpan, a city that operates several such facilities. Calls for an international boycott from activists and advocacy groups followed the film’s release in March.

Despite the public outrage, Beijing’s efforts to maintain an appearance of normality in Xinjiang continue. Recently, a number of Chinese films have been produced in the region, promoting a rigid nationalist ideology and presenting state-sanctioned images of the region and its people.

Among them is “The Wings of Songs,” a lavish musical that premiered in 2019 in China’s capital to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. The movie was partly shot in Tacheng, on the border of China and Kazakhstan, an area where at least seven internment camps have been located by satellite imaging. The film promotes national, pan-ethnic unity by showing friendships between young Kazakhs, Uyghurs and people from the nation’s Han majority traveling across a vibrant and colorful region to share their passion for music and dance. 

Commissioned by the Xinjiang regional propaganda department, “The Wings of Songs” was directed by the Uyghur comedian Abdukerim Abliz. That same year, Abliz also co-directed of “Kunlun Brothers”, shot in the region’s south to promote the “pair-up campaign” — an initiative that mandated one million Han civil servants sent to live in Uyghur households, with the aim of encouraging host families to embrace non-traditional, secular lifestyles. 

Both films were produced by the Tianshan film studio. Established in 1959, this state-owned company built a reputation for producing a range of Chinese and Uyghur-language films and employing a diverse staff. However, since the 1980s, it has employed only a handful of Uyghur filmmakers. Now, the overwhelming majority of its employees are Han. The studio’s output perfectly illustrates the compliant role envisioned by the Chinese state for Uyghurs within its nation-building project. It also plays a significant part in shaping national perceptions of Han-Uyghur relations.

The Tianshan studio was primarily created to produce “ethnic minority-themed films,” a cinematic category used to promote national unity within China. 

Its first production, “Two Generations” (1960), depicts Han and Uyghurs united against a common enemy in the Sino-Japanese war, which ran from 1937-1945. Using traditional song and dance to keep audiences entertained, “Analkhan” (1962) promotes the liberation of Uyghur women from feudal life by Han officials from Beijing. 

During the ten-year-long Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966 and aimed to purge all remaining elements of capitalism from Chinese society, most studios were shuttered. Tianshan’s activities resumed in 1979 with “The Guide, another production venerating Uyghur and Han solidarity against foreign adversaries. 

In these films, all of which are shot in the Mandarin language, the Uyghur region is depicted as unstable, underdeveloped and its people too weak to free themselves from a backward-looking culture dominated by oppressive religious leaders. Only the Han can bring peace, prosperity, and usher them into modernity. 

Uyghurs are portrayed as either uncivilized and violent, or vulnerable and helpless victims. In contrast to characters from the Han majority, considered as the norm or the ordinary, Uyghurs are the “exotic Other” in extravagant outfits. In that sense, Chinese representations of Uyghurs are akin to orientalist images of “natives” in colonial contexts. They also display stereotypes that maintain a racial hierarchy, similar to Hollywood depictions of African-Americans, or Australian depictions of aborigines.

Chinese cinema goes global

In the late 1990s, sweeping economic reforms transformed Chinese cinema into a commercial industry. The Chinese film industry started to engage with Hollywood productions, releasing competitive blockbusters on the international market such as “Hero” or “The House of Flying Daggers” in the early 2000s. Although new regulations led to a diversification of genres and filmmakers, studios were still tasked with upholding the policies of the Chinese Communist Party.

In this new era, movies concerning ethnic minorities shifted focus to ecological and cultural concerns. “Turpan Love Song” (2006), directed by Jin Lini and Shirzat Yaqüp, alternates between Bollywood-style sequences shot in scenic spots and praise of the CCP’s economic and environmental achievements in the region. Cameras repeatedly focus on wind turbines as a symbol of green development.

The film also highlights the preservation of cultural heritage in several heavily exoticized song and dance scenes, performed by actors in traditional dress. Uyghurs are portrayed as benefiting from Beijing’s development policies and warmly welcoming Han soldiers. The last scene shows a newlywed couple traveling on a modern coach, past a vista of wind farms, the CCP’s emblem shining on the groom’s military cap.

Maimaiti’s 2008,” directed by Yaqüp, was shot in the same area. In the film, a soccer coach starts a local youth team and convinces parents to help their children to “pursue their dream” and attend the Olympic opening ceremony in Beijing. 

“Maimaiti’s 2008”, is a fictionalized account of a Uyghur youth football team who “pursue their dream” and attend the Olympic opening ceremony in Beijing.

Uyghur villagers are portrayed as ignorant and uneducated, living in a barren landscape and traveling by horse-drawn carriages. At first, they do not understand what either soccer or the Olympics are, but eventually embrace the importance of the event and the game as an aspirational, international sport.

Their children, on the other hand, represent not only hope for a better future, they are also ideal citizens. While there are no significant Han characters, the coach functions as a link between the Uyghur village and the state, reminding his charges that “they are all Chinese.” 

The members of his team take the names of Han soccer stars and look forward to futures as bakers or traditional drum makers. Their ambitions show that carefully selected elements of Uyghur culture, such as food and music, are tolerated within a Han-dominated nation. Islam, however, is rarely mentioned in contemporary cinematic depictions of Uyghurs.

In the same vein, “Shewket’s Summer” (2012), directed by Pan Yu, follows a young Han singer, Luobin, who longs to escape from a hectic life in the capital. In Xinjiang, he meets young Shewket and his father, Tahir, a Uyghur folk musician who helps him recapture his creative muse and collect songs to be recorded for his Beijing-based label.

A still from “Shewket’s Summer”, which tells the story of a young Han singer who travels to Xinjiang.

The film appears to be loosely based on the real-life story of composer Wang Luobin, who, until his death in 1996, was renowned for his Mandarin-language interpretations of Xinjiang-style music. Wang was accused of appropriating folk songs from the region and selling them for his own benefit. 

Although “Shewket’s Summer,” like other films of its kind, seeks to promote the Chinese state’s vision of pan-ethnic and peaceful coexistence, it actually underscores a reality in which representations of Uyghurs rest almost exclusively in the hands of an increasingly authoritarian regime.