Performing Fata Morgana for Political Ploy: The Cases of Brazil and China

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China - Artigo Performing Fata Morgana

Popular among the medieval legends, Fata Morgana was the Italian name for Morgan le Fay (meaning “Morgan the Fairy”). She was the half-sister of the legendary King Arthur and said to have had a number of magical powers, with which caused a great deal of trouble. Some versions of the legend say that she was skilled in the arts of healing and of changing shape. Because of her abilities and magic powers, Morgan has been blamed for causing complex mirages over bodies of water. Today we know that such optical illusions are caused by atmospheric conditions, but we still tend to use the word Fata Morgana as a synonym for mirage. The Stanford Dictionary of Anglicized Words and Phrases, suggested that Fata Morgana can be used as a metaphor for any illusory appearance.

Apart from the optics – which is known as the science concerned with the genesis and propagation of light, the changes that it undergoes and produces, and other phenomena associated with it like the Fata Morgana – some IR critical analyses also make room for classifying some performances played by heads of state and government as illusory appearances. Since these illusory appearances do not correspond to reality, it is worth describing them as Fata Morganas for political ploy.

This term suits well enough for defining certain performances played by world leaders in important events of great magnitude and visibility, and that are intended to manipulate a false image in the eyes of the international community. These performances take place in formal settings which Leander called “staging,” where “[…] the nature of the international forms the stage, the nature of the actors comprises the cast, and the performative role of discourse and language is the script” (Leander, 2011, p. 296). Leander’s analysis of ‘staging’ leads us to consider important events of global interest as a commonplace for well-orchestrated performances that bring about a false sensation in the international community that the performers could be dealing well with human rights standards.

Engaged in manipulative presentations of their ‘Selves’ as moral agents, protectors and safeguards of human rights, the performers of Fata Morgana are nothing but the opposite. Whereas their internal policies find expression in harmful and deadly practices against indigenous and minority groups, they tend to reinforce a cynical rhetoric of heroism in the international stage, usually through fictitious and forged performances. Taking Huysmans’ words for granted when he says that “[…] politics emerges in the spectacle as a drama” (Huysmans, 2006, p. 72), this article proposes looking at and understanding some practices within the realm of world politics as staged theatrical performances.

The mirage of an ‘Indigenous friendly type of guy’

The 38th Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has been accused by indigenous organizations of persecuting native peoples and destroying their homelands. These organizations have even asked the International Criminal Court to investigate whether Bolsonaro’s actions – which include weakening environmental protections and encouraging private development of the Amazon, thus leading to the displacement of Indigenous people and contributing to climate change – constitute crimes against humanity.

The Brazilian President believes that it was necessary to open up the rainforest to new exploitation and lift communities out of poverty. This is the reason why Bolsonaro facilitates more exploitation for a supposed economic development. Meanwhile, mines run by global corporations in the Amazon have been associated with toxic spills, river pollution and the destruction of indigenous communities. This prompted world leaders, like Pope Francis and French President Emmanuel Macron, to support a campaign for a new typification of crime called “ecocide,” which aims to outlaw widespread destruction of the environment.

To have an idea of Bolsonaro’s rampant deforestation of the Amazon, official figures demonstrated that only in a time period of seven months (from January to July 2021), an area nearly the size of Puerto Rico had already been destroyed. The request for the International Criminal Court to launch an investigation into Bolsonaro’s actions turned out to be the latest turn in a debate over whether mass environmental damage should be prosecuted as an international crime. For some scholars like Renzo Taddei, Rodrigo Bulamah and Salvador Schavelzon, Brazil became one of the main examples of the destructive forces of populist extreme-right-wing governments. They also come into the argument that indigenous and traditional populations, the environment, and welfare state services became obstacles for the reactionary agenda proposed by Jair Bolsonaro’s government.

Henyo Trindade Barretto Filho reminds that Brazil’s insertion in the global economy as a provider of primary resources and commodities with low technological input for export has always persisted, which resulted in the prevalence of a ‘neo-extractivist’ economy in the Amazon. In his opinion, this leads to violent outcomes in the territories and lives of local communities, who have been fighting against this model and the restriction of their rights. Nonetheless, the novelty of Bolsonaro lies, pursuant to Barretto Filho, in the release of these vectors through reiterating the xenophobic argument that foreign interference in Indigenous Lands and environmental protection hampers the country’s progress, ceasing to demarcate Indigenous Lands and opening protected territories to business-related schemes.

In the international arena, however, Jair Bolsonaro attempts to be the protagonist of a self-created political spectacle when it comes to contriving a false image of himself as an ‘Indigenous friendly type of guy.’ Bolsonaro’s delusive speech at the 74th UN General Assembly in 2019 is worthy of the character. In his address to the UN General Assembly, Bolsonaro has been on a mission to rehabilitate his Brazil’s image, particularly after international criticism for his handling of the Amazon wildfires. “My administration has solemnly committed itself to environmental preservation and to sustainable development,” Bolsonaro told the assembly during his surreal speech.

The UN stage is frequently used by world leaders for their performative roles. The General Assembly at the UN Headquarters in New York reveals to be an interesting opportunity for heads of state to get dressed on a sort of ‘superhero suit’ with all eyes on them. Bolsonaro’s attempt to present himself and his current administration as eco-friendly and safeguard of human rights standards is not new among leaders. In his speech at the 72nd UN General Assembly Justin Trudeau openly declared that “we have been working hard to correct past injustices and bring about a better quality of life for Indigenous Peoples in Canada.” In the meantime, the nation under Trudeau has continued to push fossil fuel projects in which environmentalists and Indigenous peoples say are damaging the region.

Critics have also accused Trudeau of mishandling interactions with the Indigenous attorney general and the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women. In a similar fashion, the Prime Minister of Australia Scott Morison declared at the 76th UN General Assembly in 2021 that “our First Peoples remind us that caring for our country is the essence of our shared humanity.” Meanwhile, Scott Morison has been accused by human rights activists of perpetrating racist policies and systems against indigenous peoples.

Back to Bolsonaro’s performance at the UN stage, what differentiates him from other politicians’ performative roles was the fact that he brought with Brazil’s official delegation Ysani Kapalo, a rare pro-Bolsonaro Indigenous voice and an outspoken supporter of his policies. Recruiting Kapalo to travel with him to New York, Bolsonaro was able to portray himself through the image of a good guy in an effort to soften his notoriety as rainforest destroyer. Bolsonaro made sure to have Kapalo close to him in all interviews, UN talks, and official pictures taken during his stay in New York. Kapalo’s presence set the grounds for a false mirage to appear in the eyes of the international community. Her UN appearance strategically represented the culmination of a government propaganda drive designed to repair Brazil’s global image and fend off the threat of economic sanctions.

The fake flame of peace

In the last few years there have been several accusations by foreign governments and human rights activist groups overseas about China’s repression of Uyghurs and other ethnic minority populations in the northwestern region of Xinjiang. The Amnesty International reported that Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minority groups living in the region of Xinjiang face systematic state-organized mass imprisonment, torture and persecution amounting to crimes against humanity. Chinese authorities have built one of the world’s most sophisticated surveillance system and a vest network of hundreds of grim “transformation-through-education” centers through Xinjiang under the guise fighting “terrorism.”

The Amnesty International added that these centers are actually internment camps, where Muslim minority groups are summarily subjected to torture and other ill-treatments. In these detention camps, every aspect of daily life is regimented to forcibly instill a sort of secular, homogeneous Chinese nation and Communist party ideals. The Council on Foreign Relations indicated that most people who are brought to live in the detention camps have never been charged with crimes and have no legal avenues to challenge their detentions. In most of the cases, their only crime is being Muslim. They tend to be labeled by the Chinese authorities as extremists due to the simple fact of practicing their religion.

As the Council for Foreign Relations also reported, the detentions have disrupted families. Children whose parents have been sent to the internment camps are forced to stay in state-run orphanages. An UK-based Uyghur Tribunal comprised by lawyers, academics and businesspeople concluded that China’s treatment of the Uyghurs amounted under the Geneva conventions to an intent to destroy all or part of a group physically or biologically. There is evidence of deliberate practices of enforced abortions, such as removal of wombs against women’s will. The killing of babies immediately after birth have also been reported. The tribunal also firmly alleged the fact that the extreme intrusive capacity of the Chinese state means parts of Xinjiang have become a form of open prison.

The US State Department declared in July 2021, still under Trump administration, that the Chinese government was committing genocide through its wide-scale repression of Uyghurs and other Muslims minority groups. State Department officials had declared they hoped this move would spur other nations to take a harder public line against China. And this is what happened in the Winter Olympics and Paralympics, which took place in Beijing between February and March 2022. Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, India, the UK and other countries have followed the US lead in boycotting the Olympics in diplomatic terms.

These countries have decided to send athletes, but no ministers or officials to the Opening Ceremony. But even so, China’s President Xi Jinping saw the opportunity to cause a mirage live on stage during the Flame Lighting Ceremony. The Chinese President knew this was the perfect opportunity for a given act to be performed. Just like Bolsonaro – who had chosen a rare Indigenous supporter to accompany him in a big event with all eyes of the international community watching him – Xi Jinping appointed a Uyghur athlete to light the Olympic cauldron. For this important moment, China selected Dinigeer Yilamujiang, a Uyghur cross-country skier, as Olympic torchbearer. A moment which could be remembered as one of the most overt political statement in Olympic history.

For the purposes of this analysis, it is assumed that Yilamujiang’s appearance was a mirage caused not under natural conditions over bodies of water, but under political interests on the Olympic stage. Many believe that Dinigeer Yilamujiang was part of a political strategy to reshape China’s international image. This move has received widespread condemnation from activist groups and foreign governments. On the other hand, the Chinese government and the International Olympic Committee claim that ethnicity was not a factor in the selection of a cross-country skier from Xinjiang as one at the final torchbearers.

However, subjecting this claim to a norm of truth could be a hard thing to do. A reasonable thing to consider about this move would be that it is a crass and insensitive political ploy seemingly designed to demonstrate open defiance of Western charges of ongoing ethnic genocide committed by the Chinese government against the Uyghurs and other minorities. Apparently, the mirage caused by China in this international event seemed to be more of a deliberate move aimed at “sportwashing” its controversial human rights record.

What is also controversial is the fact that the Chinese government had often criticized the diplomatic boycott as a move to politicize the Winter Olympics. Yet China has made the Opening Ceremony a domestic spectacle for political interests, using a Uyghur athlete as a propaganda tool. After the Flame Lighting Ceremony, the US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield told CNN that China’s choice of a Uyghur to light the Olympic torch represented “an effort by the Chinese to distract us” from the real issue. As for the Uyghur athlete, she vanished from public view after her cross-country skiing appearance on Feb. 5, where she finished 43rd. Ayup, a Norway-based Uyghur activist, declared that he is not surprised by her perceived silence. “She might one day end up in prison for a simple reason, being a Uyghur”, Ayup said, adding that he truly hopes the international community pays attention to Yilamujiang’s fate even after the Winter Olympic Games.


What do Ysani Kapalo and Dinigeer Yilamujiang have in common? Both had the unique opportunity to stand before the international community and make the headlines in media outlets. More than that, for minority group leaders, the United Nations represents the opportunity to be heard by telling the world the grave and systematic violations committed against their people. For most athletes, carrying the Olympic torch must be a great honor because of the meanings attached to it – be them the noble spirit, the global friendship and respect. However, all these meanings – either the UN’s significance for oppressed minority groups or the noble Olympic ideals and values of peace and friendship between nations – became invisible, utterly disguised by cynical efforts for political purposes and to deflect criticism on Jair Bolsonaro and Xi Jinping’s oppressive policies.

As the main characters of Fata Morganas and hiding the real factors of oppression, Ysani Kapalo and Dinigeer Yilamujiang became puppets of their respective oppressors for propaganda and political ploy. Their appearances in these events are mirages that cannot be explained by natural sciences. In the practices of world politics, the emergence of Fata Morganas is not a natural or a given production of sovereign states. Rather than that, Fata Morganas ought to be problematized in IR study due to the fact that they are mirages strategically forged by leaders on the basis of cynicism.

The cases of Brazil and China are two of many other Fata Morganas performed by heads of state and government in situations of global media coverage. The performance of mirages like these should exercise a degree of influence over open discussions and public debates over minority and human rights protection. Opening up discussions and debates is exactly what indigenous leaders from many tribes in Brazil have done when they have decided to come forward to the public and accuse Bolsonaro of turning Kapalo into a fake representative of Indigenous Brazilians at the 74th UN General Assembly in 2019.

Describing the appearances of Ysani Kapalo and Dinigeer Yilamujiang as staged theatrical performances articulated and coordinated by heads of state can be an interesting exercise. Denouncing these forged performances through a metaphor of Fata Morgana means to call society’s attention to manifestations of authoritarian tendencies. This might also help IR students to look at some political practices through critical lenses, opening the study of the discipline to questions engaged in challenging regimes of truth.


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Sobre o Autor

Doutor em Relações Internacionais pela Universidade de Lisboa

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