XINJIANG, CHINA—In early July, a group of 22 countries, including Canada, Japan, the U.K., France, and Australia, signed a letter to the United Nations Human Rights Council calling upon China to “refrain from the arbitrary detentions and restrictions on freedom of movement of Uighurs, and other Muslim and minority communities in Xinjiang.”
Although it is not a signatory on that letter, the U.S. administration has also voiced critical concern over China’s religious crackdown. At a July 18 conference in Washington, D.C. regarding global religious freedom, U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence claimed “in Xinjiang, the Communist Party has imprisoned more than a million Chinese Muslims, including Uighurs, in internment camps where they endure around-the-clock brainwashing.” Taking things up a notch, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo alleged, “China is home to one of the worst human rights crises of our time. It is truly the stain of the century.”
In response to these charges, the Chinese government has steadfastly maintained that the facilities in question are in fact vocational schools, aimed at poverty alleviation and as a means to curtail the spread of Islamic extremism. To bolster their case with the UN, China managed to solicit the support of 37 nations—including Russia, North Korea, and Venezuela—to write their own letter to the Human Rights Council, expressing their collective support for China’s anti-terror measures and the policy toward ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.
In a further attempt to prove their claims, the Chinese government organized a seven-day international media tour of Xinjiang, which included a total of 27 journalists from 24 countries. Media outlets represented included ABC News, the Irish Times, Australian Financial Review, and Italy’s Corriere della Sera. I was the sole Canadian representative, paying my own way to the country, but the Chinese government covered the costs of local travel.
The tour began in the city of Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, China’s largest and westernmost autonomous region. This area is home to approximately 11 million Uighurs—an ethnic Turkic minority—but also includes ethnic Kazakhs, Kirghiz, and Tajiks, as well as a steadily growing number of Han Chinese.
The first exhibit we were shown was a graphic display of the violent insurgency, which first erupted in this region in 2009 riots that killed 197 people. Photos and videos depicted in gory detail all of the terrorist attacks. Victims shown included small infants, women, and even the corpses of murdered policemen. In the centre of the hall was a vast collection of captured weaponry and homemade bombs.
The subsequent Chinese crackdown has been largely successful, and it was noted that the last terror attack occurred about three years ago. This was the starting point for our education, as the Islamic extremism threat is the lynchpin for China implementing its policy of re-educating the Muslim minorities.
The Chinese wanted to make the point that the terrorists had in fact hit them hard, and thus they are justified in taking strong measures to reduce future threats.
However, during our subsequent seven days travelling throughout Xinjiang, one did not get the sense that this was a region still living with the fear of imminent violence. There were an abundance of security cameras around public spaces and airport-style body searches were conducted at entrances to crowded centres, but police did not wear body armour and there were no sandbagged bunkers in evidence. This was definitely not Kandahar, Afghanistan, or Baghdad, Iraq.
The second stop on our tour was a boarding school and a mosque, where a new generation of imams are being taught Islamic studies. With the world accusing China of committing cultural and religious genocide of the Uighurs, we were shown that the Beijing regime is actually funding schools to produce newly minted Muslim clergy.
To counter international claims that Uighur culture is being suppressed, we were shown a brand new $100-million arts centre, which is home to a professional orchestra and dance troupe. To further drive home this point, we were treated to a full-fledged Uighur cultural spectacle at the Xinjiang Grand Theatre in the city of Changji.
This celebration of the history of China’s Silk Road featured a cast of hundreds, live camels, horses running on treadmills, water cascading over the stage, the world’s largest video screen, and women in traditional garb dancing on Segways. It was essentially Las Vegas on steroids.
Of course, the key sites for us to see were the controversial vocational training centres, which are alleged to be re-education detention camps by the Western media. Our group visited two of these facilities—one at Shule County on the outskirts of Kashgar, and one in the city of Atushi. The first housed approximately 1,000 Uighur students, and the second held around 200. In both schools the student ages ranged between 20 and 40 years old with a fairly even male-female ratio.
They were housed 10 people to a room, with bunk beds and a single squat toilet per dorm room. There were no guard towers or barbed wire and we were told that there were only eight security guards on the premises. This is less than one would find at the average hotel in western China.
It was noticed that the doors to the dorm rooms only locked from the outside. We were witness to a meal being served featuring generous portions, and no one in the two schools appeared malnourished. We were shown classrooms where students were chanting out their lessons in Mandarin, and others were studying Chinese laws. There were also study areas for vocational training such as computer skills, sewing, automotive, cooking, and basic electrical.
Through the official translators, and under the steady gaze of our Chinese government minders, we were able to speak directly with several of the Uighur students. They had a very interesting story—and I deliberately use the singular, as they all had almost the exact same story.
Every one of them claimed to be there of their own free will. Every one of them had a tale of how they had become radicalized by Islamic extremism. Every one of them claimed they were willing to commit violence against non-believers when they had been discovered either by the authorities or in some cases a friend or spouse. The story was that they then saw the light and enrolled in the vocational training program.
One slight young man, 25-year-old Qurbanjan, claimed he had actually procured bomb-making equipment prior to his village police suggesting he enter the school and forget about waging Jihad.
In total, we interviewed three young women who all claimed to have been radicalized by Islam, all claimed their husbands were unaware of their thoughts, and all three had left toddlers at home in order to attend the boarding schools. Gulmire Azair is 29 years old and a graduate of the vocational school program. She presently has a factory job as a seamstress in Kashgar. Her story mirrored the others in that she had found herself wanting to “kill pagans” after visiting some Islamic websites.
This is, of course, the narrative that the Chinese government wants to communicate to the world. These educations centres are, according to the official line, part of an anti-terrorism effort. The problem was that it was all too staged. The students would invariably rise at their desk, stand at attention, and deliver their statement while staring straight above your head. It was very reminiscent of prisoners of war reciting their name, rank, and serial number to their captors.
Throughout our entire tour, the Chinese authorities overlooked no detail as they attempted to present to us a picture-perfect glimpse of ethnic minority utopia in Xinjiang. When we visited a newly constructed relocation site for Kirghiz herdsmen for instance, everyone had a brand new white and black traditional Kirghiz hat. Those elderly residents, who just happened to be playing a game of cards in the common area, had a pristine deck of cards. When we entered family condos to witness the living conditions, there would be a feast awaiting us on the coffee table. When visiting a second similar site, hundreds of kilometres away, we were treated to the exact feast—as if there was an actual playbook detailing what the local party officials were to provide to our tour.
I am under no illusions as to the fact that the Chinese government showed us exactly what they wanted to show us. The schools we toured were prepared well in advance of our visit, and in both cases they treated us to Uighur cultural displays of folk dancing complete with elaborate costumes. In other words, how could the Chinese be suppressing Uighur culture when here they are teaching them dance numbers celebrating their unique heritage? The fact is that our media tour did not see all the camps and we could not get a straight answer from any official as to how many people are presently enrolled in this project.
If the Chinese government wants to seriously refute these serious allegations that they are perpetrating the “stain of the century” upon Muslims of Xinjiang, they are going to have to provide unfettered and unlimited access to international observers.
Scott Taylor is the editor and publisher of Esprit de Corps magazine. He was the sole Canadian on an eight-day international media tour of Xinjiang, China, organized by the Chinese government.
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