The statement — made in response to ongoing calls for a possible boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympics — represents the culmination of a long evolution of China’s official narrative regarding its treatment of Uyghurs.
This evolving strategy, from outright denial to hardened public defense, is closely tied to the Chinese government’s own increased sense of confidence on the world stage, and its willingness to confront its critics in the West head on, be it over Xinjiang, the South China Sea or Hong Kong, a CNN analysis shows.
In recent months, Xinjiang has become something of a patriotic litmus test, in which those wishing to do business with China must pick a side — either stand with Beijing in implicit defense of its policies, or face the consequences.
The propaganda campaign has also reached a fever pitch, with state media reporters dispatched to Xinjiang to supposedly “prove” there is no oppression there, a “La La Land”-inspired musical released to make Beijing’s case, while critics overseas have faced sanctions and harassment.
While China has always maintained a sophisticated propaganda apparatus at home, its recent campaign over Xinjiang, particularly disinformation and harassment of critics overseas, is more in keeping with similar efforts by Russia, including deploying “whataboutism” in claiming any US denouncements are tainted by the legacy of slavery and genocide on the American continent.
After she was “de-radicalized,” Amina Hojamet swapped her burqa for a silk dress, put a traditional flower-patterned hat on her head, and sang “Without the Communist Party, there would be no New China.”
Survivors of the camps report experiencing or witnessing widespread abuse, and incidents of torture, rape and forced sterilization. The crackdown has been denounced as “genocide” by the United States government and the Canadian and Dutch parliaments for its effects on the Uyghur people and their culture.
When reports of the camp system first began to emerge around 2017, China issued staunch denials, or refused to comment altogether. As this has become increasingly impossible in the face of mounting international attention and subsequent condemnation, Beijing has shifted to an angry defense of its “de-radicalization” program, which it has even started to tout to like-minded countries as a way of dealing with their own Muslim “problem.”
Meanwhile, evidence of the camp system, such as early reports in state media like one which gave Hojamet’s story in late 2014, have been scrubbed from the internet altogether and are accessible only in archived form, a CNN analysis shows. Other materials researchers relied on to expose the camp system — such as government tenders and official documents — have also been deleted.
Multiple foreign journalists who reported on the camp system have been expelled from China, while academics, activists and survivors who sought to expose its reach have been denounced, and harassed. Those who have dared speak out inside of China have been silenced or detained.
The clampdown has been accompanied by a new, coordinated propaganda campaign touting the successes of the “vocational training” system, with heavily choreographed media tours for sympathetic outlets, interviews with “graduates” praising the system, and disinformation which aims to sow confusion about the scale of the camp system and the abuses experienced by detainees, while painting Beijing as the victim of both violent extremism and Western misinformation.
Located in the far west of the People’s Republic of China, Xinjiang is among China’s most ethnically diverse regions. It is home to about 11 million Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority, who speak a language closely related to Turkish and have their own distinct culture, as well as significant populations of Kazakhs.
Rich in natural resources, especially oil and gas, the region has seen a large influx of Han Chinese, the country’s majority ethnic group, amid recent, concerted efforts by the government to tie Xinjiang closer to the wider economy.
Xinjiang — the name means “New Frontier” in Chinese — has long been of strategic importance for its rulers in Beijing. The vast region borders Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan, as well as Mongolia and Russia in the north and Pakistan and India in the south. Its importance has only increased with the advent of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, a trade and infrastructure mega project connecting China to markets across Central Asia to Europe and beyond.
Information about such incidents was often hard to come by, with reports in state media sporadic and sparsely detailed. Few foreign journalists ever visited Xinjiang, both due to the region’s remoteness from Beijing and the harassment and surveillance by local authorities of those journalists who did travel there.
Such controls only increased as the situation became more unstable and the authorities cracked down harder. In 2009, following deadly ethnic riots in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi, the entire region was cut off from the internet for almost a year, and many Uyghur writers and intellectuals were jailed.
Following the incident, Xinjiang’s anti-terrorism budget doubled. The regional government, meanwhile, said it was “determined to curb the spread of religious extremism as well as prevent severe violent terrorist attacks.” As part of this, what was called “vocational training” could be provided to those “more easily manipulated by religious extremism.”
Around this time, in a village in Shufu County, near the ancient Silk Road trading stop of Kashgar in western Xinjiang, local officials identified 16 women in need of “educational transformation,” according to the Xinjiang Daily article. Their offense? Wearing the burqa.
These women, one of whom was Hojamet, were initially “very resistant and unwilling,” but “gradually realized the essence and harm of religious extremism,” eventually choosing to abandon conservative Islamic dress for regular clothing.
Another woman also told the paper her husband had been detained by the police for religious extremism and taken for “de-radicalization” in an unspecified location. “I hope that he will receive a good education, transform well, and reunite with us soon,” she was quoted as saying.
While in 2014 and 2015 the burgeoning “re-education” system was still years away from reaching its current scale, or from becoming public knowledge, it was clear the situation in Xinjiang had escalated following the high-profile Kunming attack.
Visiting the region weeks later, Ursula Gauthier, a journalist with the French magazine L’Obs, reported an intense system of surveillance, police checkpoints, and widespread fear of being reported or denounced among any Uyghurs she spoke to.
Disgusted by the bloodshed in her home capital, Gauthier was also dismayed by the reaction from the Chinese government, which she felt was attempting to take advantage of the incident to gain international support for its crackdown in Xinjiang.
In expressing sympathy with France, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China was also a victim of terrorism and complained about a “double standard” in the West in which media and politicians minimized or sought to justify terrorist incidents against Chinese.
The Global Times, a nationalist, state-run tabloid, published multiple articles attacking her, and she was summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to explain herself. She was told to apologize but refused, saying she was being accused of saying things — such as that Chinese victims of terror deserved to die — she never wrote.
While she was not alone in criticizing or exposing China’s policies in Xinjiang, or even in calling out Beijing’s attempt to conflate ethnic unrest with global terrorism, Gauthier appears to have been caught up in a shifting policy on Xinjiang, as the government became far more sensitive to outside scrutiny.
“We know today that Xi Jinping had made the decision to change the policies in Xinjiang, so in (late 2014) they were preparing the crackdown,” she said. “It was just the fact that we didn’t know back then.”
The scale of this transformation would not be known for several years. Even as people began disappearing into the camp system, which was built up between 2014 and 2017, before massively expanding that year, the heavy surveillance in Xinjiang, ongoing intense censorship of Uyghur issues on the Chinese internet, and its relative remoteness compared to the rest of the country, meant the news did not immediately spread.
“Since this spring, thousands of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities have disappeared into so-called political education centers, apparently for offenses from using Western social media apps to studying abroad in Muslim countries, according to relatives of those detained,” Buzzfeed’s Megha Rajagopalan reported.
While officials defended security measures in Xinjiang as necessary for preventing terrorism, at first, Beijing denied reports about the camp system, with a foreign ministry spokesman telling Rajagopalan “we have never heard about these measures taken by local authorities.”
According to a CNN review of Chinese government statements from 2015 onwards, officials largely avoided addressing the issue of Xinjiang until around mid-2018, when growing scrutiny made this impossible.
China’s representative to the committee said this was “completely untrue,” while acknowledging people had been assigned “to vocational educational and employment training centers with a view to assisting in their rehabilitation.”
“They can leave freely. They can visit their relatives. It is not a prison. It is not a camp,” Liu said.
While China has sought, sometimes successfully, to muddy the waters on Xinjiang, attacking individual researchers and think tanks, and trotting out family members of survivors to criticize them in dubious videos, much of the evidence showing the scale of the camp system is in fact open source.
For example, the growth of a camp in Shufu County, around 7 kilometers (4.5 miles) from Amina Hojamet’s village, can be tracked via satellite imagery on Google Earth. The installation was first built around 2013, though it may have initially been used for another purpose. In the years since, it has more than doubled in size, and what appear to be watchtowers can be seen on walls around dormitory-like buildings, according to a review of historical satellite imagery.
Other open source data helps confirm this: a tender for business issued by the Xinjiang government in 2017, reviewed by CNN, seeks a $21 million refit and expansion of the camp — described as a Legal Education Transformation School.
As scrutiny over Xinjiang increased, reports in state media about the “de-radicalization” program, as well government announcements about the various camps and tenders for supplying them appear to have been scrubbed from the internet, with only a small proportion surviving in archived form.
This effort appears to have been inconsistent, with some materials surviving online, along with reports in state media that can be used to track the evolution of the “vocational training” system, even as similar articles which had been written about by human rights groups, such as that which contains Hojamet’s story, were deleted.
“(The government) has established vocational education and training centers in accordance with the law to prevent the breeding and spread of terrorism and religious extremism, effectively curbing the frequent terrorist incidents and protecting the rights to life, health, and development of the people of all ethnic groups,” the paper said, adding “worthwhile results have been achieved.”
Sean Roberts, an expert on Central Asia at the George Washington University and author of “The War on the Uyghurs: China’s Internal Campaign against a Muslim Minority,” said many officials in Xinjiang appeared to have internalized Beijing’s narrative on the issue.
“People high up know the real extent of the threat and how minor it is, but I think some of the lower level officials really do believe what they are doing is saving Uyghurs from extremism and terrorism,” he said.
“They have a kind of hubris about this,” Roberts said of how China’s messaging has evolved since then. “There’s a level of confidence in having escaped a lot of criticism from the international community, a sense that nobody is actually going to punish us for this.”
As well as securing international recognition (of sorts) for its efforts in Xinjiang, Beijing has also sought to link its “de-radicalization” program with anti-extremism efforts elsewhere, providing a sheen of legitimacy even in practice the comparisons are rather far-fetched.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi, among other officials, has claimed China’s system is in keeping with the UN “Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism.”
“The Plan of Action suggests early engagement and combining counter-extremism actions with preventive measures,” Wang said in a 2019 speech. “That is precisely what Xinjiang has been doing. Visible progress has been made: There has not been a single case of violent terrorism in the past three years.”
Months after censors scrubbed stories like Amina Hojamet’s from the internet in an apparent attempt to cover-up evidence of what was going on in Xinjiang, a new wave of propaganda was pushed out by Beijing, emphasizing both the supposed terrorist threat and the success of the government’s so-called “anti-extremism” program in tackling it.
“In their responses, you can see the main reasons why terrorism has failed to be curbed at the root,” says Li Wei, a research fellow at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, a government think tank.
Chinese state media, particularly those outlets targeting foreign audiences, have pushed this line hard. While stories such as Hojamet’s were scrubbed from the internet in what may have been a kneejerk reaction to international criticism, they have been replaced by a glut of content showcasing happy, successful graduates from the “vocational training” system.
One of the few US publications able to send a correspondent to Xinjiang in recent years was International Focus, a tiny Houston-based magazine which caters to the city’s diplomatic community.
Writing of visiting the government-run “Exhibition of Major Terrorist Attacks and Violent Crimes in Xinjiang,” Thompson said the experience was “eye-opening, I had no idea the PRC was dealing with extremist activity.”
At the Kashgar Vocational Skills Educational and Training Center, she said she interviewed “several” detainees, who “were, or could be, victims of extremist teaching.”
Thompson and International Focus did not respond to a request for comment.
Not all journalists who were taken on government-run tours of Xinjiang were convinced, however. The experience of Olsi Jazexhi since he first wrote about his trip is indicative of how far China will allegedly go to try and control the narrative over Xinjiang, and tear down those who attempt to challenge it.
A Canadian-Albanian writer and historian, Jazexhi said he wanted to visit Xinjiang after reading reports in Western media which he felt were exaggerated. He was highly suspicious of the involvement of the US government, fearing it was attempting to promote extremism among Uyghurs, or fabricate human rights abuses in order to attack China.
“I’m generally skeptical of Western propaganda about the rest of the world,” Jazexhi said. “Very often they lie.”
After showing his writing and YouTube channel to the Chinese embassy in Tirana, the Albanian capital, Jazexhi was approved to join a trip to Xinjiang in August 2019, along with 20 other journalists, most of whom were from Muslim countries, he said.
“The desire of the Communist Party was that when we go back to our home countries we would say things are fine in Xinjiang and the Americans and whoever are lying about the Uyghur issue,” Jazexhi said.
At first, landing in Urumqi, he was greatly impressed. The Xinjiang capital had undergone significant development in recent years, and was, in Jazexhi’s eyes, “better built and more beautiful than Toronto.”
But then the real propaganda started, with a series of lectures by Chinese historians and local officials, as well as tours of terrorism exhibits such as that described by Thompson.
A historian of Islam and nationalism, and knowledgeable about Central Asia, Jazexhi was appalled by what he heard.
“The narrative was Xinjiang has always been a part of China and these Turks and Islam are latecomers,” said Jazexhi. “It shocked not only me but even other Muslim journalists on the tour. It depicted Islam as a primitive religion, and Uyghurs as invaders and newcomers, who were Islamized by less civilized Arabs.”
“The Uyghur people are members of the Chinese family, not descendants of the Turks, let alone anything to do with Turkish people,” he added.
Jazexhi’s experience in the “vocational training and education centers” his tour was taken to visit was even more eye-opening.
After “being brainwashed for two to three days that China is suffering from Islamic extremism,” Jazexhi said he expected to come face to face with a Chinese version of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the former leader of ISIS.
Instead, the people he spoke to — via a government interpreter — were normal men and women, whose “only mistake to end up in this detention center was that they had read a history of East Turkestan online, or read the Quran with their mother, or prayed with their father.”
While his Chinese minders said the place was not a prison, Jazexhi said they admitted detainees could not leave, nor could they talk to relatives except via tightly-controlled, weekly video calls.
“It was a prison but it was painted in such a way to give us an impression that it was a school,” he said. “When we asked (detainees) questions in Turkish or English they did not dare to respond before asking their Chinese minders what to say.”
He said the stories were “unimaginable,” adding that two female journalists from the Middle East, both of whom were veiled, were particularly upset to hear from Uyghur detainees that they were there for wearing a hijab or burqa.
“From our visit to two camps, in Kashgar and Aksu, we saw beyond doubt that China is openly eradicating the Islamic identity and Turkish identity of these people,” Jazexhi said. “I went to defend China but I found out I could not defend it.”
When he asked his fellow journalists if they planned to write about what they saw, most demurred, saying they would not be allowed to. Jazexhi’s minders, meanwhile, had apparently become aware the trip was not having the desired impression, and began shadowing him ever more closely.
“They were really displeased by our attitude when we were inside Xinjiang, because they understood in a way that they had failed with our group,” he said. “They even warned us not to dare to report anything negative because that would be unacceptable.”
Upon returning to Albania and publishing his findings, Jazexhi said he has suffered retaliation from China. A university he taught at canceled his courses, which he said was due to Chinese pressure.
“It’s a completely baseless accusation and it’s outrageous,” she told CNN. “My only crime is being a journalist reporting on what’s happening to the Uyghurs.”
This “with us or against us” attitude has ramped up considerably in recent months, with new sanctions passed by Beijing against UK and EU lawmakers and think tanks, as well as numerous boycotts of Western companies such as H&M and Nike which have expressed concern about using Xinjiang cotton in their supply lines.
A spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Albania said Jazexhi’s claims were “untrue” and referred questions about his employment to his former university, which did not respond to a request for comment. His former employer also did not respond.
“All my life I have criticized the Americans, but never have I been blacklisted by the American government, had my name condemned,” Jazexhi said. “The Chinese are even more angry with me because they invited me, I was their guest.”
He added that he had been told “that if I shut up, I would have ‘opportunities,’ but I said I cannot lie about the horror I’ve seen, I’m a Muslim.”
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