Journalist Sherif Sonbol was taking pictures of ethnic dancers during an official tour of China’s far western Xinjiang province when he noticed a room full of women being trained to use sewing machines.
He realised he was in one of Beijing’s network of political indoctrination camps, where – according to the United Nations – China is detaining up to one million members of the mostly Muslim Uighur minority.
Sonbol, an Egyptian photographer and editor, was one of at least 80 journalists taken to Xinjiang since 2015 on the “Silk Road Celebrity China Tour”. He left convinced that accounts of mistreatment inside the re-education centres were untrue.
“I keep hearing people saying the education centres were where they torture people,” he said. But the enthusiasm of the dancers impressed him.
“Look at their faces! You know these are very happy people.”
Sonbol is just one beneficiary of a massive Chinese government outreach program targeting non-English-speaking journalists in a concerted push to build its influence. In recent years, Beijing has reached out to the Muslim world, bringing more than 30 journalists from Islamic countries to Xinjiang in a bid to refute western headlines claiming human rights abuses.
The tours serve a dual purpose, with Chinese state media also featuring the visits on the main national evening news bulletin. In some cases, the journalists are quoted as giving their vocal support to Beijing’s hardline strategy in Xinjiang.
Interviews with three Muslim journalists who took part in the tours have revealed they were provided with interpreters, given access to high-ranking officials and monitored during most of their interactions.
Sonbol described interviewing a female inmate who said she’d been given three years in the re-education camp after assaulting other women who had failed to use the Islamic head-covering, the hijab.
“She committed a crime!” he said. “She agreed to go to the re-education centre. What’s wrong with that?”
For Sonbol and his group of 12, the political indoctrination camp was the last stop on a 10-day tour that started in Beijing and included a kindergarten, an Islamic college, a mosque, a market and cultural venues in Xinjiang.
Beijing has been accused of attempting to eradicate Uighur culture, but Sonbol said what he saw convinced him of the opposite. “In this market for traditional Uighur dancing, they built a modern mosque, they built a place to pray, they have this place for dancing, they have everything,” he said.
Murat Yilmaz, a reporter for Turkish newspaper Hürriyet, took part in a tour to Xinjiang in 2017. Yilmaz’s output from the visit – two news stories praising Chinese growth – also argued for increased economic cooperation for countries along the belt and road initiative, echoing Chinese talking points.
“I got to see China with my own eyes, and I got correct information,” he wrote in an email.
But one journalist who had a very different reaction to an official tour was Albanian-Canadian freelance Olsi Jazexhi. In August 2019, he flew to Xinjiang for an eight-day tour with another 19 journalists from 16 countries.He had always vocally opposed the United States, and when he approached the Chinese embassy in Tirana, he only had one aim in mind.
“I wanted to write a good piece on China,” he admitted, “I wanted to prove to the world that the Americans, like they lied about us in the Balkans, they are lying about the Chinese as well.”
Jazexhi’s background is as a historian, and from the start he was suspicious of the narrative followed by Chinese experts who lectured the group.
“Communist party officials were describing Xinjiang as historically being Chinese, while the Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims were shown as immigrants in Xinjiang, and Islam was depicted as a foreign religion which was imposed by foreigners on the Uighurs.”
It was, to his mind, closer to propaganda than history. He was also made uneasy by the portrayal of Muslims in state-run museums, where they were often depicted as primitive and dirty.
But the key moment for Jazexhi came during a visit to Wensu County Vocational Skills Training Centre, a re-education camp in Aksu prefecture. When the group arrived, they watched a series of song-and-dance routines. After around 15 minutes, Jazexhi asked if he could speak to some of the detainees. He was ushered into a classroom and was told he could conduct interviews under supervised conditions.
He noticed that whenever he started speaking to the detainees in their own language, they responded in Mandarin Chinese. He realised that the inmates were afraid.
“We understood that these people were not even allowed to speak their own mother tongue,” he said.
Through conversations with handlers, he realised that the practice of Islam was prohibited in the camps, and that residents were not allowed access to phones or contact with their families.
He also learned some of the reasons why they had been detained, including wearing the hijab, praying in public and reading the Qur’an. “What we found out was that in Xinjiang, practising Islam was considered to be a crime,” he said.
That night, Jazexhi posted video of his awkward interviews with nervous inmates surrounded by handlers and interpreter on YouTube. The move irritated the Chinese officials on the tour, who questioned why he was taking the videos.
In the following days, the group visited another re-education camp in Kashgar, where he noticed the inmates were wearing traditional Uighur costumes.“In our trip, they had produced this Potemkin show,” he said. “Almost all of us as journalists, we understood that the CCP had put on a show for us.
“They wanted us to sell the world a fake story.”
Yet Jazexhi noted that, while the visits had made some of the other journalists weep, most took no action. One wrote a lengthy report that could not be published in their own country, but most of the others stayed silent.
China’s ministry of foreign affairs (Mofa) said Jazexhi’s statement had “no factual basis and is pure rumour and slander. I hope that the media will not be blinded by his remarks.
“The center strictly implements the basic principles of respecting and protecting human rights in China’s constitution and relating laws,” a statement from Mofa said. “All use the national common language and minority language at the same time.”
Such trips represent one prong in China’s information warfare strategy, according to Michael Raska of Nanyang Technological University Singapore’s S Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
“Information warfare is about trying to compel others to accept your interests,” he said, “What is new now is a shift in Chinese information and political influence strategies. There is now a much more comprehensive and active push to control the narrative.”
The success of these tours is hard to gauge. Sonbol emerged convinced that Beijing’s motives in Xinjiang were humane, and that the western press treated China unfairly.
Jazexhi, even though he was not won over by his experience in Xinjiang, said: “China is doing what the British and Americans do. They’re producing fake stories in the service of their imperialism.”
“They spend a lot. And I believe that in the long term, they’re going to win the war against the west.”
Jazexhi’s outspokenness has come at a cost, and he has been publicly attacked by China’s state-run Global Times newspaper, which accused him of spreading fake news and violating journalistic ethics. He says he was also approached by the Chinese embassy in Albania, who hinted that staying silent would be beneficial for him.
“They told me, please don’t write, don’t say anything, and if you be quiet, you will be the friend of China.”
This story is co-published with The Guardian/The Observer.
On 11 December, this story was announced as the winner of Democracy Watchdog’s 2020 award for student investigative journalism. For full details, click here.