Albanian-Canadian historian and journalist Olsi Jazexhi believed in early 2019 that reports about human rights violations in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (Xinjiang) of Western China were lies.
Accounts from people who had fled the area as well as reports from human rights organisations were painting a picture of human rights abuses being perpetrated on a massive scale. Muslim minorities in Xinjiang – the majority of whom are Turkic-speaking Uighurs – were reportedly being deprived of basic freedoms, their cultural and religious heritage was being destroyed and at least 1 million of them had been interned in a vast network of detention camps.
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The international community had taken notice and the United Nations had raised its concerns.
But Jazexhi was unconvinced.
“I was certain that the stories were a scheme constructed by the US and the West to discredit China and divert attention away from their own human rights records regarding Muslims,” he told Al Jazeera.
The Chinese government itself vehemently rejected the allegations, acknowledging the existence of the camps but describing them as vocational skills training centres necessary to combat alleged extremism.
To see the truth for himself, Jazexhi contacted the Chinese embassy in Tirana about visiting Xinjiang. He was soon invited to join a media tour for foreign journalists mostly from Muslim countries and in early August 2019, he was on a plane bound for China.
“I went to defend the Chinese government,” he recalled.
But he quickly found that defending the Chinese narrative was a far more difficult task than he had anticipated.
In the first few days in Xinjiang, he and other foreign journalists had to sit through a series of lectures given by Chinese officials about the history of the region and its people.
“They were portraying the indigenous people of Xinjiang as immigrants and Islam as a religion that was foreign to the region,” Jazexhi said. “It was incorrect.”
His disillusion only continued when he and other journalists were taken by their Chinese hosts to one of the so-called vocational training centres outside the regional capital of Urumqi.
“They said it was like a school but it was clearly a high-security site in the middle in the desert,” Jazexhi said.
“They also told us that the people staying there were not allowed to leave so it was obviously not a school but a prison and the people there were not students but prisoners.”
Once they entered the site, Jazexhi had a chance to interact with several Uighurs and it quickly became clear they were not the “terrorists” or “extremists” Beijing had claimed.
“I was talking to people that had been taken there for simply practising Islam by, for example, entering a religious marriage, praying in public or wearing a headscarf,” he said.
“One of them told me that she was no longer Muslim and that she now believed in science and in Chinese President Xi Jinping.”
Jazexhi confronted the accompanying Chinese officials.
“I told them that what they were doing was very wrong,” Jazexhi said.
The interactions led to a quarrel between Jazexhi and some of the Chinese hosts.
When he finally left Xinjiang, he was deeply shocked.
He had thought he was going to expose Western lies but he had instead witnessed oppression on a massive scale.
“What I saw was an attempt to eradicate Islam from Xinjiang,” he said.
‘Agenda of the West’
Since Jazexhi’s visit, the UN Human Rights Council has found that Chinese restrictions and deprivations in Xinjiang may constitute crimes against humanity.
The US government as well as lawmakers in Australia, Canada, France and the United Kingdom have labelled the Chinese treatment of Uighurs and other Turkic-speaking Muslims in the region a genocide. Meanwhile, several countries have imposed economic restrictions on goods from Xinjiang in response to evidence of forced labour in the region.
Amid the criticism, Beijing has continued to arrange visits – primarily for diplomats and journalists from Muslim countries – to Xinjiang.
Chinese media have reported about at least five such media tours taking place in 2023, with Xinjiang visits also arranged for foreign diplomats and Islamic scholars.
Moiz Farooq, who is the executive editor of Daily Ittehad Media Group and Pakistan Economic Net, visited Xinjiang in the middle of December as part of a delegation of media representatives from Pakistan.
Much like Jazexhi in 2019, Farooq went to Xinjiang with the intent to observe for himself that the stories he had heard were not true.
“There is a lot of propaganda about Xinjiang out there and I wanted to witness it with my own eyes,” Farooq told Al Jazeera.
Unlike Jazexhi, Farooq left Xinjiang impressed by the region’s level of development and assured that the local Muslims were largely living a free and content life.
“I was able to talk to as many different people as I wanted at bazaars and restaurants about their standard of living and I, along with the rest of the delegation, were totally unrestricted,” he said.
“I saw Muslims there who were free to enjoy and practise their religion.”
Farooq does not believe that accounts and reports from human rights organisations and UN organs detailing human rights abuses in Xinjiang are correct.
“It is the agenda of the West to show the worst of Xinjiang and I now know that the stories are not true because I have seen how happily they [Muslims in Xinjiang] are living,” he said.
Naz Parveen is the director of the China Window Institute in Peshawar, Pakistan, and she was on the same tour as Farooq. She too was impressed by the prosperity she observed in Xinjiang.
Echoing Beijing’s characterisation of the situation, Parveen believes that what have been termed human rights violations in Xinjiang can be more accurately described as law enforcement operations targeting religious extremism.
For Parveen, the trip reinforced those views.
“We visited bazaars and mosques and we saw people praying and being taught by imams,” she told Al Jazeera
“Wherever we went, we saw that people were living a normal life, a peaceful and content life, so the terrible things I had read about Xinjiang did not align with what I saw.”
On another tour of Xinjiang in September, Chinese state broadcaster CGTN quoted columnist and Filipino politician Mussolini Sinsuat Lidasan praising Chinese “anti-terrorism” measures in Xinjiang.
On the same tour, Donovan Ralph Martin, who is the editor of the Daily Scrum News in Canada, was likewise quoted by CGTN as saying that “absolutely, there is freedom of religion in Xinjiang, and anybody who does not say that is ignorant”.
Lidasan and Martin did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for interview.
Challenging the narrative
Since as early as 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping has called for “telling the story of Xinjiang” and “confidently propagating the excellent social stability of Xinjiang“.
Canadian-Uighur activist Rukiye Turdush sees the media tours as integral to Xi’s mission. So does Henryk Szadziewski who is a senior researcher at the NGO Uyghur Human Rights Project. He says media tours, like the ones in Xinjiang, are a common tactic employed by countries that have something to hide.
“The purpose is to contradict the criticism of the human rights record by getting others to amplify your narrative which garners more credibility,” he told Al Jazeera.
“In practice, if they for example want to show you that Uighurs enjoy freedom of religious belief and expression, then they usually take you to Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar and the people that you speak to have often been heavily selected and are unable to challenge the state’s version of Uighurs.”
The Pakistani delegation that Farooq and Parveen joined visited Id Kah Mosque.
In terms of more spontaneous encounters with Uighurs on such tours, Turdush does not attach much credibility to conclusions reached by foreign journalists based on talks with Uighurs who have been living in an environment of fear for years and been subjected to heavy surveillance as well as state propaganda.
“Few Uighurs and other Turkic people in East Turkestan (Xinjiang) have much choice other than to stay silent or echo Chinese propaganda,” she said.
Australian journalists on a media tour in September reported they spoke to a souvenir vendor who had not been provided by their tour guides. The vendor said that he had spent time at an internment camp but when the journalists started to ask more questions, a person suddenly appeared and began to film the vendor’s answers.
Even former UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet found her long-delayed visit carefully choreographed. But her final report, released moments before she left office, found China had probably committed “crimes against humanity” in Xinjiang.
However, in recent years, there have been signs that some of the security measures in Xinjiang have been relaxed, according to Maya Wang, an associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
Detention camps have been closed down and police checkpoints have been removed.
Instead, a vast network of sophisticated facial-recognition security cameras has reportedly been established throughout the region, while people who were previously detained in camps have been transferred into China’s opaque prison system.
At the same time, information flowing in and out of Xinjiang remains tightly controlled, while Xinjiang residents are punished for having unauthorised contact with people outside China.
“The genocide is still happening but it is just much more covert now,” Turdush said.
Despite the controversy surrounding the organised tours, both Turdush and Jazexhi believe that foreign journalists and officials should continue to visit Xinjiang as long as they challenge the narratives that are presented to them.
“They should go,” Jazexhi said.
“And they should speak the truth about what they see in Xinjiang and what they don’t see.”