Behind the myth of over one million detainees in Xinjiang

Published : 19 Oct 2021 04:03 PM | Updated : 20 Oct 2021 01:28 PM

On an official tour, I went to Xinjiang, the northwestern region of China, in June this year. From June 19 to 26 this year, I visited many religious, historic, and cultural places and basked in the stunning natural beauty of the region. I came across people from all walks of life over there. I would like to let the world know what I saw and observed in Xinjiang. As my visit covered many aspects of the region, I thought to come up with several installments of writing for the sake of telling the truth about Xinjiang. This is the seventh installment.  

Just because of grabbing the headlines very often, Xinjiang has been a much-talked-about name across the world. People hold mixed feelings about the northwestern part of China. On the one hand, many have erroneous impressions that Xinjiang is the home of the oppressed people. The frequent media reports of the oppression and human rights violations of the Uyghur, who account for half of the regional population, have made their false impressions. On the other hand, those who have visited the region and seen for themselves the situations on the ground have feelings that Xinjiang is not the home of the oppressed at all, but an easy and convenient victim of a widespread propaganda campaign as I explained in the last installment of my writing.

In addition, as the Uighur are predominantly Muslims, many gullible Muslims around the world are seen getting deceived into believing the stories of detentions of over a million Uyghur Muslims in concentration camps, forced labor, birth control, destruction of mosques and Islamic sites and genocide across the region. Muslims seem to have grudges against China for the plight of their fellow Muslim brothers and sisters in Xinjiang.

Among the three sections of the people, those whose impressions are made based on the media reports; they need to rethink if they can believe everything in the media about Xinjiang on blind faith. Because Uyghur Muslims themselves and those who live in and travel Xinjiang are continuously denying the media reports, as mentioned before, branding them nothing but parts of a widespread propaganda war against China.

Moreover, I want to tell the credulous people who tend to easily believe the media stories as true that there are too many instances of media reports that have finally proved wrong. The reports have first caused a global uproar and irreparable damage to the victims, but were eventually debunked as fake. No example clarifies this point better than the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The then US president George W. Bush invaded Iraq based on the fake news that the Arab country hid the weapons of mass destruction somewhere in the Iraqi desert. The fake news was based on a report prepared by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of America. However, the US intelligence never found the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But the country had been destroyed and over a million Iraqis killed in the war. The people of Iraq have since been paying high prices of fake news.

The Nayirah testimony is another textbook example of fake news uncritically run by the media with ulterior motives. It was a false testimony given before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus of the US in 1990 by a 15-year-old girl who provided only her first name, Nayirah. The testimony was widely publicized and was cited numerous times by US senators and then-president George H. W. Bush in their rationale to back Kuwait in the Gulf War. But in 1992, it was revealed that Nayirah's last name was al-Ṣabaḥ and that she was the daughter of Saud Al-Sabah, the Kuwaiti ambassador to the US. Furthermore, it was revealed that her testimony was organized as part of the Citizens for a Free Kuwait public relations campaign, which was run by the American public relations firm Hill & Knowlton for the Kuwaiti government. Following this, al-Sabah's testimony has come to be regarded as a classic example of modern propaganda.

Fake news is nothing new in the world; it has actually been around since the beginning of the media. However, in the new media era, it has been very rampant. Fake news is now influencing everything like elections and markets and even ensuing social unrest and war-like situations. For example, in December 2016, Khawaja Muhammad Asif, defense minister of Pakistan, threatened to nuke Israel on a Twitter post. The Pakistani minister made the threat after a piece of fake news claiming that Avigdor Lieberman, Israeli Defense Minister, made such a threat against Pakistan. In order to avoid such unwarranted consequences, many countries including Singapore, Malaysia, Germany, France, Russia, and the European Union have already enacted laws to fight fake news.

Putting the information into perspective, it goes without saying that chances are higher to be deceived by taking all media reports on faith. Thus those who have a negative impression about Xinjiang based on media reports, especially Muslims, have good lessons in the aforementioned instances of fake news to be critical of any news. The instances can also be an eye-opener for the uncritical people prone to believe media reports unquestionably. 

However, I would like to further dig into the allegations for removing any kind of confusion and suspensions that have already been created in the minds of credulous people around the globe about the real conditions of Xinjiang. I will first examine the credibility of the reports of detentions of over one million Uyghur Muslims in the concentration camps across the region. If we look into the matter, we can see that Western media are blaming China for keeping more than one million Uyghur Muslims in concentration camps since 2016. If we examine the authenticity of the allegation, we can realize that there is not even an aura of truth in the allegation. In September 2018, German anthropologist Adrian Zenz first published a study mentioning that some 1.5 million Uighurs were detained in Xinjiang at any time since late 2016. But Newsweek Japan divulged the secret of his study by reporting that Zenz's estimates were sourced by Istiqlal, an Uyghur exile-operated media organization based in Turkey. The Japanese media report made it crystal clear that Zenz is spreading the statements of Uyghur separatists in the name of independent studies. Later, Radio Free Asia (RFA), a US-funded news agency formed by the CIA, widely circulated the report in the West without any critical analysis and scrutiny of the claims of the report first run by Istiqlal.

The number of detainees is itself still a myth as different numbers of detainees have been reported by different media, ranging from one and a half to three million, without quoting any reliable sources to substantiate their numbers. Adrian Zenz himself admitted that ‘there is no certainty’ to this estimate. Speaking at an event organized by the US mission in Geneva in March 2019, he stated that ‘although speculative, it seems appropriate to estimate that up to 1.5 million ethnic minorities [have been interned in Xinjiang].’ He also mentioned his estimate again in a November 2019 interview with the RFA, claiming that China has detained 1.8 million people. The varying numbers given by Zenz and their uncritical coverage by the media proves that there is no authenticity of such an allegation.

The allegation of mass detention has actually been formed and circulated based on the Chinese government-run vocational education and training centers in Xinjiang, which are being labeled as concentration camps by the media. Many reports said that more than one million of Uyghur Muslims have long been detained in the camps terming the students of the centers as detainees. To examine the validity of the reports, we can directly hear from the students of the centers. A few months before the trip, I talked to some graduate trainees of the vocational centers in Beijing. They categorically ruled out the authenticity of such reports and branded the centers as the epitome of hope for millions of Uyghurs and other ethnic people in Xinjiang. They claimed that never have the centers been used as detention camps for their fellow Muslims. The centers are kindling new prospects for Muslims by improving their employability. In their eyes, the center is the significant turning and new starting point of their life. They are now working harder to earn more money and let their families live a happier life, leaving their darkest past behind, thanks to the centers.

Ablajan Ablat, an Uyghur Muslim who graduated from a vocational education and training center in Aksu Prefecture of Xinjiang said that now he has a car repair shop of his own. Once he had fallen into the influence of religious extremism and wanted to join illegal religious activities with all his heart and even wanted to kill the so-called ‘pagans’. “I didn’t find a job, nor did any farm work. When I ran out of money, I asked my parents for help, and I would abuse or use force towards them if they refused. My father was so worried about me that his hair turned grey, and my mother often wept for me,” he added.

But after studying at the center, his Chinese efficiency has improved a lot. He learned the skill of repairing automobiles. He realized the danger of religious extremism and recognized the ugly face of extremists. Then, he got rid of their control over his mind. “The extremists just used us to alienate our Uyghurs from other ethnic groups, destroy our unity and arouse hatred. They wanted to turn us into demons,” he noted.

After graduation from the center, Ablajan Ablat started his own business. He now earns some 10,000 yuan a month. He also makes extra money as an interpreter of the Chinese language that he has learned at the center. As his life is getting better, Ablajan Ablat got married last year and bought his wife a car worth 120,000 yuan. She drives to work every day and they live a happy life. Ablajan Ablat plans to open two more branches of his business this year and employ more young fellows, teaching them automobile repair technology. In this way, Ablajan Ablat wants to help his young fellows increase their incomes and expand the scale of his business. He wants to do chain operations all over China in the future. “I am lucky and happy enough, and so do my classmates at the center. We all agree that if we didn’t go to the center for study, we would be dragged down deeper and deeper and no one would know what kind of person we could change into,” he added.

Ablajan Ablat and his classmates give all credit to the government and their teachers who saved them from the curse of extremism. Because they think what they have now would never happen if they hadn’t learned the skills at the center. “The vocational education and training center is the significant turning and new starting point of our lives. For me, I will work harder to expand my business, earn more money and let my family live a happier life,” he added.

Tursunnisa Ali, an Uyghur Muslim girl who graduated from a center in Hotian Prefecture of Xinjiang, said that influenced by extremist thoughts, she didn’t go to the government-run school. She excluded other ethnic groups and didn’t associate with them. Tursunnisa didn’t watch TV or take part in any entertainment activities. Besides, she persuaded her neighbors to do the same. They didn’t listen to her, so she abused them and even fought with them after a quarrel. Her parents felt very sad about her behavior. Persuaded by them, she came to the training center. Studying at the center helped her to realize that her previous thoughts were totally wrong and the extremism was like the virus that would erode body and soul and the poison that would lead to death in the end. “I must stay away from it and live a normal life. I chose the sewing course at the center because I want to make myself nice clothes, make a living by sewing and show my filial respect to my mother that teachers taught us hand in hand,” she added.

After graduating from the center, Tursunnisa found a job in a clothing company through the labor market and signed a working contract with it. Now her salary is 4,000 yuan a month. She is a workshop manager in charge of more than 180 staff. “I like making clothes as always, thus I like my job very much. I feel very proud of the progress my fellow workmates made after learning sewing skills from me. When it comes to weekends or holidays, I get well dressed and enjoy my time with my friends. Now I am a happy Uygur girl thanks to the center,” she added.

Their statements help me to conclude that, though Sinophobes brand the vocational training and educations centers as concentration camps, the centers have been a role model for the world in eradicating terrorism. Because they are addressing both the symptoms and root causes of extremism. The centers have effectively eradicated the breeding ground for religious extremism by helping their trainees acquire better education and vocational skills, find employment, and increase their incomes, and most of all, safeguard social stability and long-term peace. They deliver a curriculum that includes standard spoken and written Chinese, understanding of the law, vocational skills, and de-radicalization. Based on local demand and employment opportunities, the courses have been designed to ensure the trainees are employable in the job market upon completing their studies. Since trainees have fallen under the influence and control of religious extremism to a greater or lesser extent, the centers have integrated de-radicalization into the whole process of education and training. Thus the centers have built a large knowledge-based, skilled, and innovative workforce in Xinjiang. Every year from 2014 to 2019, the centers provided training sessions to an average of 1.29 million urban and rural workers, allowing them to go on to find stable employment.

Given the aforementioned discussion, it’s not difficult to understand that many media outlets have long been running false and fabricated reports over the vocational education and training centers in Xinjiang portraying them as concentration camps. However, the situations on the ground are not the same as they have been reported by the media. The centers are, as such, not prisons but the beacon of hope for millions of people in the northwestern region of China. The varying numbers of so-called detainees themselves are nothing but a myth that has already been debunked with the truth. The myth is made based on the so-called study report of Adrian Zenz and being spread by sinophobes with the motive of thwarting de-radicalization, anti-extremism, and terrorism efforts in Xinjiang. Thus sinophobes simultaneously want to destabilize the region and deter the development of ethnic Muslims of China. Though they are trying to prove themselves as friends of Muslims, they want nothing but scapegoating Muslims to hold back the rise of China. This is their only true motive behind the myth of over one million detainees in Xinjiang. 

-    Md Enamul Hassan is a news editor at the China Media Group (CMG) in Beijing, China.