But journalists and observers are allowed to visit!

When foreign journalists actually visited the region, talked to local people, and visited the region's vocational education and training centers, they realized Xinjiang is not like that described in Western media, a source who is close to the matter but preferred not to be named told the Global Times. — The Global Times, April 2021

I am of the opinion that media tours are at best ambiguously useful in determining conditions within closed facilities. Such tours by definition are orchestrated by people with an interest in making everything appear perfect and the means to tightly control the conditions of a facility and its visitors; they must be approached with great skepticism. It should go without saying, but if you only allow some people to tour some parts of some facilities while under constant supervision, it should be almost a given that the tour does not represent that whole picture. Whether it's ICE inviting media to visit detention centers to "dispel bad information", the US military-led tours of Guantánamo Bay, or at the extreme end, Nazis allowing the Red Cross to tour Theresienstadt, examples of misleading state-sponsored tours of controversial facilities are plenty.

This does not mean we can immediately write off tours of "vocational schools" in Xinjiang offered by the Chinese government, which began in late 2018. Such tours suggest that for low-security facilities, there is some degree of humaneness, although as several of the journalists note below, the Chinese government does not allow access to other, high-security camps. These tours could theoretically be very informative of the system overall if a team of reporters were allowed access to any facility they chose, immediately. That would allay concerns of staging. Of course, that is not how these tours actually go down.

What follows is an analysis these tours to Xinjiang and its "vocational schools" based on accounts of several journalists who took part, including those with both positive and negative views of the facilities. After that, a section of various examples of journalists outside of these tours being obstructed from research and reporting to emphasize the generally closed nature of Xinjiang to investigative reporters not affiliated with China. Finally, a note about diplomatic visits to the "schools".

State-sponsored media tours

Starting in late 2018, the Chinese government via the State Council Information Office began a large-scale effort to invite select journalists to Xinjiang to tour reeducation facilities, or, in official parlance, vocational training schools. With the help of several volunteers (thank you Dillon J., Dan Vinton, and many others!), I compiled a spreadsheet of as many journalists as I could who had visited the camps on these tours, because the government does not publish a list of participants. It only references some when quoting them saying nice things. You can access the spreadsheet here, if you're curious:

(There are bound to be errors here—if you find any, please DM me on Twitter! Also, thanks for the kind concern from many of my dear readers, but Justin Sochs is a pseudonym, not my real name. I am not quite that clumsy.)

Generally, the trips are attended by sympathetic journalists—often from the same outlet multiple times, if the outlet has given good coverage previously. Most of the outlets are relatively well-established, respectable organizations, though some are glorified blogs or one-man operations. The majority of those invited leave with a positive impression, and those are the most likely to be named in Chinese media. In the above spreadsheet, 93% (28 of 30) of journalists who returned to write positive or party line reports on Xinjiang are named, and only 31% (4 of 13) of those with negative views. All quotes are positive; no criticisms or questions are noted by Chinese media. Those statistics suggest that of the remaining 69+ journalists I was unable to identify, a larger proportion may have had negative views.

The tours all seem to go to two or three of at most four specific detention facilities, one of two in Kashgar, one in Onsu, and one in Hotan. One of the Kashgar locations has since been decommissioned, according to ASPI's database. It should be noted that researcher Shawn Zhang has argued the Shule County, Kashgar camp was de-securitized before some visits occurred, with guard towers and barbed wire removed. I don't have Google Earth Pro, so I was not able to verify his screenshots.

The following are journalists who went on these trips, several of whom support the camps, for whatever twisted reason. Collectively, they identify what appear be several holes in official propaganda about the camps and Xinjiang more broadly:

  • People inside are likely detainees, not students, who do not come to the camps of their own accord
  • Detainees are not only there because of extremism, but religiosity in general (camp administrators freely admit that detainees cannot practice their religion within the facilities)
  • Officials are not forthcoming with tough questions, and do not allow journalists to visit anywhere besides pre-approved locations
  • Mosques in Xinjiang that they visit are practically deserted, even on Fridays

On a final note, Adrian Zenz in December 2019 published this piece refuting the insistence of the Chinese government that the centers were purely benevolent. The piece is published in what I consider to be a questionable journal, and at times relies on leaked sources and informants that are by their nature unverifiable (though it still makes many compelling points using openly available Chinese government documents) so I assume those who are skeptical of Zenz will not be convinced. The point of my post here is to build upon that and show that many of the journalists brought on the propaganda tours themselves remained unconvinced, and their observations should be more than enough to demonstrate that state-sponsored visits are an insufficient basis to show the system of camps is benevolent.

Edvard Chesnekov—Russian—July 2019

Edvard Chesnekov is a journalist with Komsomolskaya Pravda, a major Russian daily based in Moscow. His account (in Russian) of his visit to Xinjiang reveals several not-so-subtle idiosyncrasies throughout the trip that betray the precarity of the official Party narrative.

Ultimately, however, Chesnekov concludes Western media is soft and biased on counterterrorism and Xinjiang. There's no outright genocide, he concludes, and while measures might be harsh, China is just doing what needs to be done. What else is there to do, he asks, when "[t]here is a problematic minority in your country [and the] minority has nothing to do with your values, but is happy to benefit off of you"? In his view, the minority must be changed. The solution, of course, is camps, which he lets slip he basically views as prisons. How progressive!

Chesnekov's article opens with a peculiar exchange:

— Как тебя зовут? — Адигюль. — Ты мусульманка? — Не знаю… не могу сказать. — Ответь просто: да или нет? — Раньше я была мусульманкой. Но потом пришла в эту школу — и перестала. (Из беседы с воспитанницей «Центра повышения квалификации» уезда Венсу, близ города Аксу, Синьцзян-Уйгурский автономный район Китая (СУАР), 18 июля 2019 года.)

- What's your name? - Adigul. - You are Muslim? - I don’t know… I cannot say. - Answer simply: yes or no? - I used to be a Muslim. But then I came to this school and stopped. (From a conversation with a pupil of the "Center for Advanced Studies" of Wensu County, near the city of Aksu, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of China (XUAR), July 18, 2019.)

The journalists spend the first few days outside of the reeducation/"vocational training" centers, which includes tours of museums, collective farms, and an apparent visit to a theater. Chesnekov asks a number of questions of the director (a Uyghur woman named Rebigul) of the first center they visit, "Onsu County Advanced Training Center."

— Почему на окнах решётки? — Вопрос безопасности. Окна моют сами воспитанники и могут случайно выпаст— А сколько всего таких центров? И сколько всего закл… э… воспитанников? — Не знаю, я контролирую только свой участок, — с кристальной чистотой во взоре говорит Ребигюль. На вопрос о количестве не ответил никто из китайских лиц, с кем мы здесь общались. И это в стране, где Цань Лунь 2100 лет назад в целях улучшения учёта урожаев изобрёл бумагу.

- Why are there bars on the windows? - It's a security issue. The pupils wash the windows themselves and may accidentally fall out. - How many such centers are there? And how many pris... uh... pupils are there?* - “I don’t know, I only control my area,” Rebigul says with a crystal clarity in her eyes. None of the Chinese people we spoke with here answered the question about the number. And this is in the country where Cai Lun invented paper 2,100 years ago to improve crop accounting.

* закл... is Chesnekov catching himself before he says заключенных; заключенный means 'prisoner' or 'inmate'

While his skepticism is not misplaced, it is theoretically possible that the an administrator of the area is fairly ignorant of the camps outside her purview, but it is highly questionable that she cannot even provide a rough estimate. Whether it's from alleged leaked data published by Adrian Zenz or reports posted by cadres themselves (see some translations here), we know the Party keeps very close track of the numbers involved down to the grassroots level.

— Почему у них нет мобильников? — Мешают учебному процессу, — отвечает Ребигюль. — Но на выходные, когда дети могут уйти и повидаться с родными, телефоны им, конечно, дают. «Дети». Да, почти всем — чуть за двадцать. Но одной воспитаннице, с которой мы беседовали, был 31 год.

- Why don't they have cellphones? - "They interfere with the educational process," replies Rebigul, "But on weekends, when the children can leave and see their relatives, they are, of course, given phones." "Children". Yes, almost everyone is in their early twenties. But one pupil we spoke with was 31.

It is almost certainly false that the "students" are free to leave on weekends. Documents leaked by the New York Times (see this post), in fact, very explicitly state otherwise, and this is not something claimed by witness/victim testimony outside those directly inside the camps and under supervision of Chinese authorities. In fact, the idea of it seems to contradict the central goal of the camps, which heavily borrow from the language of epidemiology and disease to describe the detainees as "infected" and in need of "treatment" and so on.

A confidential document leaked to and translated by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists does show that detainees are supposed to be allowed to contact family through phone and/or video calls, and potentially in-person methods, but none entailing leave to go home. (See § 13 in the confidential telegram (Mandarin/English translation); note that in the original Chinese "visit" 探视 is not a word that would be use to describe "a visit back home", for instance; the word means visit in the sense of e.g. "visit someone in the hospital".) In fact, the only conditions under which departures are allowed are "illness or other special circumstances", during which time "they must have someone specially accompany, monitor and control them" (§ 2 of the same document).

Later, journalists are brought to a factory. Chesnokov sarcastically describes the hovering cadre behind the anxious woman he is attempting to interview:

Беседуем со швеёй-уйгуркой: — Хорошо вам тут работается? — Хорошо. — Насколько хорошо? — Очень хорошо. Девушка отвечает односложно, волнуется. За её правым плечом стоит компетентный товарищ со значком члена партии. Компетентный — в том смысле, что в текстильной промышленности применяются сложные технические термины, он следит, дабы подопечная не ошиблась.

We talk with the Uyghur seamstress: - Is it good working here? - It is good. - How good? - Very good. The girl answers in monosyllables, worried. Behind her right shoulder is a competent comrade with a Party member badge. Competent in that he makes sure that the ward is not mistaken in using the complex technical terminology of the textile industry.

After that, the group of journalists visits a mosque. Chesnokov notes a few strange things about the experience:

Правда, в действующей мечети по традиции на видном месте должен лежать Коран. А ещё по неписаным правилам может быть читальная комната, где священная книга опять же имеется в большом количестве. Но не здесь. [...] На дворе разгар пятницы, святого для мусульман дня. Но в мечети — никого, кроме имама и переводчика. Журналисты-суадовцы пытаются поговорить без толмача, на международном языке ислама, но Эхэт на контакт не идёт.

Indeed, in a functioning mosque, according to tradition, the Quran should lie in a prominent place. And according to unwritten rules, there may be a reading room, where the holy book, again, is abundant. But not here. [...] It's midnight on Friday, the holy day for Muslims. But there was no one in the mosque except the imam and interpreter. The Saudi journalists try to talk without an interpreter in the international language of Islam, but Ehat [the imam] would not communicate with them.

This is frequently noted by other journalists as well—people will only speak in Mandarin to reporters, even though many might be more fluent in a different language. This is presumably because handlers need to understand what is being said at all times.

Khairah N. Karim—Malaysian—July 2019

Karim is a reporter for the Malaysian paper New Straits Times and a Muslim woman. She was unsettled by her visit to Xinjiang and the detention centers, and was not mentioned at all by state media (ironically, I only found out about her when a denialist Google Doc linked to her article, titled "Uyghurs 'freely join re-education camps'"—clearly, whoever put it there didn't read past the headline). While Karim describes the centers as appearing pleasant enough, her writeup is very careful to note that "the tightly-controlled trip" at some points was outright "surreal." Her article, in English, is readable here. Some key points:

  • Karim states the group visited two centers for vocational training, among other places. "During the tightly-controlled trip, we were taken to three cities in Xinjiang and to only two out of the reportedly 100 so-called 'vocational training centres' accompanied by officials from the Information Office. A request to visit a third school of our choice was turned down." She states that officials often just refused to answer questions outright.
  • Like others, Karim notes that the residents of the centers all uniformly insisted they were there of their own accord; they apparently "came to a realisation overnight that their extremist opinions were wrong and that they needed re-education."
  • "At the Shule County Vocational Training Centre, the students seemed free to move around, but it was impossible to ignore the fact that their dormitories of at least 10 people per room had sturdy doors that could only be locked from the outside and a squat toilet with no doors. Asked if the students could lock the doors from the inside, Shule’s headmaster Mamat Ali said: 'They could if they wanted to.' But when asked on how it was possible with no locks on the other side of the door, no response was given."
  • Karim is more disturbed by the heavy securitization that other journalists ignore or (like e.g. Yashlavsky) write off as an inevitable feature of any modern society with security problems.
    • "If asked how it feels to be in what is described as the safest place in China, my answer is: 'I have never felt so watched.'"
    • "In Urumqi, journalists who were on tour travelled in a presidential-like convoy in two buses, which were escorted. Traffic along the entire highway of Xinjiang’s capital was closed off to make way for us and the roads were equipped with heavy video surveillance. Closed-circuit television (CCTV) was also seen in the middle of the desert."
  • The center's head also admitted that Uyghurs "could not practise their religious beliefs while at the centre ... because China’s constitutional law stated that no religious activities should take place at public places like the centre." (This is bizarre: how could someone infected by religious extremism voluntary commit themselves to a place where they were not allowed to practice their religion? Again, this seems to suggest one's time at the centers is not voluntary.)

Olsi Jazexhi—Albanian—August 2019

Olsi Jazexhi is a freelance journalist and was a lecturer in history in Albania (specializing in the history of Islam), though after he published his criticism of China, he was suspended from teaching, which he maintains was done under pressure from the Chinese government. Jazexhi is prolific on YouTube where he uploads videos in English and Albanian, including videos from his trip, such as an at times tense interview with "students" in a camp supervised by the Chinese guides. As detailed in The Guardian:

[T]he group visited another re-education camp in Kashgar, where [Jazexhi] 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. [...] 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.”

It appears the State Council Information Office, which organizes these trips, mistook Jazexhi's hostility to Western imperialism for gullibility.

Jazexhi subsequently published an open letter to Muslim nations in December 2019, decrying their silence on the issue in the face of what he saw as clear repression and colonization in Xinjiang. His vocal criticisms, which were later amplified by the US government, prompted fierce reaction from China; the Global Times accused him "fake news".

Jazexhi's rhetoric is extreme, but he draws heavily on the Xinjiang De-Extremification regulations to show what he believes to be a systemic, concerted effort to root out Islam in Xinjiang. Whether or not we agree with that assessment of Beijing's aim in totality, suffice to say, it is clear Jazexhi's experience in Xinjiang was deeply disturbing for him.

Chinese authorities have prohibited the existence of minarets, the azan (call to prayer), mosques with domes and when a new mosque is ever built it must be shaped in Chinese architecture since the teleological narrative of the Chinese government claims that Islam needs to be Sinicized, and it should not have any Arabic or Turkic symbols. To force the Sinicization of Islam, Xinjiang authorities sponsor the Islamic Institute of Xinjiang where selected imams are taught a restricted Chinese version of Islam. The campaign of terror against the Muslim population has created a climate of fear. We saw fear in the eyes of all the Muslims that we managed to meet. The Chinese government has been mass colonizing Xinjiang with Chinese colonists since the 1950s. The Chinese, who in the 1950s counted for 5% to 9% of the population in 2010 count for 40%. The colonization is continuing very aggressively nowadays and it aims to turn the Muslims into a minority.

Erez Linn—Israeli—April 2019

Erez Linn is a writer for Israel Hayom, a staunchly pro-Netanyahu newspaper. In his writeup (in Hebrew), Linn is modestly supportive of the camps, despite the issues he acknowledges exist—including arbitrary detention and suppression of common religious practices—and his clear skepticism of the genuineness of detainees' testimony. He stilll leaves with a positive impression, noting the importance of stability and the similarities between Israel's struggles with (counter)terrorism and China's.

(Note that the following is a lightly edited machine translation; the gist of the article was confirmed to me by a Hebrew speaker, but I do not speak the language myself. Also, apologies for the lack of right-to-left alignment for Hebrew.)

בשיחות עם בכירים מהמשטר נאמר לנו כמובן כי האנשים מגיעים למתקנים מרצונם, אך ברור כי ההליך "מורכב" קצת יותר, וכשלוחצים על הפקידים הם מודים שלעיתים מדרבנים את האנשים להגיע כדי למנוע פשע עתידי, ולא בגלל פשעים שביצעו. התהליך שבסופו מגיעים העצירים למתקנים מתחיל מתוך הקהילה, כאשר גורמי שיטור מקומיים או קרובי משפחה מדווחים כי התנהלותם של אנשים מסוימים אינה תקינה. ה"סימנים המחשידים" יכולים להיות גם דברים שבעולם המערבי נחשבים לנורמליים אך בסין, ובמיוחד בפרובינציית שינג'יאנג, גורמים להרמת גבה: התקרבות מהירה לדת והבעת מחשבות קיצוניות; התרחקות מהחברה והסתגרות; הקפדה פתאומית על אכילת אוכל חלאל ועוד.

In conversations with senior officials from the regime we have of course been told that people come to the facilities voluntarily, but it is clear that the procedure is a bit more "complex", and when officials are pressured they admit that sometimes people are encouraged to come to prevent future crime. The process by which detainees arrive at the facilities starts from within the community, with local police officers or relatives reporting that the conduct of certain individuals as improper. The "suspicious signs" can also be things that in the Western world are considered normal, but in China, and especially in Xinjiang Province, cause a backlash: a quick embrace of religion and the expression of extreme thoughts; distance from society and closing oneself off; sudden adherence to eating halal, etc.

This sentiment—disbelief that people actually all go to the centers voluntarily, giving up practicing their religions daily, their jobs, etc., on their own accord—is held by many reporters with positive views of the camps.

אי אפשר להסתיר את העובדה שבמקרים מסוימים, המשטר שם במעצר גם אנשים שבסך הכל מנסים לקיים אורח חיים דתי ללא כל קיצוניות, אך במקרים אחרים נראה כי האנשים שנלקחו למעצר הם כאלו שבכל מקרה נחשבים לבעייתיים בחברה, וההתקרבות לדת היא רק עילה רשמית.

It is impossible to hide the fact that in some cases, the regime also detains people who are trying to lead a religious lifestyle without any extremism, but in other cases it seems that the people taken into custody are those who are considered problematic in society, and approaching religion is only the official reason.

Qiu 2017—research from a Party functionary—noted the problem of local officials sending people to camps to settle personal scores as well.

קשה למצוא מסגדים ברחובות (לפחות באזורים שהראו לנו), למעט כאלו שנמצאים במרכזי הערים הגדולות ותחת פיקוח הדוק, והם למעשה מרכזים קהילתיים ופחות מוסדות דתיים. קריאת מואזין אינה נשמעת (לטענת הרשויות יש קריאה לתפילות מדי פעם), אנשים עם זקן אינם נראים ברחובות. בכל פינת רחוב אפשר לראות תחנת משטרה, וגם ניידות המשטרה נראות כאילו נלקחו משדה הקרב.

It is difficult to find mosques in the streets (at least in the areas they have shown us), except for those that are in the centers of big cities and under close supervision, and are in fact community centers and less religious institutions. A muezzin call is not heard (according to authorities there is an occasional call for prayers), people with beards are not seen in the streets. On every street corner you can see a police station, and the police vehicles also look like they were taken from the battlefield.

The observations of the "emptiness" of the mosques and religious life are shared by Chesnekov as well, who visited a few months later.

כמו ישראל במזרח התיכון, סין סבורה שהיא הילד ששם את האצבע בסכר ומונע מדאעש להקים ח'ליפות אסיאתית בחסות האויגורים. בכלל, נציגי המשטר רוחשים כבוד עצום לישראל הקטנה בזכות דרך ההתמודדות שלה עם אתגרי הביטחון.

Like Israel in the Middle East, China believes it is the boy who puts his finger in the dike and prevents ISIS from establishing an Asian caliphate under the auspices of the Uighurs. In general, the regime's representatives have great respect for little Israel thanks to its way of dealing with security challenges.

Linn is not just being flattered here; Chinese researchers have long sought to learn from US and Israeli counterterrorism policy and tactics. See e.g. this 2014 paper by the National Police University of China.

Andrey Yashlavsky — Russian — April 2019

Andrey Yashlavsky is a Russian scholar of China and a writer for Moskovsky Komsomolets, a major newspaper in the Moscow metropolitan area. He was a part of the April 21-29, 2019 journalist trip to Xinjiang along with Erez Linn. His Russian writeup of the visit is largely positive. Some highlights include:

Судя по рассказам, молодые люди оказывались перед выбором: либо попасть в тюрьму и получить на всю жизнь «черную метку», либо поступить в центр, пройти обучение и выйти нормальным гражданином, имеющим работу и перспективы нормальной жизни.

Judging from their stories, the young people [in the schools/camps] were faced with a choice: either go to prison and receive a 'black mark' for life, or go to a center, undergo training and leave as a normal citizen with a job and prospects for a normal life.

The above makes the claims of coming to the center "voluntarily" quite a bit more suspect. Speaking with another detainee:

Говорит, что каждую неделю она может ездить домой на побывку, с пятницы по понедельник. Родителей видела на прошлой неделе, к тому же в любое время можно позвонить по телефону.

She says that every week she can go home on leave, from Friday to Monday. I saw my parents last week, and besides, I can receive calls whenever [she says].

(As noted previously, it is false that students allowed to leave the facilities.) Speaking to the school's director:

— Но, может быть, ваши выпускники продолжают находиться под надзором? — Нет, они не находятся под надзором... Честно говоря, этот ответ вызвал у меня скепсис.

- Might it be that your graduates are still under supervision? - No, they are not under supervision ... Honestly, I was skeptical of this answer.

This skepticism is warranted; the principal's statement is almost certainly a lie. Chinese writings on Xinjiang openly speak about (or spoke about; Qiu 2017 was taken down from the Internet shortly after it was publicized in the West) post-detention monitoring, which may result in re-detention.

Paolo Salom—Italian—July 2019

Paolo Salom is deputy director of the international section of Corriere Della Sera, a major Italian newspaper. Salom is quoted quite a few times in Chinese state media about his visit, like in this Xinhua piece:

"This is a school, not a concentration camp," said Paolo Salom [...] "It's a place where people learn not only laws and regulations but also how to find a job and cope in modern society. To overcome extremism through education, no doubt, is the right way."

Salom has previous ties to Chinese media outlets, but nevertheless in August 2019 wrote a much less glowing article about his trip after he returned to Italy. (I have no idea why his view presented by Xinhua is so different—perhaps he was lying, perhaps Xinhua fabricated his quote, or perhaps he changed his mind later.) His account is short, but makes very clear that he was not won over by the tour, and was very cognizant that his trip was controlled and he was unable to see what the authorities did not want him to see.

L’accento sul rispetto di leggi e costituzione della Cina è costante. [...] E i racconti dei giovani che accettano di «confessare» i loro «crimini» davanti ai giornalisti stranieri (nessuno scommette sulla spontaneità delle loro parole) interpretano fino in fondo la necessità di «riconoscimento attraverso l’autocritica» dell’autorità nazionale: «Ero uno sciocco, mi sono fatto conquistare da un’ideologia violenta», dice Aizaiti Ali, 25 anni. «Ho imparato su Internet come fare una bomba», recita Kuer Banjiang, 23 anni. C’è anche una ragazza, Kurban Gul, 22 anni: «Ho diffuso video jihadisti. Ho creduto alla propaganda che mi insegnava a odiare i cinesi perché pagani». Più tardi, il Corriere si è trovato, da solo, in una camerata, linda e ordinata, dove uno «studente» si rilassava prima della mensa suonando la chitarra: nei suoi occhi non c’era tristezza, ma una serena rassegnazione e la consapevolezza di non avere altra strada davanti a sé. «Negli ultimi trenta mesi — afferma con prudenza la signora Tian Wen — non ci sono stati attentati: vuol dire che i nostri sistemi sono efficaci». Ai reporter resta il ricordo di una visita a vere scuole, istituti professionali che potrebbero appartenere ai normali circuiti educativi. Ma anche la consapevolezza di non poter raccontare ciò che non si è potuto vedere.

The emphasis on complying with China's laws and constitution is constant. [...] And the stories of young people who agree to "confess" their "crimes" in front of foreign journalists (no one is betting on the spontaneity of their words) fully perform the need for "recognition through self-criticism" of the national authority: "I was a fool, I let myself be won over by a violent ideology, ”says Aizaiti Ali, 25. "I learned how to make a bomb on the Internet," says Kuer Banjiang, 23. There is also a girl, Kurban Gul, 22 years old: "I have posted jihadist videos. I believed the propaganda that taught me to hate the Chinese because they are pagans". Later on, Il Corriere found himself, alone, in a clean and tidy dormitory, where a "student" was relaxing before the canteen by playing the guitar: in his eyes there was no sadness, but a serene resignation and awareness of having no other path ahead. "In the last thirty months", says Ms. Tian Wen with caution "there have been no attacks: this means that our systems are effective". The reporters are left with the memory of a visit to real schools, professional institutes that could belong to the normal educational systems, but also the awareness of not being able to tell what has not been seen.

Gerry Wagschal—American—July 2019

Wagschal is a senior producer for ABC. ABC's writeup of the visit speaks relatively little about the specifics of the camps, though concedes that they do not look like what one expects from outside reports. The article is interspersed with testimony in video and print form from former detainees and makes reference to the work of Adrian Zenz.

ABC was not the only western media outlet granted access. See also Reuters (January 2019), Bloomberg (January 2019), NPR (April 2019), and BBC (April 2019). (For a rather weak attempt at a refutation of the latter by Sun Feiyang, see this Medium post; I trust the other information on this page demonstrates the problems with Sun's arguments—namely, that he chooses to take the Party for its word, no questions asked.)

Journalist access within Xinjiang is restricted

Here, I want to point out that Xinjiang is open. You simply do not need any satellite imagery' to understand Xinjiang. We welcome all obective and fair-minded foreigners to visit Xinjiang and understand the reality here."

— Spokesman for the XUAR People's Government News Office, December 2020 (Link)

To complement the above section, the following are excerpts of reporting on mass incarceration and reeducation in Xinjiang from various news outlets that describe interference with journalistic work. When you're not on an official tour, it would seem that things become a lot less open.

The government of China also sometimes retaliates against journalists whose coverage it takes issue with. In 2015, French journalist Ursula Gauthier was abruptly forced to leave China after her press card was allowed to expire when she refused to apologize for an article critical of Xinjiang policy. As an investigation into Bloomberg by the New York Times showed, this tactic can be an effective way of forcing western outlets to self-censor content that might anger Beijing and thus jeopardize further access to the country.

FCCC statistics

The Foreign Correspondent's Club of China (FCCC) is a nonprofit in Beijing that represents journalists from 25+ countries. It regularly surveys members on the conditions of reporting in China. From its 2019 report:

Harassment of journalists by authorities is particularly severe in Xinjiang, the region of northwestern China where authorities have developed a broad array of tactics to monitor journalists and interfere with their reporting. As well as direct interference with reporting activities, this now includes hotels refusing to accommodate visiting journalists, the staging of traffic accidents, and being followed by plainclothes officers and unmarked cars – illustrating the Chinese government’s willingness to go to great lengths to target foreign media in hopes of blocking or influencing reporting on topics it considers unfavourable. In one instance, reporters were barred from entering the city of Atush, in the southwest of the region, for not having contacted propaganda officials in advance. When they asked to see the rules that mandated interview requests as a prerequisite, local police said they were “internal” and wouldn’t be able to show them. Such efforts have also created difficult ethical questions for foreign journalists, some of whom said they declined to conduct interviews in Xinjiang out of fear that interviewees would be interrogated, detained or worse, as a result of their interaction with international media.

Of the 31 journalists who attempted to report from Xinjiang, an overwhelming majority stated there had been some form of restriction on their ability to work. One-third stated they were subsequently summoned by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to explain themselves.

Xinjiang has long been a sensitive region, but the FCCC documented a spike in restrictions on journalism in 2017—the year the current crackdown and mass internment campaign began. From the 2017 report:

Reporting grew more difficult in many areas of China, but in particular Xinjiang, China’s westernmost region. 73% of respondents who traveled to Xinjiang in 2017 were told by officials and security agents that reporting was prohibited or restricted, compared with 42% in the FCCC’s 2016 survey.

Individual examples

Paul Mooney (freelance), 2009:

In Kashgar, in Xinjiang Province, police forced me to check out of my hotel and to stay in a hotel they designated. Foreign journalists in China all have journalist visas, and our arrival is immediately reported to local security people as soon as we check in. During my three days there, police stayed with me from morning to night and prevented me from reporting. I was not allowed to leave the hotel on my own or to take photographs other than tourist shots. On the fourth day, they escorted me to the train station and put me on a train to Urumqi.

AP, December 2018:

Police told the AP journalists who approached the compound earlier this month that they could not take photos or film in the area because it was part of a “military facility.” Yet the entrance was marked only by a tall gate that said it was an “apparel employment training base.”

Nathan VanderKlippe, The Globe and Mail, October 2018:

Over roughly 80 hours in Xinjiang, I received three police escorts, had pictures deleted from my camera twice and was threatened with arrest several times. I was accused of fleeing the scene of an accident and, separately, of breaking highway rules before being informed I had done neither. Once, as I typed notes in my car, police advanced on me as if I were a wanted criminal. Two officers held up anti-explosive shields, while a third grasped his gun, ordering me to place both hands outside the window. [...] It was only when I approached those centres that the followers ceased being passive monitors. Near one, they leapt from their car to form a human wall, blocking me from getting closer. At another, men with guns and anti-ballistic vests seized my phone and camera, refusing to let me go until I deleted pictures. Near a third, traffic rumbled past as a propaganda official told me road construction made it impossible to proceed closer.

BBC, October 2018 (includes images of the police):

But by the time we arrive in Dabancheng we're being followed by at least five cars, containing an assortment of uniformed and plain-clothes police officers and government officials. [...] With our cameras rolling we try to capture the extent of the construction, but before we can go much further one of the police cars swings into action. Our car is stopped - we're told to turn off the cameras and to leave.
By the time dpa correspondents visited Yining, in November, the camp had been closed and the detainees moved elsewhere. More camps existed in Yining County, outside the city, according to research by Shawn Zhang, a student at the University of British Columbia. But getting there proved impossible. Police stopped the reporters at the heavily guarded crossing between city and county. Two officers interrogated them for an hour and a half, over tea and naan, before escorting them to their hotel. The police told them there were more beautiful grasslands and mountains to visit in other counties. [...] During a five-day trip to Xinjiang, dpa reporters were followed by up to eight state police at a time and repeatedly forced to delete pictures.

Bloomberg, January 2019:

Wang and two propaganda officials were my constant companions. They pointed out construction sites and exhibitions hailing Xi’s accomplishments, including a display titled “My Country Is Awesome.” Wang encouraged me to take pictures, but only of “positive things.” At times, the surveillance was excessive to the point of absurdity. Seven security officers were assigned to shadow me in Kashgar. When I asked a local police officer why such a large group was required, he denied the men were there at all. “You’re hallucinating,” he said.
Since last October, the Xinjiang government has also organised camp tours for diplomats and media outlets. But it has made independent reporting in the region extremely challenging, with journalists almost constantly followed by plainclothes officials, making it difficult to talk to locals without putting them at risk. Roadblocks and construction work, which suddenly materialise when reporters near re-education camps, are also a constant headache. When AFP reporters tried to approach one internment camp in Hotan, roads were roped off within seconds after an unmarked car that had been following them sped ahead. [...] Police checkpoints at city borders prevented AFP reporters from travelling outside regional hubs without alerting local propaganda officials. [...] While driving to Artux city, where a mosque is believed to have been destroyed, AFP was forced to turn around by police at a checkpoint who said the road was closed for driving tests -- all day for the next five days.

New York Times, July 2019:

When Times reporters tried this past month to see one such facility on the desert outskirts of Hotan, a city in southern Xinjiang, guards stopped them. They claimed that the road was dangerous because of power cables, which they had just flung across it. When the reporters tried another route, police officers threw up a roadblock using traffic cones. “I’ll just tell you that this is a closed road,” an officer said.

CNN, February 2020:

Speaking in Germany on Thursday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that he would gladly welcome any international diplomats or media to visit Xinjiang to see the truth for themselves. [...] A previous attempt by CNN to visit the detention centers in Xinjiang was blocked by local government authorities.

Washington Post, September 2020:

When a Post reporter tried to visit the detention center half an hour's drive south of Kashgar this month, her vehicle was quickly surrounded by at least eight cars that had previously been tailing at some distance. This site was clearly sensitive. When The Post's reporter and two European journalists headed toward another new camp in Akto, south of Kashgar, they were stopped repeatedly, made to register their passports and drive behind police cars, only to be turned around at a county border. Coronavirus precautions were given as the reason. Conversely, when they visited several compounds that previously held local Uighurs [i.e. were decommissioned], authorities didn't bother much with trying to obstruct the reporters.

BBC, late 2020, when visiting to investigate allegations of forced labor, is followed and prevented from filming several times, as is clear in their video (screenshot of one instance below):


Diplomatic visits

In addition to journalists, the Chinese government also began inviting groups of diplomats to inspect the vocational schools/interment camps in late 2018. Frankly, a visit of diplomats is arguably less useful than that of journalists for an outsider trying to figure out what's going on in Xinjiang; diplomats are not there to write their opinions for public consumption, per se, but rather to observe on behalf of their governments. Thus, most diplomats who visit Xinjiang don't seem to make public comment about it. That is presumably the job of their respective ministries.

As is the case with journalists, visits by diplomats and politicians to Xinjiang are tightly controlled, nor are the tours granted outside the narrow parameters decided by the Chinese state. EU officials have rejected offers by China to visit the facilities because of the very strict requirements that they view as rendering the entire exercise a farce. Despite China's nominal committment to an open door-type policy, a German delegation's request to visit was denied in December 2018; a year later, a delegation from the Green Party was similarly rejected, reportedly due to the presence of Margarete Bause, whose criticisms of Beijing over Xinjiang apparently rendered the entire proposed visit a nonstarter.

It should go without saying that the statements of diplomats and the countries they represent regarding Xinjiang are inevitably tied to greater geopolitical concerns. This is no less true for Western countries; the US makes a big deal out of the treatment of Muslims in China while underwriting mass murder in Yemen, after all. Even countries thoroughly within the US camp have to tread lightly (NYT):

Even New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, who forcefully condemned violence against Muslims after mass shootings at two mosques in Christchurch last month, focused on promoting trade with China during a visit to Beijing last week [in September 2019]. She raised the treatment of the Uighurs with China’s top leaders only in private, and told reporters afterward, “You can’t do much more than that.”

Who would have guessed that power and money can compel less powerful and monied nations to adjust their priorities and stated morals?

Occasionally, we do get some rather interesting insider details leaked by the media. For example, the New York Times got its hands on an internal Malaysian diplomatic cable following one of its diplomats' visits to the camps. The diplomat was disturbed, but the December 28-30th 2018 visit (which also included delegates from Thailand, Afghanistan, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kuwait, India, Pakistan, and Indonesia) came in the context of ongoing negotiations over the multi-billion dollar East Coast Rail Line and other Chinese-backed infrastructure projects, so the concerns were not made public. From the New York Times:

“Delegates could actually sense fear and frustration from the students,” the Malaysian wrote after his December visit with a dozen other diplomats from mostly Muslim nations. “China may have legitimate reasons to implement policies intended to eliminate the threat of terrorism, especially in Xinjiang. However, judging by its approach, it is addressing the issue wrongly and illegitimately, e.g. preventing Muslim minors from learning the Quran.” The diplomat referred to two cities in Xinjiang — once-bustling Kashgar and Hotan — as “zombie towns,” saying the streets were virtually empty and that China was probably “using the threat of terrorism as an excuse to ‘sanitize’ Uighur Muslims until they become acceptable Chinese citizens.”

The Times also quoted a similar internal report it claims to have seen from European Union officials. Malaysia, for its part, was not happy about the leaks:

“The ministry does not comment on the specifics of its internal communications, which are a matter of strict confidentiality,” the statement said, underscoring close ties between Malaysia and China. “Those communications are not meant to be made public.” (Benar News)

Then-Prime Minister of Malaysia Mahathir Mohamad succinctly provided some context when he answer this question posted in an interview with Benar News in late 2019:

[Benar News]: Why are leaders of Muslim countries silent when it comes to the Uyghurs, relatively speaking, and does it have to do with China? [Mohamad]: Because China is a very powerful nation. You don’t just try and do something which would fail anyway, so it is better to find some other less violent ways not to antagonize China too much, because China is beneficial for us.

Similarly, the German government has been relatively restrained in its rhetoric over Xinjiang compared to other Western governments; nevertheless, the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs considers the situation there increasingly grave, as revealed in leaked confidential documents.