Sun Feiyang's attempted takedown of BBC

One of the more darkly amusing aspects of denialism is the heart-and-soul effort random Twitter accounts will put into research and writing and arguing about something that has very little impact on them specifically (he says without the slightest hint of irony).

And then there are posts that are just, like, not well researched nor well written. Sun Feiyang's bad attempt at a takedown of a BBC video of its invited visit to a "vocational training center" is a good example. (I will reference the post I made about these visits a lot here.)

Let's just go paragraph by paragraph. The Medium post, from July 2019, is called "Breaking down the BBC’s visit to Hotan, Xinjiang". It's mostly hot air, with some bits approaching something of a cogent criticism sprinkled throughout.

John Sudworth’s history of reporting on Xinjiang includes lovely headlines such as “China Xinjiang police state: Fear and resentment” - you’d think a smart authoritarian police state would bar him from coming back, but back he is, with an exclusive look and visit into the vocational training facilities in Xinjiang that are alleged to be mass detention centers/concentration camps.

This is a good observation! China does indeed often kick out journalists whose coverage of Xinjiang they deem too subversive. A good example is Megha Rajagopalan, whose visa renewal was abruptly refused without reason after six years in China following her seminal reporting on the camps in Xinjiang, forcing her out of the country. China, though, also understands that it's not a great look to just immediately kick out anyone who ever says anything bad; that would be too suspicious. Yet reporters themselves trying to to investigative work in Xinjiang are regularly blocked from doing so. Per the Foreign Correspondent's Club of China's (FCCC) 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.

According to their 2019 report, 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.

1:04–1:42 Sudworth can barely contain his condescension here, letting you the viewer know that the Chinese government would have you believe that these dancers shown are just students and came here willingly!

Yeah, because that's a lie. Even if we think some of those individual students the reporters are allowed to see might have come on their own accord, it says nothing about the more securitized facilities reporters are not given access to, and the evidence is clear: these are not voluntary facilities.

Funnily enough, even journalists invited on these tours who support the camps have been skeptical. Before I quote them, though, let's think for a moment: if these students were so mired in extremism that they needed to be taken to months- or years-long immersion programs to cleanse their minds, why would they volunteer to go in the first place? In the words of Malaysian journalist Khairah Karim, who took part in an official tour in July 2019, the government wants you to believe the 'students' just "came to a realisation overnight that their extremist opinions were wrong and that they needed re-education."

So either someone is lying or the students weren't that extremist in the first place, certainly not extremist enough to need to spend months in these facilities, away from their families and jobs, no? That, of course, calls into question the basic purpose of the facilities themselves.

Anyways, I'm not the only one who noticed this glaring discrepancy, so to help Feiyang out, here is the account of Erez Linn (full version here), a journalist for the right-wing paper Israel Hayom. Linn supports the camps, noting the common struggle against terrorism faced by Chinese authorities and Israel. (He says Chinese officials "have great respect for little Israel thanks to its way of dealing with security challenges.") (Sorry for the lack of right-to-left alignment in 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. 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.

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. 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.

And then there's Andrey Yashlavsky, a Russian journalist who visited in April 2019 and who also supports the camps:

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 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.

Still don't believe me? Fine. Go read Qiu 2017, research from a Party functionary that notes there are issues with people being detained for reasons they themselves don't even understand, and issues where local cadres send people to camps to settle personal grudges. But sure, they're all there willingly.

The camera then pans away from the ongoing dance practice to focus on a surveillance camera visible through the window. The implication is clear, though a bit rich coming from the British, who boast the world’s highest ratio of surveillance cameras to people.

What if—and hear me out here, this is pretty radical—mass surveillance is bad in both Britain and China? But seriously, comparison of these two systems (not that Feiyang is making a real comparison or argument as opposed to whataboutism) is disingenuous. Surveillance in Xinjiang is widespread and deployed to monitor Uyghurs in particular for 'abnormal' behavior that might lead to detention. Dr. Darren Byler's essay on this, "The Xinjiang Data Police", is a superb description thereof.

Hardcore denialists like Feiyang, of course, will brush away the above as imperialist propaganda or something, so let's dive a bit more into specific documents. There have been lots of reports on racial profiling in Xinjiang. Much of this reporting comes from IPVM, a video surveillance company. For the record, I think IPVM has gotten things wrong before—they and the Washington Post issued a report about a "Uyghur alarm" presented in Huawei and Megvii software that I actually think was probably a misreading, given the ambiguities of the Chinese and its location within the document (see this post on r/Sino, usually a dumpster fire of a subreddit but very, very occasionally useful).

IPVM's eleven other reports are based on solid, unambiguous readings of primary documents, some of which prompted the companies involved to apologize as they scrambled to cover their own asses. In one case, a company with major contracts from the Chinese government accidentally posted code revealing its Uyghur identification functions on Github. Authorities in China specifically seek to use surveillance software to identify Uyghurs. And don't worry—later IPVM investigations found that in patents filed by both Megvii and Huawei, each company had included identifying someone specifically as Uyghur among their respective software capabilities.

1:42–2:42 Now here we start to get to even more egregious BBC editing — when a dancer is asked if he came to the school willingly, he replies yes, he previously had extremist views, and says that a village policeman said to him, 这么好的学校,你可以去参加,转化自己的思想 — which translates to “what a great school (that is), you can enroll there, and change your worldview/ideas”. This is glossed as “a policeman told me to get enrolled”, turning a suggestion into a directive.

This is a legitimate criticism—a sloppy translation, and BBC should do better. That being said, again, as we established above, these facilities are not voluntary!

Sudworth also notes that they’re being watched by (Uyghur) government officials, who seem decidedly bored with his filming of them.

If it's not clear by now, the majority of Sun's rebuttal consists of snark. The point of this shot is to demonstrate the supervision itself. A fifth grader could tell you that any interviewee in the same room as the officials who have power over them cannot be assumed to be giving spontaneous, free answers, because there might be consequences if they don't. This is not rocket science, people.

As noted above in the FCCC's reports, when journalists try to veer from the official tour and explore on their own, they are stopped. The 2019 FCCC report notes that most foreign journalists are afraid of interviewing Uyghurs in Xinjiang because of the consequences it might entail for interviewees. See here for several the accounts of several others, Uyghur and non-Uyghur, noting the pervasive atmosphere of security and subsequent fear to speak.

They then take us through a variety of classes — ending with a peek over a guy’s shoulder as he types. “I love the Communist Party of China”, Sudworth intones solemnly. There’s a lot more visible on that page, including “I love Hotan”, and the classic Chinese children’s song “I love Beijing Tiananmen”. None of these would be out of place in any school outside of Xinjiang, but Sudworth is counting on you not knowing that.

This seems to be a rather frivolous concern, but sure, I guess? If we ignore the rest of the context here—that fact that these adults are being held against there will (see below)—then sure, this is super insidious and dishonest.

Mahemuti reiterates that people are there willingly, but Sudsworth is undeterred: “Doesn’t a place where people have to come, obey the rules, stay until you allow them to leave, sound more like a prison?” he continues. Putting aside the fact that you have to “obey the rules” even if you’re in a McDonalds, no proof is offered that people are not there willingly — the dancer they interviewed previously said as much as well, but both are ignored because the BBC is sure they’re lying.

It cannot be overstated how gullible you are if you think people go to these camps willingly. To quote myself from about 45 seconds ago: "A fifth grader could tell you that any interviewee in the same room as the officials who have power over them cannot be assumed to be giving spontaneous, free answers, because there might be consequences if they don't."

3:56–5:25 Here we get a series of Google Earth images purporting to show new facilities built in Xinjiang (much like the one they visited). I’ve captured one at 4:05 that has a noticeable sports field. At 4:40 in the video, they then claim that for the place they visited, the sports facilities were “hastily added” before their tour. But why do other places they showed earlier have sports fields too? Did BBC journalists visit all of them and that’s why they had to hastily build them?

Plenty of primary source documents show that schools have been converted into reeducation camps, so that's presumably why! This is all very much information that one can find out in about five to ten minutes of research, but for your convenience, here is a contracting document I directly translated myself which describes a former elementary school being turned into the "Ulugqat County Transformation through Education Center".

Sudsworth also notes that barbed wire and fences make these places feel unlike schools. But high fences are normal for schools all across China, and security is tight at each of them. Maybe barbed wire isn’t very classy, but plenty of school facilities in the West have them as well. You wouldn’t be shocked to see armed police officers (we call them “student resource officers” here though) in a US school either.

This is a fair observation—fences and sometimes even barbed wiring might just be schools. One Han woman noted in this essay by Darren Byler:

When Meng went back this past year, she saw one of the camps for the first time when they were driving in the outskirts of their hometown. “I said, ‘Isn’t this new?’ Mom said, ‘Yes, it is one of those places where they are learning skills.’ It had walls and razor wire around it, but so do most schools, so it really looked almost like any other school. But my mom did say that the police monitor the students there. I actually went to the clinic associated with it later for a flu shot and the clinic looked really normal.”

But satellite imagery analysis isn't just pointing at a compound with barbed wire and yelling "camp!" In this post, I break down the criteria used by prominent analysts and organizations as well as note the importance of supplementary evidence in the form of, for example, witness testimony and construction bid documents.

BBC aren’t the first people to suddenly become Google Earth experts. UBC student Shawn Zhang tried to use Google Earth to claim a historical mosque had been demolished (Keriya Aitika Mosque) using satellite images, but later had to retract his claim because he was literally staring at the wrong building on his screen.

Shawn Zhang has had a pretty phenomenal record as an amateur looking at satellite imagery, frankly. He identified nearly 100 camps, often after finding construction bids that gave their location. Keriya Aitika's north gatehouse was destroyed, but not the entire mosque; Zhang clarified his claim and moved on. Feiyang has a grudge against Shawn, it seems.

5:25–7:50 The crux of the BBC’s argument is here, the interview with Kazakhstan resident Rakhima Senbay. She claims to have been in the camps before and it was far more brutal than what we’ve seen, beatings, etc. More importantly, she says that before foreign visits, everyone is warned to be on good behavior or else they’ll get punished. Ergo, everything you’ve just seen is a lie, and you can discount all of the interviews and responses, because they were clearly coerced. Rakhima Senbay isn’t a famous dissident like Enver Tohti (a Google search for her turns up the same “ Rakhima Senbay, who now lives in Kazakhstan but says she spent a year in the camp — simply because she had WhatsApp on her phone” line multiple times), but she’s also the only real evidence the BBC has to support their claims.

Feiyang evidently thinks she's lying. Regardless, there's only one of her.

Unrelatedly, here's a table of testimony of 20 or so former detainees (mostly ethnic Kazakhs who were released after pressure under from Kazakhstan) and relatives of current detainees. Are they all liars too?

7:52–8:39 We have some more interesting interviews here with some higher-ups, discussing the philosophy behind the facilities. The first guy talks about the preventative nature of vocational training and education — giving people the skills to succeed instead of waiting for a crime to be committed and then applying punishment. His example of hyperbolic, but the second person makes it clear we’re talking about minor offenses.

His example is not "hyperbolic", it is quite literally what he means to say. This is internment for pre-crime. Feiyang doesn't want to admit it, so he's making sly excuses, but it is what it is. And again, if these pre-crimes are so minor, why do we need a months or years of reeducation?

Sudsworth claims in the monologue prior to the interviews that some people “have not been charged with a crime”, but Xu, the second interviewee, mentions that many people have committed criminal offenses, albeit minor ones — hence the focus on training and rehabilitation instead of punishment. NPR’s previous article on Xinjiang gave examples of these, such as a man who forced his wife to stay home and quit her job. It’s these types of social pressures that these programs are trying to eliminate.

Uh-oh, so it is a pre-crime thing. But only minor pre-crimes, so that's okay! If I were a Uyghur, I'd be glad to be detained against my will for months on end for something minor.

This segment is spun as China doing a Minority Report-esque PRE-CRIME program — and the model here is certainly open to discussion and criticism, but on the face it seems far more reasonable than something like California’s Three Strikes law. Instead of punishment or prison, minor offenders are offered training, making reintegration easier.

Whataboutism. Mass incarceration and the racist US justice system are bad. But what does the British Broadcasting System have to do with California law?

It’s unclear what proportion of people there as an alternative to prison or simply there just to capitalize on vocational training. This is information that I’d be very interested in, but the BBC didn’t think to ask.

No, it's pretty clear. And it's absolutely hilarious to think BBC would get a straight answer. The official narrative is, again, that people are all there voluntarily, if just with a little bit of a nudge.

Where I live, a man was given a 10 year prison sentence for stealing $33 worth of underwear. Imagine if instead of prison, he was given training for a few months and then reintegrated into society, instead of locked away for an entire decade.

The prison industrial complex is fucked up! It is immensely evil! But your fanciful wonderland version of happy training grounds is built upon willful delusion.

When Buayxiam (another Uyghur instructor) tells him about how their goal is also to get rid of religious extremism, she’s met with a very solemn WE CALL THAT BRAINWASHING from Sudsworth.

Reminder that what is called "religious extremism" (or "ethnic separatism") is absurdly broad. In fact, it's downright Islamophobic. Don't want a hysterectomy? Extremism (Receipt #1). Beard or headscarf? Extremism (#2). Using too many halal products in your own house, or ceramics for washing before prayer? You're a damn terrorist. (#3) Do whole bunch of other random things as a Uyghur like crossing county boundaries for religious activities or "having beds or floor mattresses large enough for multiple sleepers on the floor" in your house? Terrorist. (#4, in Chinese).

What should be done then? If there are Chinese citizens who subscribe to jihadist ideologies, shouldn’t an attempt be made to change their minds? Is that brainwashing? Or should they be considered a lost cause and sent to a Guantanamo type location?

Here we go assuming that detainees are probably just jihadis! Problematic!

While I clearly have my contentions with the narrator of this video, I’m glad that the BBC was able to visit. We saw a good faith effort to provide a variety of tangible, useful vocational skills training (Mandarin, hospitality service, art, performance, and barber training), decent facilities (pickup basketball by students), Uyghur-led instruction, and efficient transportation to get students there and back. The more I see of these facilities, the better they look. It’s easy to make assumptions about a top down Google Earth image, less so when the scariest thing the BBC could show me was a bathroom with the lights off.

In conclusion: get a grip.