One day last October, eight local officials entered Zumuret Dawut’s home in Urumqi, the regional capital of northwestern China’s Xinjiang region. They came to ask her elderly father to pray – and they promised to pay.
They said, “We will give you 20 renminbi for each time you pray,” Ms. Dawut recalled in an interview. “You will need to pray five times tomorrow. So we will give you 100 renminbi” – about $18.50.
Her 79-year-old father was puzzled. He had long since stopped attending the local mosque out of fear the authorities would see his religious observance as a sign of radicalization and place him in an indoctrination centre, as the government has done with hundreds of thousands of Muslims in the region. The mosque was considered closed.
But the officials and police said an inspection tour was being arranged that would bring dignitaries from around the world to Urumqi and they wanted the visitors to see people praying.
It amounted to staging a show, Ms. Dawut said, to create the illusion of a free and open society – part of a campaign, she and others said, of showing visitors orchestrated scenes of people in peaceful religious observance.
To quell international anxieties about Xinjiang, one of China’s most important assets has been government loyalists who have defended the indoctrination centres and, according to multiple people interviewed by The Globe and Mail, have staged intricately managed scenes filled with pedestrians, street vendors and drivers played by people – police officers, teachers, retirees – who have been screened by the authorities and assigned roles.
Ms. Dawut watched as the officials taught her father, a former worker at the Bureau of Non-ferrous Metal Industry, what to say if he was asked questions. He was to respond, “We are not prohibited from praying” or “We are not prohibited from entering the mosque.”
Last fall marked an important moment for China’s anti-radicalization campaign in Xinjiang, which is home to a large Muslim population of ethnic Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Hui and others. Before then, Chinese officials had denied reports that they had constructed a network of prison-like re-education centres dedicated to the forced indoctrination of Muslims.
But on Oct. 16, 2018, China’s state-run Xinhua news agency published a lengthy interview with Shohrat Zakir, chairman of the Government of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. He said the Chinese government, faced with “complex and grave circumstances as well as the pressing anti-terrorism desire of the people,” had created a “vocational education and training program according to the law” designed to “get rid of the environment and soil that breeds terrorism and religious extremism and stop violent terrorist activities from happening.”
With that interview, China began a lengthy process to counter critics who have labelled the Xinjiang indoctrination centres “concentration camps,” dedicated to expunging religious beliefs and ethnic cultural identity and replacing them with Communist Party ideology and adherence to Chinese President Xi Jinping. More than a million people have been placed in such centres, according to U.S. government estimates.
Mr. Zakir, however, likened the centres to “boarding schools” that offered free Mandarin language instruction and training in vocational skills that would “help trainees find employment.” But that was only the beginning. In the months that followed, local officials have guided numerous groups through Xinjiang – journalists and diplomats from dozens of countries, as well as Chinese foreign-affairs officials posted around the world – to see for themselves.
What unfolds when visitors arrive is “like a movie,” said a Uyghur woman from Ghulja, known in Chinese as Yili, a city near the border with Kazakhstan that has been a major nexus of the Xinjiang political indoctrination effort. The woman lives in Europe, but The Globe is not disclosing her name out of concern for retribution against her family members still in Xinjiang.
She described watching a friend sitting in her living room and memorizing 50 assigned questions and responses. The friend, a Chinese-language teacher, had been asked “to perform as a civilian walking in the street” for a coming inspection visit, the woman said.
According to the papers the teacher was studying, if asked where local centres for political indoctrination and skills training could be found, she was to reply: “I do not know the location.”
Another authorized response said: “You will say there are no camps and only one school where they provide vocational skills and training,” the woman recalled.
Her friend was frustrated because she was being forced to memorize responses she considered untrue, the woman said.
And the teacher was not the only one preparing for a visit. Friends of the woman in the local police force were also rehearsing, dressing as civilians and preparing to drive buses and taxis and buy and sell vegetables from streetside vendors. If a foreign visitor arrived, the street would look normal.
Police friends described similar scenes to Ms. Dawut. “They appointed people to go on the street and pretend to be vegetable vendors or shop owners or bus drivers. These are all characters that they arranged,” she said. Police officers, too, pretended “to be couples out shopping.”
Ms. Dawut left China in January and is now in the United States. Last month, she testified on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly about her time in a re-education centre, where, she alleged, she suffered ugly mistreatment. Her account has been raised before a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate foreign-relations committee. Chinese authorities have disputed her story, and a video has surfaced of her brother denying she spent time in one of the centres. Ms. Dawut believes he was coerced.
To buttress her account to The Globe, she provided the names of two police officers who visited her father to order him to the mosque to pray. The person who answered the phone at a local police station in Urumqi confirmed that men with those names worked there, but a superior officer then hung up when The Globe sought to ask questions about their work.
Another account of such staging comes from a Westerner who has lived in Urumqi and recalled local police officers complaining about being ordered to drive taxis during conferences that brought in large numbers of foreigners. The Westerner is not being identified by The Globe to avoid endangering their friends in Xinjiang.
Last December, the Uyghur service of Radio Free Asia reported that a businessman from Ghulja had described concerted efforts in that city to prepare for “an inspection team coming soon,” including door-to-door visits by officials who would teach people “what to say.” Those unwilling to comply were told they would have “three generations of their family blacklisted.”
A former Chinese state media worker also told The Globe it was not uncommon for local propaganda authorities to arrange for government workers to act as civilians at important events. After speaking with The Globe, police interrogated the man for hours, asking him questions that indicated they had a recording of the telephone interview.
Beijing’s efforts in Xinjiang, however, have not always succeeded in convincing others that indoctrination facilities are akin to boarding schools. Albanian-Canadian journalist Olsi Jazexhi travelled to Xinjiang in August on an all-expenses-paid trip funded by Chinese authorities. A vocal critic of the U.S., he expected to agree with China’s account of its treatment of Muslims. In Xinjiang, however, he came to believe local authorities were shading the truth.
"They want to give to the world the impression that people here are well fed, are happy with the Communist government and are singing and dancing and we are all brother and sisters,” he said. But the official guides “were playing with us. They wanted us to reveal to the world a fake story,” he said. “Everything was staged.”
For example, he said, he asked Uyghur detainees: “Do you still believe in Allah?” They responded that they had rejected religion in favour of belief in science and the Communist Party. “This shocked me very much,” Mr. Jazexhi said. “I saw from their eyes they were horrified and scared. They were constantly looking at their Chinese teachers for guidance and to check if their answers were correct.
“With these camps, what they are doing is they are trying to forcefully and very quickly assimilate the Uyghurs into Han Chinese.”
Others have come to much different conclusions. In March, the Council of Foreign Ministers under the Organization of Islamic Co-operation, after a visit to China, adopted a resolution that “commends the efforts of the People’s Republic of China in providing care to its Muslim citizens.”
Kadambini Sharma, an anchor and foreign-affairs correspondent for India’s NDTV, was on the same trip with Mr. Jazexhi. She was struck by the state financial investment she witnessed in Xinjiang – part of a campaign that has been faulted for bulldozing cultural relics.
But, Ms. Sharma said in an interview, “there is new construction going on, houses – freebies, everything. Everything you can think of to lure someone back from what you think is not right, it’s happening there.”
And, she said, ”these kids who are there, they see the folly of their ways, and most say they don’t believe in religion any more. That is something I find very interesting.”
Still, she was left wondering: Will that religious rejection remain “even when they have left those vocational training centres?”
Chinese media have reported other favourable comments from visiting delegations. In January, a Kazakh diplomat told Xinhua, which paraphrased his comments, that “the Chinese government and regional government in Xinjiang have created good conditions for trainees, and they have rich food as well as time for sports.
“The vocational education and training centres in Xinjiang are not ‘concentration camps,’ as described by some Western media, but schools to help those influenced by extreme thoughts to eliminate the harmful thoughts and learn vocational skills,” Leela Mani Paudyal, Nepal’s ambassador to China, said during a visit in August. “Every student I saw here is happy. They learn not only laws and regulations, Standard Chinese, but also professional skills, which I believe will give them an edge to adapt to the society after graduation.”
Xinjiang authorities began to detain large numbers of Muslims in 2017, placing some in jail-like facilities surrounded by high walls and razor wire. The conditions were so grim that some attempted suicide, according to accounts from former detainees.
But some time between October and December last year, the fences and razor wire disappeared from the Kashgar Vocational Education Centre, one of the facilities that has welcomed numerous delegations. What successive visitors see is often surprisingly similar. Video reviewed by The Globe shows that, since January, multiple delegations of foreign correspondents, including Mr. Jazexhi, have been taken to the same room with the same teacher and what appears to be at least one of the same detainees dressed in the same distinctive clothing – that of a dancer.
Another facility, the Wensu County Vocational Training Centre, is relatively new, with satellite imagery showing that construction was completed in August or September, 2018, according to an analysis performed for The Globe by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Researchers at the institute have identified four places in Wensu that they believe are used for indoctrination and training. The one visited by journalists, including Mr. Jazexhi in August, appears to be the smallest and least institutional in appearance.
One Xinjiang official told Mr. Jazexhi that about 500,000 people have been placed in 68 internment camps, a figure Chinese officials have not made public before (The Globe verified his account with another journalist who was on the trip). But he is not sure that number is reliable.
In Urumqi, meanwhile, one Western researcher photographed police taking away Uyghur dancers after a performance at the Grand Bazaar, one of the region’s central tourist attractions, even though authorities have used dance as a demonstration of contentment and unity in the region.
“This is not what dance troupes do – getting into police cars without licence plates,” said Hanna Burdorf, a Newcastle University PhD student researching language education for Uyghur children in Xinjiang. She shared her photos with The Globe.
“In my opinion, this means that these dancers are being controlled by the government,” she said.
Ms. Burdorf has been to Xinjiang three times in the past 18 months, most recently late this summer. What she found on her most recent trip is that the heavy security presence across the region had fallen considerably from view. In Urumqi, armoured police vehicles no longer patrolled streets at a walking pace, sirens blaring. Security checks were noticeably less strict.
It looked as if “a kind of normality had returned to Urumqi,” she wrote in an article about the experience.
In Kashgar, surveillance cameras have been removed from inside the Id Kah mosque, China’s largest, as it is transformed into a tourist attraction. The harsh contours of an invasive surveillance state may no longer be needed, Ms. Burdof said, because the pressure of the past few years has left a lingering fear that “has penetrated people’s minds so deeply that it works as a means of control even with less visible means of surveillance.” One taxi driver said he would be “in really big trouble” if he kept a coin from an Arab country that she accidentally gave him.
“In this play directed by China, Xinjiang has just switched to a prettier stage set,” she wrote.