When foreign journalists visit Xinjiang, the northwestern region of China where Beijing has been accused of widespread human-rights abuses against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities, they tend to have a hard time. Reporters have been tailed by police, blocked from conducting interviews and even physically assaulted. When The Globe and Mail’s Nathan VanderKlippe visited the region in 2017, he was detained and had his laptop seized.
Not so for Donovan Martin. The Winnipeg-based CEO and editor-in-chief of The Daily Scrum News was one of 22 journalists from 17 countries who visited Xinjiang in late September on a Chinese government tour, according to state-run news agency Xinhua, to learn about the region’s “economic and social development, diverse culture and the development of the Belt and Road Initiative.” The group also visited “an exhibition on the fight against terrorism and extremism.”
After a visit to a mosque, Mr. Martin was quoted by Xinhua as saying: “Absolutely, there is freedom of religion in Xinjiang. Anybody who does not say that is ignorant.” Speaking separately to the state-run tabloid Global Times, he described Xinjiang as having a “bustling” economy that was “more than developing.” While he was in China, Mr. Martin’s website also published two articles along similar lines, though neither carried his byline or referenced the trip. (Beyond the quotes, The Globe confirmed Mr. Martin’s presence in Xinjiang through photos published by the China News Service and on Facebook, state TV videos and interviews with other participants.)
There is reason to doubt Mr. Martin’s rosy assertions about the region. The United Nations has accused China of “undue restrictions on religious identity and expression” in Xinjiang, as well as other serious human-rights violations. And while the region’s economy has grown significantly in recent years thanks to state-led investment and efforts to boost it as a domestic tourist destination, Xinjiang-related sanctions and concerns about forced labour have severely hampered exports to much of the world.
Canada’s Parliament declared China’s treatment of Uyghurs a genocide in 2021, and Ottawa has warned companies against doing business in Xinjiang because of human-rights concerns and evidence of forced labour. Canada is also launching a public inquiry into allegations of foreign interference from China, including attempts to silence critics of Beijing’s policies in the region.
The Globe e-mailed Mr. Martin on three separate occasions to request comment for this story and left a message on his phone. He was reached just prior to publication but would not say whether he had seen the requests. “You do what you need to do, publish what you need to publish,” he said.
The Daily Scrum publisher does not seem to have ever reported on China. Nor does he have much of a background in any kind of journalism. Before launching The Daily Scrum News, he was in politics, working for the federal government and then standing as a candidate for the Liberal Party in the 2019 Manitoba general election, endorsed by then-MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette.
He lost that race, coming third with fewer than 800 votes. After that, he appears to have thrown his energy into the Daily Scrum, which is registered as a business in Canada and the U.S. state of Michigan. On its contact page, the website says it “believes in ethical reporting based on facts without any partisan spin,” adding that it is “important to highlight good things happening worldwide and what administrations are doing to uplift their society.” It publishes several stories a day on a range of topics, from Manitoba politics to global affairs, as well as AI-generated videos summarizing its stories, though its YouTube page has also recently started uploading content from Chinese state broadcaster CGTN.
Some four years after its launch, the Daily Scrum does not seem to have gained much of an audience. According to SimilarWeb, which analyzes online traffic, it has fewer visitors than 177,000 other Canadian websites. Its social media pages have thousands of followers but show next to no engagement with the content being published; most posts on its Facebook page have a single like, while the outlet’s most popular YouTube video has 1,900 views, but no likes, dislikes or comments.
All of which begs the question: Why was Mr. Martin invited to join a Chinese media tour of Xinjiang, one of the most sensitive areas of the country? That he is Canadian makes it doubly surprising, as China has not provided resident journalist visas to Canadian media for several years, a situation that in 2022 forced the CBC to close its Beijing bureau. (The Globe covers China from Hong Kong but maintains an office in Beijing as it waits for a visa.)
Four other reporters who took part in the Xinjiang tour told The Globe they were invited by the Chinese embassy in their respective countries. The Globe is not identifying them because they fear they could be barred from further reporting in China. China’s embassy in Ottawa did not respond to a request for comment but recently shared an article by the Daily Scrum on X headlined “Building a Unified World: China’s White Paper for Global Peace and Win-Win Partnerships.”
Since China eased pandemic controls and reopened its borders, it has conducted several tightly controlled tours of Xinjiang for foreign diplomats, religious leaders and journalists, with the apparent aim of reforming the region’s bruised image. Along with Mr. Martin were journalists from publications in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Iran and Russia, all of whom gave equally positive assessments of Xinjiang’s development and ethnic harmony.
Mussolini Lidasan, a columnist for the SunStar newspaper in the Philippines, wrote later that his eyes had been opened by the trip: “My experience taught me that the negative narratives we see or read on social media about China and Xinjiang were not true, especially the lives of the Uighur people.” Others focused on business opportunities in the new Xinjiang, as in an article by Simon Zeise in the Berliner Zeitung, a respected German daily. Mr. Zeise, who was criticized on X for ignoring human-rights abuses in Xinjiang, did not respond to a request for comment.
Not everyone was won over. David Lipson and Ruth van der Kolk, of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf, respectively, both highlighted the years-long crackdown in Xinjiang that preceded their visit, with Mr. Lipson noting that the tour was “organized and carefully curated by the Chinese government to show off the best the province has to offer.”
Unlike Mr. Martin’s beatitudes about religious freedom, Mr. Lipson said there was little evidence of Islam in Kashgar, formerly an important religious centre for Muslim-majority Xinjiang. China has been accused of destroying thousands of mosques across the region and detaining hundreds of imams and other religious figures.
“The call to prayer has fallen silent. Long beards and veils are hard to spot,” Mr. Lipson wrote. “The 600-year-old Id Kah Mosque, which has capacity for 5,000 Muslim worshippers, is now primarily a tourist attraction.”
Two participants who spoke with The Globe, which is not identifying them because they feared they could be denied visas to enter China in the future, said they felt uncomfortable being in Xinjiang and were highly aware of the controlled and artificial nature of the tour.
One, a Western journalist, said they felt like a prisoner during the trip and were constantly filmed and asked for their impressions by state media reporters accompanying them. The other, a reporter from Southeast Asia, said they intentionally avoided asking questions about sensitive issues and instead focused on the economy, with the hopes of writing an apolitical article that did not feel like they were avoiding the issue of human rights.
Fergus Ryan, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said there is both a domestic and external propaganda benefit for Beijing in organizing media tours of Xinjiang.
“For domestic audiences, it shows that the government is being transparent, that journalists and other foreigners from outside China have been granted access to Xinjiang and they’re reporting positively about the region,” he said. “Externally, it muddies the waters and helps create a kind of implausible deniability, to sow doubt about the severity of human-rights abuses there.”
And while it seems strange that a small website like Mr. Martin’s would be invited, Mr. Ryan noted that domestic Chinese audiences – and indeed many around the world – may not realize the Daily Scrum is not a major Canadian outlet.
Mr. Ryan said it was totally possible for serious journalists to accept such invitations and still produce balanced reporting, such as that by the ABC, but “if you don’t have the experience or ability to do the real journalistic work required, you can have the wool pulled over your eyes.”