Journalist Sherif Sonbol was taking pictures of ethnic dancers during an official tour of China’s far western Xinjiang province when he noticed a room full of women being trained to use sewing machines. He realised he was in one of Beijing’s network of political indoctrination camps, where – according to the United Nations – China is detaining up to one million members of the mostly Muslim Uighur minority.
Sonbol, an Egyptian photographer and editor, was one of at least 80 journalists taken to Xinjiang since 2015 on the “Silk Road Celebrity China Tour”. He left convinced that accounts of mistreatment inside the re-education centres were untrue. “I keep hearing people saying the education centres were where they torture people,” he said. But the enthusiasm of the dancers impressed him, “Look at their faces! You know these are very happy people.”
Sonbol is just one beneficiary of a massive Chinese government outreach programme targeting non-English-speaking journalists in a concerted push to build its influence. In recent years, Beijing has reached out to the Muslim world, bringing more than 30 journalists from Islamic countries to Xinjiang in a bid to refute western headlines claiming human rights abuses.
The tours serve a dual purpose, with Chinese state media also featuring the visits on the main national evening news bulletin. In some cases, the journalists are quoted as giving their vocal support to Beijing’s hardline strategy in Xinjiang.
Interviews with three Muslim journalists who took part in the tours have revealed they were provided with interpreters, given access to high-ranking officials and monitored during most of their interactions. Sonbol described interviewing a female inmate who said she’d been given three years in the re-education camp after assaulting other women who had failed to use the Islamic head-covering, the hijab. “She committed a crime!” he said. “She agreed to go to the re-education centre. What’s wrong with that?”
‘They wanted us to sell the world a fake story’
For Sonbol and his group of 12, the political indoctrination camp was the last stop on a 10-day tour that started in Beijing and included a kindergarten, an Islamic college, a mosque, a market and cultural venues in Xinjiang. Beijing has been accused of attempting to eradicate Uighur culture, but Sonbol said what he saw convinced him of the opposite. “In this market for traditional Uighur dancing, they built a modern mosque, they built a place to pray, they have this place for dancing, they have everything,” he said.