Last week, Arsenal’s football star Mesut Özil denounced the persecution of Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims in the dreaded transformation through education camps. The CCP not only threatened Arsenal to cancel its lucrative contracts with China, but invited Özil to visit the camps. “We welcome Mr. Ozil to come to Xinjiang if he has the chance, to take a walk and look around, as long as he has a conscience, is able to distinguish right from wrong and uphold the principles of objectivity and fairness, he will see a different Xinjiang,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said.
Presumably, the CCP believes that footballers should be extremely naïve. It is true that thousands of foreign guests have been wined and dined by the CCP in Xinjiang, and some have reported that the transformation through education camps are just nice “schools,” but more than once propaganda backfired.
A spectacular case of CCP propaganda gone wrong is the experience of Dr Olsi Jazexhi, a Canadian historian of Albanian origins who used to be a professor at the Aleksandër Moisiu University in Durrës, Albania. Jazexhi is an outspoken critic of the Trump administration and of American influence in Albania. For this reason, he was invited by the Chinese to attend a conference in Xinjiang on August 16–24, 2019, with all expenses paid and a field trip to some of the transformation through education camps.
Jazexhi, as he later reported, went there harboring “positive views regarding China and China’s foreign policy,” and “reports that China was building internment camps and persecuting the Uyghurs seemed unbelievable” to him. When in Xinjiang, however, Jazexhi was exposed to blatant anti-Uyghur and anti-Muslim propaganda, and “visited the mass detention centers … that our Chinese friends call vocational training institutes, but which we saw to be a kind of hell,” he said.
In interviews and videos posted on YouTube, Jazexhi reported that he was greeted in the Onsu (Wensu) County “Vocational Training School” (i.e. transformation through education camp) in Aksu prefecture by Uyghur men and women dancing and singing. “We understood it was a setup and told our Chinese friends that we hadn’t come for a party … We wanted to investigate what was going on—who were these people, what crimes had they committed, and why were they being held there.”
Jazexhi was told that interviewing inmates privately was prohibited. However, he managed to ask the CCP “instructor” why they were being held there against their will.
“[The instructor] was telling me that it was a vocational school, but when I asked whether they were free to go home, he said, ‘no, they cannot leave.’” “In a way, it proved to us these are prisons where these kids are brought against their will.”
The inmates who were allowed to speak told the scholar they no longer believe in Islam, only “in science and the Communist Party.” They answered his questions in Chinese. “What we understood from visiting these mass detention centers is that [the detainees] are totally prohibited from speaking Uyghur and are forced to speak Chinese all the time, as well as to renounce their religion.” If they want to harbor a hope to go home, Jazexhi concluded, the inmates “must renounce their Uyghur identity, God, their belief in Islam, their Uyghur language, and instead always speak in Mandarin Chinese and acknowledge the supremacy of the Communist Party.”
This happened in late August. Jazexhi was told in Xinjiang that he should not report anything negative about his visit, or else. He ignored the warning, and retaliation came. Albania is one of the founding member states of China-CEEC Cooperation (China-Central and Eastern European Countries), which is part of the CCP’s Belt and Road Initiative. China is extremely influential in Albania, and is slowly regaining the position of the country’s first political and economic partner it enjoyed during the bloody Communist regime of Enver Hoxha (1908–1985). By December, Jazexhi, a well-known and published scholar, has been told that he will not be asked to teach any courses in his Albanian university in the coming semester. No reasons were given, but Jazexhi easily understood why. The long arm of the Chinese dragon had reached out to a university in Dürres, Albania, to teach Jazexhi and the world that those who refuse to spread the CCP’s fake news will be punished. Protests by Canadian media were ignored.
I am personally impressed by the story, both because I have documented the intolerable interferences of the CCP abroad in a documentary movie and I lived a similar experience. I am a scholar of new religious movements and have studied The Church of Almighty God, the most persecuted religious movement in China today. I was invited by the Chinese authorities in 2017 to two seminars discussing The Church of Almighty God, with field trips where I and other scholars were allowed to interview “reformed ex members,” genuine or otherwise, of the heavily persecuted movement. These were either blatant and not very subtle frauds, or terrorized victims of police mistreatment.
Just like Jazexhi, I went to China with an open mind and prepared to listen to the Chinese version of the story, but came back fully persuaded that the accusations against The Church of Almighty God were fake news created by the CCP propaganda. I do not receive a salary from any public institution, and the CCP was not able to hit me with the “Jazexhi method.” However, both I and like-minded scholars are often at the receiving end of obscure campaigns of defamation, the more so since we started publishing Bitter Winter. The CCP is not interested in an open debate about religious liberty and human rights. It prefers to buy, corrupt, or intimidate. By doing so, however, the CCP shows once again its true colors, and confirms its very evil nature the fake news would try to deny.