During a March 7 press conference, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was asked about accusations by Western nations that China is committing genocide in its far-western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. After listing several examples of the West’s own history of oppressing ethnic minorities, Yi dismissed the accusations as “a rumor, fabricated with ulterior motives, and a lie through-and-through.” The best way for Westerners to debunk these “rumors,” he insisted, is to visit the region themselves.
On June 2, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin echoed Yi’s invitation, saying that “the door to Xinjiang is always open. We welcome people from all walks of life in other countries to visit the region and get to know the true Xinjiang through first-hand experience.”
Recently, there have been a number of stories purporting to be precisely that—ordinary Westerners coming to see “the real Xinjiang.”
In December 2020, French author Maxime Vivas published a book titled “Uyghurs, to put an end to the fake news” about his two trips to Xinjiang in 2016 and 2018. In an interview with the Global Times, Vivas laments how Western media outlets and experts who have never been to the region are able to “lie with impunity” about Xinjiang.
Shanghai Daily Columnist and native New Zealander Andy Boreham released a pair of videos (in English) from his trip to Xinjiang this past April, where he snacks on Uyghur ice cream in Kashgar’s Ancient City and shops for Xinjiang-themed fridge magnets at Urumqi’s Grand Bazaar. People’s Daily editor Luke Witzaney, a native Canadian, posted a similar vlog-style video on May 25 of his trip to Kashgar, where he dances and “drinks tea just like the locals.”
I also visited Xinjiang, as a tourist during the summer of 2019, and my experience was quite different.
Surveillance cameras were ubiquitous. “Convenience police stations,” each assigned a 500-person square within the “grid” of the city to control and monitor, were a constant feature on my walks. Every few blocks was a security checkpoint where police officers armed with assault rifles stopped me to look at my passport, ask why I was in Xinjiang, and when I would be leaving. Many of these checkpoints had separate lines for Turkic people, while Han Chinese passed by unbothered.
I saw no genuine public displays of Uyghur culture in Xinjiang. Kashgar’s Id Kah mosque, for instance, widely considered by Uyghurs to be the cultural heart of their homeland, has been repurposed into the centerpiece of the theme park attraction that is Kashgar’s “new” Ancient City (Kashgar’s real “Old City,” the one that has existed for over 2,000 years, has been almost entirely destroyed). When I went to Id Kah, the main prayer hall was blocked off by a string barrier, and I saw no worshipers. While I was there, a group of Han Chinese men entered the mosque courtyard with a large People’s Republic of China flag, waving it around and singing loudly—unencumbered by the admonition on the entrance ticket for visitors to “respect customs, protect cultural heritage.”
Near the end of my trip, I went to visit a mosque on the outskirts of Urumqi to see if my experience at a mosque outside the carefully curated tourist locations would be any different.
That led to my being picked up by Chinese police and interrogated for six hours. I was told I had no reason to be at this mosque, since there were plenty of mosques inside the city. They repeatedly asked my purpose for being in Xinjiang, and at that mosque in particular. I was also asked about Islam—what I thought about Muslims, and if I was Muslim myself. The day ended with me being made to leave my Airbnb to stay in a government-approved hotel.
According to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s “Xinjiang Data Project,” the mosque I visited that day was half a mile from a re-education camp.
My experience in Xinjiang certainly doesn’t constitute proof of the alleged genocide taking place there. The cumulative evidence presented in numerous reports—many based on the Chinese regime’s own documents—are incriminating enough. But what happened to me did neatly align with stories I’d read about the panoptic surveillance state built there. And it was nothing like the utopia of Uyghur culture depicted by the “Western tourists” that the Chinese Communist Party uses in its propaganda war.
Foreign Minister Yi tells China’s critics to visit Xinjiang to see for themselves. Having done that, I believe that the Chinese Communist Party has much to answer for.
Grayson Slover is a recent graduate of the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the author of “Middle Country: An American Student Visits China’s Uyghur Prison-State,” a story about the week that he spent as a “student tourist” in Xinjiang during the summer of 2019. He is donating 100 percent of his royalties to Uyghur-related causes.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.