Amid a crackdown against it, the former PM’s party is resorting to tech-driven, unconventional campaigning strategies.
In early 2019, Albanian-Canadian historian and journalist Olsi Jazexhi believed that reports of human rights abuses in western China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (Xinjiang) were lies.
Reports from people who fled the area, as well as those from human rights organizations, painted a picture of large-scale human rights violations. Muslim minorities inside
The international community had noticed this and the United Nations had expressed its concerns. But Jazexhi wasn't convinced.
“I was convinced that those stories were a plan by the US and the West to discredit China and divert attention from their human rights record towards Muslims,” he told Voice of Urdu.
The Chinese government itself has vehemently rejected the accusations, acknowledging the existence of the camps but describing them as training centers for the professional skills needed to combat alleged extremism.
To verify the truth for himself, Jazexhi contacted the Chinese embassy in Tirana offering him to visit Xinjiang. Soon he was invited to a media tour for foreign journalists, mainly from Muslim countries, and in early August 2019 he was on a plane to China. “I went to defend the Chinese government,” he remembers.
But he quickly discovered that defending the Chinese narrative was a much more difficult task than he had imagined.
During his first days in Xinjiang, he and other foreign journalists had to attend a series of lectures by Chinese officials on the history of the region and its people.
“They presented the indigenous people of Xinjiang as immigrants and Islam as a religion foreign to the region,” Jazexhi said. “It was wrong.”
His disillusionment only continued when he and other journalists were taken by their Chinese hosts to one of the so-called vocational training centers outside the regional capital Ürümqi. “They said it looked like a school, but it was a high-security location in the middle of the desert,” Jazexhi said.
“They also told us that the people staying there were not allowed to leave, so it was not a school but a prison, and the people there were not students but prisoners.”
Once on the site, Jazexhi had the opportunity to interact with several Uyghurs and it quickly became clear that they were not the “terrorists” or “extremists” Beijing had claimed.
"I spoke to people who were taken there simply because they practiced Islam, for example by entering into a religious marriage, praying in public, or wearing a headscarf," he said.
“One of them told me that she was no longer Muslim and that she now believed in science and Chinese President Xi Jinping.”
Jazexhi confronted the Chinese officials who accompanied him.
“I told them what they were doing was very wrong,” Jazexhi said. The interactions led to an argument between Jazexhi and some Chinese hosts.
When he finally left Xinjiang, he was deeply shocked.
He had thought he would expose the lies of the West, but instead, he had witnessed oppression on a massive scale.
“What I saw was an attempt to eradicate Islam from Xinjiang,” he said.
"The Agenda of the West"
After Jazexhi's visit, the United Nations Human Rights Council ruled that Chinese restrictions and difficulties in Xinjiang could constitute crimes against humanity. The U.S. government and lawmakers in Australia, Canada, France, and the United Kingdom have labeled China's treatment of Uyghurs and other Turkic-speaking Muslims in the region as genocide.
Meanwhile, several countries have imposed economic restrictions on goods from Xinjiang in response to the existence of forced labor in the region.
Despite criticism, Beijing has continued to organize visits - mainly for diplomats and journalists from Muslim countries - to Xinjiang.
Chinese media have reported at least five such media tours taking place in 2023, with visits to Xinjiang also organized for foreign diplomats and Islamic scholars.
Moiz Farooq, editor-in-chief of the Daily Ittehad Media Group and Pakistan Economic Net, visited Xinjiang in mid-December as part of a delegation of Pakistani media representatives. Similar to Jazexhi in 2019, Farooq traveled to Xinjiang to determine for himself that the stories he had heard were not true.
“There is a lot of propaganda about Xinjiang and I wanted to see it with my own eyes,” Farooq told Voice of Urdu.
Unlike Jazexhi, Farooq left Xinjiang impressed by the region's level of development and assured that local Muslims lived largely free and contented.
“I was able to talk to as many different people as I wanted in bazaars and restaurants about their standard of living and, like the rest of the delegation, I had no restrictions,” he said.
“I saw Muslims there who could freely enjoy and practice their religion. »
Farooq does not believe that reports and reports from human rights organizations and UN agencies on human rights violations in Xinjiang are accurate. “The West's goal is to show the worst of Xinjiang and now I know the stories are not true because I have seen how happy [Xinjiang Muslims] live,” he said.
Naz Parveen is director of the China Window Institute in Peshawar, Pakistan, and was on the same tour as Farooq. She too was impressed by the prosperity she observed in Xinjiang.
Echoing Beijing's description of the situation, Parveen believes that what has been characterized as human rights abuses in Xinjiang could be more accurately described as law enforcement operations against religious extremism.
For Parveen, the trip strengthened these insights. “We visited bazaars and mosques and saw people praying and receiving teachings from imams,” he told Voice of Urdu.
“Everywhere we went, we saw people living normal, peaceful, fulfilled lives, so the terrible things I had read about Xinjiang didn't match what I had seen.”
During another tour of Xinjiang in September, Chinese state broadcaster CGTN quoted Philippine columnist and politician Mussolini Sinsuat Lidasan praising China's "anti-terrorism" measures in Xinjiang.
During the same tour, Donovan Ralph Martin, editor of the Daily Scrum News in Canada, also said, quoted by CGTN: "There is absolute freedom of religion in Xinjiang and anyone who doesn't say that is ignorant.".
Lidasan and Martin did not respond to Voice of Urdu's interview requests.
Since 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping has called for "telling the story of Xinjiang" and "confidently promoting Xinjiang's excellent social stability."
Canadian-Uyghur activist Rukiye Turdush sees media tours as an integral part of this mission. “He wants to change the narrative on Xinjiang,” she told Voice of Urdu.
Henryk Szadziewski is a senior researcher at the NGO Uyghur Human Rights Project. He says media tours like the one in Xinjiang are a common tactic used by countries that have something to hide.
“The aim is to counter criticism of the human rights situation by getting others to reinforce your narrative, which leads to greater credibility,” he told Voice of Urdu.
“In practice, if they want to show you, for example, that Uyghurs have freedom of belief and religious expression, they usually take you to the Id Kah mosque in Kashgar, and the people you talk to are often “strongly selected and cannot be chosen”. contested. » the official version of the Uyghurs. »
The Pakistani delegation, joined by Farooq and Parveen, visited the Id Kah Mosque. Regarding more spontaneous encounters with Uyghurs during such tours, Turdush gives little propaganda credence to foreign journalists' conclusions based on conversations with Uyghurs who have lived for years in an environment of fear and are subject to both close surveillance and state violence.
“Few Uyghurs and other Turkic people in Xinjiang have any choice but to remain silent or repeat Chinese propaganda,” she said.
Australian journalists on a media tour in September reported speaking to a souvenir seller who had not been made available to them by their tour guides. The seller said he spent time in a detention center, but when reporters began asking more questions, a person suddenly appeared and began filming the seller's answers.
Even former UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said her long-delayed visit was carefully choreographed. But his final report, released shortly before he left office, concluded that China had likely committed “crimes against humanity” in Xinjiang.
However, in recent years there have been signs that some security measures in Xinjiang have been relaxed, according to Maya Wang, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
Internment camps were closed and police checkpoints were removed.
Instead, a vast network of sophisticated security cameras equipped with facial recognition was reportedly deployed across the region, while people previously detained in camps were transferred to China's opaque prison system.
At the same time, the flow of information into and out of Xinjiang remains tightly controlled, while Xinjiang residents are punished for unauthorized contact with people outside China. “The genocide is still going on, but it's much more hidden now,” Turdush said.
Despite the controversy surrounding package tours, both Turdush and Jazexhi believe that foreign journalists and officials should continue to visit Xinjiang as long as they question the stories presented to them.
“They have to go,” Jazexhi said.
“And they must tell the truth about what they see and what they don't see in Xinjiang.”