The Chinese government has thrown open the door for tourists to Xinjiang. Or at least those it deems worthy of an invite.
While officials previously let in diplomats, journalists and those considered “friends of China,” they are now presenting the restive far-western region as a tourist destination of sorts in a bid to remove some of the tarnish from China’s image as a human rights violator in the far-western region in the eyes of the international community.
Nearly 400 delegations and groups consisting of more than 4,300 people from various countries and international organizations visited the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in 2023, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said at a press conference on Jan. 5.
Visitors included government officials, diplomats, religious figures, experts, scholars, and journalists as well as ordinary travelers, he said. Unlike travel in the rest of China, however, visits remain by invitation only and visitors are led on government-sponsored tours.
These include trips to mosques and heritage sites “to see how Xinjiang’s traditional culture is protected,” Wang said. “They went to local factories, businesses and farms to learn about Xinjiang’s production and development, and visited ordinary households where they saw the happy life of people of various ethnic groups.”
“Seeing is believing,” he said. “People are not blind to the truth. For certain countries, they are comfortable telling lies about genocide and forced labor in Xinjiang…. Xinjiang will keep its door open to the world.”
The move comes as China gets ready for its fourth Universal Periodic Review, or UPR — a Human Rights Council mechanism that calls for each U.N. member state to undergo a peer review of its human rights records every 4.5 years. The review is scheduled to be held in Geneva, Switzerland, on Jan. 23.
Authorities have tightly controlled who enters Xinjiang, where harsh repression of Uyghurs and other Muslims in recent years has amounted to genocide and crimes against humanity, according to the United States, the United Nations, the parliaments of other Western countries and human rights groups.
Authorities in Xinjiang have detained an estimated 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims, destroyed thousands of mosques and banned the Uyghur language in schools and government offices. China has said that the “re-education camps” have been closed and has denied any policy to erase Uyghur culture.
A recent CBS documentary on China’s “rebranding” effort shows surveillance cameras and facial recognition devices monitoring Uyghurs. The name of the ancient town of Kashgar appears in Chinese as “Kashi” on signs and billboards, while the 15th-century Id Kah Mosque — closed to local Muslims since 2016 — has been transformed into a tourist attraction.
Through the scripted travel junkets, the Chinese government is spreading a narrative that Uyghurs live happy lives to cover up Beijing’s severe human rights violations in Xinjiang, experts on the region said. Foreign visitors, in turn, have perpetuated the narrative through photos and posts on their social media accounts.
Criticism from rights groups
The dissemination of propaganda and China’s efforts to enhance the image of Xinjiang have sparked criticism from human rights groups.
Claudia Bennett, a legal and program officer at Human Rights Foundation, said the orchestrated visits conceal the harsh realities of forced family separations, arbitrary detentions of millions in concentration or forced labor camps, and thousands of Uyghurs living in exile and forcibly rendered stateless.
“In a strategic effort to legitimize its colonization of the Uyghur region, the Chinese Communist Party carefully organizes propagandist visits for diplomats, journalists and religious scholars,” she told Radio Free Asia. “These tours are designed to whitewash the CCP’s gross human rights violations.”
The U.S.-based Uyghur Human Rights Foundation, or UHRP, called the visits “genocide tourism” in a report issued last Aug. 30, saying that they help China conceal genocide and crimes against humanity occurring in Xinjiang.
Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress, took the criticism of the junkets a step further.
“Collaborating with China’s propaganda equates to complicity in genocide – a grave crime,” he said. “Humanity will not forget, and the Uyghur nation will not forget. Those involved will be held accountable before history.”
Travel and excursion propaganda to portray life in Xinjiang as normal is part of “Beijing’s current strategy,” explained Adrian Zenz, an expert on China’s policies in Xinjiang.
“They are showing Uyghurs and Uyghur culture, but not real and free people or culture, but a hollowed out version, a mummified version, like a CCP museum,” said Zenz, director of China studies at the U.S.-based Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.
With the U.N.’s UPR session on the horizon, there can be little doubt that Beijing is touting the visits as a way to counter criticism of its policies in Xinjiang, said Sophie Richardson, former China director at Human Rights Watch.
The main problem with the UPR, however, is that there are no penalties for failing to comply or to correct abuses, Richardson added.
“Beijing has proven just how easy it is to manipulate the process to keep independent civil society, both inside and outside China, out of the process … and to submit a national report that is breathtakingly dishonest in its claims to upholding human rights.”
Translated by RFA Uyghur. Edited by Roseanne Gerin and Abby Seiff.