- Heavily supervised visits to indoctrination centres present reporters with smiling inmates and tales of cultural acceptance
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.