This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
The Chinese government has issued a new directive that forbids Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region from discussing the network of internment camps or accepting calls from international phone numbers ahead of an expected visit by the United Nations human rights chief, a police office in the region told RFA.
The officer, who works in Kashgar (in Chinese, Kashi) and declined to give his name, told RFA that police received special government notices on how to prepare for the visit this month by Michelle Bachelet, the U.N.’s high commissioner for human rights.
The policeman said he was a Chinese Communist Party member and was playing a leading role in disseminating the notices during political study sessions and enforcing their mandates.
“The political study sessions are being held on Wednesdays, and prefectural and autonomous regional notices are being studied as they arrive,” he said.
The dates of Bachelet’s visit to China and Xinjiang have yet to be announced. Uyghur rights groups have pressed her to visit the region and release an overdue report on well-documented allegations of torture, forced labor and other severe rights abuses against the local population.
An advance delegation from Bachelet’s office arrived in late April in Guangzhou in southern China’s Guangdong Province, where they are still being held in quarantine as required by COVID-19 protocols before heading to Xinjiang, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Wednesday.
Officials issued a notice prohibiting Uyghurs from speaking about “re-education” or internment camps, but added that if the topic arose, they should only mention positive aspects of re-education, namely that it is a pathway to living a good and normal life, the Kashgar officer said.
Uyghurs have been told not to speak spontaneously when the U.N. team arrives and asks questions, he said.
“We were told not to speak about re-education and the current situation, and that we should speak positively about life here,” the police officer said.
The policeman made the comments when RFA contacted him last week about reports that residential committees had paid Uyghurs to perform a dance in front of the Kashgar Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar on the Eid al-Fitr holiday marking the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.
In the past, officials in Xinjiang have issued notices warning citizens there not to disclose so-called “state secrets,” including one directive requiring Uyghurs to not disclose any information about the camps.
In a previous RFA report, authorities in Xinjiang said Chinese officials had warned Uyghurs not to divulge “state secrets” during Bachelet’s visit, not to accept calls from unknown phone numbers, and not to answer questions from the U.N. human rights team without approval from the government.
Another government notice on the U.N. rights chief’s visit to Xinjiang that appeared recently on the Chinese video-focused social networking service Douyin, known in English as TikTok, was about setting up mobiles phones to not accept international calls. One video provided step-by-step instructions on how users could adjust their cell phone settings to reject calls from abroad.
Zumrat Dawut, a former Uyghur internment camp detainee who has said she was forcibly sterilized by government officials, said Chinese authorities are concerned about possible cooperation between the Uyghurs inside Xinjiang and those living abroad in revealing evidence about the internment camps during Bachelet’s visit.
“Before the U.N. team goes, they are worried that the people will tell the real information about the situation on the ground,” she said. “That’s why they are emphasizing these restrictions.”
Authorities are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities accused of harboring “strong religious” and “politically incorrect” views in a vast network of internment camps in Xinjiang since 2017 and have jailed or detained hundreds of Uyghur academics and other influential members of the ethnic group in recent years.
The U.S. and the parliaments of several Western governments have declared that China’s mistreatment of the Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in Xinjiang constitutes genocide and crimes against humanity.
China rejects the accusations as “slanderous lies” and asserts that the re-education centers are part of efforts to combat terrorism and extremism by providing vocational training.
On Tuesday, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) government hosted a teleconference on religious freedom that was livestreamed to more than 60 countries and international organizations, China News Service reported.
“Today, the situation of religious belief and freedom in Xinjiang is incomparable to any historical period,” Abdureqip Tumulniyaz, president of the state-controlled Islamic Association of the XUAR and of the Xinjiang Islamic Institute, said at the conference, which was attended by XUAR officials, religious leaders and Muslim residents.
A report by state-run Global Times on Tuesday said: “Happily dancing crowds to celebrate the festival of Eid al-Fitr, clean and solemn mosques with Muslims waiting for prayer time, students in the Xinjiang Islamic Institute reading doctrine out loud … these were the scenarios displayed during an online meeting held by the government of Northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region on Tuesday to show the situation of religious freedom in the region.”
China in 2019 organized two visits to internment camps in the XUAR — one for a small group of foreign journalists, and another for diplomats from non-Western countries, including Russia, Indonesia, Kazakhstan and Thailand.
A U.S. diplomat dismissed those trips as “Potemkin tours” and an Albanian scholar who was taken on one of the tours later said he agreed with reports about the camps.
“This official narrative was very shocking to us, and we could see it put into practice when we visited the mass detention centers … that our Chinese friends call vocational training institutes, but which we saw to be a kind of hell,” Olsi Jazexhi, a university lecturer with a doctoral degree in nationalism studies, told RFA after visiting the region in August 2019.