The statement — made in response to ongoing calls for a possible boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympics — represents the culmination of a long evolution of China’s official narrative regarding its treatment of Uyghurs.

This evolving strategy, from outright denial to hardened public defense, is closely tied to the Chinese government’s own increased sense of confidence on the world stage, and its willingness to confront its critics in the West head on, be it over Xinjiang, the South China Sea or Hong Kong, a CNN analysis shows.

In recent months, Xinjiang has become something of a patriotic litmus test, in which those wishing to do business with China must pick a side — either stand with Beijing in implicit defense of its policies, or face the consequences.

The propaganda campaign has also reached a fever pitch, with state media reporters dispatched to Xinjiang to supposedly “prove” there is no oppression there, a “La La Land”-inspired musical released to make Beijing’s case, while critics overseas have faced sanctions and harassment.

While China has always maintained a sophisticated propaganda apparatus at home, it’s recent campaign over Xinjiang, particularly disinformation and harassment of critics overseas, is more in keeping with similar efforts by Russia, including deploying “whataboutism” in claiming any US denouncements are tainted by the legacy of slavery and genocide on the American continent.

Warning signs

After she was “de-radicalized,” Amina Hojamet swapped her burqa for a silk dress, put a traditional flower-patterned hat on her head, and sang “Without the Communist Party, there would be no New China.”

She didn’t know it at the time, but Hojamet, along with over a dozen other women from her village in Shufu County, in western Xinjiang — whose story was recounted in a report by the state-run Xinjiang Daily — would serve as proof of concept for an “anti-extremism” campaign that has engulfed the Chinese region since 2017. According to reliable scholarly estimates, up to 2 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities have passed through a system of detention camps set up throughout Xinjiang in recent years. In the camps, they have been subjected to intense “re-education,” designed to strip them of their Islamic faith and ethnic identity in the name of fighting religious terrorism and separatism.

Survivors of the camps report experiencing or witnessing widespread abuse, and incidents of torture, rape and forced sterilisation. The crackdown has been denounced as “genocide” by the United States government and the Canadian and Dutch parliaments for its effects on the Uyghur people and their culture.

When reports of the camp system first began to emerge around 2017, China issued staunch denials, or refused to comment altogether. As this has become increasingly impossible in the face mounting international attention and subsequent condemnation, Beijing has shifted to an angry defense of its “de-radicalization” program, which it has even started to tout to likeminded countries as a way of dealing with their own Muslim “problem.”

Meanwhile, evidence of the camp system, such as early reports in state media like one which gave Hojamet’s story in late 2014, have been scrubbed from the internet altogether and are accessible only in archived form, a CNN analysis shows. Other materials researchers relied upon to expose the camp system — such as government tenders and official documents — have also been deleted.

Multiple foreign journalists who reported on the camp system have been expelled from China, while academics, activists and survivors who sought to expose its reach have been denounced, and harassed. Those who have dared speak out inside of China have been silenced or detained.

The clampdown has been accompanied by a new, coordinated propaganda campaign touting the successes of the “vocational training” system, with heavily choreographed media tours for sympathetic outlets, interviews with “graduates” praising the system, and disinformation which aims to sow confusion about the scale of the camp system and the abuses experienced by detainees, while painting Beijing as the victim of both violent extremism and Western misinformation.

Early reports in Chinese state media about de-radicalisation programs in Xinjiang have since been scrubbed from the internet.

Crackdown

Located in the far-west of the People’s Republic of China, Xinjiang is among China’s most ethnically diverse regions. It is home to about 11 million Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority, who speak a language closely related to Turkish and have their own distinct culture, as well as significant populations of Kazakhs.

Rich in natural resources, especially oil and gas, the region has seen a large influx of Han Chinese, the country’s majority ethnic group, amid recent, concerted efforts by the government to tie Xinjiang closer to the wider economy.

Xinjiang — the name means “New Frontier” in Chinese — has long been of strategic importance for its rulers in Beijing. The vast region borders Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan, as well as Mongolia and Russia in the north and Pakistan and India in the south. Its importance has only increased with the advent of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, a trade and infrastructure mega project connecting China to markets across Central Asia to Europe and beyond.

In the 1990s and 2000s, as the number of Han migrating to Xinjiang increased and the government ramped up efforts to integrate the region, protests and occasionally violent ethnic unrest became more common.

Information about such incidents was often hard to come by, with reports in state media sporadic and sparsely detailed. Few foreign journalists ever visited Xinjiang, both due to the region’s remoteness from Beijing and the harassment and surveillance by local authorities of those journalists who did travel there.

Such controls only increased as the situation became more unstable and the authorities cracked down harder. In 2009, following deadly ethnic riots in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi, the entire region was cut off from the internet for almost a year, and many Uyghur writers and intellectuals were jailed.

In October 2013, a group of Uyghurs were alleged to have driven a sports-utility vehicle into pedestrians on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Five people died in the incident, described by authorities as a terror attack, including three in the car. Some 40 people were injured.

Following the incident, Xinjiang’s anti-terrorism budget doubled. The regional government, meanwhile, said it was “determined to curb the spread of religious extremism as well as prevent severe violent terrorist attacks.” As part of this, what was called “vocational training” could be provided to those “more easily manipulated by religious extremism.”

In early 2014, 31 people were killed, and more than a hundred were injured, during a knife terror attack in a crowded train station in Kunming, in China’s southwestern Yunnan Province. Four people were convicted of plotting the attack, which the government blamed on Uyghur separatists. During a visit to the region in April 2014 in the aftermath of the Kunming attack, President Xi called for an all-out “struggle against terrorism, infiltration and separatism,” according to leaked internal speeches published by the New York Times.

Around this time, in a village in Shufu County, near the ancient Silk Road trading stop of Kashgar in western Xinjiang, local officials identified 16 women in need of “educational transformation,” according to the Xinjiang Daily article. Their offence? Wearing the burqa.

These women, one of whom was Hojamet, were initially “very resistant and unwilling,” but “gradually realized the essence and harm of religious extremism,” eventually choosing to abandon conservative Islamic dress for regular clothing.

Another woman also told the paper her husband had been detained by the police for religious extremism and taken for “de-radicalization” in an unspecified location. “I hope that he will receive a good education, transform well, and reunite with us soon,” she was quoted as saying.

Cover-up

While in 2014 and 2015 the burgeoning “re-education” system was still years away from reaching its current scale, or from becoming public knowledge, it was clear the situation in Xinjiang had escalated following the high-profile Kunming attack.

Visiting the region weeks later, Ursula Gauthier, a journalist with the French magazine L’Obs, reported an intense system of surveillance, police checkpoints, and widespread fear of being reported or denounced among any Uyghurs she spoke to.

“In Xinjiang, where the police respect legal procedures even less than in the (rest of China), arrests are not reported to families. They simply disappear,” Gauthier wrote, adding many Uyghurs reported being constantly afraid, such that fear “creeps into all parts of life, poisons relationships and paralyzes the most serene minds.” This experience was at the forefront of her mind when, about seven months later, ISIS-linked terrorists attacked targets across Paris, killing 130 people and wounding hundreds more.

Disgusted by the bloodshed in her home capital, Gauthier was also dismayed by the reaction from the Chinese government, which she felt was attempting to take advantage of the incident to gain international support for its crackdown in Xinjiang.

In expressing sympathy with France, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China was also a victim of terrorism and complained about a “double standard” in the West in which media and politicians minimised or sought to justify terrorist incidents against Chinese.

In a column for L’Obs, Gauthier noted the astonishing outpouring of sympathy and solidarity she had experienced in Beijing from ordinary people, while pointing out what she felt were the Chinese government’s “ulterior motives” in conflating ISIS attacks with violence in Xinjiang. While other outlets made similar observations — “China Responds to Paris Attacks Through a Domestic Lens,” read a headline in the New York Times — Gauthier’s article struck a nerve.

The Global Times, a nationalist, state-run tabloid, published multiple articles attacking her, and she was summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to explain herself. She was told to apologize but refused, saying she was being accused of saying things — such as that Chinese victims of terror deserved to die — she never wrote.

Fanning the controversy, Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang accused Gauthier of having “blatantly championed acts of terrorism and slaughter of innocent civilians, igniting indignation among the Chinese people.”The authorities refused to renew her press card, and on January 1, 2016, she flew out of Beijing for good. Residents walk through a security checkpoint and past a screen showing Chinese President Xi Jinping in Hotan, Xinjiang, on November 3, 2017.

Exposed

While she was not alone in criticizing or exposing China’s policies in Xinjiang, or even in calling out Beijing’s attempt to conflate ethnic unrest with global terrorism, Gauthier appears to have been caught up in a shifting policy on Xinjiang, as the government became far more sensitive to outside scrutiny.

“We know today that Xi Jinping had made the decision to change the policies in Xinjiang, so in (late 2014) they were preparing the crackdown,” she said. “It was just the fact that we didn’t know back then.”

The scale of this transformation would not be known for several years. Even as people began disappearing into the camp system, which was built up between 2014 and 2017, before massively expanding that year, the heavy surveillance in Xinjiang, ongoing intense censorship of Uyghur issues on the Chinese internet, and its relative remoteness compared to the rest of the country, meant the news did not immediately spread.

But as human rights groups and members of the Uyghur diaspora started reporting increased disappearances and people being taken away for “political education,” a number of foreign journalists were able to travel to Xinjiang to see if the stories were true. In late 2017, a series of on the ground reports were published by US outlets, BuzzFeed, the Associated Press, and the Wall Street Journal, all testifying to the intense surveillance all Uyghurs in Xinjiang were subject to, and to the burgeoning camp system.

“Since this spring, thousands of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities have disappeared into so-called political education centers, apparently for offenses from using Western social media apps to studying abroad in Muslim countries, according to relatives of those detained,” Buzzfeed’s Megha Rajagopalan reported.

While officials defended security measures in Xinjiang as necessary for preventing terrorism, at first, Beijing denied reports about the camp system, with a foreign ministry spokesman telling Rajagopalan “we have never heard about these measures taken by local authorities.”

A similar denial would come from China’s representative to Kazakhstan, who told reporters “we don’t have such a concept at all in China” when asked about a CNN report on Uyghurs being sent to political education camps in early 2018. More often, the Chinese authorities simply refused to comment for stories about Xinjiang.

According to a CNN review of Chinese government statements from 2015 onwards, officials largely avoided addressing the issue of Xinjiang until around mid-2018, when growing scrutiny made this impossible.

In particular, China appears to have switched strategies in response to a hearing of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in August of that year, where it was estimated by the Germany-based World Uyghur Congress that as many as a million people could have passed through the camps.

China’s representative to the committee said this was “completely untrue,” while acknowledging people had been assigned “to vocational educational and employment training centers with a view to assisting in their rehabilitation.”

Speaking in mid 2019, Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador to the UK, gave a staunch defense of the program in an interview with the BBC, saying “extremist ideas have easy penetration to the poorer areas. The idea is to help the people, to lift them out of poverty.”

“They can leave freely. They can visit their relatives. It is not a prison. It is not a camp,” Liu said.

Subsequent months saw the publication of multiple reports which drew on witness testimony, satellite imagery and open source Chinese government data, such as official tenders, to map the size and scale of the camp system.

While China has sought, sometimes successfully, to muddy the waters on Xinjiang, attacking individual researchers and think tanks, and trotting out family members of survivors to criticize them in dubious videos, much of the evidence showing the scale of the camp system is in fact open source.

For example, the growth of a camp in Shufu County, around 7 kilometers (4.5 miles) from Amina Hojamet’s village, can be tracked via satellite imagery on Google Earth. The installation was first built around 2013, though it may have initially been used for another purpose. In the years since, it has more than doubled in size, and what appear to be watchtowers can be seen on walls around dormitory-like buildings, according to a review of historical satellite imagery.

Other open source data helps confirm this: a tender for business issued by the Xinjiang government in 2017, reviewed by CNN, seeks a $21 million refit and expansion of the camp — described as a Legal Education Transformation School.

As scrutiny over Xinjiang increased, reports in state media about the “de-radicalization” program, as well government announcements about the various camps and tenders for supplying them appear to have been scrubbed from the internet, with only a small proportion surviving in archived form.

This effort appears to have been inconsistent, with some materials surviving online, along with reports in state media that can be used to track the evolution of the “vocational training” system, even as similar articles which had been written about by human rights groups, such as that which contains Hojamet’s story, were deleted.

In the past year, Chinese state media and officials have begun attacking researcher Adrian Zenz, who was the first to use government documents to expose the camps, and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, which popularized the use of satellite imagery to track their growth. Zenz was among multiple academics and politicians in the European Union and United Kingdom sanctioned by China in March. Beijing has also punished those journalists who helped draw attention to Xinjiang early on. Rajagopalan, the Buzzfeed reporter, was forced to leave China in August 2018, after her visa extension was denied. Two years later, Gerry Shih and Josh Chin, who wrote early reports on Xinjiang for the AP and WSJ respectively, were among a number of American reporters expelled from China in retaliation for Trump administration limits on US-based Chinese state media.

Growth of a camp near Shufu from 2006 to 2020. Satellite imagery has been a key tool for journalists and academics to track the expansion of the detention system in Xinjiang. Credit: Google Earth Pro

Pivot

While it would continue to officially deny any “camps” exist in Xinjiang, with Foreign Ministry officials reprimanding reporters who used those terms, from late 2018 onwards, there has been a concerted shift in China’s messaging on this issue. In October of that year, the Xinjiang government all but acknowledged reports about the “re-education” system were correct, calling on local officials to expand the number of “vocational skill education training centers” and “carry out anti-extremist ideological education.”The following week, Shohrat Zakir, a high-ranking Xinjiang government official, told state media the Chinese government was fighting “terrorism and extremism” in its own way, and in accordance with UN resolutions. Former detainees, he said, had been transformed for the better by their time in the “training centers.” Instead of being led by religion as in the past, now they “realized that they are firstly citizens of the nation,” Zakir said. In a white paper published by the State Council Information Office in August 2019, China’s top administrative body wrote “Xinjiang is a key battlefield in the fight against terrorism and extremism in China.”

“(The government) has established vocational education and training centers in accordance with the law to prevent the breeding and spread of terrorism and religious extremism, effectively curbing the frequent terrorist incidents and protecting the rights to life, health, and development of the people of all ethnic groups,” the paper said, adding “worthwhile results have been achieved.”

A watchtower on a high-security facility near what is believed to be a re-education camp where mostly Muslim ethnic minorities are detained, on the outskirts of Hotan, Xinjiang, on May 31, 2019.

Sean Roberts, an expert on Central Asia at the George Washington University and author of “The War on the Uyghurs: China’s Internal Campaign against a Muslim Minority,” said many officials in Xinjiang appeared to have internalized Beijing’s narrative on the issue.

“People high up know the real extent of the threat and how minor it is, but I think some of the lower level officials really do believe what they are doing is saving Uyghurs from extremism and terrorism,” he said.

At the international level, Beijing has leaned on its allies to push back on criticism from western countries over Xinjiang. After a representative for the United Kingdom issued a statement at the UN General Assembly in 2019 on behalf of 23 countries raising concerns about human rights abuses, Belarus made its own statement on behalf of 54 countries voicing approval of China’s “counter-terrorism” program in Xinjiang. Signatories included close allies of China, such as Russia, Egypt, Bolivia and Serbia.

“They have a kind of hubris about this,” Roberts said of how China’s messaging has evolved since then. “There’s a level of confidence in having escaped a lot of criticism from the international community, a sense that nobody is actually going to punish us for this.”

As well as securing international recognition (of sorts) for its efforts in Xinjiang, Beijing has also sought to link its “de-radicalization” program with anti-extremism efforts elsewhere, providing a sheen of legitimacy even in practice the comparisons are rather far-fetched.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi, among other officials, has claimed China’s system is in keeping with the UN “Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism.”

“The Plan of Action suggests early engagement and combining counter-extremism actions with preventive measures,” Wang said in a 2019 speech. “That is precisely what Xinjiang has been doing. Visible progress has been made: There has not been a single case of violent terrorism in the past three years.”

That same year, Zakir, the region’s top Uyghur official, said “most (detainees) have already gone back to society.” “I can say 90% of them have found suitable and enjoyable jobs that bring them considerable income,” he said, adding many Uyghurs were originally lacking employable skills and jobless, though records kept by overseas Uyghur groups suggest many intellectuals and highly-qualified individuals have also been sent to the camps. Beginning around December 2020, according to a review of government statements, officials also began to compare the situation in Xinjiang to programs elsewhere in the world, such as the UK’s Desistance and Disengagement Programme, and French de-radicalisation centers. Both French and British programs involve individuals convicted of terrorism offences or on watchlists, and are governed by both domestic human rights law and the European Convention on Human Rights. By contrast, many detainees in Xinjiang are locked up for non-terror related offences, such as breaching family planning regulations, or for religious practices deemed to be indicative of alleged “extremism,” such as wearing the burqa, growing a beard, or reading the Quran. For its part, the UN plan also notes “violations of international human rights law committed in the name of state security can facilitate violent extremism by marginalizing individuals and alienating key constituencies, thus generating community support and sympathy for and complicity in the actions of violent extremists.”

Government tenders for expanding and stocking internment camps in Xinjiang provided early evidence of the system’s size and scope.

Propaganda

Months after censors scrubbed stories like Amina Hojamet’s from the internet in an apparent attempt to cover-up evidence of what was going on in Xinjiang, a new wave of propaganda was pushed out by Beijing, emphasizing both the supposed terrorist threat and the success of the government’s so-called “anti-extremism” program in tackling it.

In a video published by state broadcaster CGTN in late 2019, one prominent interviewee suggests — over footage of the 9/11 attacks and the Boston Marathon bombings — that the response to such attacks in the West may “have actually served to help the purposes of terrorists and their organizations.”

“In their responses, you can see the main reasons why terrorism has failed to be curbed at the root,” says Li Wei, a research fellow at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, a government think tank.

During an anti-terrorism symposium held on the sidelines of the UN Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva in 2020, co-sponsored by Beijing’s mission to the UN, participants heard how “China is willing to share the ‘Chinese experience’ with the international community,” according to an official write up of the event.This shift may have been motivated by a wave of leaks — largely unheard of in Chinese politics — which exposed both the scale of the camps and the largely inconsequential “offences” which got detainees sent there, as well as the involvement of President Xi and other top officials in putting the system in place. While China denounced the leaks, secret speeches credited to Xi published by the New York Times appear to line up with coverage in state media from the time they were given. With Xi so publicly identified as one of the architects of what has since been called a genocide in Xinjiang, China’s propaganda bureau may have felt obliged to spin the entire situation as a success. Xi himself said in September 2020 that the policy followed in Xinjiang has been “completely correct,” and called on the government to “tell the story of Xinjiang in a multi-level, all-round, and three-dimensional manner, and confidently propagate the excellent social stability of Xinjiang.” A facility believed to be a re-education camp where mostly Muslim ethnic minorities are detained, in Artux, north of Kashgar, on June 2, 2019.

Chinese state media, particularly those outlets targeting foreign audiences, have pushed this line hard. While stories such as Hojamet’s were scrubbed from the internet in what may have been a kneejerk reaction to international criticism, they have been replaced by a glut of content showcasing happy, successful graduates from the “vocational training” system.

“Through the training, I realized that my past beliefs were completely wrong and religious extremism was our enemy. It’s a disease which poisons our body and a drug which leads us to death,” one woman told reporters at a press conference held by the Xinjiang government. “I must stay away from religious extremism and lead a normal life.”Foreign diplomats from countries close to China — including Iran, Pakistan and Russia — have been invited to tour Xinjiang, even visiting camps, though representatives from the US and other countries have complained of being denied unfettered access to the region. China’s propaganda organs have also organized tightly-controlled press trips to Xinjiang, again mostly for media thought to be sympathetic, though early on, several international press agencies were invited to visit a camp, resulting in embarrassment for Beijing when they reported the situation there largely matched the testimony of survivors. Such visits have been denounced as “Potemkin-style propaganda tours for unwitting foreigners” by Amnesty International, producing a stream of positive stories about the situation in the camps and China’s success in fighting terrorism which often blindly repeat official propaganda.

One of the few US publications able to send a correspondent to Xinjiang in recent years was International Focus, a tiny Houston-based magazine which caters to the city’s diplomatic community.

According to a piece by publisher Val Thompson from May 2019, she was invited to go to Xinjiang by the State Council Information Office, joining a multinational group of journalists.

Writing of visiting the government-run “Exhibition of Major Terrorist Attacks and Violent Crimes in Xinjiang,” Thompson said the experience was “eye-opening, I had no idea the PRC was dealing with extremist activity.”

At the Kashgar Vocational Skills Educational and Training Center, she said she interviewed “several” detainees, who “were, or could be, victims of extremist teaching.”

“They were treated well by their supervisors,” Thompson wrote in her article, which has been promoted online by China’s State Council. “For those who want to believe these young people may have been coerced, I say you can’t fake happiness; and happiness is exactly what I saw.”

Thompson and International Focus did not respond to a request for comment.

In recent weeks, China’s propaganda organs have ramped up their counter narrative, including producing a musical — “The Wings of Song” — purporting to show the ethnic harmony that exists in modern Xinjiang. State broadcaster CGTN, which targets foreign audiences, also dispatched a reporter to Kashgar last month, from where she filed live reports, signing off with the line: “There’s definitely no genocide, so to speak. So Michelle, back to you.” One video released by CGTN may have made the opposite point however: a new documentary about the threat of “extremism” that existed prior to the recent crackdown gave as examples textbooks published and approved by China’s own propaganda organs, demonstrating how previously innocuous references to Uyghur culture and Islam have become taboo.

Retaliation

This propaganda push appears to have been successful, particularly in convincing many Muslim majority countries to back Beijing, or at least in giving their leaders cover in doing so.

Not all journalists who were taken on government-run tours of Xinjiang were convinced, however. The experience of Olsi Jazexhi since he first wrote about his trip is indicative of how far China will allegedly go to try and control the narrative over Xinjiang, and tear down those who attempt to challenge it.

A Canadian-Albanian writer and historian, Jazexhi said he wanted to visit Xinjiang after reading reports in Western media which he felt were exaggerated. He was highly suspicious of the involvement of the US government, fearing it was attempting to promote extremism among Uyghurs, or fabricate human rights abuses in order to attack China.

“I’m generally skeptical of Western propaganda about the rest of the world,” Jazexhi said. “Very often they lie.”

After showing his writing and YouTube channel to the Chinese embassy in Tirana, the Albanian capital, Jazexhi was approved to join a trip to Xinjiang in August 2019, along with 20 other journalists, most of whom were from Muslim countries, he said.

“The desire of the Communist Party was that when we go back to our home countries we would say things are fine in Xinjiang and the Americans and whoever are lying about the Uyghur issue,” Jazexhi said.

The Xinjiang capital of Urumqi on October 1, 2020.

At first, landing in Urumqi, he was greatly impressed. The Xinjiang capital had undergone significant development in recent years, and was, in Jazexhi’s eyes, “better built and more beautiful than Toronto.”

But then the real propaganda started, with a series of lectures by Chinese historians and local officials, as well as tours of terrorism exhibits such as that described by Thompson.

A historian of Islam and nationalism, and knowledgeable about Central Asia, Jazexhi was appalled by what he heard.

“The narrative was Xinjiang has always been a part of China and these Turks and Islam are latecomers,” said Jazexhi. “It shocked not only me but even other Muslim journalists on the tour. It depicted Islam as a primitive religion, and Uyghurs as invaders and newcomers, who were Islamized by less civilized Arabs.”

Similar claims have been made in Chinese government documents, and in interviews given by officials to state media, such as one where the mayor and deputy Party chief of Urumqi described the idea of Uyghurs being native to Xinjiang as a “ridiculous, ignorant and condemnable” fallacy.

“The Uyghur people are members of the Chinese family, not descendants of the Turks, let alone anything to do with Turkish people,” he added.

Jazexhi’s experience in the “vocational training and education centers” his tour was taken to visit was even more eye-opening.

After “being brainwashed for two to three days that China is suffering from Islamic extremism,” Jazexhi said he expected to come face to face with a Chinese version of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the former leader of ISIS.

Instead, the people he spoke to — via a government interpreter — were normal men and women, whose “only mistake to end up in this detention center was that they had read a history of East Turkestan online, or read the Quran with their mother, or prayed with their father.”

While his Chinese minders said the place was not a prison, Jazexhi said they admitted detainees could not leave, nor could they talk to relatives except via tightly-controlled, weekly video calls.

“It was a prison but it was painted in such a way to give us an impression that it was a school,” he said. “When we asked (detainees) questions in Turkish or English they did not dare to respond before asking their Chinese minders what to say.”

In one video taken by Jazexhi during his trip, he spoke with a 23-year-old woman in a camp in Aksu. Through a government interpreter, the woman said she had been detained for “watching unlawful videos,” wearing a burqa and encouraging other women in her village to do the same.

He said the stories were “unimaginable,” adding that two female journalists from the Middle East, both of whom were veiled, were particularly upset to hear from Uyghur detainees that they were there for wearing a hijab or burqa.

“From our visit to two camps, in Kashgar and Aksu, we saw beyond doubt that China is openly eradicating the Islamic identity and Turkish identity of these people,” Jazexhi said. “I went to defend China but I found out I could not defend it.”

When he asked his fellow journalists if they planned to write about what they saw, most demurred, saying they would not be allowed to. Jazexhi’s minders, meanwhile, had apparently become aware the trip was not having the desired impression, and began shadowing him ever more closely.

“They were really displeased by our attitude when we were inside Xinjiang, because they understood in a way that they had failed with our group,” he said. “They even warned us not to dare to report anything negative because that would be unacceptable.”

Upon returning to Albania and publishing his findings, Jazexhi said he has suffered retaliation from China. A university he taught at canceled his courses, which he said was due to Chinese pressure.

A spokesman for the Xinjiang government accused Jazexhi of being unethical and “spreading false information,” while China’s ambassador to Turkey denounced an article by Jazexhi as one “in which facts are distorted and basic knowledge is absent.” Chinese state media suggested Jazexhi was driven by “malice” and his actions “went against the basic professional ethics as a reporter.” The pushback against Jazexhi, however, is nothing compared to how vociferously Chinese officials have gone after some former detainees, attacking the “inferior character” of one woman who had spoken to foreign reporters and publicising her alleged medical history. Another critic, Gulchehra Hoja, a prominent Uyghur journalist who previously spoke to CNN about her family’s experiences in the camp system, said she recently discovered she had been placed on a terrorist wanted list, after China’s foreign ministry publicly denounced her and claimed she lied about her parents having been detained.

“It’s a completely baseless accusation and it’s outrageous,” she told CNN. “My only crime is being a journalist reporting on what’s happening to the Uyghurs.”

This “with us or against us” attitude has ramped up considerably in recent months, with new sanctions passed by Beijing against UK and EU lawmakers and think tanks, as well as numerous boycotts of Western companies such as H&M and Nike which have expressed concern about using Xinjiang cotton in their supply lines.

A spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Albania said Jazexhi’s claims were “untrue” and referred questions about his employment to his former university, which did not respond to a request for comment. His former employer also did not respond.

“All my life I have criticized the Americans, but never have I been blacklisted by the American government, had my name condemned,” Jazexhi said. “The Chinese are even more angry with me because they invited me, I was their guest.”

He added that he had been told “that if I shut up, I would have ‘opportunities,’ but I said I cannot lie about the horror I’ve seen, I’m a Muslim.”