During the April 27 edition of “The Point with Liu Xin", a current affairs program on China’s state-run CGTN, ambassadors from Pakistan, Palestine, and Syria weighed in on the situation in Xinjiang.
The English-language program was billed as providing a corrective to Western politicians and media, accusing them of intentionally overlooking “the economic, social and cultural rights” that Muslim Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities “enjoy in the region.”
Of the three diplomats, two – Pakistani ambassador to China Moin ul Haque and Palestinian ambassador to China Fariz Mehdawi – went on Chinese Foreign Ministry-sponsored tours of Xinjiang, the Northwest region that is home to much of the Uyghur population the United States and others say is the target of persecution.
Xin’s leading questions stressed that ethnic minorities in the region are able to preserve their cultures and customs while coexisting with the Han Chinese minority there. Her guests agreed.
Ul Haque described Xinjiang as a place of ethnic harmony and diversity, where languages and cultures are being preserved. Mehdawi touted the region’s religious freedom, even joking there are “too many” mosques in Xinjiang.
“You know, the average of mosques, if you have to calculate it all, it’s something like 2,000 inhabitants for one mosque. This ratio we don’t have it in our country. It’s not available anywhere,” Mehdawi said.
“Of course those mosques have been built a long time ago, which have been very well maintained … [The mosques are] accessible the whole day and night, actually. Some of them are actually modern. We [visited] some mosques that are newly built during the last four or five years,” he said.
The comments of Mehdawi and the other panelists largely mirrored misleading Chinese government talking points.
After more evidence surfaced last year that the China government had razed thousands of mosques in the region, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman had released a statement echoing Mehdawi’s comments, claiming there are more than 24,000 mosques in Xinjiang, or “a mosque for every 530 Muslims in Xinjiang, which is more mosques per capita than many Muslim countries.”
Various investigations and news reports run counter to that claim and suggest an accelerated campaign of mosque destruction started in 2016.
In August of that year, Chen Quanguo was promoted to the post of Xinjiang's party secretary, the region's top official. Earlier, while serving as Tibet's party secretary, Chen is widely believed to have introduced a comprehensive system of social control in that region, where a massive crackdown on religious freedom and allegations of cultural genocide (from the United States and others) persist.
The estimate that there are 24,000 mosques in Xinjiang comes from the Chinese government’s 2004 Economic Census.
There is significant evidence that figure is no longer current.
In December 2016, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported that the Chinese Central Ethnic-Religious Affairs Department had launched a “Mosque Rectification,” putatively to promote public safety. Some 5,000 mosques were reportedly destroyed during the three-month campaign.
Wang Jingfu, head of Ethnic and Religious Affairs Committee in Kashgar, confirmed the majority of the southern Xinjiang city’s mosques had been destroyed.
“We demolished nearly 70 percent of mosques in the city, because there were more than enough mosques and some were unnecessary,” Wang told RFA, reiterating that public safety was a primary concern.
Residents of other areas reported similar levels of destruction, and local officials confirmed those reports.
A July 2019 joint investigation by the Guardian newspaper and the investigative news site Bellingcat found that dozens of religious sites had been razed in Xinjiang since 2016. Their researchers analyzed 91 religious sites using satellite imagery, and found that 31 mosques and two major shrines had suffered “significant structural damage” between 2016 and 2018.
Another 15 were found to have been destroyed or nearly destroyed. Former Xinjiang residents pointed out nine other sites that did not bear the typical outward features associated with mosques but were also locations where mosques apparently had been razed.
The previous month, Agence France-Presse reported that 36 mosques and religious sites in Xinjiang had “been torn down or had their domes and corner spires removed since 2017.”
The Uyghur Human Rights Project, a research-based advocacy organization located in Washington, D.C, reported in October 2019 that more than 100 mosques in the region had either been “fully destroyed or had an architectural element removed.”
Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported in October 2020 that mosques in the regional capital of Urumqi and the city of Kashgar had been turned into cafes, rest areas, and other tourist sites for Han Chinese.
RFA reported on April 29 of this year that a mosque believed to be the oldest in the city of Ghulja was leased to a businessman from Beijing and converted into a tourist hotel.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) estimated in September 2020 that 16,000, or about 65%, of Xinjiang’s mosques had been “destroyed or damaged as a result of government policies, mostly since 2017.” An estimated 8,500 were demolished.
ASPI said important Islamic shrines, cemeteries and pilgrimage routes were demolished during the same period. The institute estimated that fewer than 15,500 mosques were left in Xinjiang, including 7,500 that had been “damaged to some extent.”
ASPI said it arrived at those estimates by employing “a sample-based methodology to make statistically robust estimates of the region-wide rates of destruction.”
More specifically, ASPI located 900 sites, including 533 mosques and 382 shrines and other religious sites that existed prior to a 2017 crackdown, and cross referenced them against satellite imagery from 2019-2020. ASPI then extrapolated from observed rates of destruction to make regionwide estimates.
All those reports fit into a broader pattern of discrimination toward Islam.
A BBC report on mosque destruction, for example, said it had discovered public announcements prohibiting young men from wearing long beards.
A January RFA 2020 report on the so-called “Sanxin Huodong” or “Three News” campaign found that authorities were forcing Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities to abandon traditional furnishings like rugs and pillows and replace them with more “sinicized” household items.
That followed a $575 million lifestyle “modernization” campaign, under which traditional Uyghur architectural and design elements were destroyed.
In October 2020, Chinese authorities reportedly banned Muslim believers from making private pilgrimages to Mecca, one of the five pillars of Islam. Those allowed to go are provided GPS trackers to make their trips “better and safer,” the CCP-run Global Times newspaper reported.