May 13 saw a flurry of social media activity by Chinese diplomats, journalists and others, corresponding with Eid al-Fitr — the end of the Muslims holy month of Ramadan.
China’s state-run Global Times reported that foreign diplomats from more than 15 countries gathered in Beijing to observe live-streamed Eid al-Fitr festivities in China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR).
“This is the first time that the Xinjiang regional government held such a reception for Eid al-Fitr and invited foreign diplomats to observe – a move, officials and observers said, showed the region's sincerity and openness amid outside slander, as Xinjiang has nothing to hide,” Global Times said.
One video that circulated widely showed people dancing on the square outside the Id Kah mosque in Xinjiang’s city of Kashgar.
Li Jingjing, a journalist with China’s state-run CGTN who describes herself as “a Chinese and a lie-debunker!,” tweeted:
"#RealXinjiang People in Kashgar, Xinjiang celebrating Eid al-Fitr today. Eid Mubarak! #Uyghur
However, the Chinese authorities’ campaign to use state-managed activities as a way to demonstrate the “real” situation in Xinjiang is misleading.
First, as noted in the Global Times report, the diplomats only “observed” the event via video link, and not in person.
That, along with the claim that “Xinjiang has nothing to hide,” comes as Western states and human rights groups have petitioned Beijing to allow the United Nations High Commissioner unfettered access to investigate the plight of Uyghur and other Muslim minorities in the region.
One day prior to the Eid social media blitz, May 12, the U.S. State Department released its 2020 International Religious Freedom Report, which stated: “China broadly criminalizes religious expression and continues to commit crimes against humanity and genocide against Muslim Uyghurs and members of other religious and ethnic minority groups.”
The Global Times called the U.S. report a “smear,” saying its claims “contrasted [with] the live videos and pictures showing local residents dancing happily to celebrate Eid-al-Fitr.”
However, there is evidence that participation in the Eid state-sponsored festivities was at least partly coerced.
Dolkun Isa, president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) rights group, told Radio Free Asia (RFA)’s Uyghur service that China had designed and used the event to spread “disinformation” and to counter allegations of rights abuses in Xinjiang.
“One shining example is that on the first day of Eid, China forced Uyghurs to go to mosques to attend a Chinese flag-raising ceremony, sing the Chinese national anthem, and then pray and dance in order to create a facade that suggests Uyghurs enjoy religious freedom,” Isa said.
He added: “Until China officially closes the concentration camps, releases the Uyghur detainees, apologizes for its policy of genocide, pays reparations to the Uyghurs and other indigenous Turkic peoples, and allows an unfettered international investigation [of the situation in the XUAR], no one will accept its staged performances of Uyghur happiness and freedom.”
Isa also noted that while restrictions on fasting had been eased during Ramadan, many residents had opted not to fast for fear of being labeled extremists.
In 2019, a Chinese diplomat confirmed to the Voice of America (VOA) that restrictions on fasting during Ramadan had been placed on some people in Xinjiang, including government officials and “students with compulsory education and hard learning tasks.”
It is unknown whether those locked up in China’s sweeping network of “reeducation camps” fall under the category of “students.”
CGTN journalist Li Jingjing called the RFA report “desperate crap,” claiming “[t]hey don't know how to deal with the happiness of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.”
But Simon Leplatre, a correspondent for France’s Le Monde newspaper who was on the ground in Xinjiang for the festivities, posted video documentation and witness testimony showing the event appeared at least partially choreographed.
One day before Eid al-Fitr, Leplatre visited Id Kah mosque and saw people practicing the dance before the fasting period had broken.
When Leplatre asked a man what was happening, the man replied that he had no idea and added that "the lingdao (boss) made us come.”
Leplatre also posted footage showing “older guys” clearly directing the dancers on how to move.
The Global Times charged that Leplatre, by suggesting that Chinese authorities were “‘forcing' Uyghurs to ‘dance’,” was spreading rumors, provoking Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian and others, and “demonizing Xinjiang.”
Leplatre showed the video to Uyghur language activist Abduweli Ayup, who had lived in Kashgar until 2015.
Ayup said that the Chinese government has asked people to dance for Eid, tweeting:
“Yes we dance Sama in front of the mosque every Eid, but we never rehears[e] it one day earlier, we don't dance that way, because we all know how to dance. This style is just for the show, not natural.”
In a separate tweet, Ayup noted that the Eid prayer at the biggest mosque in Urumchi started with China’s national anthem.
“We have never heard the anthem at the mosque, never seen Chinese lantern in front of us during the prayer till 2016,” Ayup wrote. “There's no teenagers, young Uyghurs, no one has beard, source said people forced to go.”
Nathan Ruser, a researcher with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, which has documented abuses in Xinjiang, tweeted that while Uyghurs were filmed dancing, they had not been allowed to pray during Eid al-Fitr for the last six years.
He also said that celebratory house visits had been banned.
The Associated Press (AP) reported on May 13: “Muslim leaders from the Xinjiang region rejected Western allegations that China is suppressing religious freedom.”
Abdureqip Tomurniyaz, who heads the association and the school for Islamic studies in Xinjiang, told AP that anti-China forces in the U.S. and other Western nations were spreading rumors and lies about the situation there.
“They want to sabotage Xinjiang’s harmony and stability, contain China’s rise and alienate relations between China and Islamic countries,” he said.
According to AP, a report by the U.S.-based Uyghur Human Rights Project “documented at least 630 religious figures who have been detained or imprisoned in Xinjiang, most since 2014.”
Meantime, the apparent campaign to share the dance video appears to be the latest manifestation of China’s so-called wolf-warrior diplomacy, which, according to the International Federation of Journalists, employs Chinese embassies and ambassadors to “frequently comment on local media coverage of China.”
A recent investigation by AP and the Oxford Internet Institute found that China has also used “an army of fake Twitter accounts” to amplify these commentaries.
That evidence includes a “mosque rectification” program that has reportedly seen thousands of religious buildings and sites damaged or destroyed in recent years, along with campaigns to force Uyghurs to abandon cultural and religious practices.