BOB GARFIELD: This is On The Media, I'm Bob Garfield. For two and a half years in the Xinjiang province of far northwest China, The government has been building a network of internment camps–fenced in and policed from guard towers.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Evidence is growing that up to a million Muslims Uighurs [0.0] are being held by Chinese authorities and so-called reeducation camps.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Six Uighurs employees of Radio Free Asia say their relatives back in Xinjiang have disappeared in the last year.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Three of my brothers and two of my sisters are missing. I lost contact with my mom. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: The Uighurs have been taken away. Not just to suppress any nascent separatist inclinations, but to eradicate their culture. Perceived like Buddhist Tibet, to be a threat to the country's Han Chinese majority. On top of trying to reshape an entire peoples way of life, the Communist Party is attempting to shape the world's perception of what is taking place–with the sometimes careless help of Western media. Historian Rian Thuma has studied Uyghur culture for 20 years and written about the Chinese government's activities. He's a senior research fellow at the University of Nottingham and author of The Sacred Roots of Uyghur History. Rian welcome to the show.
RIAN THUM: Thank you. I'm happy to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: What is it about them that so puts the Communist Party on edge.
RIAN THUM: The overarching reason that the Chinese authorities have most frequently given is that these are people in danger of extremist mindsets. They're in danger of picking up international terrorist ideologies that will lead them to engage in acts of violent resistance against the state. The great irony here is that the things they are calling extremism are often incredibly minor. For example, giving up smoking not selling alcohol at your convenience store, not greeting officials on the street not watching government television, possessing any number of books including really innocuous novels. It's actually quite difficult to avoid doing something that the government would call extremist.
BOB GARFIELD: Now pretty alarmingly, you say that the Chinese propaganda push to spin the story of the Uyghur camps has been successful. Why do you think it's working?
RIAN THUM: The way in which it's working most effectively is that it has injected images created by the Chinese state of camps that have been altered and dressed up specifically for foreign audiences filled with people who are chosen for these films and who are trained to give certain kinds of answers.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: After discussing this with my family, I applied to come here voluntarily.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Most of the students are not proficient in Chinese. They are easily instigated and coerced by terrorists and extremists ideologies.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: If I had not come here to study, maybe I would have followed these religious extremists and walks down the path of crime. [END CLIP]
RIAN THUM: They have managed to inject those images into our media environment. They appear in quite a number of video segments. Including one by CNN international.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Reporters witnessed people singing, learning Mandarin in the presence of government officials. [END CLIP].
RIAN THUM: And stills from these videos often placed in newspaper articles and online news sources. That's particularly powerful because we don't have any images of people in the camps that have been taken by independent media. Because the Chinese state is extraordinarily careful not to allow journalists into or, even if they can help it, near these camps. So if you want an image you're basically stuck with what the Chinese government gives you and the ones that they've most recently passed out are incredibly deceptive.
BOB GARFIELD: It's particularly chilling that the same propaganda techniques were used by the Nazis in the 30s and 40s.
RIAN THUM: If you look at the very famous film Theresienstadt.
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RIAN THUM: The model camps/ghetto that the Nazis presented to the world and gave people tours of, there are some very similar images of people engaged in exercise or dance calisthenics, images of people listening to lectures, images of people working at sewing machines which looked like the labor section of the Chinese propaganda footage. So there's a resonance in the fact that when the Nazis offered this sort of fake camp to the world, a lot of newspapers ran with it and published those images and sort of took the bait. And to a certain extent we're seeing that again today.
BOB GARFIELD: It becomes a difficult decision for photo editors because even the state supplied Potemkin village versions of internment camp reality are pretty horrifying, and call attention to the stories that are beneath–which are more horrifying still, but they kind of allayed over the truth at the same time. so you know, what is a news organization to do?
RIAN THUM: Well there are some other options. I mean, you know, there are many dozens of these camps that have been identified on Google Earth. This imagery has been quite powerful, I think. It doesn't include humans, which is something that media outlets like to have in an image. But I think what they tell you is exactly the truth about our state of knowledge of this, which is we don't know what's happening inside of them. One of the other sets of images we have comes from local Xinjiang government that was publishing images for internal audiences before there was an international awareness of what was going on. And those images tend to emphasize, instead of these people are actually having a good time, they're emphasizing we have the Uighurs under control. Look at the regimented rows, look at the enormous number of police in what appears to be SWAT clothing guarding them as they sit and listen to lectures. Look at the tall fences that they're in. And so we had these images now one of the problems with those images is that they are low resolution and some outlets have run with these. There is the cover of The New York Review of Books for example used one of these images.
BOB GARFIELD: It's not just the propaganda photos, you are seeing the press make other mistakes that obscure the reality. What are they?
RIAN THUM: One that's rare but has appeared in a couple of places is the use of the Chinese government's own language. I'm thinking in particular of a story about a tour of these dressed up camps that was given to journalists in which the author of the piece sometimes called them internment camps and then sometimes slipped into the Chinese government's terminology, which is, right now, that their vocational training centers. They used to call them transformation education centers. And before that they called de-extreme vacation centers. But we see sometimes journalists picking up that terminology. A Wall Street Journal story even called them residents at one point.
BOB GARFIELD: Residents--.
RIAN THUM: Yeah--.
BOB GARFIELD: That's just one short step away from guests.
RIAN THUM: Yeah, right. Another thing that's happening is that a lot of times a news outlet will, I think, what they want to do is provide an image that shows that Uighurs are Muslims. And so what they end up doing is choosing an image that has, for example, a Uighur person praying in public or a woman with a veil. Those common stereotypes of what it means to be a Muslim are precisely the kinds of activities that the Chinese state has been cracking down on. So if you see a picture of a Muslim praying in public in Xinjiang in a newspaper story about this, it's probably going to be a stock photo from three or four years ago when in some places it was still possible to pray in public. But it's highly unlikely that anyone would do that these days. And this is again a problem of access. You know, when the police are erasing photos off of cameras every time the journalists go out there it's very hard to get images. And so they have to rely on these older photos.
BOB GARFIELD: But that's not the only mechanism for reporting on what's going on in these camps. The Atlantic reported on people like you, scholars and citizen journalists, who are gathering evidence that even the official press simply has no access to. Can you tell me more?
RIAN THUM: Aside from the excellent journalists at Radio Free Asia Uighur service, there are pretty much no Uighur speaking journalists outside of China. So some scholars who do speak Uighur and do have a long experience in the region have made visits recently to write about what's going on there. And then we also have examples of people finding very clever ways to dig up evidence from the Chinese state itself. Probably the most important study that was done was by a scholar named Adrian Zenz from Germany who looked at the Chinese Government's advertisements asking for construction companies to submit bids to build these things. That was what really brought this issue to wide scale attention.
BOB GARFIELD: So we know that the government is looking for construction of a very 500,000 square foot facility with wire fences and guard towers.
RIAN THUM: Yes. And enterprising journalists have also jumped onto this tactic. HFP produced an amazing story from over a thousand Chinese government documents which documented purchasing orders for cattle prods, for batons, handcuffs something called wolf's teeth, which is apparently a spiked club. So these have been really important to showing what the real nature of these camps is.
BOB GARFIELD: In spite of your work and in spite of some of the great journalism, the world does not seem to be up in arms about the plight of the Uighurs. Where is the outrage?
RIAN THUM: The number one reason for the shortage of outrage is the economic entanglement that almost every country on the planet has with China. It's exacerbated by the fact that, at least until recently, very few people had ever heard of the Uighurs. It's quite difficult to get people to care about a group of humans they didn't even know exists. And I think another thing that, for a while made this difficult to communicate to people, is that the Chinese state then ratcheting up controls on Uighur movement, Uighur expression, Uighur religious practice for 30 years now. It's been a steady increase of controls. And since 2009, if you visited the place it looked like it's under a military occupation with caravans of military vehicles parading around the towns, checkpoints everywhere. So I think, initially, a lot of news outlets were skeptical that something was really dramatically different.
BOB GARFIELD: You've been studying the Uighurs for at least 20 years and I must assume that many of the people you know have been caught up in this network of internment. What has become of your friends?
RIAN THUM: I don't have very good solid news for most of them. There's one who is definitely confirmed to be gone. The others I haven't heard from. Quite a lot of my friends online presence disappeared. You never know when somebody is social media account goes dark whether it's because they've been taken away or because they are protecting themselves. Because if you have contacts with foreigners, that's one of the reasons that people get sent away.
BOB GARFIELD: There was, in one of your piece was a reference to someone actually leaving custody and the guards said something quite menacing.
RIAN THUM: They threatened that if if you speak up your parents are here and so are we.
BOB GARFIELD: Rian, thank you very much.
RIAN THUM: Thank you. Thank you for your attention to this issue.
BOB GARFIELD: Rian Thum is a senior research fellow at the University of Nottingham and author of The Sacred Roots of Uighur History.
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BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On The Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, Jon Hanrahan and Asthaa Chaturverdi. We had more help from Xandra Ellin and Alice Maiden. And our show was edited this week by our executive producer Katya Rogers. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week or Sam Bair and Josh Han. Jim Schachter is WNYC vice president for news. Basses composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On The Media production of WNYC studios. I'm Bob Garfield.
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