Breaking down the BBC’s visit to Hotan, Xinjiang

Articles, editorials, and calls to action over the Chinese region of Xinjiang (officially known as Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region) have filled countless pages of news in the past few years. A chorus of voices spanning the American political spectrum, from Marco Rubio to Ilhan Omar, call for sanctions and condemnation of China’s actions in the region. This full-court press has ramped up in the last few months, with back-to-back “exposés” released by multiple news outlets.

Since the political situation in Xinjiang and broader context has been well covered by many others (which I’ll link at the end) — what I plan to do here is go through a recent video report on Xinjiang by John Sudworth of the BBC and provide my own commentary.

Link: “Inside China’s ‘thought transformation’ camps — BBC News”

I feel bad for the guy in the middle, they really tried to make him look brainwashed or creepy

John Sudworth’s history of reporting on Xinjiang includes lovely headlines such as “China Xinjiang police state: Fear and resentment” - you’d think a smart authoritarian police state would bar him from coming back, but back he is, with an exclusive look and visit into the vocational training facilities in Xinjiang that are alleged to be mass detention centers/concentration camps.

0:00–1:03 Okay, so we hear the BBC has been granted access to these schools, but the BBC reporters have their doubts. Don’t worry, they’ll get to the bottom of this.

We hear some assorted questions and answers with instructors and students-nothing stands out just yet, but we do hear that the school is about rooting out religious extremism.

As the bus drives into one of the facilities, the sky begins to darken and the music begins to build up a sense of dread (if you’re listening with headphones, you’re going to get some serious bass notes and trilling in your right ear)

1:04–1:42 Sudworth can barely contain his condescension here, letting you the viewer know that the Chinese government would have you believe that these dancers shown are just students and came here willingly!

(As a side note, the music is lively and the dancers do a pretty decent job at practice)

The camera then pans away from the ongoing dance practice to focus on a surveillance camera visible through the window. The implication is clear, though a bit rich coming from the British, who boast the world’s highest ratio of surveillance cameras to people.

1:42–2:42 Now here we start to get to even more egregious BBC editing — when a dancer is asked if he came to the school willingly, he replies yes, he previously had extremist views, and says that a village policeman said to him, 这么好的学校,你可以去参加,转化自己的思想 — which translates to “what a great school (that is), you can enroll there, and change your worldview/ideas”. This is glossed as “a policeman told me to get enrolled”, turning a suggestion into a directive.

Sudworth also notes that they’re being watched by (Uyghur) government officials, who seem decidedly bored with his filming of them.

They then take us through a variety of classes — ending with a peek over a guy’s shoulder as he types. “I love the Communist Party of China”, Sudworth intones solemnly. There’s a lot more visible on that page, including “I love Hotan”, and the classic Chinese children’s song “I love Beijing Tiananmen”. None of these would be out of place in any school outside of Xinjiang, but Sudworth is counting on you not knowing that.

In any case, Mandarin is an important skill to have in China, but it also should not come at the expense of Uyghur and other languages, which is why it’s good to see that both are being utilized here, with instruction in other classes still done in Uyghur.

2:43–3:56 Sudworth begins this section with a monologue of how terrible the place is, with the following observations:

  1. they have to wear uniforms (adults never wear uniforms willingly)
  2. they don’t go home at night (remember this one, we’re coming back to it)
  3. they sleep in dorms and have communal toilets (with a nice shot of a squat toilet to remind everyone how uncivilized Easterners are)

Now that the BBC has you properly outraged, we have a short interview with Mahemuti, an Uyghur instructor working at the facility.

Mahemuti reiterates that people are there willingly, but Sudsworth is undeterred: “Doesn’t a place where people have to come, obey the rules, stay until you allow them to leave, sound more like a prison?” he continues.

Putting aside the fact that you have to “obey the rules” even if you’re in a McDonalds, no proof is offered that people are not there willingly — the dancer they interviewed previously said as much as well, but both are ignored because the BBC is sure they’re lying.

To close out the section, BBC gives us a shot of a bathroom with the lights off (scary!) and a claim of graffiti saying “Oh my heart don’t break” on a wall — but they can’t show us because it could “put people in danger”.

I’m really unsure how naive you have to be to take their word for it here — it’s not as if the Chinese government doesn’t know which exact facility they were filming at. So what’s the difference between mentioning it (when the government could find it after watching the video) and showing the picture? Do they think the Ministry of State Security is watching their report and thinking “Curses! We could’ve caught the graffiti artist in Hotan but the dastardly BBC didn’t show us where they saw it! Foiled again!”

3:56–5:25 Here we get a series of Google Earth images purporting to show new facilities built in Xinjiang (much like the one they visited). I’ve captured one at 4:05 that has a noticeable sports field.

At 4:40 in the video, they then claim that for the place they visited, the sports facilities were “hastily added” before their tour. But why do other places they showed earlier have sports fields too? Did BBC journalists visit all of them and that’s why they had to hastily build them?

Sudsworth also notes that barbed wire and fences make these places feel unlike schools. But high fences are normal for schools all across China, and security is tight at each of them. Maybe barbed wire isn’t very classy, but plenty of school facilities in the West have them as well. You wouldn’t be shocked to see armed police officers (we call them “student resource officers” here though) in a US school either.

Another massive Xinjiang facility captured by Google Earth (Just kidding, this is El Paso’s exurbs)

BBC aren’t the first people to suddenly become Google Earth experts. UBC student Shawn Zhang tried to use Google Earth to claim a historical mosque had been demolished (Keriya Aitika Mosque) using satellite images, but later had to retract his claim because he was literally staring at the wrong building on his screen.

5:25–7:50 The crux of the BBC’s argument is here, the interview with Kazakhstan resident Rakhima Senbay. She claims to have been in the camps before and it was far more brutal than what we’ve seen, beatings, etc.

More importantly, she says that before foreign visits, everyone is warned to be on good behavior or else they’ll get punished. Ergo, everything you’ve just seen is a lie, and you can discount all of the interviews and responses, because they were clearly coerced.

Rakhima Senbay isn’t a famous dissident like Enver Tohti (a Google search for her turns up the same “ Rakhima Senbay, who now lives in Kazakhstan but says she spent a year in the camp — simply because she had WhatsApp on her phone” line multiple times), but she’s also the only real evidence the BBC has to support their claims.

“hmm, this Uyghur language singing is clearly nefarious and coerced”

7:52–8:39 We have some more interesting interviews here with some higher-ups, discussing the philosophy behind the facilities.

The first guy talks about the preventative nature of vocational training and education — giving people the skills to succeed instead of waiting for a crime to be committed and then applying punishment. His example of hyperbolic, but the second person makes it clear we’re talking about minor offenses.

Sudsworth claims in the monologue prior to the interviews that some people “have not been charged with a crime”, but Xu, the second interviewee, mentions that many people have committed criminal offenses, albeit minor ones — hence the focus on training and rehabilitation instead of punishment. NPR’s previous article on Xinjiang gave examples of these, such as a man who forced his wife to stay home and quit her job. It’s these types of social pressures that these programs are trying to eliminate.

This segment is spun as China doing a Minority Report-esque PRE-CRIME program — and the model here is certainly open to discussion and criticism, but on the face it seems far more reasonable than something like California’s Three Strikes law. Instead of punishment or prison, minor offenders are offered training, making reintegration easier. It’s unclear what proportion of people there as an alternative to prison or simply there just to capitalize on vocational training. This is information that I’d be very interested in, but the BBC didn’t think to ask. All in all, if this model of rehabilitation through vocational training centers was applied in the US, it’d be called left-wing extremism and being “soft” on crime.

Where I live, a man was given a 10 year prison sentence for stealing $33 worth of underwear. Imagine if instead of prison, he was given training for a few months and then reintegrated into society, instead of locked away for an entire decade.

8:41–9:34 We’re now at a different facility in Moyu County, where there’s a hospitality services class and a barber class. (it’s good that there’s a variety of options on offer, it’d be very questionable if everyone was doing the same thing, like a Miners Who Code situation).

When Buayxiam (another Uyghur instructor) tells him about how their goal is also to get rid of religious extremism, she’s met with a very solemn WE CALL THAT BRAINWASHING from Sudsworth.

What should be done then? If there are Chinese citizens who subscribe to jihadist ideologies, shouldn’t an attempt be made to change their minds? Is that brainwashing?

Or should they be considered a lost cause and sent to a Guantanamo type location?


Sudworth is told by the principal that students go home once a week (hey kinda like the weekend happens “once a week”), and shows us an empty courtyard when students should be leaving. The principal is taken aside by some other people, where they have a just-in-earshot conversation.

From the conversation overheard, it seems that the principal may have misunderstood what Sudsworth was asking, but it’s unclear whether he was confused about the question of when students went home or how the process works.

Regardless, we soon get to see people leave in the video. Sudsworth tells us that they come back to the facility uninvited the next day only to be surprised that there are students lining up waiting for the bus home.

The bus soon arrives, and instead of acknowledging that they were wrong about students going home, Sudworth instead tries to call it a “testament to the scale of the operation”.

Do you ever see a school bus or a shuttle taking people to a hotel and marvel at the “scale of the operation”?

Finally, Sudsworth claims the bus “disappears into a government compound”, but it appears to just be a central location for the bus to drop people off, as everyone soon emerges. The narrator tells us that they “finally are given freedom of the night for a few hours”.

This section is what really calls into question the credibility of the entire video. Early on, they claimed *without any evidence* that no one was allowed to leave, taking great pains to highlight the cameras, the “watch towers”, the fences, etc., but when they make a surprise visit (which they couldn’t have anticipated and put on some sort of facade) they see the whole normal process unfold before their eyes — a bus comes and picks people up, drops them off at their home, and everyone gets off and goes home, presumably for the weekend.

Xinjiang is a large place and villages are very spread out. Boarding schools are simply an easier way to manage training when everyone is spread out — transportation back and forth is provided, but having people come to Hotan from remote areas is simply efficiency. Go to Sichuan, Jiangxi, anywhere else in China, and you’ll find boarding schools. The images of the dormitories we’re shown, the toilets and beds, they’re not that different from the facilities at Chinese colleges either.

Final Thoughts

While I clearly have my contentions with the narrator of this video, I’m glad that the BBC was able to visit. We saw a good faith effort to provide a variety of tangible, useful vocational skills training (Mandarin, hospitality service, art, performance, and barber training), decent facilities (pickup basketball by students), Uyghur-led instruction, and efficient transportation to get students there and back. The more I see of these facilities, the better they look. It’s easy to make assumptions about a top down Google Earth image, less so when the scariest thing the BBC could show me was a bathroom with the lights off.

For more information on Xinjiang: