China detaining millions of Uyghurs? Serious problems with claims by US-backed NGO and far-right researcher ‘led by God’ against Beijing

Claims that China has detained millions of Uyghur Muslims are based largely on two studies. A closer look at these papers reveals US government backing, absurdly shoddy methodologies, and a rapture-ready evangelical researcher named Adrian Zenz.

By Ajit Singh and Max Blumenthal

The US House of Representatives passed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act on December 3, legislation which calls for the Donald Trump administration to impose sanctions against China over allegations that Beijing has detained millions of Muslim-majority Uyghurs in the western region of Xinjiang.

To drum up support for the sanctions bill, Western governments and media outlets have portrayed the People’s Republic as a human rights violator on par with Nazi Germany. Republican Rep. Chris Smith, for instance, denounced the Chinese government for what he called the “mass internment of millions on a scale not seen since the Holocaust,” in “modern-day concentration camps.” 

The claim that China has detained millions of ethnic Uyghurs in its Xinjiang region is repeated with increasing frequency, but little scrutiny is ever applied. Yet a closer look at the figure and how it was obtained reveals a serious deficiency in data.

While this extraordinary claim is treated as unassailable in the West, it is, in fact, based on two highly dubious “studies.” 

The first, by the US government-backed Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, formed its estimate by interviewing a grand total of eight people.

The second study relied on flimsy media reports and speculation. It was authored by Adrian Zenz, a far-right fundamentalist Christian who opposes homosexuality and gender equality, supports “scriptural spanking” of children, and believes he is “led by God” on a “mission” against China.

As Washington ratchets up pressure on China, Zenz has been lifted out of obscurity and transformed almost overnight into a go-to pundit on Xinjiang. He has testified before Congress, providing commentary in outlets from the Wall Street Journal to Democracy Now!, and delivering expert quotes in the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists’ recent “China Cables” report. His Twitter bio notes that he is “moving across the Atlantic” from his native Germany.

Before Grayzone editor Max Blumenthal questioned Zenz about his religious “mission,” at a recent event about Xinjiang inside the US Capitol, he had received almost entirely uncritical promotion from Western media.

The Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, which first popularized the “millions detained” figure, has also been able to operate without a hint of media scrutiny.

Washington-backed NGO claims millions detained after interviewing eight people

The “millions detained” figure was first popularized by a Washington, DC-based NGO that is backed by the US government, the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD).

In a 2018 report submitted to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination – often misrepresented in Western media as a UN-authored report – CHRD “estimate[d] that roughly one million members of ethnic Uyghurs have been sent to ‘re-education’ detention camps and roughly two million have been forced to attend ‘re-education’ programs in Xinjiang.” According to CHRD, this figure was “[b]ased on interviews and limited data.” 

While CHRD states that it interviewed dozens of ethnic Uyghurs in the course of its study, their enormous estimate was ultimately based on interviews with exactly eight Uyghur individuals.

 

Based on this absurdly small sample of research subjects in an area whose total population is 20 million, CHRD “extrapolated estimates” that “at least 10% of villagers […] are being detained in re-education detention camps, and 20% are being forced to attend day/evening re-education camps in the villages or townships, totaling 30% in both types of camps.”

Applying these estimated rates to the entirety of Xinjiang, CHRD arrived at the figures submitted to the UN claiming that one million ethnic Uyghurs have been detained in “re-education detention camps” and two million more have been “forced to attend day/evening re-education sessions”. 

Thanks to questionable sources like the CHRD, the United States government has accused China of “arbitrarily detain[ing] 800,000 to possibly more than two million Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and other Muslims in internment camps designed to erase religious and ethnic identities.”

Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2018, State Department official Scott Busby stated this this “is the U.S. government assessment, backed by our intelligence community and open source reporting.”

The Chinese government has rejected US allegations, and claims that it has in fact established “vocational education and training centers […] to prevent the breeding and spread of terrorism and religious extremism.” The Chinese Foreign Ministry has stated that “there [are] no so-called ‘re-education camps’ in Xinjiang at all. The vocational education and training centers legally operated in Xinjiang aim to help a small number of people affected by terrorist and extremist ideologies and equip them with skills, so that they can be self-reliant and re-integrate into society.”

In its mounting pressure campaign against China, the US is not only relying on CHRD for data; it is directly funding its operations. As Ben Norton and Ajit Singh previously reported for The Grayzone, CHRD receives significant financial support from Washington’s regime-change arm, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).

The NGO has spent years campaigning on behalf of extreme right-wing opposition figures who celebrate colonialism and call for the “Westernization” of China.

‘Leading expert’ on Xinjiang relies on speculation and one questionable media report

The second key source for claims that China has detained millions of Uyghur Muslims is Adrian Zenz. He is a senior fellow in China studies at the far-right Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, which was established by the US government in 1983.

The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation is an outgrowth of the National Captive Nations Committee, a group founded by Ukrainian nationalist Lev Dobriansky to lobby against any effort for detente with the Soviet Union. Its co-chairman, Yaroslav Stetsko, was a top leader of the fascist OUN-B militia that fought alongside Nazi Germany during its occupation of Ukraine in World War Two. Together, the two helped found the World Anti-Communist League that was described by journalist Joe Conason as “the organizational haven for neo-Nazis, fascists, and anti-Semitic extremists from two dozen countries.”

Today, Dobriansky’s daughter, Paula, sits on the board of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. A former Reagan and George HW Bush official and signatory of the original Project for a New American Century document, Paula Dobriansky has become a fixture in neoconservative circles on Capitol Hill.

From its office in Washington, the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation agitates for regime change from Venezuela to the periphery of China, advancing the “double genocide” theory that rewrites the history of the Holocaust and posits communism as a deadly evil on par with Hitlerian fascism.

Zenz’s politicized research on Xinjiang and Tibet has proven one of this right-wing group’s most effective weapons. 

In September of 2018, Zenz wrote an article published in the Central Asian Survey journal concluding that “Xinjiang’s total re-education internment figure may be estimated at just over one million.” (A condensed version of the article was initially published by the Jamestown Foundation, a neoconservative think tank founded during the height of the Cold War by Reagan administration personnel with the support of then-CIA Director William J. Casey).

Like the CHRD, Zenz arrived at his estimate “over 1 million” in a dubious manner. He based it on a single report by Istiqlal TV, a Uyghur exile media organization based in Turkey, which was republished by Newsweek Japan. Far from an impartial journalistic organization, Istiqlal TV advances the separatist cause while playing host to an assortment of extremist figures. 

One such character who often appears on Istiqlal TV is Abdulkadir Yapuquan, a reported leader of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a separatist group that aims to establish an independent homeland in Xinjiang called East Turkestan. 

ETIM has been designated as a terrorist organization with ties to al-Qaeda by the US, European Union, and UN Security Council’s Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee. The Associated Press has reported that since “2013, thousands of Uighurs… have traveled to Syria to train with the Uighur militant group Turkistan Islamic Party and fight alongside al-Qaida,” with “several hundred join[ing] the Islamic State.” 

The Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) has been among the most recalcitrant forces operating in the Al Qaeda-controlled Idlib province, rejecting all ceasefire efforts while indoctrinating children into militancy. TIP leadership has called on foreign Muslims to wage jihad in Syria, publishing an online recruitment video in 2018 that celebrated the 9/11 attacks as holy retaliation against a decadent United States awash in homosexuality and sin.

Children of the Turkistan Islamic Party in Idlib, Syria

According to the Los Angeles Times, Yapuquan is “a regular guest on Istiqlal TV… where his interviews often extended into hours-long emotional tirades against China.”

Turkish journalist Abdullah Bozkurt reported that Istiqlal TV has also hosted fanatical anti-Semites like Nureddin Yıldız, who in an interview on the network, “called for armed jihad not only in China’s autonomous Xinjiang region but all over the world and described China as a nation of savages, worse than the Jews.”

The Istiqlal TV report relied on by Zenz published an unverified table of “re-education detainee figures” allegedly “leaked” by Chinese authorities, totaling 892,000 individuals in 68 Xinjiang counties as of Spring 2018. 

Zenz pads this data by citing reports from Radio Free Asia, a US-funded news agency created by the CIA during the Cold War to propagandize against China. (The Uyghur Human Rights Act recently passed by Congress mandates the US Agency for Global Media – the governmental parent of Radio Free Asia – to report on Xinjiang, including “assessments of Chinese propaganda strategies.”)

With his cobbling of questionable sources, Zenz extrapolates an extremely broad estimate “at anywhere between several hundred thousand and just over one million.” 

While admitting that “there is no certainty” to his estimate, he has concluded that it is nevertheless “reasonable to speculate.” He attempted to evade personal responsibility for the figure’s questionable reliability, however, by stating “[t]he accuracy of this estimate is of course predicated on the supposed validity of the stated sources.” 

As time goes on, Zenz continues to inflate his speculative estimate of Uyghur detainees. Speaking at an event organized by the US mission in Geneva in March 2019, Zenz stated, “Although it is speculative it seems appropriate to estimate that up to 1.5 million ethnic minorities [have been detained by China in Xinjiang].” Zenz bumped up his estimate again in a November 2019 interview with Radio Free Asia, claiming China was detaining 1.8 million people. 

In an interview with Der Spiegel, Zenz claimed that China has effectively outlawed the practice of Islam in Xinjiang. “Anyone in Xinjiang who engages in any type of religious practice, anyone who even has a single Koran verse saved on their mobile phone, will be subjected to a brutal process of reeducation without trial,” he maintained.

These incendiary claims have vaulted Zenz to the status of international “expert” on Xinjiang, earned him invites to testify before US Congress and Canadian Parliament, and to deliver commentary in major US media outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, and Democracy Now! 

Zenz has also been featured by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) as the leading authority legitimizing their recent “China Cables” investigation. The ICIJ report asserts that “[l]inguists, document and Xinjiang experts, including Zenz, who reviewed the documents have expressed confidence in their authenticity.”

Given Zenz’s habit of speculation and the questionable reliability of the lone Istiqlal TV media report he relies on for his estimates, it is troubling that Western governments and media have accepted and promoted his claims without a trace of skepticism.

A closer look at Zenz’s own biases should magnify these concerns, as he is a full-blown evangelical End Timer who appears to be believe that God has sent him on a holy crusade against the People’s Republic of China.

Fundamentalist Christian ‘led by God’ in mission against China, homosexuality, and gender equality

A born-again Christian who claims to preach at his local church, Adrian Zenz is a lecturer at the European School of Culture and Theology. This anodyne-sounding campus is actually the German base of Columbia International University, a US-based evangelical Christian seminary which considers the “Bible [to be] the ultimate foundation and the final truth in every aspect of our lives,” and whose mission is to educate people from a biblical worldview to impact the nations with the message of Christ.” 

Zenz’s work on China is inspired by this biblical worldview, as he recently explained in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. “I feel very clearly led by God to do this,” he said. “I can put it that way. I’m not afraid to say that. With Xinjiang, things really changed. It became like a mission, or a ministry.”

Along with his “mission” against China, heavenly guidance has apparently prompted Zenz to denounce homosexuality, gender equality, and the banning of physical punishment against children as threats to Christianity.

Zenz outlined these views in a book he co-authored in 2012, titled Worthy to Escape: Why All Believers Will Not Be Raptured Before the Tribulation. In the tome, Zenz discussed the return of Jesus Christ, the coming wrath of God, and the rise of the Antichrist. 

Zenz predicted that the future fall of capitalism will bring to power the Antichrist within a “few decades.” He identified the force that “will usher the Antichrist into power” as “the economic and financial fall of ‘Babylon,’ with ‘Babylon’ symbolically representing the world’s global economic system (capitalism).”

Worthy to Escape Adrian Zenz Uyghurs China
“Worthy to Escape: Why All Believers Will Not Be Raptured Before the Tribulation,” by Adrian Zenz and Marlon L. Sias

Along with the fall of capitalism, Zenz also views “postmodern relativism and tolerance thinking” and their apparent promotion of homosexuality, gender equality, and non-violent parenting to be threats to Christianity and “[t]he deceptive, leopard-like power behind the Antichrist.” 

“It is very likely that the global persecution of true believers will center on the charge that they promote ‘intolerant views,’” Zenz wrote, “especially related to preaching against homosexuality.”

Zenz argued that “[h]ate crime and anti-discrimination laws will likely play a major role in the suppression of biblical Christianity” and formed part of an “anti-Christian ‘tolerance’ campaign” because they “forbid employers to discriminate based on gender or sexual orientations.”

“The outcome of this process is open rebellion against both God and God-given human authority structures”, Zenz stated, decrying that “[r]ising numbers of countries are banning all forms of physical punishment of children, the primary scriptural method for instilling respect for authority in the young generation and protecting them from rebellious tendencies.” Zenz assures readers that “true scriptural spanking is loving discipline and not violence.”

“Another important God-given authority structure that Satan is attacking through the postmodern spirit is that of gender authority structures”, Zenz continued. “Through notions of gender equality […] the enemy is undermining God’s unique but different role assignments for men and women.”

Given these obscurantist right-wing views, it is not surprising that Zenz’s proclaimed concern for the condition of Muslims in China does not seem to extend to Muslims elsewhere.

A search of Zenz’s Twitter profile returns no tweets concerning the rise of Islamophobia in the West, nor US wars and drone strikes against Muslim-majority countries. The only Tweet by Zenz concerning Muslims that is unrelated to China is a denial that there is a double standard in how violence is judged when committed by white people compared to Muslims.

‘The End Times is a very fascinating topic’

In his December 10, 2019 testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Adrian Zenz took a victory lap of sorts for Congress’ passage of the Uyghur Human Rights Act the week before, which placed new sanctions on the Chinese government. Citing the bill’s success, he called for opening a new front against China with a US investigation into “involuntary labor in relation to Xinjiang.”

Adrian Zenz testifying before Congress on December 10, 2019

That same day, Zenz also appeared on a panel dedicated to Xinjiang that was hosted by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in the US Capitol Visitor Center.

On hand were Republican heavyweights like Sam Brownback, the ferociously anti-LGBT, anti-abortion former governor of Kansas and current US ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, as well as top staffers of Sen. Marco Rubio, the sponsor of virtually every China sanctions bill to be rubber-stamped by Congress in recent weeks.

Sam Brownback, a right-wing fundamentalist former senator, at the Victims of Communism panel on Xinjiang. (Zenz is second to his right).

During a question-and-answer session, The Grayzone editor Max Blumenthal asked Zenz about his fundamentalist religious views and far-right politics.

Zenz did not distance himself from his past statements denouncing gender equality and “tolerance thinking,” or his advocacy for the “scriptural spanking” of children. Instead, he asserted that there was no inconsistency between those views and the quality of his research on China’s Xinjiang region.

“I do have a diverse background and I have personal connections which I do not believe are inconsistent with my research,” Zenz responded to Blumenthal. “I do not support China’s authoritarian methods in any way, and I do believe there’s a God who is bringing judgment in different forms. The End Times is a very fascinating topic, a very complex topic, and I think, very relevant. And I think it’s good to live aware of that.”

Moments later, a visibly upset young man rose from his seat to “condemn the tankie Max Blumenthal.” Unleashing a torrent of insults at Blumenthal, he made no attempt to refute the journalist’s line of questioning.

The rigorously enforced conviction on display in the politically hermetic chambers of the US Capitol also encompasses the whole of Western media, where even purportedly progressive outlets have provided Zenz with an uncritical platform.

From Washington’s halls of power to major newsrooms, few are willing to let inconvenient facts get in the way of a new, undeniably faith-based Cold War crusade