Children play in Dove Lane, in the old town of Tuancheng in Hotan, Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. [Photo by SADAT/Xinhua]
Recently, I have been reading a lot of negative stories in the Western media about Xinjiang. These are repeated by news organizations in other countries without verifying the facts. Unfortunately, most of the commentators are looking at Xinjiang through the eyes of the Western outlets which are biased for one reason or the other and thus misleading.
Some people in media and think tanks in my country Pakistan have also been influenced by these reports and are commenting without any research or making any effort to verify the facts. Surprisingly, most of these commentators have never visited China, let alone Xinjiang.
This negative propaganda convinced me that people with firsthand information about Xinjiang need to come forward and share their knowledge and expertise to negate the baseless propaganda for the benefit of the public at large.
I started living and working in China in 1976 when I came here as a student and I had the pleasure of visiting Urumqi, the capital city of Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, in 1984 with a delegation headed by the president of an international bank I was working for in Beijing. The trip was organized by China International Trust and Investment Corporation and the delegation was accompanied by CITIC officials.
We boarded Air China flight (a Russia-made plane) from Beijing and reached Urumqi after a technical stopover at Lanzhou. We were welcomed by the officials of Xinjiang Foreign Affairs Office and taken to Friendship Guest House, which at that time was an ordinary place with simple furniture and basic facilities.
During our few days of stay at Urumqi, we visited Tianchi Lake, museums, shops, and mosques and also met with the governor and senior officials from various government departments, Peoples' Bank of China and Bank of China.
Every department, tourist spot or shops we visited, we found Han and Uygur ethnic groups working in harmony. At the historical Urumqi Grand Mosque we met with the prayer leader and held free discussions with him. We were pleased to see that Uygur children were studying religious books at the mosque school. Local Uygur were offering their prayers. Mosque was very well maintained and clean. This impressed the delegation members who incidentally were all Muslims.
In 1985, I visited Urumqi again to meet with officials of Bank of China to introduce the Travelers Cheques issued by our bank for sale to overseas travelers who were mostly the Uygur going to Saudi Arabia to perform the Hajj.Every year Muslims from Xinjiang and other parts of China travel to Saudi Arabia for this purpose and at that time Bank of China was providing an appropriate quantity of foreign currency to every individual for expenses. It is noteworthy that China did not have much foreign exchange in those days and there were strict regulations on buying foreign currency. This again impressed me that despite difficulties, the government was helping members of a minority community to undertake and perform their religious activities.
In 1986, I accompanied a team from the UAE royal family for a 21-day excursion in Gobi Desert. During the trip we were accompanied by director general of the Xinjiang Foreign Affairs Office who remained with us throughout the trip to ensure that we were as comfortable as possible and that we had all the supplies including water, gas, food items and necessary logistics during the trip. Most of the support staff travelling with us was Uygur. This was well considered arrangement as all the visitors were Muslims.
Because of curiosity, I had lengthy discussions with the director general and other members of the team to find out about the lives of Muslims in Xinjiang. There were no complaints and everyone seemed happy and satisfied despite the prevailing economic difficulties. Most of the Uygur were joining the delegation for prayers. This again, impressed not only me but all of us about the religious freedom enjoyed by the minority community.
Like most of the other parts of China at that time, poor infrastructure was visible everywhere. There were no flashy hotels or restaurants, high-rise buildings, shopping malls and very few cars on the streets in Urumqi.
During my several visits afterwards, I gradually saw visible changes in infrastructure development, new and wider roads, improved street lights, airport, hotels, buildings, shopping malls. In every visit, changes were visible in each area. Number of vehicles and private cars on the roads was significantly increasing. People were dressing in fashionable clothes. Shopping malls, restaurants and hotels were crowded, a clear sign of growing prosperity.
Every time, I would visit one mosque or the other freely and always found the mosques open. Number of the students at the schools attached with selected mosque was either same or increasing. Moreover, students were regularly sent abroad on government expenses to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, Qatar and other places for religious studies. Yet another sign of religious freedom. Many students were also going abroad for religious studies on self-finance basis.
I also had the opportunity of visiting Kashghar, Shihezi, Turphan and Karamay. Signs of development and economic prosperity were visible everywhere. In each of these cities I also visited the mosques which were no different than those in Urumqi. Rail and Road network is as good as in any other part of China and number of vehicles on the expressways was impressive, yet another indication of the growing prosperity. During the years number of flights from Urumqi, Kashghar and other cities in the autonomous region have increased substantially showing enhanced connectivity not only with other parts of China but also to foreign countries.
Number of small-and medium-sized private businesses is growing at each place and a new group of private entrepreneurs is emerging not only in big cities but in small towns and counties.
I met a number of Uygur students at Shanghai and Beijing who were studying at best schools and universities under a special program to uplift the minorities where local governments were subsidizing the expenses.
Based on the firsthand knowledge, personal observations and experience gained during my 14 visits (mostly private) to Xinjiang since 1984, I can say with authority that people in Xinjiang enjoy the fullest religious freedom as in any other place in the world.
Uygur minority like all other minorities in China, in fact are enjoying additional privileges as compared to their Han countrymen. Just to quote few examples, when China was strictly following "one child policy", Uygurs were allowed to have two children. Considering the food preference of the Uygur, there was additional meat quota for Uygur when it was strictly rationed throughout the country. Special seats are allocated at the top universities for students from minority nationalities including Uygur. As a special initiative, different municipalities and provincial governments are regularly sponsoring students from minority nationalities including Uygur at best schools in their cities. These are just a few examples of the special privileges enjoyed by the minorities in China.
Minorities in China are enjoying complete freedom to practice their values, traditions, cultural activities, language and religion. Each central, provincial and local government allocate substantial amount to preserve and maintain places of worship, relics and traditions. Children at school are taught their language and books in minority languages are available. Perhaps no other country is making so much effort to preserve the languages, culture and values of its minorities as China is doing.
There are miscreants in every society and nationality, China is no exception. Anyone disturbing the law and order and harmony in the society or engaged in criminal activities is dealt with according to the law in any country in the world. As it is the responsibility of every state to protect its citizens from criminals.
I would humbly suggest to the observers and commentators on the situation in Xinjiang to be realistic. Instead of believing in and depending on unreliable reports, they must look at Xinjiang with their own eyes and then make a true assessment of the situation.
The author is a former special envoy for CPEC of Pakistan.
The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not represent the views of China Daily and China Daily website.