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Security personnel patrol near a mosque in China’s Xinjiang region. (Ng Han Guan/AP)

Xinjiang, land of freedom?

Against mounting evidence, China denies the systematic detention of Uighur minorities

For months, international media and human rights activists have sounded an alarm about the internment of at least 1 million ethnic Uighur Muslims in re-education camps in China’s western region of Xinjiang. Last week, a United Nations committee raised the issue for the first time. The committee stated that based on credible reports, the Chinese government has kept ethnic minorities inside a “massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy.”

In response, a 49-member delegation from Beijing denied such accusations on Monday at a hearing of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination: There are no arbitrary detentions, no torture, and no targeting of any particular ethnicity, the delegation claimed. Ethnic minorities in the region could happily enjoy the freedom of religious beliefs.

“There is no such thing as re-education centers,” said Hu Lianhe, a member of China’s united front work department. He added that only criminals were placed in training and education centers, where he said they learned vocational skills and the Chinese language.

Yet research based on satellite imagery, leaked government documents, local construction contracts, and eyewitness testimony paint a different picture: A network of re-education camps in Xinjiang is growing rapidly, and cities emptied of Uighur men are becoming the norm. Authorities have banned Muslim names, clothing, and beards. They’ve set up surveillance cameras and checkpoints in cities, collected DNA and blood samples, and confiscated passports.

Police have taken more than a million Uighurs and other ethnic minorities without due process and held them in overcrowded re-education centers, where they endure brainwashing, self-criticism, and torture. The number of detainees who have died in the camps is unknown. Last year, 21 percent of all arrests in China were in Xinjiang, an area that makes up only 1.5 percent of the country’s population, according to Chinese Human Rights Defenders. (Look for a more detailed report on Xinjiang in an upcoming WORLD Magazine story.)

The Chinese government claims that security measures are needed to calm the restive region, where ethnic tensions led to deadly riots in 2009, along with terrorist attacks. Global Times, a hawkish state-owned paper, claimed China’s policy saved Xinjiang “from the verge of massive turmoil. It has avoided the fate of becoming ‘China’s Syria’ or ‘China’s Libya.’”

The paper claimed the purpose of the international community’s condemnation over China’s treatment of ethnic minorities is “to stir trouble for Xinjiang and destroy the hard-earned stability in the region.” It added: “Xinjiang is at a special stage of development where there is no room for destructive Western public opinions. Peace and stability must come above all else.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, held a hearing last month about the human rights abuses in Xinjiang, likening the situation to “a horrible movie.” He called out U.S. corporations and multinationals who aid repression by selling products to the Chinese government.

“I just think it’s hypocritical for American corporations and multinationals doing business in China—who are fully prepared to boycott American cities and American communities because they don’t like things that are happening here—to be OK to turn a blind eye to what’s happening and not criticize the government of China and the Communist Party because they don’t want to jeopardize their ability to sell products in that country,” Rubio said. “It’s an outrage.”

Death of a missionary: In Kansas City, Mo., a teenager reportedly high on PCP shot and killed Xindong Hao, a Chinese missionary and father of four. Hao’s wife, Laura Hao, told The Kansas City Star that she is trying to forgive the shooter: “There’s always hope. I know God can bring good out of anything no matter how terrible it is.”

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New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio signs a bill regulating the ride-hailing industry in New York. (Albin Lohr-Jones/Sipa via AP)

Disrupted drivers

A controversial new law in New York caps the number of Uber drivers

A New York moment: 

The other night I had a late dinner with friends, and the subway was down due to construction (as it often is these days), so I took a Lyft ride back to my apartment. As I talked with the driver, a father and husband whose family lives in a one-bedroom apartment in New Jersey, he urged me to be in touch with the New York City Council to oppose proposed regulations on Lyft. 

The proposal, which Mayor Bill de Blasio signed into law on Tuesday, has generated controversy in New York. It temporarily caps the number of drivers for ride-sharing apps, in an effort to pause mushrooming traffic in the city and to help the struggling taxi industry. Six taxi drivers in recent months have committed suicide.

De Blasio, who regularly targets companies he doesn’t like, has said that he was fighting “a huge multinational corporation” that had “cynically … flooded the market,” noting that 40 percent of Uber vehicles have no riders. Uber argues the flooding has served underserved low-income neighborhoods.

The driver cap affects all ride-hailing companies, including big corporate Uber and little guys like Juno and Via. Both Uber and Lyft supported instead congestion pricing as a solution, where extra fees for driving in certain areas during certain hours would go to a public transit fund. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has supported that idea in the past, but de Blasio opposes it. 

As the council was considering the legislation, some in my church circles discussed avoiding ride-sharing as a way to love your lower-income neighbor, arguing that taking a car diverts money away from public transit, the lifeblood of New York. But self-interested politicians in New York are chiefly responsible for diverting billions of dollars in transit funds away from transit, according to a remarkable investigative project by The New York Times last year.

New York is the first U.S. city to establish such a driver cap. As other city governments try to adapt to the arrival of disruptive companies like Lyft and Airbnb, these hairy discussions are likely to spread.

Worth your time:   

Meet the gardener who resurrected Claude Monet’s gardens, which fell into disrepair after World War II. 

This week I learned: 

Rikers Island, the infamous New York City jail with a history of violence, is moving minors into a separate facility in the Bronx. The “youth facility” isn’t supposed to feel like a jail, but Rikers corrections officers (against those officers’ wishes) will be staffing the facility. 

A court case you might not know about: 

A fascinating First Amendment case is unfolding in New York between the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the state government, which has fined and ousted an NRA-sponsored liability insurance program. The NRA, in suing New York, argued the blacklisting of the insurance was “politically motivated.” If you want to dig deeper into this, a legal reporter covering the case had a good discussion about it with WNYC.

Culture I am consuming: 

Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones. In reporting on the opioid crisis over the last couple of years, I have heard great things about this book from person after person. The praise is deserved. I’m only halfway through it, but it’s already a masterpiece of reporting and storytelling. 

Email me with tips, story ideas, and feedback at ebelz@wng.org 

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Photo by Michael Brochstein/Sipa via AP ()

An evening with Dennis Prager

A Jew and a Christian muse about goodness, loving God, and bacon

I think it’s fair to say that anyone who has met Dennis Prager in person would have a hard time disliking the man. You can disagree with his politics, reject his Jewish faith, and criticize his decisions, but sit with the conservative pundit for an hour and you’ll find that he is a down-to-earth, humble guy who’s genuinely interested in people. 

When I asked Prager’s wife Sue if I could interview him for a story (she’s the strict gatekeeper of Prager’s schedule, since it’s his nature to say yes to everything), she invited me to their house. That evening, a crew from PragerU was also there to shoot an episode of “Fireside Chat with Dennis Prager,” a series of short live videos in which Prager sits by the roaring fire in his study and muses about anything from LeBron James to human nature to his favorite cigars. 

So there I sat on a couch, letting Prager’s pudgy, droopy-eyed bulldog Otto slobber over me, when Prager showed up and boomed in his baritone voice, “Well, hello!” He then held up two ties and asked, “Which one matches my shirt?” We decided on the crimson tie, and as he swung it around his neck, he suddenly remembered that he ought to shave. A few minutes later, he was sitting by the fire, cracking jokes as he ran an electric razor around his chin. 

Meanwhile, Otto had plopped down at the one spot where he got in everybody’s way. “Look at him,” Prager marveled, looking delighted. “He couldn’t have picked a worse spot!” Otto soon began snoring loudly with the tip of his pink tongue sticking out, and he was still snoring when the video went live, featuring Prager puffing a fat cigar and pondering the importance of college. (It’s only as important as you make it, he concluded.) 

Prager is a natural speaker—he needs no script, just an abstract thought in his mind that he’ll flesh out into something practical that you can grasp and use. Example: That evening, he challenged parents to ask their children, “What do you think I, your dad or your mom, most want you to be: smart, successful, happy, or good?” And then he said, “Very few parents get the answer ‘good.’ And that should be ... instructive. It means you have not communicated that that’s the most important thing you want your child to be. And the truth is, I don’t think most parents want their child to be good”—at least not as top priority, he said. 

Prager inhaled on his cigar, then continued, “But here’s the killer: Everybody wants everybody else to have ‘being good’ the most important thing in their life. ... But they themselves—that’s not their No. 1 priority!” He let out a wry chuckle and shook his cigar. “Now you know why the world is screwed up!” 

That evening after the shoot, Prager and I drove five minutes down to a family-run diner, where Prager ordered a salad. I ordered a dish with bacon, and when I apologized (Prager keeps kosher), he exclaimed, “Bacon is delicious, are you kidding? I still remember the taste!” 

Turns out, in his early 20s, Prager decided to break some of the Jewish religious laws. Not wanting to break his parents’ hearts, he broke the laws only when he was far away in England as a study-abroad student. He may have tried octopus and pork chops, but even then, Prager tried to keep the Ten Commandments. From the day he left his parents’ house till the day they died, he called them every week, simply because God had said, “Honor your father and your mother.” 

Now, at age 69, having written several best-selling books and created an immensely popular media platform, Prager still tries to keep the Ten Commandments. He contends that if everyone in the world were to accept and obey the Ten Commandments as God-breathed, God-mandated law, then people would be kinder to one another: Peace and justice and goodness would reign. The reason the world is so “screwed up” right now is because people would rather determine good and evil for themselves. “That’s their greatest religion,” Prager said. “Ultimately, they hate the idea that there’s an authority called God. And that’s what I fight against.”

While Prager chewed on his salad, I chewed on what he’d said. It’s not just “those people” who fail to follow the Ten Commandments. It’s me, too. When the Pharisees asked Jesus to name the great commandment, Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 6:5: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This, Jesus declared, “is the great and first commandment”—yet it’s a commandment that I break time and time again by placing other things ahead of God in my thoughts and desires. 

Prager agreed: “The hardest law for me in the Torah is to love God.” Jesus said the second great commandment is to “love your neighbor as yourself”—but it’s difficult to love God when you love your neighbors, Prager said: “If you love human beings, how can you love a God who allows them to endure such suffering?” That’s why his favorite verse in Scripture is Psalm 97:10: “Let those who love the LORD hate evil.” In a way, it simplifies the commandments for him: To love God is to pursue goodness, because God is good and wants us to be good.

Though I agreed, I also felt that alone falls short of the commandment to love God with all my heart and with all my soul and with all my might. Prager is primarily preoccupied with the evil out there in the world, which makes it hard for him to love God, while I’m primarily grieved by the evil inside of me—the inability to love God with my whole being. 

But that’s why I so resonate with Psalm 42, where the author moans, “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God.” I’m in awe of the longing love in Psalm 27, when David sings, “One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple.” And I understand the astounded, responsive love of Lamentations 3:22, when Jeremiah gasps, “Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.”

Prager and I both agree it’s not easy to love God. We might differ on how to do so: Prager would probably say he strives to better observe the Law, while for me, the more I try to obey the Law, the more I discover that I can never live up to God’s standards—and that’s why I so desperately need Jesus Christ. 

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