Members of the leftwing activist group Code Pink last month tried to persuade Massachusetts congressman Seth Moulton that China is not persecuting its Muslim Uyghur minority. They urged him to visit Uyghur regions “and see how happy people were there,” one of his aides told the New York Times.
Two years ago, the U.S. State Department determined that the Chinese government is carrying out “ongoing genocide” against the Uyghurs, including slave labor, torture, forced sterilizations, and the imprisonment of “more than one million civilians.”
If Rep. Moulton does visit China, government officials no doubt will carefully arrange to keep him from seeing the truth about the “re-education” camps where Uyghurs are being held.
Hiding embarrassing sights from the view of foreign dignitaries is a tactic dictators have been using for centuries. Its pioneer was Grigory Alexandrovich Potemkin, a Russian cabinet minister who reportedly built fake villages to impress the Czarina Catherine II during her visit to the Crimea region in 1787.
Some historians believe Potemkin merely redecorated towns along the czarina’s route, rather than fabricating them entirely for the sole purpose of the visit. Either way, Potemkin’s name has come to be associated with this particular kind of deceit.
Soviet dictator Josef Stalin was a master of Potemkinism. In the 1920s and 1930s, Western visitors to the USSR were taken to see Bolshevo, which was presented as an example of the Soviet Union’s “progressive” prisons without walls or guards, where criminals were educated and inspired to become productive citizens.
Nobel laureate George Bernard Shaw went so far as to claim that the only problem in dealing with the typical Soviet prisoner was “inducing him to come out at all” when his jail term ended. In reality, Bolshevo had been created to impress foreigners. It was populated largely by informers whose reward was to live in the sham prison. The slave labor camps of the Soviet gulag remained hidden from foreign eyes.
Adolf Hitler used Potemkin-style deception to help camouflage the mass murder of the Jews. In June 1944, the Nazis invited a delegation from the International Red Cross to visit Theresienstadt, the Jewish ghetto they created in Czechoslovakia as a transit point for Jews being shipped to the gas chambers in Auschwitz. In the Nazi Potemkin version, the camp was presented as an ‘Endlager,’ a final destination where Jewish prisoners lived happily.
One inmate wrote in his diary of the Nazis’ preparations for the Red Cross visit: “They rain down order after order. Kindergarten children are to sing during the visit, the workers are to return home. Plays and cultural events and sporting activities must take place. Even the few lambs left here roam about on the grass around the city. The children, the workers, the sheep–a perfect idyll.”
Another prisoner recalled: “A playground was laid out with sandboxes and swings, a ‘children’s pavilion’ was built and painted from inside with big wooden animals as toys. Behind a glass veranda you could see a dozen cribs. It was like a story book–but children were only allowed to enter this little paradise on the day the commission visited Theresienstadt.” Houses were freshly painted–but only those portions that would the Red Cross inspectors would see as they walked by.
The delegation’s final report to Red Cross headquarters described conditions in the camp as “relatively good.” They never asked why the population of Theresienstadt at the time of the visit was 30,000 less than what the Red Cross knew it had been a few weeks earlier.
In the 1950s, the North Korean government built a village called Kijong-dong in the demilitarized zone separating North Korea from South Korea. To this day, the North Koreans call it a “peace village” and claim it is inhabited by two hundred families. In fact, Kjong-dong has no civilian residents; it houses soldiers, artillery, and underground bunkers.
A Washington Post correspondent who visited the area in 1998 reported that “if you squint through your binoculars, you’ll see that the buildings [in Kjong-dong] don’t even have glass in the windows. It’s a lie, a huge Potemkin village…” The sidewalks are empty, and automatic timers turn lights on and off in the buildings in order to create the illusion that people reside there.
The Palestinian Authority has engaged in its own forms of Potemkin-style deception. When President Barack Obama visited Bethlehem in 2013, PA officials temporarily removed a large sculpture showing a map with all of Israel as “Palestine,” which the president would have seen as his motorcade approached the city. For the occasion, the sculpture was replaced with a monument of a dove.
Likewise, when United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon was scheduled to visit the Al-Zeitoun School in Gaza in 2017, Hamas officials quickly covered up a large map showing all of Israel as “Palestine.”
The Germans wanted to hide the mass murder of the Jews for fear that the international community might intervene. The Soviets hoped to improve trade relations with the West and promote Communism as the ideal system of government. The North Koreans are trying to disguise military activity in what is supposed to be a demilitarized zone. The Palestinian Authority and Hamas do not want any negative publicity that could jeopardize the international assistance they receive.
And if China, with the help of allies such as Code Pink, ever entices members of Congress to visit, we can expect its government to practice its own particular version of Potemkinism to hide what it is doing to the Uyghurs.
Dr. Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and author of more than 20 books about Jewish history and the Holocaust. His latest is America and the Holocaust: A Documentary History, published by the Jewish Publication Society & University of Nebraska Press.