From the moment reporters arrive in Xinjiang province, a remote region in northwest China, they are shadowed by security officials. Sometimes, it’s just a few. For reporters representing prominent publications, it can be nine or ten. Most of the time, the officials do their best to blend into the background—they wear plain clothes—but they’re always there to intervene should a journalist cross any number of ill-defined lines.
In China, where the Communist Party rules, restrictions on the press and the public routinely stifle the flow of information. Xinjiang poses a special challenge, however, as the site of an unfolding humanitarian crisis where members of the Uighur ethnic group are targeted by a sweeping campaign of surveillance and detention. Tensions have long festered between the country’s Han ethnic majority and Muslim minority groups, including Uighurs—who comprise nearly half of Xinjiang’s population. Following violent riots in 2009 and a spate of terror attacks in 2014, which China’s government blamed on Uighur separatists, authorities clamped down on Xinjiang, bolstering security forces and installing a robust suite of high-tech surveillance equipment.
Today, security checkpoints abound in Xinjiang’s cities, where citizens are subject to scans of their faces, eyes, bodies, and phones. Under an austere level of control, all aspects of Uighur life might be viewed as criminal; Uighurs have been arrested and taken from their homes for a wide range of offenses, including growing a beard, planning travel abroad, and reciting a verse from the Quran in public. Hundreds of thousands, if not a million, have been sent to political re-education camps with no pretense of due process and little clarity as to when, or how, they will get out.
That anything is known about the situation in Xinjiang is largely thanks to foreign journalists, given China’s broad restrictions over domestic media. Since the re-education program kicked into full gear, in the spring of 2017, foreign outlets have detailed unexplained disappearances of family members; conditions in the camps, where detainees are forced to sing patriotic anthems and write self-criticizing essays; and, recently, evidence that China is secretly transferring detainees to prisons across the country to alleviate overcrowding in Xinjiang. Last week, after frequent denials of the camps’ existence, the Chinese government wrote them into law; the stated goal is “thought transformation,” but reporters have shown that physical abuse is common.
Restrictions on reporters and the public profoundly limit the stories journalists are able to tell, of course. Much about the situation in Xinjiang remains unknown, either under wraps by the government or suppressed by the culture of fear permeating Uighur communities. Journalists have struggled to tell what might be the most important story in Xinjiang: what it’s like to be a Uighur living under such oppressive conditions. “It’s as if there’s a massive crowd quarantined behind an invisible barrier,” says Josh Chin, who reports in China for The Wall Street Journal. “You want desperately to ask them how they’re doing, but you can’t because you’re worried you’ll infect them with your tainted political status.”
Indeed, surveillance makes it virtually impossible for reporters to speak with residents of Xinjiang without putting them at risk of subsequent arrest. With watching eyes seemingly everywhere, opportunities to strike up conversations are few, and sit-down interviews have become all but unheard of. Some reporters say they even avoid Uighur businesses and taxis, for fear that security forces might descend upon their proprietors.
Transportation presents significant obstacles, too. Roughly the size of Alaska, Xinjiang encompasses vast swaths of desert and mountain terrain. Yet journalists are generally confined to a few urban areas, including Urumqi, the provincial capital, and Kashgar, a Uighur cultural hub tucked between the borders of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Those who attempt to drive into the countryside are almost sure to be turned around by officials for contrived reasons—that the area is not designated for foreigners, for example, or that a reporter lacks the authorization to pass. On one occasion, while driving on a deserted road, Chin found himself surrounded by police after a street camera flagged his car as suspicious. “Luckily we were already on our way out of town,” he says. “They were kind enough to give us a police escort to the highway.”
The re-education camps, scattered throughout Xinjiang, are also off-limits. At best, journalists can hope to get close enough to photograph their exteriors, but even then, members of their surveillance detail are likely to step in and demand that the photos be deleted. The locations of all camps are not known with certainty, nor is the actual number of detainees, or how many Uighurs have died in custody and of what causes. Radio Free Asia maintains a map of known detention centers; the organization employs a team of Uighur reporters who have continued work despite their own families in China being jailed. Journalists who spoke with CJR all cited Radio Free Asia’s journalism as being among the most “courageous” and “penetrating” on this crisis.
With such limited access to information in Xinjiang, journalists have turned to Uighurs living abroad for sources—often in Kazakhstan, Turkey, Canada, or the United States. They are not always a representative sample—they tend to be relatively wealthy and from Xinjiang’s cities. Earning trust can be difficult, especially as sources grow wary of Chinese spies, and safety remains a concern, as many have family and friends still living in Xinjiang who could face retribution as a result of reporting. But as the detention crisis has become more dire, Uighur networks have pushed to get their story told. “When the camps started, many seemed to think that by staying quiet they could protect their relatives in China,” Emily Feng, a China correspondent for The Financial Times, says. “But more seem to be thinking now that staying silent has had no use.”
In July, following six months of following up on stories she first heard abroad, Feng broke news that Uighur children were being rounded up into state-run welfare centers and special re-education centers for youths. “The child is forbidden to go to school with the normal children because the parents have a political problem,” a source told her.
The electronic record has also been useful in filling gaps. A recent piece on mass detention by Chris Buckley, a Beijing-based correspondent for The New York Times, drew heavily on satellite imagery, county-level documents pertaining to camp construction, and even studies commissioned by the Chinese government (not intended for wide consumption). “Anyone who wants to doubt what’s happening has to confront the fact that this information is also coming from the Chinese government,” Buckley says. Officials are growing wise to the types of documents journalists have accessed, however; lately, it appears that many files are disappearing from the internet.
“China is seeking sovereignty over information at every level,” Sharon Hom, the executive director of Human Rights in China, an advocacy group based in New York and Hong Kong, tells CJR. “When it comes to the story, the narrative, and language, they are systematically trying to exclude and threaten civil society.” In domestic media outlets, the Xinjiang re-education camps are all but absent, and Hom says the majority of Chinese citizens are unaware of what is going on in the province. “The purpose of media in China is to tell the Party’s truth,” she adds. “The foreign journalism model—being there and telling the truth that is seen—is fundamentally subversive.”
The job is unlikely to get easier. China ranks 176 of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders world press freedom index, and conditions for foreign journalists are on the decline. In 2017, in Xinjiang, the public security budget nearly doubled and 73 percent of journalists there reported harassment by authorities, compared with 42 percent in 2016, according to a report by the Foreign Correspondents Club in China. Some were threatened with violence, others were detained; one journalist tells CJR that he is surprised reporters are still able to book tickets to Xinjiang at all.
Restrictions and harassment have not deterred reporters, but they have left them hamstrung, says Megha Rajagopalan, a world correspondent for BuzzFeed who reported extensively in China, including Xinjiang, until August when the government refused to issue her a new visa. She compares conditions in China unfavorably to those in other repressive regimes. In the Philippines, for instance, where she reported on the drug war, Rajagopalan relied on the input of private witnesses, lawyers, and scholarly experts. “In Xinjiang, none of that exists,” she says, of available access. “It’s incredibly damaging to getting the story out.”