It is probably the most difficult place to report from in China. In the far-western province of Xinjiang, the Chinese campaign to smash Islamic extremism and independence sentiments has been taken to new extreme level.
The Chinese deny it’s going on, and don’t like foreign reporters going there to investigate.
I travelled to the Uighur heartland, the city of Kashgar, for the Foreign Correspondent program. To give you an idea of the geography, Kashgar is much closer to Tehran or Baghdad than to Beijing.
Xinjiang is home to about 11 million Uighurs — a Turkic ethnic minority who practise the Islamic faith. The United States and now the United Nations say what’s happening there is the biggest crackdown on any ethnic group happening in the world today.
Human rights activists say widescale abuses and mass detentions are taking place, with a million Uighurs being held in “re-education camps”.
After travelling all day to get there, I fell into a deep sleep at about midnight in my hotel room. Soon after the phone rang, and suddenly I jolted upright.
My Chinese colleague was at the other end of the line, saying “they’re here, they want to see us downstairs now”.
We had expected the call, as that’s how security officers deal with Western reporters in the province of Xinjiang. We had managed to evade them for two hours by pretending to be tourists as we filmed the Id Kah Mosque, and that felt like a war zone rather than a place of worship. Riot troops patrolled the area and a Chinese flag claimed the dome of the mosque.
Now, five security personnel were waiting downstairs in the hotel lounge for us.
Two of them — Max and Mike, as they called themselves — said in perfect English: “Welcome to Kashgar”.
I did point out to them it was midnight and it wasn’t a very nice welcome. Max replied: “We’re just doing our job, we want to show how peaceful and harmonious Kashgar really is”.
And that was quickly followed up with a threat: “If you film any police or security presence, any surveillance technology, then your journalist visas might be cancelled”.
We had come to film how the Chinese were using technology as their new tool of repression. Needless to say, it was going to be a difficult assignment.
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