China has interned hundreds of thousands of Uighurs in camps in the autonomous region of Xinjiang. Despite the story’s scale, foreign journalists are struggling to even connect with the people involved.
The Masthead talked to current and former Xinjiang correspondents about the unique challenges of reporting on the region.
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“A Cone of Silence Has Developed in the Region”
By Caroline Kitchener
Earlier this year, I sent a WeChat message to an old friend in Xinjiang, China’s westernmost province. Approximately 1 million Uighurs, Xinjiang’s largely Muslim minority, have been forced into internment camps, which are designed to churn out secular citizens loyal to the Communist Party. I told my friend, who is ethnically Uighur, that I was interested in hearing about “some of the things going on right now,” and asked if we could talk on the phone. She sent me a GIF of a dancing cat. And then she blocked me.
Strikingly little is known about the situation in Xinjiang, including the circumstances that lead to arrests and what happens inside the camps. As my colleague Sigal Samuel has written, “There are media reports of Uighurs being forced to eat pork and drink alcohol, which are forbidden to Muslims, as well as reports of torture and death.” But reliable stories are difficult to come by, and even harder to confirm. China’s news media portray the camps as college-style facilities offering free courses, meals, and air-conditioned dormitories, but those portraits come with little reliable detail. As my experience shows, WeChat and other messaging tools that journalists in China typically use to gain access to sources are much less effective when reporting on Xinjiang. A good deal of the information that is known is reported by a small group of foreign correspondents via sources who have already left the country, Megha Rajagopalan, the former China bureau chief at BuzzFeed News, told me. By the time these reporters hear about any given story, it’s typically two to three months out of date.
The story of the Xinjiang reeducation camps is “probably unique in the world in terms of how many obstacles stand in the way of reporting it,” said a journalist for a Western news organization who has spent the past year reporting on and from the region. (Several of the journalists I spoke with asked to speak anonymously, to avoid any potential repercussions for themselves or their news organization.) According to an annual survey published by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, 73 percent of journalists who traveled to Xinjiang in 2017 said that their reporting has been restricted by the government, up from 42 percent in 2016. The organization expects the 2018 number to be even higher.
But direct government intervention is not the only thing that makes reporting on the region difficult. Government repression has created a climate of fear, in which Uighurs are afraid to connect with journalists. The biggest challenge, several reporters told me, is to create a safe environment in which sources feel comfortable sharing their stories, freely and without censorship.
My Uighur friend was almost certainly protecting herself when she blocked me on WeChat. According to the foreign correspondents I spoke with, residents of Xinjiang don't want even vague messages from foreigners on their phones. Over the past few years, Chinese officials have established police checkpoints all across the province. On a reporting trip she took last year, Rajagopalan told me, she saw government officials stop every vehicle on a highway north of Kashgar, forcing everyone to line up in a building by the side of the road. Members of the Han ethnic majority filed into one line, Uighurs into another. If you’re ethnically Uighur, Rajagopalan said, a government agent will probably scan through your cellphone: “They’re looking for links to foreign groups or foreign individuals.” Even having downloaded a banned app such as Twitter or Facebook might be enough to land someone in a reeducation camp, where they will likely be forced to renounce Islam and embrace Communist Party doctrine.
When reporting on human-rights abuses in a “normal place,” Rajagopalan said, her first step would be to reach out to human-rights advocates and other outspoken members of society. “But that doesn’t exist here, because there is no room for those people,” she told me. Outspoken advocates are either inside the internment camps or, if they had the means to flee, outside the country, where many find themselves even more cut off from the region’s news than foreign journalists.
Yet most stories about the Xinjiang camps still come from people who have already left the country, Rajagopalan and multiple other journalists told me. Typically, a reporter will receive a tip from a Uighur in exile, and then travel to Xinjiang to try to confirm the story. One journalist from a Western publication told me that while traveling in Turkey, he heard about two young men who had been beaten to death inside a reeducation camp. Because he knew that noninterned relatives of these men would likely be under close government surveillance, he believed it wasn’t safe to contact them digitally. He found out where one young man’s mother lived, and went to see her as soon as he arrived in Xinjiang. “I knocked on her front door and basically said, ‘Is it true?’” (The mother hadn’t heard any news about her son. Almost a year later, the journalist still has not been able to confirm that he was killed in a camp.)
Government officials will often complicate these kinds of informal meet-ups. “The moment you land in Xinjiang, you have people watching you,” the journalist who contacted the young man’s mother told me. During that trip, the reporter, who is ethnically Han Chinese, was able to spend six hours in the province before police caught up with him and started following his every move. In Xinjiang, local government officials commonly show up unannounced at journalists’ hotel rooms, or find them on the street and bring them in for questioning. A reporter for a U.S. news organization was interrogated for 11 hours and not allowed to sleep for two nights, according to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China report. Upon arriving in Xinjiang, Tom Phillips, a reporter for The Guardian, was told that “reporting was forbidden without permission from local authorities.”
Even after a journalist is able to locate a source in person, without using the phone or social media, the threat of omnipresent surveillance and severe consequences means that lots of individuals are hesitant to talk. Rajagopalan was fairly certain she’d identified the location of a previously unknown reeducation camp—but before publishing the story, she wanted to speak with several locals to confirm that the compound she’d found was actually a camp. She spent 30 minutes “talking about nothing” with the owner of a small business near the compound. Eventually, he suggested that they go outside so he could give her directions. “It was only then, in that open-air spot, that we had a real conversation for five minutes,” she told me. (The man confirmed the existence of the camp.)
The journalists I spoke with generally viewed the government intervention they experienced as pure intimidation—more of an annoyance than a real threat to their safety. Still, if reporters in Xinjiang have a government entourage, potential sources will be even less inclined to talk to them. Officials will also occasionally search journalists’ electronic devices. Nathan VanderKlippe, a reporter for The Globe and Mail, was forced to surrender his laptop. Another Western journalist I spoke with said that he is often asked for his phone when detained in Xinjiang. In the 20 seconds before he is “fully detained,” he told me, he’s learned to wipe his phone of Signal, an encrypted-messaging app, and any sensitive material.
Chinese journalists could be severely punished for reporting on the camps. But for foreign journalists, the ultimate repercussion is being told they’re not allowed to come back to or remain in the country. According to recent surveys from the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, foreign correspondents face growing difficulty when renewing their visas, particularly those who have reported on politically sensitive stories. After working in China for six years and covering Xinjiang extensively, Rajagopalan was denied a new visa in May. The government never offered a specific explanation for denying her renewal request, Rajagopalan tweeted in August: “They say this is a process thing, we are not totally clear why.” (She continues to report on Xinjiang for BuzzFeed from outside the country.)
After they get the story, the journalists I spoke with said that they still worry about their sources. Stories about the reeducation camps often lead to long, conflicted discussions with editors over anonymity. Even if the source didn’t request it, a journalist might argue, that may simply reflect a lack of experience with foreign news media. The potential repercussions of speaking publicly are grave enough that reporters often want to err on the side of caution, because sources’ family members may also be interned. But there are good reasons to not allow sources to be quoted anonymously: People are more likely to be entirely truthful when they are on the record, and accountable for what they say.
As a journalist reporting in Xinjiang, several correspondents told me, it can be difficult to know how far to go to get the story. My friend blocking me on WeChat was a clear message that I shouldn’t try to contact her again. But what if she’d proactively reached out and continued to talk on WeChat, fully aware of what might happen? Particularly with a topic as obscure as Xinjiang’s reeducation camps, “you want the strongest possible story,” said one Western journalist. A “cone of silence has developed in the region,” he told me, and it’s up to foreign journalists to break it.
Today’s Question: What are your questions about the Xinjiang reeducation camps?
What’s Coming: On Friday, author Susan Orlean will join us on the forums for a discussion of her latest work, The Library Book.
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