KASHGAR, China - The first pair of enforcers were waiting at the temperature check before baggage claim at the airport in China's western Xinjiang region. "Passports," they said as the three foreign journalists came off a domestic flight from Beijing this month.
Asked why we were being pulled aside, they said we needed to know to wear masks because there had been a coronavirus outbreak in Xinjiang in July. We were wearing masks. They photographed our information pages and journalist visas.It was the start of four days of intense surveillance and nuisance checkpoints designed to obstruct our reporting and ensure that local people were too afraid to talk to us. There were the cars that tailed us everywhere — "Honda 25," "VW 35," we would chime as we spotted their license plates — and the Keystone Kops, men who would jump behind bushes or pretend to talk on their phones while obviously following us.
Then there were "Michael" and "Smith," the Public Security Bureau officers who repeatedly called us to the hotel lobby to insist that we follow local reporting regulations that, among other things, required that we get anyone's permission to interview them. Before long, we endured a farcical argument about whether we needed a public building to assent before we could photograph it.
This trip to Kashgar was the final reporting expedition I would make after 10 years in Asia. But it had me recalling not China, but a previous assignment: North Korea.
This evocative city, the home of Uighur culture that was once a stop on the Silk Road, has been turned into a Potemkin village, like Pyongyang, where it's impossible to discern where the real ends and the staged begins.
I first came to Kashgar in 2006 as a tourist, crossing the border from Kyrgyzstan. I remembered it as a magical place of Uighur people who looked Central Asian and spoke a Turkic language written in Arabic script, as a city of fresh figs and kebab smoke and a rowdy Sunday animal market, as a surprising and enchanting destination that just happened to be within China's borders.
Before returning to Kashgar this month, I dug out my photos from that trip. I found pictures of the renowned Id Kah Mosque, abuzz with activity. Photos of men with beards and women with headscarves, and young children smiling and posing for my camera. I wondered what had happened to these children, many of whom would now be in their early 20s.Over the past four years, the Chinese government has detained more than 1 million Uighurs in reeducation camps designed to strip them of their culture, language and religion. They've had to shave their beards and uncover their hair. They've been made to pledge allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party. Children have been taken from their parents and put into orphanages.
Returning to Kashgar, I was struck by how, at first glance, it seemed relatively normal. In the Old City, families were out at the night market, eating piles of meat and bread. Kids could be heard laughing through open upstairs windows. There were even young men — prime targets for the detention campaign, which was ostensibly about deradicalization — on the streets again.
Walking around, I was overcome by the same sense of sadness mixed with rage that I felt when reporting in Pyongyang. I knew it was a kind of "Truman Show," but I couldn't see the edges of the set. I could see a blankness in people's eyes and feel a palpable heaviness in the air.
Had any of the people I saw in Kashgar this month been affected by the "reeducation" campaign? Almost certainly. But I couldn't ask them. Just as in Pyongyang, I didn't try to interview people on the street or in stores, as I would do anywhere else in the world.
Doing so could place those people in grave danger if it was discovered they had talked to a foreigner, and a foreign journalist no less. I would have loved to talk to someone who had been through the camps — but I was conscious of the risks I posed to people if I tried to discuss sensitive subjects. Or talk to them at all.
So I did something anathema to a journalist: I didn't strike up conversations on the street. I didn't ask questions in stores or parks or taxis. Except for arguments with security officials, I didn't dig. All I could do was watch and be watched.
Source: The Washington post