Foreign journalists endure monitoring by plainclothes security, Potemkin tours of state-run facilities, a clampdown on the flow of information, and a formidable propaganda machine to report on China’s policies in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), according to one member of the media who recently traveled there.
Isobel Yeung, a correspondent for Vice News, visited the XUAR capital of Urumqi and city of Kashgar (in Chinese, Kashi) in January, and returned to the region to visit Hotan (Hetian) city in May, to investigate reports that authorities have detained up to 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas in a network of internment camps since April 2017.
Yeung and a colleague traveled to the XUAR both times as tourists running “a travel blog” as part of a bid to learn what they could about the camps and accompanying “kindergartens,” where Uyghur children are placed when their parents are detained, as well as to capture footage of the government’s substantial security apparatus and speak with residents about what life is like in the region amid increased restrictions.
The result of their investigation was compiled into a 32-minute video released in late June as an episode of the HBO series Vice News Tonight and posted on YouTube, where it has been viewed more than 1.6 million times.
“We decided to go in as tourists, undercover essentially, because it’s been really difficult for journalists to report on the area, because journalists have been followed wherever they go,” Yeung told RFA in an interview, adding that when reporters are permitted to cover the camps they are presented with a “dog and pony show” to promote the government’s claims that they are “boarding schools” that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, discourage radicalization and help protect the country from terrorism.
“We were hoping to do something a little bit different and we were really hoping to try to get a sense of the Orwellian state that is really playing out at the moment in that region, as well as to get voices from Uyghur people on the ground, and hopefully to uncover some of the realities behind what’s happening to children, among other things.”
While in Urumqi, Yeung’s team documented well-armed police patrols on nearly every block, security checkpoints every few hundred yards outfitted with face and body scanners, and closed circuit cameras in virtually every public area of the city.
The reporters then traveled by train to Kashgar, where they encountered store owners being trained in the street by police officers to use clubs against “radicalized terrorists” and spoke to Han Chinese youths outside a nightclub about increased security measures in the city.
In both situations, they were detained briefly by security personnel who confronted them about filming without permission and felt that they had to leave the region because authorities had been alerted to their presence and were making it difficult for them to speak with anyone.