The three men were so busy staging a fake car crash they failed to notice the very people they were trying to block: foreign journalists heading towards one of China’s notorious internment camps.
A small truck slowly inched towards a car parked on the road before stopping—just short of contact—as the reporters drove past the scene. The “accident” later drew a crowd of onlookers as a line of trucks queued down the highway. Police halted traffic, blocking the road leading towards the camp.
Though a botched attempt, this incident illustrates the great lengths Chinese authorities go to obstruct journalists from covering topics deemed sensitive in Xinjiang, a restive northwest region where large numbers of mostly Muslim ethnic minorities have been rounded up into re-education camps.
On a recent six-day trip to Xinjiang, AFP was able to document three of them—razor-wired complexes with imposing block buildings.
One was within walking distance of farmland, while another was clearly visible from nearby dwellings. One center was just around the corner from a water park.
After initially denying their existence, the Chinese government has gone on a public relations blitz to counter the global outcry against what Beijing calls “vocational education centers”—and defends as necessary to battle religious extremism.
Since last October, the Xinjiang government has also organized camp tours for diplomats and media outlets. But it has made independent reporting in the region extremely challenging, with journalists almost constantly followed by plainclothes officials, making it difficult to talk to locals without putting them at risk.
Roadblocks and construction work, which suddenly materialize when reporters near re-education camps, are also a constant headache. When AFP reporters tried to approach one internment camp in Hotan, roads were roped off within seconds after an unmarked car that had been following them sped ahead.
In the end, the only option was to photograph the camp—a fenced off compound surrounded by a swath of sand and desert scrub—from afar.
The security clampdown in Xinjiang, where authorities have implemented unprecedented levels of surveillance, has also made it impossible to move freely around the region. Police checkpoints at city borders prevented AFP reporters from traveling outside regional hubs without alerting local propaganda officials.
In some cases, whole cities were closed off.
While driving to Artux city, where a mosque is believed to have been destroyed, AFP was forced to turn around by police at a checkpoint who said the road was closed for driving tests—all day for the next five days. “Please understand our work,” said the police officer.
At the same checkpoint, two women claiming to be tourists also appeared. For the next hour, they followed AFP in a dark purple van because they were “lost.”
Even when AFP reporters went past the fake car crash to take pictures of a camp from a nearby village, the tourists parked close by. A man who said he was a village security guard later escorted the journalists out. He left the “tourists” alone.
Access to places of religious worship appears tightly controlled. On the morning of Eid-ul-Fitr, when Muslims around the world celebrate the end of Ramzan, the enormous square outside of the main mosque in Kashgar was cordoned off.
Reporters were forced into a “media interview area” on the outer edges of the square as worshippers filed into Idkah Mosque—whereas in previous years devotees gathered in crowds outside, squeezing together to unroll their prayer rugs.
At a group interview organized by propaganda officials, the mosque’s imam said there had not been any “big changes” in prayer attendance compared to five years ago. “Now that you’ve come to Xinjiang, you can see there are millions of Uighurs that are all living really well,” said Juma Maimaiti, the imam of Idkah Mosque, through an interpreter.
Other foreign news organizations have faced similar challenges while visiting the region. In a report released by the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (FCCC) in January, journalists from a variety of outlets said they were followed, physically blocked from areas, or even denied hotel rooms.
Nathan VanderKlippe, a reporter at the Canadian paper Globe and Mail, said he was threatened with arrest and had “armed police approach my vehicle with shields raised.”
“A police officer seized my camera and deleted pictures without my consent,” he told the FCCC, which published his account.
In a piece published earlier this month, Telegraph correspondent Sophia Yan said she and her colleagues had to travel nearly 50 miles on foot, as “nameless voices over the radio instructed taxi drivers to turn around.” And while AFP reporters found local authorities polite albeit unyielding—perhaps a reaction to the negative press resulting from police aggression—there were moments on the trip where it became unnervingly clear how closely they were being tracked.
In Kashgar, an ancient Silk Road City with a majority Uighur population, someone broke into an AFP journalist’s hotel room after he stepped outside for a few minutes. Upon returning, he found the door open and one of his bags had been moved. Nothing was taken, but the message was clear: we are watching you.