Uplifting propaganda posters touting President Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” catchphrase are plastered across many cities in China these days. But throughout the country’s westernmost province, an unrelenting series of billboards, red banners and spray-painted signs suggests menace lurking everywhere.
“It is strictly forbidden to transmit violent terrorist videos,” warn banners hung from government buildings and draped across traffic lane dividers. “Young men should not grow beards and young women should not cover their faces with veils,” some signs read.
The messages make it clear whom authorities blame for the explosions, knifings, riots and other violent incidents that have left hundreds dead this year in Xinjiang province: Islamic extremists and separatists with ties to foreign forces.
But even as Chinese officials insist that this is a clear-cut battle against religious zealots and hard-core separatists, local authorities are making it difficult for anyone to independently question (or substantiate) that narrative. Outsiders inquiring about the scale or causes of the carnage in Xinjiang are unwelcome, and locals are discouraged from speaking freely about it.
That became abundantly clear on a recent Thursday when I and my assistant, our driver and guide suddenly found ourselves accompanied by two extremely persistent Xinjiang security officers who trailed us for hours and whose intimidating presence ensured that no one would talk openly to us.
China’s state-run media must follow the Communist Party line, but foreign journalists are supposed to be able to travel freely anywhere in the country except Tibet and interview anyone who consents.
In reality, though, authorities employ various tactics to stifle coverage. In a recent survey by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, two-thirds of overseas reporters here said they had experienced interference, harassment or violence while attempting to report.
At my hotel in Kashgar, I was questioned and photographed by police; in Yafuquan, where I stopped to observe a village market and wasn’t interviewing anyone, officers nonetheless approached our van within 20 minutes, demanded my passport, photographed it and told us to leave the area.
I actually got off lightly compared with Australian Broadcasting Corp. correspondent Stephen McDonell, who said he was recently trailed for 10 days in Xinjiang, sometimes followed by five cars carrying officials and plainclothes officers.
Later, Chinese Embassy representatives visited McDonell’s bosses in Canberra, he said, urging them to quash any report on the trip and warning that any broadcast about his experience could harm relations between the two countries.
My shadows showed up in Yarkand. Ironically, I had no intention of doing interviews there. My team and I had finished our main reporting assignment for the day in another town and decided to go to Yarkand for some sightseeing — or so we thought.
From the early 1500s to late 1600s, Yarkand was the capital of a Uighur kingdom. Uighurs are a small minority today among ethnic Han-dominated China’s 1.3 billion people, but they are a majority in Xinjiang. A visit to Yarkand’s old mosque and graveyard seemed like a worthwhile opportunity to absorb some historical background.
Uighur rights groups say discriminatory government policies have disenfranchised Uighurs politically and economically, sparking protests that have escalated into mass violence. In July, in two villages 25 miles north of Yarkand, at least 96 people met a violent end.
The details remain sketchy at best. Officials say police shot 59 attackers after an armed group stormed government offices and killed 37 people. Foreign Uighur activist groups counter that police opened fire on locals protesting a crackdown on Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan, and they suggest the death toll was much higher than 96.
Yarkand proper, though, has been calm, so we were surprised upon entering the city to see a group of men in helmets, green fatigues and black vests — perhaps riot police — marching by, carrying long, pointy spears. Also unexpectedly, Internet access to smartphones and text-messaging services had been disabled.
Within five minutes of our entering a noodle and pilaf restaurant, two young men dressed in black — one Uighur, one Han — came in. They said nothing, but their garb suggested that they were junior officers dispatched to keep tabs on us and anyone we met.
We piled into our van and drove to the city’s cemetery and mosque. The men trailed conspicuously. As we walked around, they listened attentively to the guide’s spiel, standing a mere arm’s length away.
We moved on to the local market. Some people seemed happy to see a rare Westerner, but they stiffened as soon as they noticed the plainclothes police. What good could come from talking to a foreigner with a police escort at her elbow?
I suggested the officers pay the tour guide some money — after all, they had been learning as much as I had. They stared at me blankly. Who are you? I asked. No reply. Why are you following me? Again, no answer.
We hopped on a three-wheeled motorcycle taxi. The shadows followed. We drove to a modern mall. They stuck by our side. “Do you give all foreign visitors such a personal welcome?” I asked one of the young men. He smiled and replied in English, “I’m here for your safety.”
Intrigued, I pressed him. “Oh, is this town very dangerous? Did something bad happen here? I see lots of government signs about terrorism.”
“Society is difficult,” he said obliquely. “This is a small town and something could happen suddenly.”
I went into a clothing shop, no bigger than 10 by 10 feet, with one way in and out. Behind a curtain, I tried on a dress. The officers waited just on the other side of the fabric.
They followed us to our hotel. The clerk informed us the hotel had no Internet. I asked the officers why the entire city was cut off. “Maybe the Internet has some problem,” said one.
I went up to my room. An hour later, my assistant and I slipped out the back door, avoiding the lobby where the shadows had camped out.
We walked around for a while. An elderly Han woman running a minimart said she was happy she had migrated from Shaanxi province to Xinjiang years ago, though she described her Uighur customers as lazy and simple-minded.
Down the street, a Han clerk sat in his empty computer shop. Business had dried up since the Internet was shut off, he said. Yarkand, he continued, was unsafe.
We kept walking, into an underground shopping mall. A Uighur proprietor welcomed us into his shop. He talked of his 3-month-old son, his love for Kobe Bryant, his dreams that his boy would study English. He complained about the restrictions on the Internet, and how few Westerners come to Yarkand these days.
Closing up for the night, he rolled down the metal shop door and walked us to a nearby fruit market.
“Take my number. If you have any problems, you can call me,” he said, pulling out his cellphone.
Great, I thought, until he added — unaware of our experience that day — “I’ve got friends everywhere, even with the police.”