Reporting in Xinjiang: ‘A war zone with no war’

As Ramadan starts, Muslims in Xinjiang, China, face tight restrictions. Our reporter gives a firsthand account of China’s crackdown in Xinjiang. 

Ng Han Guan/AP/File
Uyghur security personnel patrol near the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar in western China’s Xinjiang region on Nov. 4, 2017. China keeps the Uyghurs, the Muslim minority group from the region, under constant surveillance. The government has interned an estimated 1 million members of the Uyghur and other Muslim minority groups in detention camps.

The Monitor’s new Beijing bureau chief Ann Scott Tyson knows how to report in extreme circumstances. She spent a decade as a war correspondent. But she’s never experienced anything like China’s surveillance in its Xinjiang province.

Listen as Ann discusses what it’s like to be followed by plainclothes police and the impacts of that surveillance on the Uyghur population.

LISTEN: Reporting in Xinjiang

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ANN SCOTT TYSON: So I was in my hotel room in Hotan and at about five something in the morning I am woken up by this blasting shrill Chinese propaganda music.


ANN: And I get up, open the window and literally this music – it’s pitch dark outside. The town is quiet. I mean everybody’s asleep. You could see some flashing lights of police cars. You see a gigantic red and white propaganda billboard across the street.

REBECCA ASOULIN: I’m Rebecca Asoulin, the engagement editor for the Monitor and this is Ann Scott Tyson, the Monitor’s new Beijing bureau chief. The sleeping town – or formerly asleep town – Ann is describing is an oasis town called Hotan. The city is in Xinjiang – a vast desert region in the northwest of China.

ANN: And this music, this patriotic music, is just resonating for miles all around this silent sleeping town and I filmed it and then shortly after that I started hearing these shouts.


ANN: And it was two platoons of the People’s Liberation Army that were jogging through the town and had ended up at this track that they were jogging around. 

REBECCA: For decades, China has been cracking down on Xinjiang. Since 2017, the government has detained between 1 to 2 million Muslims from the region in reeducation camps. Most have never been formally charged with a crime. 

In the fall, Ann reported a three-part series for us on the repression in the region. She previously reported from China in the 1980s and early 90s. She also spent a decade as a war correspondent in Afghanistan and Iraq after the U.S. invasion.

So back to her story of her first night in Hotan. The shouting soldiers and the blaring propaganda music had both woken Ann up. But she started to wonder about the sounds she wasn’t hearing.

ANN: It occurred to me how perhaps a few years ago you might have still heard the call to prayer from mosques in the area. Many, many mosques have been torn down. No one’s worshipping at the mosques anymore because they’re too afraid to. There are no calls to prayers from the mosques. 

And I was reflecting on what it is like for the Uyghur population – the Uyghurs are the minority group that predominantly live in Xinjiang – to be woken up with this in-your-face reminder of the government and the oppressive system that they’re living under.

REBECCA: What was that display for – does it happen everyday?

ANN: It happens every weekday as far as I could tell. It doesn’t only happen at that time of the morning. It happens throughout the day. It is just a constant psychological pressure.

REBECCA: While you were reporting what kind of surveillance did you experience?

ANN: Constant surveillance from the minute I got off the plane. The first night I was there when I got to my hotel – this was in Kashgar, the main city in the far westernmost side of Xinjiang – I received a phone call and they asked me to come down to the lobby and they introduced themselves in English as Tommy and Stan and they showed me their badges and they told me my restrictions – the only restrictions supposedly that I faced – which were I could not photograph police or military. 

And that obviously was difficult to do because there’s such an intense security presence everywhere especially in cities in Xinjiang. And they also sort of commented that well, I may see them around town occasionally. And of course starting from the very next morning I saw them continuously in their sunglasses walking around, you know following me everywhere I went and interfering sometimes more aggressively and sometimes less aggressively.

REBECCA: I mean that sounds incredibly stressful and I know you’ve also reported in Iraq and Afghanistan  you've been a war correspondent. 

ANN: Yes, I have been to war zones many times. I’m very used to a lot of guns and danger and things blowing up and exploding and functioning in that type of an environment. But the thing about Xinjiang is that it was like being in a war zone with no war, with no fighting. There was no actual danger and the danger and the pressure was all psychological and for the local population, the Uyghur population, it was the threat of being taken away and the fear. 

And what made it more difficult and very challenging was that, I mean in a war zone you can talk to people and they will talk to you. They will pour out their emotions and their experiences and can share that. But in Xinjiang because of the repression there everyone is afraid to talk to you and I’m very nervous about asking people things that could in turn endanger to them. 

REBECCA: Ann very carefully talked to dozens of people. The interviews that stuck with her the most were the ones she had with young adolescents. These children spoke excellent Mandarin. Part of China’s forced assimilation of the Uyghurs is eradicating the minority group’s language. Many of these 10- to 14-year-olds said their fathers had been taken off to training camps. China says these camps and the country’s web of repressive policies limiting religious and other freedoms exist to counter extremism. 

ANN: They see this as their war on terrorism. So from the government perspective by taking all these people in and teaching them Chinese, teaching them about China’s laws, doing their political indoctrination, they view this as a relatively good way to ensure that extremism and terrorism does not gain a foothold in Xinjiang. Most people would view this as a horrible overreaction to the level of violence that has ever existed there. The bottom line of a lot of the repression that goes on in China is that the Communist Party feels that its hold on power is essential to its survival – and to the survival of China and the country. 

REBECCA: China’s policies in Xinjiang disturb Ann for two main reasons.

ANN: It’s difficult to look at them and not view them as an attempt to really wipe out the cultural identity and the ethnic heritage of an entire population. I don’t really think there’s anything similar going on anywhere else in the world today. And it’s also troubling because nothing seems to be stopping them from carrying this out. There has been some, I think, impact of the reporting that’s going on and bringing this to light I think is a form of pressure on the government. They know that people are aware of and monitoring to the extent possible what’s going on.

REBECCA: Are there a couple of big issues that you feel like every reporter who’s in China has on their list of things to be looking into, to be thinking about? 

ANN: I think that everyone is watching this shift away from the trend of reform and opening that it set in the 1980s when there was a belief that ended up being misplaced that China would embrace greater political freedom at that time. And now China’s leadership is really taking it in another direction away from that and consolidating the control of the Communist Party in so many ways that from the outside seem extreme.

So where will China go from here? And what will China’s impact be on the rest of the world as it goes through this process?

REBECCA: Ann last reported from Beijing for the Monitor in the early 1990s when China seemed to be moving toward democracy. 

REBECCA: So I know – at least I think I know this – that while you were working for the Monitor the last time, you were working and living in the same office that you went back to. 

ANN: It is the same building. Yes. And in the same diplomatic compound where I lived and worked before. I immediately recognized that when I approached the building and got into the elevator and went up into the series of rooms that form the bureau. 

REBECCA: Tucked away in the bureau’s files, she found articles and notes on scraps of paper that she had written 30 years ago.

ANN: I feel a sense of ownership in wanting to keep this special perch that the Monitor has in Beijing. It’s a special place for watching China. For watching the change over all of these decades.


REBECCA: Thanks for listening. Ann will be heading back to China soon. So we want to know: Do you have more questions about the situation in Xinjiang? Or other questions about China? You can leave us a voicemail at (617) 450-2025 or email us at Ann may look into your question.

This story was produced by me, Rebecca Asoulin, and Samantha Laine Perfas. Thank you to Yvonne Zipp and Molly Jackson for editing assistance and to sound engineers Noel Flatt, Jeff Turton, and Tim Malone.

Copyright 2019 by The Christian Science Monitor. 

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