Reporting from the Far West

Al Jazeera travels through China's border region to speak with members of the Uigher population - and is shadowed by plainclothes officers for the entire duration of the trip.


    With our Al Jazeera crew, I visited a part of China that borders Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Pakistan, and is populated by a Muslim Turkic ethnic minority known as the Uighurs.

    Several decades ago, Uighurs constituted 90 per cent of the population in this area.

    But China's economic development has changed Xinjiang's demographics, with Beijing's encouragement that more of the country's majority, the Han Chinese, settle in the region.

    Today, about 40 to 45 per cent of the people of Xinjiang are Uighurs. The majority has become the minority.

    While human migration has been as old as the existence of humans themselves, and almost inevitable, China's policies to settle the Far West have been criticised.

    Violence directed at the Han Chinese newcomers flared in the 1990s, and once again in recent years. 

    The Chinese government has claimed that Xinjiang's latest attacks have been masterminded by terrorists trained from jihadist camps in Pakistan, but even looking past recent events, 2009 saw ethnic violence spill onto the streets of Urumqi as ordinary residents, Han versus Uighur, pitted themselves against each other in a battle that left almost 200 dead.

    It has been under these circumstances that our team traveled across Xinjiang.

    Viewers may notice an insufficient representation of Uighur voices in our stories.

    On the one hand, there are about an equal number of Han Chinese now living in Xinjiang as Uighurs, and their voices should be included.

    On the other hand, we were followed by plainclothes officers for the entire duration of our trip as we hopped from Urumqi, to Kashgar, to Hotan. 

    As many as seven or eight men in two vehicles would follow the team from a distance of 300 metres behind. 

    At almost no point were we ever prevented from carrying out our work, but it did not seem wise to approach Uighurs and ask them questions, either.

    In one instance, we were approached by a curious local. A Uighur blacksmith peddling knives wrought with intricate designs came up to speak to us.

    After about a one-minute conversation, I excused myself. Some 30 seconds later, he was pulled aside by plainclothes police officers and questioned about the contents of our conversation.

    We were not entirely unwelcome. The foreign affairs offices in both Urumqi and Kashgar assisted us as much as they could and said we were welcome to report freely in Xinjiang as far as they were concerned.

    The Kashgar office helped with the proper introductions to visit the dairy farm which you can see in my report here.

    The openness of certain departments within the government against the restrictiveness of others should be instructional for Chinese officials if they care about how international media organisations cover the country. 

    Our access to the dairy farm was informative, and I was able to report the encouraging fact that the majority of workers there were ethnic Uighurs: proof that at least in some instances, the investments the country has made in Xinjiang have directly benefited the ethnic minority.

    For the rest of our trip, we were disadvantaged by the fact that we had no Uighur-language translator.

    One had been hired, only to be dragged to the police station the night before our team's arrival. Interrogated and threatened, he opted out of working for us.

    Therefore we could not ask any questions examining the migration issue, the possible sense of identity lost on the part of Uighurs, the feelings locals may have about their loss of their homogeneity in the region, or perhaps their ambivalence about the money pouring into the area.

    We could not report by asking questions, so we reported as best we could by observation.

    In our stories, you will see old alleyways compared to new, gleaming structures. You will see paved highways where there were once dirt roads. Yet, you will also see an entire population of people, voiceless in our pieces.

    In Hotan, we finally had the chance to speak to some Uighurs. There, Uighurs are still the majority, at above 95 per cent of the population.

     The cars that had been following us for 300 metres every step of the way stopped short of driving down the banks to the river, and out of shot of the highway and behind boulders, we spent some time with Uighur jade diggers.

    Without a translator, nothing was communicated, except through smiles and nods.

    One of the men sang us a song in their unfamiliar language. I managed to copy down one of their mobile phone numbers, and later asked the receptionist at our hotel to ring the number up in the evening.

    No trouble had come to the group for spending time with us, and I rest assured that even our pursuers saw no harm in speaking to humble jade diggers.

    You can view my series of reports: from Urumqi, Kashgar and Hotan.



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