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Rimmed by snow-covered
mountains, Xinjiang is a mostly desert province in western China
that is home to 8 million Sufi Muslims known as the Uighurs.
FRONTLINE/World correspondent Serene Fang traveled to
Xinjiang to see how China treats its Muslim population. But
this trip would also become a reporter's nightmare after a fateful
encounter with a Uighur man and a repressive government.
"Coming here changed my life," Fang says.
Desolate Xinjiang is the Chinese equivalent of Siberia -- it's where the Chinese built penal colonies and where the country's only nuclear testing site is located. In the streets of Kashgar, Fang sees people who look very different from Han Chinese -- the majority ethnic group in China -- with features more like those of people in nearby Pakistan or far-off Turkey. Fang notes that Uighurs practice a relaxed form of Islam -- the men drink alcohol and the women wear bright head scarves and rarely don veils. However, Fang says, Chinese authorities are concerned that militant Islamic ideas might seep through the open border with Pakistan.
Since China took firm control of Xinjiang 50 years ago, immigrants from the overcrowded east have streamed into the region. Over the years, Uighurs have protested Chinese control numerous times, only to be defeated by crackdowns. Fang obtains footage smuggled out of China that shows Uighurs attacking a Chinese party headquarters in Hotan in 1995.
The Chinese have called Uighur dissidents Islamic terrorists. "There were
about 20 Uighurs caught in Afghanistan, fighting alongside the
Taliban," Fang says. "They have been held in Guantánamo
for years." However, the United States is now prepared to release
them, saying they pose no threat to America. But Secretary of
State Powell announced that they would not be repatriated to
China for fear they would be executed.
Because independent reporting is forbidden in this region, Fang and her co-producer Monica Lam visit as tourists and carry one small video camera. Their Chinese tour guide tells them that originally, the military had stationed him in Xinjiang -- a "hardship post" that he slowly grew accustomed to. As he drives Fang and Lam to a lake near the Pakistan border, their guide makes the statement that the Uighurs don't eat pork because their ancestors were pigs.
The next day, Fang hires a Uighur guide who takes her around the Uighur neighborhoods in Kashgar, which are poorer and more agricultural than the modern Chinese areas in the city. Fang says her Uighur guide was tight-lipped about politics when the camera was rolling, but made a few comments off camera about how difficult life is for Uighurs. She adds that another Uighur man discreetly called her attention to the photo of a famous Uighur businesswoman, Rebiya Kadeer, who was imprisoned for eight years for giving newspapers to a visiting delegation of Americans.
Fang had arranged one interview in advance with a Uighur man, but the meeting was a difficult one. "He was terrified. He sat in our hotel room, trembling, for close to an hour." This man, she adds, seemed to be the "embodiment of the fear and results [of Chinese policy toward the Uighurs]." He could not bring himself to talk on camera.
Determined to meet with a Uighur dissident, Fang returns to the United States and meets with Alim Seytoff, a Uighur exile who has decided to speak out. Together with his brother, Seytoff gained political asylum in the United States. Seytoff explains that his father, who believed that the Uighur minority deserved an independent state, was sentenced to 10 years in a Chinese prison.
Seytoff says that Uighurs are forced to live according to Chinese culture and standards -- a situation that he calls unacceptable. "That's why, as feeble as we are, we're still struggling against Chinese rule," he adds.
While still in the United States, Fang receives an email from the Uighur man in Xinjiang who had been too frightened to talk to her; the situation had gotten worse, he wrote, and he had decided to talk to her.
In October 2004, Fang flew back on her own to Xinjiang to meet with the man.
Fang recounts their conversation: He said the government would punish him severely if it was discovered that he talked to her. He didn't advocate separatism, but said that Uighurs just wanted to speak freely. He said he didn't know of any Uighur terrorists. The man brought with him a list of about 20 Uighurs who he'd read in the newspaper had been imprisoned or executed.
The on-camera interview ended around sunset, and Fang and the Uighur man left his small hotel room together. As they stepped outside, two men grabbed them, showed them police identification and escorted them back to the Uighur man's hotel room.
"They had him stand against the wall," recalls Fang. "He was so frightened that he fell to his knees and passed out. They took him to another room, and when they brought him back, he was just crying. Crying with his head in his hands."
Fang says that as the Chinese police interrogated her, they kept asking her why she was so interested in terrorists. "Again and again, just conflating the words 'terrorist,' 'Uighur,' 'separatist.' In their minds, it was all one thing," she says.
The Chinese police confiscated Fang's videotape of the interview with the Uighur man.
Fang says that since that October night, she hasn't been able to learn anything about the man's whereabouts. She says human rights advocates have told her that given the record of China's harsh treatment of Uighurs, she should be happy for him if he gets just three to five years in prison.
But now, in an effort to bring attention to his case, she has decided to reveal his identity.
His name is Sitiwaldi (Dilkex) Tilivaldi, and he was taken away on October 19, 2004, by the Chinese authorities.
The whole experience has left Fang shaken.
"I subscribe to journalistic ethics that say that the story is important,
and it's important to get the truth out there," Fang says, shedding
tears. "But the price was very high -- and I didn't have to
pay it. So if I could take it back, I would. I think about his
wife and his children. What are they going to do? So, I regret."
FRONTLINE/World reporters explore different shades
of dissidence in Shanghai and Iran.
Youth culture challenges the Chinese government.
Undercover reporting on dissidents in Iran.
MONICA LAM Produced in association with the UC
BERKELEY GRADUATE SCHOOL OF JOURNALISM
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