Frontline World

China - Silenced, January 2005

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "Silenced"

Secret Meetings and an Unexpected Arrest

Who are the Uighurs? The People of Xinjiang Province

Uighur History, Separatism, U.S.-China Relationships, Uighurs in Guantanamo, Uighur News




Interview With Serene Fang: Secret Meetings and an Unexpected Arrest
Part Two: Arrest and Disappearance

Fang with a book vendor

A book vendor in Kashgar offers an English-language Koran.
How did you get interested in this? Why did you go off to the far reaches of western China?

I had never heard of the Uighurs until I first went there in 2000, as a tourist, to see the Buddhist artifacts I noticed that there was this tension between the Chinese and the Uighurs. I wanted to know more about how a nation like China is dealing with its own Muslim population.

So last summer you set off to Xinjiang with your co-producer and camerawoman, Monica Lam.

Fang on a plane

On the flight from Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, to Kashgar, the traditional center of Uighur culture and religion.
We were there for about three weeks. We started out in the south of Xinjiang, in Kashgar. It's the traditional Uighur homeland, where a lot of the traditional culture remains the same. And we made our way north, basically running the length of the province up into Gulja, a city where a lot of Uighur protests have taken place and where the greatest crackdown has happened. Gulja is about an hour from the border of Kazakhstan. We crossed the border to meet with members of the refugee Uighur community. We shipped our videotapes back to the United States from Kazakhstan. Then we crossed the border back into China, went back to Beijing and flew home from there.

During that trip did you have any problems?

At the China-Kazakhstan border, [officials] stopped us; they searched us and questioned us. It took about seven hours. They were very thorough in terms of looking through all of our luggage, all of our notebooks. The Chinese border guards basically kept us all day. And let us through 10 minutes before the border closed.

View from a plane window

The Tian Shan, or Heavenly Mountains.
You went as a tourist. You did not apply for a journalist's visa. Why?

Previous times that I've reported in China I've never gone with a journalist's visa. If you do that, it can take a really long time to get the visa, it can be very expensive and for sure you will be followed. Monica and I were worried that if we were followed, we might cause a good deal of trouble for some of the people we were interviewing. Xinjiang is a very sensitive area of China, like Tibet. The news is tightly controlled. We were thinking that if we went in as low-profile people, just went to the usual tourist spots, carrying a very small camera, that we would be OK.

And apparently, on that first trip, you were.

Fang in an instrument store

A store for Uighur musical instruments.
We thought we were. We thought we weren't being watched. We thought we did not raise any red flags. But as I learned on my second trip, they had watched us almost the entire way. Not only did they watch us in China, but they also crossed the border and watched us and the people we interviewed in Kazakhstan.

How did the Uighurs respond to you and Monica -- two Chinese Americans?

Uighurs feel a lot of affinity toward people who are Taiwanese and people who are from Hong Kong. Those people may look Han but they're also trying to assert their independence and trying to build their democracy. One of the most common questions Monica and I got was, "Are you Han?" Every single person would ask this, wanting to know first of all if we were Korean or other Asian. Once they heard that we were American, they tended to be friendlier to us.

Fang in Kashgar’s animal market

Visiting Kashgar's animal market with a Uighur tour guide.
There was one incident in Gulja. We had gone to a bazaar and were talking to this guy who was selling bracelets, trinkets. As soon as we told him we were Americans, he pulled out this pamphlet and he said look here, there's this American woman in this picture. I think what he was really trying to show us was that next to her was a picture of Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur woman, a very famous businesswoman who was in prison just for giving some newspapers to a visiting American delegation. When she was trying to deliver this package, she was arrested and subsequently imprisoned for eight years. So this man was pointing to that American woman, but I felt what he really wanted to say was, "Look at Rebiya Kadeer. Look at her and remember that incident."

He was communicating in code.

With strangers. We asked him if we could film it [the magazine photo] and he said, "No, no, no."

Alim Seytoff

Alim Seytoff, exile and dissident, Uighur American Association.
So there's a lot of suspicion there on all sides.

I think the Uighurs don't trust other Uighurs there. The Chinese don't trust the Uighurs. The Uighurs don't trust the Chinese, obviously. It's a very strange climate.

Did you try to make contact with any Uighur dissidents?

On the first trip, we met a man who was a good friend of a Uighur man living in the United States. He wasn't a dissident, just a leader in his local community. He had a good job and spoke very good English. When he met us at our hotel for the first time, we thought he was absolutely unforgettable. His name was Dilkex Tilivaldi. He was very articulate. But at the same time he was terrified, just to come to our hotel to see us. Not to say anything particularly inflammatory, just to see us. He sat in our hotel room trembling, for close to an hour, and refused to be videotaped. Here, sitting in our hotel room, was the embodiment of the fear and the results of this policy that China has had toward the Uighurs these last 50 years. I felt that in order to tell this story, someone like that had to be shown.

Alimjan Tilivaldi

Alimjan Tilivaldi, a Uighur who works at a refugee and legal aid organization in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
So when I came back to the United States, I contacted his friends and said I was still interested in talking to Dilkex if there was another situation where he would be more comfortable. In the fall, he emailed me. He said he was getting ready to go to Turkey. He was trying to leave China. Since our first meeting, he'd felt things shift for him and felt it was important for him to leave as soon as possible and even leave behind his wife and three children. But before he left, he wanted to do the interview. So we arranged a time via Internet. And at the end of October 2004, I flew back to China and went to the capital in Urumqi and met him.

This time you were alone. You were videotaping the interview yourself. What did Dilkex tell you?

It was a short interview. About 15 or 20 minutes. He was still very frightened. And he didn't feel very safe where we held the interview, which was in his hotel room. I asked him to explain how he was feeling. He said if the government knew that he had come to talk to me, he would be punished, very severely. He talked about the fact that Uighurs aren't allowed to express themselves. He didn't say that he wanted [the Uighurs] to separate from China. He didn't talk about separatism. He simply said that they wanted to be able to speak freely. I asked him -- because he comes from a city where there is a lot of restiveness -- if he knew if there were terrorists in Gulja. He said he didn't know of any -- just that most people were discontented with the way they were treated and the difficulty of trying to eke out a life as a Uighur in that part of the country. As far as I was concerned, he didn't say anything that remotely jeopardized state security. It was mostly about free speech.

Statue of Mao

A giant statue of Mao overlooks People's Park, Kashgar's main gathering space.
So this was not a fire-eating al Qaeda type you were talking to?

Not at all. Dilkex brought with him a list he had written. The list had about 20 names and the ages of Uighurs he said had been either imprisoned or executed. But that list later became a big problem for him.

You complete the interview. He's nervous. You both decide to leave the hotel where he's staying. Then what happens?

Well, I guess I should say it's not really a hotel the way we think of a hotel. There's no sign, there's no lobby. Basically, it's just a concrete building. His was a bare room with a bed and a heater and nothing else. When we left the room, it was early evening. The sun had set. As soon as we got out the front door, we walked down the driveway a little bit. I turned to say something to him, and out of the corner of my eye, I noticed these two men dressed in plain dark clothing walking toward us. They walked toward us, grabbed his arm, grabbed my arm, showed us some kind of identification, said they were police and told us we needed to go back upstairs to his room with them.

Fang sits near a fountain in Aksu

In downtown Aksu, a predominantly Chinese town.
That was a shock.

It was a shock. It was a horrifying moment. You just felt there was nothing you could do.

How did Dilkex react?

He was very quiet until we got to his room. They had him take off his jacket and empty out his pockets. And they told him to stand against the wall. And he was so frightened. He was so frightened that he fell to his knees and passed out. After he came to, they let him sit on the bed. Then after a while they took him into another room. When they brought him back, he was crying. And the rest of the time that I was with him, he was just crying. Crying with his head in his hands.

How long did this ordeal go on?

He and I were in his hotel room for about two hours. Most of that time he was with me. They looked through my things, they looked through his things. They questioned him a bit. After that, about 9 or 9:30 in the evening, they took him away. I don't know where. I've not heard another thing about him.

They questioned me for about 24 hours on and off. They let me sleep for about five hours. After 24 hours, they released me. I had only one videotape, and they took it. And I'm assuming it's now evidence. Evidence against him. The police would not give me their names.

They questioned you for a long time. What did they want to know?

They asked me again and again and again why was I so interested in terrorists, why was I so interested in terrorism, why did I want to talk to terrorists. Just again and again conflating the words terrorist, Uighur, separatist. In their minds, it was all one thing. I tried to say as little as possible.

They wanted to know who I worked for. They wanted to know what my motivations were in coming to China. They wanted to know how I met this man. They wanted to know what my intentions were in terms of what the final product was going to be. They also wanted to let me know that they knew a lot about me. I had no idea that they had followed me the whole first trip. So I think part of it was to let me know that I couldn't come here and do this, that this particular part of China was very closely observed.

What did they say when you asked them where they had taken Dilkex?

They told me not to worry, that it was none of my business. And that was kind of their attitude toward whatever question I had about him. This was a Chinese affair -- I should go back to my own country. I should mind my own business.

Were you threatened? What was going through your mind?

They didn't physically threaten me. I never felt that I was going to be hit. Maybe it was naïve, but I felt that being American, I was not going to be hauled off and tortured somewhere. I was not going to be killed. The worst they could do was hold me there. So the whole time I was in custody, I didn't feel fear for myself. I felt fear for my subject, who was not protected as a citizen of America the way I was. The history of China's treatment of Uighurs in their custody was very severe, so I was worried about him. I'm still extremely worried about him.

There were four men questioning me. Whenever they left, they would have two young women come in. I would have never guessed that these two young women were part of state security. They were young, very cheerful, cell phones ringing every half hour. It was bizarre, a surreal kind of situation. It was a big operation. About 10 or 11 police came and went.

That's a lot of attention for one reporter.

For one insignificant reporter -- very surprising.

What was the hardest part of this for you?

I think, professionally, it's accepting that there's no way to get information about Dilkex. There's just no recourse. There's no sense of a process [in China] protecting his rights. Personally, I guess it's just feeling that I brought this upon somebody. I knew there were risks. He knew there were risks. But he's had to pay the price. And he's the only one who had to pay the price -- for something so small as telling me his own story. He'd seen a lot and wanted to be able to talk about it. He took a great risk to do so, and we were caught.

I didn't realize that China's state security apparatus was quite so aggressive. At least, in that province. And I think to a certain extent, he didn't know it either. He wasn't aware of how invested the Chinese are in keeping all information about that region out of the news.

Chinese teenagers

Chinese teenagers buy cigarettes in Aksu.
We hear so much about China opening up. In fact, we did a story like that on FRONTLINE/World ["Shanghai Nights"]. But when it comes to reporting about the Uighurs, it seems like a line that you're not supposed to cross.

I think that's true. Those police told me that they could keep me for as long as they wanted, and they weren't going to inform anybody where I was. And when they were questioning me, I never felt like they were concerned about finding out what the truth was. I felt it was about punishment. Punishment for this man for coming to see me. Punishment for me for coming to China to talk about Uighurs.

You were completely out of touch for 24 hours. When they finally said, "We're done with you now," what did you do?

The first place I contacted was the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. The first thing they said is that we're not alone on this telephone line, so be careful what you say. They advised me to come back to Beijing immediately. That's where I could start requesting information about this man. The next day I flew back to Beijing, made an appointment to see the embassy and contacted people in the States to let them know what had happened.

Do you have any information on where Dilkex is and what's happening to him?

Subashi ruins

Near Kuche, the Subashi ruins of a fourth-century Buddhist culture.
At the moment, I'm waiting to find out if there's any information available at all on his status. Has he been formally charged? Has he been formally detained? It's hard to do because there's no office you can call. A contact gave me the number for a department in the foreign ministry in Beijing, so I called them -- they won't say anything. I also contacted the U.S. State Department. All their conversations with me are off the record, but at this point, they too have reached a dead end. His friend in the United States tried to find out what happened to him through indirect sources in Xinjiang, but could not get specific information, and ultimately he felt it was too risky for his family and friends to be receiving calls from the United States. I have also contacted human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, Human Rights in China, the Laogai Research Foundation and the Dui Hua Foundation.

This is an ongoing story as far as what can be done about your source. What can you tell us about what's happening now with Dilkex?

As it's been outlined to me, there are two schools of thought. One is to stay quiet. If you make too much noise, they may think he's a bigger fish than he is. They may decide to punish him more severely because he has brought this attention to China that they don't want. The other school of thought is that if you don't say anything, they'll do whatever they want with him. They'll make an example of him for the local population. In that case, things could go very badly for him. Initially, I thought it was best to try quiet diplomacy -- to make requests through government agencies and foundations, to let the Chinese authorities know that Dilkex would not be forgotten and that people in the international community care about his well-being. It was a decision to not be adversarial, but also to not be silent. It's a tricky situation because no matter what approach I take, there are risks for Dilkex.

Uighur groups have said to me that if people want to help, they can write a letter to the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., to express their concern about Dilkex's welfare and to request information about his status. Or people can contact members of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus and request that a letter be sent to the Chinese Embassy on Dilkex's behalf. Some -- experts on China and human rights advocates -- have said that if he gets three to five years in prison, I should just be happy for him and just not say anything.

Three to five years just for talking to you?

Three to five years in prison. The Chinese have this extra judicial process called "reeducation through labor" that entitles them to take people away for three years, send them to a labor camp or prison, not inform anybody, not charge them with anything. Just send them away for three years.

Do you have any regrets?

I do. I subscribe to this journalistic ethic that it's important to get the truth out. But the price was very high -- and I didn't have to pay it. [She cries.] 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 it.

Dilkex clearly wanted to talk to you. He traveled a great distance to talk to you.

He did. The first time I met him, he was terrified, you could see it in his physical manner. He was shrinking and trembling and just looked ill. The second time I met him, in Urumqi, he seemed like a different man. When I saw him on the street, he seemed like he'd made his decision. He seemed confident and strong and happy to be there. That all changed pretty quickly after he was arrested. But for that brief moment, he seemed like he'd decided to do this and he was happy about it.

What was your last image of him?

The last image I have of him is that they [the police] were kind of pushing him out the door of his hotel room and he sort of stumbled on his way out the door. That's it.

I'm sorry you had to go through this.

I'm sorry this had to happen to Dilkex.

Part One: The Wild West -- The Roots of Uighur Nationalism

Return to Intro

back to top