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AP offers rare glimpse into world of China’s political indoctrination camps

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Last year, when Beijing correspondent Gerry Shih was working on a series of stories about the Uighurs in China, he learned that a number of citizens from Kazakhstan had been ensnared in a crackdown in the Xinjiang region where Muslims were being indoctrinated in a network of internment camps.

When one of them, Omir Bekali, decided to speak out about his eight-month ordeal in detention and in a so-called re-education center where hundreds of thousands of Muslims are being indoctrinated to disavow their religion, Shih, video journalist Dake Kang and China chief photographer Ng Han Guan traveled 2,000 miles to Almaty to interview him.

Their in-depth, all-formats report on the physical and psychological torment Bekali endured earns the Beat of the Week.

When Bekali was first contacted by Shih in January, he was concerned about talking, fearing Chinese government retribution against his family back in China. But when his family was taken away in March, he decided to go ahead and tell his story.

Shih compiled other accounts to corroborate Bekali’s account of detention and internment. He was able to track down a few other former detainees as well as a former instructor in one of the camps – a crucial and rare find who helped provide details on how the detainees were organized and what kind of behavior was likely to place them under greater scrutiny.

Shih worked closely with China bureau chief Gillian Wong on the story, which was complemented by compelling photos and video.

During the AP team’s visit to Kazakhstan,a Central Asian country where Chinese security and intelligence agents are active,a man believed to be a Chinese agent stopped Kang and Ng while they were filming at the central mosque and called the police. The two were detained for three hours. They were released after police confirmed their identity as AP reporters.

Many of the activists and camp survivors approached for interviews demanded to see the passports and IDs of the AP staff – Chinese-speaking reporters of East Asian descent – since suspicion and paranoia are very strong in these circles of people hiding from the Chinese government. That added to the reporting difficulty.

The AP’s reporting was widely praised, including by the competition:

Stuart Leavenworth,a McClatchy national correspondent,called the story a “must-read” while the New York Times’ investigative reporter Mike Forsythe called it “essential reading on the massive Xinjiang crackdown.” Jessica Meyers,Asia correspondent for the Los Angeles Times,said it was “another impressively reported piece by @gerryshih.” Academics and human rights activists similarly praised the reporting as “outstanding,” “stunning,” “stellar” and “excellent.”

The Washington Post cited AP’s reporting in an editorial and NPR’s All Things Considered interviewed Shih:

For this riveting all-formats package about life inside China’s re-education camps,Shih, Kang and Ng share this week’s Beat of the Week award.

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