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Of terror and tourism: Resourceful AP reporting from the Uyghur homeland in China

A farmer walks past Chinese government propaganda depicting ethnic minority residents reading the constitution with a slogan reading: “Unity, Stability is fortune, Separatism and Turmoil is misfortune,” near Kashgar in northwestern China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, March 19, 2021. Four years after Beijing’s brutal crackdown on largely Muslim minorities native to Xinjiang, Chinese authorities are dialing back the region’s high-tech police state and stepping up tourism. But even as a sense of normality returns, fear of the authorities remains, hidden but pervasive. (AP Photo / Ng Han Guan)

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Although discussion of Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghur Muslim minority often focuses on China’s massive Xinjiang province, it’s rare for foreign journalists to actually get access. But access is key to establishing the credibility of conflicting claims by both Xinjiang activists and the Chinese government.

Persistence and dedication by AP journalists won that access, enabling AP to make two trips to the region — the first private, the second hosted by the Chinese government.

During the first, multiformat correspondent Dake Kang, chief photographer Han Guan Ng and video journalist Emily Wang were tailed throughout their visit, and since virtually no hotel would take foreigners, they spent one night sleeping inside the car at a highway rest stop. Their minders parked in formation around them, shining headlights at their car all night long. Kang spent another night at a hotpot joint dozing on his seat. While the team was working, the minders disrupted interviews and dissuaded people from talking to AP.

The second trip, by Kang, photographer Mark Schiefelbein and Greater China news director Ken Moritsugu, was with the government, and the obstacle there was separating fact from fiction. Kang was told constant lies, down to the claim that a mosque was open 24 hours a day when in fact it had been closed on the previous visit.

The biggest challenge in writing the piece was balance. As Kang put it: “How do you write about an atrocity lightening up, while emphasizing that it was and continues to be an atrocity?” The resulting story addresses that delicate point by reporting the changes in the region while putting them in the context of China’s harsh legacy of repression against the Uyghurs.

The story was rich in personal detail throughout,with the text and photos evoking a remote region that attracts tourism even as many still live in fear of Chinese authority. It also drew on the subtleties and insights Kang has gleaned from years of covering the Uyghurs, providing pointed analysis.

AP’s reporting balances policy changes in Xinjiang against China’s harsh legacy of repression in the region.

The best sign that the story succeeded may have been a quote from Gene Bunin,a prominent Xinjiang researcher and founder of the Xinjiang Victims Database: “Uyghur activists will hate if for not fitting their agenda,as will the tankie trolls. But it’s the truth.”

For a rare and illuminating on-the-ground look at the Uyghur homeland and Chinese policy in Xinjiang,the team of Kang,Ng, Schiefelbein and Wang is AP’s Best of the Week — Second Winner.

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