How Did I Become Such a World Renowned Expert on Xinjiang?
In fact, I didn’t, so why the widely extravagant title? It’s not meant to be clickbait because many people think I am and many people believe I know what’s happening there. The fact is, I’m not and I don’t.
However, something I do know is this: the popular narrative of suppression, forced labour, concentration camps, religious, cultural, and now stories about population, genocide with forced abortions and mass sterilisations are so widely reported and accepted as the truth; doesn’t seem to me, to be true at all.
Earlier this week, a very senior Chinese diplomat asked me a very simple question but I’m afraid I wasn’t able to give him what he wanted. He asked me if I have pictures of Uyghurs but the only answer I could provide was just one picture.
How is it then, that I, a person who has travelled to Xinjiang many times, doesn’t have loads of pictures of Uyghurs, well, I guess if I search my files and folders I will find more. But to me, the question is more like when I travel to London someone asking me if I have pictures of Londoners. The answer would be the same, I have plenty of pictures of London, but I wasn’t conducting any social experiment, I wasn’t studying anthropology, I wasn’t a journalist pretending to be a tourist, I was simply a tourist travelling through and the idea of stopping and taking pictures of the locals, to me, didn’t seem very important. The reason it wasn’t important is that they are just normal people doing their normal things on a day to day basis, which is why it doesn’t gel with me when people tell me there are concentration camps and 10–30% (depending on who’s opinion the world is listening to today) are in a prison or some sort of re-education program.
Xinjiang is very different from other places; security is indeed very tight. We all know there’s been terrorist incidents in Xinjiang and we all know there is a counter-terrorism operation in place. This counter-terrorism action has been praised by the UN (visit in 2019 by UN Counter-terrorism Chief Vladimir Voronkov is widely reported if you search Google) but the report has been suppressed by the UN because it failed to take into account the alleged human rights abuses and focused on the fact that there hasn’t been a terrorist incident there for nearly 4 years. So, being hailed as a success for counter-terrorism measures by the UN is not what the world wants to hear or read about.
Labelling the Chinese government as human rights abusers, genocidal, totalitarian, dictatorial oppressors, seems to be more what the world wants, and opposing governments need the world to hear and see.
Let’s talk about the security and what I saw there. It’s intense, it’s ubiquitous, it’s annoying and it’s pervasive. It’s also intimidating, so, when people go there for short visits the obvious feeling is a feeling of being controlled and monitored. After a few days however you start to see the real picture.
It’s actually not as bad as it appears, let me explain: We were in Urumqi waiting for our bikes to arrive so we could start a 4,500-kilometre ride back to Guangdong. There were a few things we needed to buy for our bikes which we hadn’t already bought, packed and dispatched, knowing they would be easy to get in any bike shop in Urumqi. On our third morning in the capital city of Xinjiang, we went into KFC for a coffee, walked through a metal detector and I was carrying a few things I had bought. The metal detector rang, buzzed and the lights were flashing, there was a security guard there and I opened the bag to show him, but he just waved me through. A few hours later, we were attempting to buy cannisters of gas for our camping stove, we were able to get them and took them back to the hotel, I put them on the conveyor belt and walked though the metal detector in our hotel entry, the buzzers and lights started again but the security guard just smiled and waved us through — I had, in my bag, on the X-ray machine, two potential bombs in the form of gas cannisters, but they knew who we were, they knew what we were planning (because we’d told them to expect our bikes in several large packages later that day) and, once again, they waved us through with a smile.
Entering a pedestrian mall, each person goes to the facial recognition scanner, holds up their ID card to the reader, the scanner matches the ID card and the face, then allows entry for that one person. It got a little awkward for me, because I don’t have an ID card, I was carrying my passport but that won’t work. When we needed to get into a pedestrian Mall, my wife could get in but, seemingly, I couldn’t. That is until a very helpful, smiling and friendly security officer scanned her own ID and told me to go through behind my wife.
So, a couple of examples where the security appears to be really tight, but in fact was friendly, helpful and no problem to us, because we were doing the right thing at the right time, in the right place.
Walking past a petrol station (gas station for US readers) I noticed a line of motor bikes in the street outside, the station staff were walking back and forth to fill the bikes with a watering can, the motor bikes were not allowed into the station which was manned by several security guards. Furthermore, each car was only allowed in after any passengers had alighted, the driver had his face scanned, his ID card examiner and the large, secure fence was rolled back to allow that one car in, but not until the one car before it had left. So, no motor bikes, no passengers and only one car, with one driver allowed into the station at a time.
Looking at schools was interesting, barbed wire fencing all around the schools, the entry was limited to one turnstile, kids go in one at a time after their ID has been scanned and the turnstile operates for one turn. Several security guards standing both inside and outside the gates. Across the driveway, there is, what can only be described as a “tank barrier” a large, rolling barrier, over a metre tall, on wheels so it can be rolled back but with barbed wire wrapped around it and massive metal spikes sticking out of it — a school! But, as far as I know there hasn’t been an incident in a school in China for a long time — The USA were happy that April this year was the first April in 10 years when there wasn’t a school shooting, and that was only because all the schools were closed! I know which system I prefer.
I didn’t take any pictures of these, for obvious reasons, when the security is this tight, they have a darn good reason. As a former police officer, who has worked in some diplomatic and royalty protection areas I respect that the police here don’t want their pictures taken.
Again, these more serious examples of security are there for the safety of the people using them. Are they invasive, yes, indeed they are, but are they an abuse of human rights? I would question that they are, since they have never cost anyone anything other than a little bit of time and not one person in Xinjiang has lost their life to terrorism since they started doing these things.
If an undocumented person tries to wander around any of the places I’ve been to in Xinjiang, it would be a very short time before the realised, they can walk the streets all the like, but they can’t enter a supermarket, a wet market, a shopping centre, a hotel, a restaurant or even McDonald’s without being checked and it means they can’t do anything they shouldn’t be doing: restriction of human rights? Yes, it could be construed that way, but good for the general population: indeed it is. A terrorist, a smuggler, a burglar, a thief or anyone else with nefarious purposes would be caught in minutes — so their human rights are definitely infringed and people there, including myself say it’s a good thing.
A certain “western expert” has postulated on the massive purchases of barbed wire, chain link fencing and many other things, I can see that there is a very large amount of it and I can understand why any expert looking a requisitions of these kinds of materials would draw an obvious conclusion, however, a visit to the city, and any other town or city in Xinjiang would show the products being well used in a region that needs to use these products and may make a real expert consider the errors of the previously drawn conclusions.
In the hotel reception there are several security officers at any given time. None carry a firearm, but all have a baton and what can best be described as a restrainer, a long pole with a semicircle on the end for holding people at arms-length. These are known as cattle prods in the paperwork that has been in circulation and are very useful tools for restraining people — much better than guns.
Each time I asked anyone what do you think of all the security, I was given the same answer: “I feel safer”.
It’s eminently possible that I was deceived by the dozens of people I asked the question of, but I think it’s more likely that the people exposed to this daily scrutiny have accepted it as the norm, albeit a different norm to ours, and is simply the price they pay for having lived in an area that has been victim to a great deal of fear and terror — but is no longer that way.
Getting out of Urumqi after our bikes arrived and were assembled was easy, we packed the bikes up on the forecourt of the hotel, settled our bill and, when we were ready, we just rolled out of the car park, turned left and started riding towards Guangdong, 57 days and over 4,000 kilometres away.
I keep reading that Xinjiang is a secretive place, it’s a place riddled with work camps, enforced labour camps, re-education centres, prisons and even concentration camps. I read that people are not allowed to travel outside the cities and not allowed to take photographs anywhere, that we need guides (sanctioned by “the Party”) to show us where we could go and where we couldn’t — this couldn’t be further from the truth.
We rode for about an hour, out of the suburbs and into a very arid region which is the outer reaches of the Taklamakan Deseret. A dangerous place for the unprepared. About 90 minutes out of our hotel we were thinking about stopping for a break when we saw ahead of us a huge building which the road curves into, the drive straight ahead is blocked by oil drums — this was to be the first of many city checkpoints. Each town and city has one at the outer edge and they check everyone going into the city. We were funnelled into the driveway by police officers carrying serious looking firearms. We parked the bikes, walked into a very nice, modern air conditioned building and were met by a female police officer who asked us to sit down and brought us tea to drink — it was our first experience and we will admit we were feeling somewhat daunted and wondering if we would be sent back — having read a lot about the “clampdown” I was expecting the worst — once again, the opposite happened. Two police officers came and sat with us, they had a book and asked for our passports, they entered all the details into the book, all the while chatting about bikes and riding. Talking about our route and how hard it would be. More tea and bottles of cold water were supplied, a big bowl of fruit was placed in front of us, we ate, chatted, drank water and tea, topped up our bike’s bottles and our backpack sipper bags. Then they asked us to pose for pictures and we were advised that a better way to go, for bikes, would be back 5km turn right and go over one hill to take us towards our destination. The other road is wider, used by more trucks and we might find it dangerous. It was the only time we were suggested to use a different road, perhaps because there was something we might have seen that we shouldn’t or perhaps because the road was actually, as they suggested, steeper and had more trucks — we will never know, but what I do know, is that when we left the building, they didn’t insist we turn around, they just let us ride out freely and make our own decision.
So, the level of security was such that we were checked often, but we were greeted with kindness, helped along the way and never experienced anything remotely resembling an order or even an instruction on where we could or couldn’t go. On my bike, mounted on the handlebars, I had a digital camera, I also had a drone camera in one of my pannier bags. My wife had a digital camera in her handlebar bag and all three of us had mobile phones with good cameras. Not once did anyone ask us to see what photographs we had taken.
We slept in tents under the stars several nights and we slept in a bridge under the road one night. Each time we did this we were unregistered visitors, not sleeping in a hotel could be construed as an offence, not because camping is a crime, but because we were not registered overnight with a temporary address. Yet, when we arrived a checkpoint after two or three days unregistered, not one person asked where we had been the night before. In other words, we were free to ride anywhere, take pictures of anything and no one in any position of authority cared enough to ask us about it.
Hardly the actions of a secretive, authoritarian and oppressing dictatorship”