A man rests beside a house in Elishku in China’s western Xinjiang region. Elishku was the scene of a bloody clash in July 28, 2014 between villagers protesting against the Chinese regime’s restrictions during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan and the government troops. (Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images)A man rests beside a house in Elishku in China’s western Xinjiang region. Elishku was the scene of a bloody clash in July 28, 2014 between villagers protesting against the Chinese regime’s restrictions during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan and the government troops. (Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images)

Globe and Mail journalist Nathan VanderKlippe, who was briefly detained by Chinese police earlier this week, says he travelled to Elishku in China’s volatile Xinjiang region to find out more about a 2014 violent confrontation between Chinese authorities and the ethnic Uyghurs that exiled groups say resulted in 2,000 deaths.

VanderKlippe, the Globe’s Beijing correspondent, was detained on Wednesday evening, Aug. 23, just as he arrived in Elishku. He had his laptop confiscated by the secret police and was released early Thursday morning.

Similar to Tibet, Xinjiang is a very sensitive region for the Chinese communist regime due to the minority group’s dissatisfaction and occasional protests over the Chinese regime’s suppression of their rights and customs.

The Chinese Communist Party stifles the minority Uyghur group’s Islamic religious activity. Instances include barring Muslims from observing Ramadan, requiring men to shave their beards, forcing women to remove their veils, and coercing them to raise pigs, considered unclean in Muslim culture.

Not much is known about what happened on July 28, 2014, at the end of Ramadan in Elishku. China’s official accounts claim that the violent confrontation was in response to knife- and axe-wielding Uyghurs on a rampage, and put the official death toll at close to 100.

Exiled Uyghur leader Rebiya Kadeer, however, cited evidence from the ground that at least 2,000 Uyghurs had been killed in what she called a massacre. Kadeer told Radio Free Asia that this was the highest reported casualty count in the history of Xinjiang violence.

Kadeer said evidence includes “recorded voice messages from the people in the neighbourhood and written testimonies on exactly what had taken place in Elishku township of Yarkand County during this massacre.”

Suppression of independent reporting of events is all too common in China. There is still no clear account of the death toll of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, with the Chinese regime putting the death toll between 200 to 300 while other estimates put the toll at well over 1,000.

Deteriorating Conditions

According to a survey report by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC), conditions for international press in China continue to deteriorate.

The FCCC’s 2016 survey indicates 98 percent of foreign journalists report that conditions rarely meet international standards and that they face growing cases of harassment, obstruction, and intimidation of sources and local staff.

Close to 60 percent of journalists reported that they had personally experienced some form of interference, harassment, or violence while reporting in China.

Throughout his encounter with the authorities, VanderKlippe said he reminded the police that Chinese law allows him to report and interview anyone who gives consent. But his captors told him that Chinese law doesn’t apply to secret police, and even less so does it apply to a sensitive region like Xinjiang.

VanderKlippe wrote in a report for the Globe that his ordeal offered “a window into the ways China’s laws are regularly reduced to guideposts that can be ignored in service of broader objectives, and the contortions authorities take to reconcile the two.”

“It also illuminated the measures Chinese officials take to suppress unauthorized accounts of a region where the harsh policies of an authoritarian state have limited a minority people’s ability to conduct life on their own terms.”

Last June, Canadians saw a glimpse on their own soil of how China treats journalists when Chinese minister of foreign affairs Wang Yi scolded a Canadian journalist for asking a question related to China’s human rights record during a joint conference with then-Canadian foreign affairs minister Stephane Dion in Ottawa.  

In December 2015, China deported French reporter and veteran China journalist Ursula Gauthier for her reporting in which she denounced Chinese state-media coverage that equated the Uyghurs’ protests with the Nov. 15, 2015, Paris terrorist attacks.

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