Osborne's Xinjiang visit: a 'political coup' for China?

By John Sudworth
BBC News, Xinjiang

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionThe British chancellor's decision to include Xinjiang in his tour of China has angered human rights activists

China may be rolling out the red carpet in Xinjiang for George Osborne and his delegation of British business leaders but it offers much less of a welcome, of course, to British journalists.

Or any journalists, for that matter.

A few days before the British chancellor was due to begin his five-day tour of China - including the controversial stop in Xinjiang's capital city, Urumqi - our BBC team set off for Kashgar, the ancient Silk Route city that has long been the beating cultural heart of this remote western region.

We picked up a rental car at the airport and drove south and then east out of the city.

Hired drivers in Xinjiang make easy police informants so we decided to drive ourselves.

In a few hours we'd made it to the county of Yarkand, slipping unnoticed on the back roads past the checkpoints.

Yarkand is a part of Xinjiang that has seen some of the worst violence. In one incident last year, state media says, 59 "terrorists" were shot dead here.

But according to some foreign media reports it was in fact a local uprising in response to police brutality, then heavily put down with live ammunition.

A propaganda department's dream

We hoped we could speak to eyewitnesses and form our own view of where the truth really lay.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionChina, and many locals, blame recent violence on isolated extremists

Down a quiet lane, at the edge of a tiny hamlet, we stopped at one house and struck up a conversation with the occupants, all ethnic Uighurs.

One young man, a construction worker, agreed to be interviewed as long as we disguised his identity.

We began recording at once, keen not to linger too long to avoid being discovered by local officials or the police.

If they had have shown up they would have been delighted though. The man was a propaganda department's dream.

Did he feel, as some allege, that most of the good jobs in Xinjiang go to China's majority Han Chinese - incomers over recent years - at the expense of Uighurs?

No, he replied, things were pretty fair.

Did he feel any grievance about rule from Beijing, more than 2,000 miles (3,200km) away?

No, he supported the Communist Party, he replied.

And he went on to echo the Chinese authorities' constant refrain: that the violence of recent years, in which many innocent lives have been lost, is caused by isolated terrorists, fuelled by extremist ideology, without real roots in the community.

He just wanted a quiet life, he said, although he did have one grumble - corruption.

The system wasn't the problem, it seemed, but the people who ran it sometimes were.

It could be a message written by Chinese President Xi Jinping himself.

Complex and nuanced picture

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionChina's Communist Party is an inescapable presence in Xinjiang

It's impossible to know how deeply his opinions were held as, of course, to express any other views in Xinjiang would be dangerous.

But it felt, in large part at least, that he was being frank and the exchange is an illustration of how complex and nuanced the picture is.

There are indeed many Uighurs loyal to the party and the state - both within and without the security services - who may well be enthusiastic supporters of the kind of trade deals the British chancellor is hoping to foster.

But then there are clearly plenty of others who are not so keen on the status quo - why else the need for such tight security, surveillance and control?

Familiar pattern

As feared and just minutes after our interview was over, as we were driving away, our car was pulled over by village officials and we were handed over to the local government who kept us for hours in their office before escorting us all the way back to our hotel in Kashgar.

image captionChina has responded to growing militancy with increasingly strict controls on the local population

For the rest of our time in Xinjiang we entered a now familiar pattern for anyone who has tried to report here.

First the futile attempts to gather testimony from local people, each time encountering something between reluctance and outright fear of offering an opinion, even off camera.

And then at some point during the day, the inevitable encounter with the police and local officials, insistent always that we were to be prevented from doing any journalism without their constant presence.

'Ilham Tohti is not a terrorist'

That China faces a serious and growing threat in Xinjiang is undisputed.

In the rising tide of violence in recent years, in markets, train stations and tourist spots, militant Uighurs have hit hard at home as well as taking their attacks to other Chinese cities, including Beijing.

China's response though has been ruthless: ratcheting up surveillance and security, mass arrests and the rapid processing of suspects through the Communist Party's notoriously rigged courts.

image copyrightFREDERIC J BROWN/AFP
image captionUniversity professor Ilham Tohti was perhaps the top Uighur activist within China until his disappearance and subsequent life sentence

One prison, on the outskirts of Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi - not too far from where George Osborne is staying - holds Ilham Tohti, a respected Uighur academic and moderate critic of Chinese policy whose life sentence sparked an international outcry.

There's an uncomfortable piece of timing in his incarceration - Mr Osborne and his trade delegation are here exactly one year to the day that Ilham Tohti was convicted.

His daughter, Jewher Ilham, is studying in the US, from where she told me she wants George Osborne to raise her father's case.

"I want the British politicians to tell the authorities that Ilham Tohti is not a terrorist," she tells me.

"He has been shackled and beaten and denied food and… he has suffered a lot."

Ban on beards and veils

On our final day in Kashgar, finding ourselves once again in the custody of the Chinese police, we submitted to their enforced guided tour.

They took us to the old city, until recently a 2,000-year-old architectural treasure and home to many thousands of Uighur residents.

In the past five years it has been all but flattened and rebuilt, modernised and remoulded, to make it "earthquake proof," China says, complete with Chinese style pagodas and cheap camel statues for tourists to pose on.

image captionPermission to question worshippers at the Id Kah mosque was withdrawn, and attempts to do so were angrily disrupted by police minders

The police agreed that we could film at the city's old Id Kah mosque - under their guidance of course.

I was keen to ask worshippers what they thought of the heavy restrictions placed on their faith in response to the perceived threat of growing Islamic radicalisation.

Young men are banned from growing long beards, women from wearing the full veil and government officials, even ethnic Uighur ones, are prevented from attending the mosque at all.

But as prayers finished our minders told us that the permission to speak to ordinary people had been withdrawn.

I replied that we were going to interview people regardless, and we headed off into the square where we were able to record a few comments from a curious, but nervous group of Uighur men.

"We're just ordinary people," one man told me in answer to my question about whether the restrictions were fair.

"We have no rights."

image copyrightAFP
image captionGeorge Osborne is crossing the country during his five-day trip to boost business ties between the UK and China

Suddenly, one of our police escorts heaved into view, arms flailing and pushing the small crowd that had gathered out of the way.

As our camera turned to film him, he lunged in fury, violently grabbing it and trying to rip it from its shoulder strap, breaking off the microphone as he did so.

After the crowd dispersed and his anger subsided he spent the next hour or so searching our video files, forcing us to delete the footage of the incident.

'A major political coup'

Even by China's standards Xinjiang is an extremely difficult place to operate as a journalist. But nothing has changed there.

The big question is whether this is now the right time for what is thought to be the first government delegation from a major Western power?

Amnesty International's East Asia director, Nicholas Bequelin, thinks not.

"For the Chinese this is a major political coup," he says.

"At the highest level of the UK government, there is certainly a sense that not only you have to ignore human rights in China to do business, but you have even to make a song and dance about how much you're ignoring it, which is a very naive approach and very destructive in the long term."

The British government says it does raise human rights concerns, in private.

In public, though, the talk is of an ever-closer partnership, including here, in one of China's most troubled regions.

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