Propaganda officials like to boast that Elishku township has some of the best farmed goods in China. More than 3,000 kilometres from Beijing and situated near the borders of Tajikistan and Pakistan, it forms part of Yarkand county, a fertile crescent that marks the western border of the vast, desert-filled Tarim Basin. Elishku's fields grow grapes and honeydew melons, wheat and cotton. Locals make their own yogurt and cook lamb meat on outdoor grills whose fragrant smoke billows out into the streets.
It is a distant idyll, at least in the words of the propagandists I encountered this week in the black of night, as secret police searched my belongings and accused me of breaking Chinese law by reporting from here without first notifying authorities – an untrue allegation, accompanied by a litany of excuses that included a supposed invasion of "fake journalists."
Eventually, I was tailed through the night by security agents who seized my computer and wanted me out of Elishku.
It was a window into the ways China's laws are regularly reduced to guideposts that can be ignored in service of broader objectives, and the funhouse 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.
On July 28, 2014, scores of people died in Elishku in one of the worst instances of ethnic strife in recent Chinese history, as violence broke out between authorities and the largely Muslim Uyghur people who live in the western Xinjiang region.
In response to incidents like it, including another riot in 2009 and terrorist acts Beijing has said were committed by Uyghurs, the Chinese state has had a crushing security response to Xinjiang. It has hired tens of thousands of new police, deputized local shop owners to fight terrorists, detained and jailed large numbers of people, inaugurated new forms of propaganda inculcation and deployed sophisticated methods to track the population, blanketing the region – a sixth of the Chinese land mass – with an immense surveillance regime that peers relentlessly at everything from mosques to country roads.
I passed by the latter as I drove into Elishku Wednesday evening, squinting against the glare of a light shining onto a narrow dirt path, illuminating whoever passed for a security camera. Ahead of me, a family sat on a two-wheeled cart pulled by a donkey, slowly moving through the dusk.
Exiting the asphalt of the Chinese road onto the dust of the village streets, I parked my rental car. I wanted to ask about the pressures people here faced, in the heart of what one researcher has called a "perfect police state." Three years after violence erupted, how had life changed? And what exactly happened in the summer of 2014?
I arrived shortly after 10 p.m., but was barely there 10 minutes before a police officer arrived on motorcycle. Soon another was there, too, alongside a tall Uyghur man who spoke Chinese that he had learned while serving in the army. I walked back toward my car, eager to leave before it was too late.
"Wait a minute," someone yelled. I kept walking.
A woman strode up. "What are you doing here?" she demanded, in Chinese.
I am a journalist, and came to ask about the current situation, I replied, also in Chinese. The local Communist party secretary and police chief wanted to speak with me, she said. This seemed like an invitation to trouble, and I got in the car, asking if I had the right to leave. "Of course," she replied.
Then another man broke in: "This place is not like other places," he said. "Once you meet our party secretary, then you can go."
It was hard to tell what was happening. Was I free to go? Was I just, as local officials later insisted, invited for a talk and a bite to eat? My status, it seemed, was kept deliberately vague, in a country where the contours of truth are often indistinct.
But it's hard to square the idea that I was being beckoned for a social engagement with what happened next: police officers flashing badges, taking my documents and insisting on looking through my pictures – followed by representatives of the country's feared secret police searching my bag, demanding to browse through my computer and finally seizing it. Food, when it was finally served, arrived under the watchful gaze of three police officers.
This was to dinner what a reform academy is to preschool.
I was being detained, a distressingly familiar experience for foreign journalists in China.
Not to worry, though, one police officer told me shortly before I was escorted from the village to begin the next chapter of the night. "You're here alone, and we must guarantee your safety," he said. I told him I wanted to leave.
"It's for your own good," he said.
Moments later, lights flashing in front and behind, I drove to the Elishku township seat, where guards opened the military-style protective barriers that surround government buildings, schools, apartment blocks and even public parks in Xinjiang. In front of the squat government administrative building stood a statue of Mao Zedong.
A trim man with a buzz-cut and a serious air appeared. He was the party secretary.
"Who arranged for you to come here?" he asked.
Nobody, I replied.
It was the beginning of a barrage of questions posed by the swelling ranks of government departments that descended to probe, ponder and, eventually, remove the foreign threat that had arrived on their doorstep: me.
Police were joined by propaganda officers, people from the local foreign-affairs office and plainclothes agents from the Ministry of State Security. The tall Uyghur man came, too, making conversation in the shadows along the parking lot where I was questioned. I later wondered if he had collected a bounty for his efforts, in a region that offers handsome rewards for information about people deemed enemies of the state.
The most hostile interrogator was an ethnically Uyghur propaganda official who spoke fluent English, a man with sharp eyes, an officious manner and short-cropped hair. He did not give his name.
"Who permitted you to come here?" he demanded.
"The rules of China," I replied.
"You cannot come here," he said, asking if I had permit papers.
"I don't need that," I answered. Chinese law allows foreign reporters to interview anyone who gives consent. It is unambiguous on this matter.
That, however, was not the way things worked in Elishku.
This is a restricted area, I was told, not an open city. Chinese law might say one thing. But "that is our rule here," the head of the local propaganda department told me.
When they demanded to search my camera, I appealed to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which sought to intercede on my behalf. The locals were unmoved. They carefully looked on as I scrolled through my photos, revealing nothing they found objectionable. As the clock passed midnight, I asked if I was free to go.
"No," said the English-speaking man from the propaganda department.
Moments later, it became clear why. The Ministry of State Security – China's secret police – was on its way.
I know this because they were introduced to me as such, twice, though others later denied it. "This is a member of China's Ministry of State Security," I was told. "He needs to take a look at your belongings."
By now, it was clear there was little the foreign ministry could do to intervene. This was a formal search, the propaganda man said, although no documentation was ever created. I opened my bags. They demanded to see any recordings I might have.
"I didn't interview anyone in that village," I told them. This was true. They had detained me before I could find anyone to talk. When I said so, they immediately denied that this was a form of detention. "It's just a talk," one man said.
I asked if I was free to go. "No," they said.
The secret police told me to turn on my computer. They wanted to search it.
The search had reached a new level of intrusiveness. Opening my computer would mean opening my entire working and personal life to Chinese security agents. If you want to do that, I said, I need to call back the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Things, I thought, were drawing to a close. I repacked my bag and, at the insistence of the propaganda department, headed to a nearby restaurant. It was closed, but the police told the owner to reopen. He served us a tasty meal of cold sliced beef, handmade yogurt and salted naan. As I ate, I was scolded for arriving "surreptitiously."
Next time, the propaganda director said, come back to write about the region's delicious foods. "Did you know that you can farm rice next to the desert? We can do that in Xinjiang," she said. So long as propaganda officials agreed, she could show me "many magic things."
Those were unlikely to include the events of three years ago. How many people died then is unclear, as is what happened, with China calling it a terror attack while advocates for the region's largely Muslim Uyghur people say it stemmed from a protest against restrictions on religious observance. The official tally counted 96 deaths; exile groups have said the total numbered at least 2,000 after the military opened fire on Uyghurs. The World Uyghur Congress called it a massacre.
That was a "scar," the propaganda director said, and who wants to spend time looking at scars? She hoped that incident would be "forgotten by everyone."
The police assured me that China is the safest place on earth and that Uyghurs received exceptional medical and social benefits, then paid for the meal.
It was now past 1:30 a.m. – but, unknown to me, things had changed while I ate. I was not yet free to go.
"We need to check your bag again," the secret police ordered when we returned to the parking lot. I produced my computer. The agent took it and quickly handed it to another person, who walked with it out of reach.
It took me a moment to register what had happened. My laptop and all of its contents had been seized by China's secret police, who quickly confirmed my worst fears. "We need to take a look at your computer's contents," the agent told me.
I could call the foreign ministry if I wanted, but "I don't care who that is. I'm not listening," one agent said. Chinese law, I protested, requires formal documentation of a search and seizure.
That law applies to regular police, they replied. Secret police had no such constraints.
They scribbled a handwritten note instead. The laptop had to be seized "for work demands," it said. Now the search was over, although not my time with state security.
Drive, they told me. It was 1:45 a.m. and for the next two and a half hours, my rear-view mirror was filled with the headlights of the secret police driving my laptop to their office in Kashgar, the biggest nearby city. They left only when I was a few kilometres from my Kashgar hotel, the agent driving off with a broad smile on his face.
Earlier, he had discussed returning the laptop the following day. I wasn't so sure. They had left only a handwritten note as proof of my missing computer, and no way to reach them. Secret police are not generous with business cards.
By the time dawn broke, I woke to find that my missing laptop – and my experience – had suddenly made me an object of attention from the Canadian government, which vigorously took up my case with Chinese authorities. A Canadian consular officer called, offering help. I didn't need any, but couldn't help but think about a warning I once received from a diplomat: "Just don't ever make yourself a consular case."
Not eager to fall into an even worse situation, I left for the airport, and was sitting in the boarding lounge when my phone rang. "We have found your computer," a local official told me, as if it was a piece of lost luggage serendipitously recovered. A team of three people delivered the laptop to the airport.
They came prepared with something else, too: one last set of obfuscations. My computer had not been taken, just removed from my possession "for my safety."
"We need to confirm the identity of journalists, because there are many fake journalists these days," one woman said. As for the secret police that had taken it? No such thing.
"Here," one woman said, "there is no Ministry of State Security."