By Nathan VanderKlippe
Amnesty note: On August 23 Nathan VanderKlippe called Amnesty in Toronto to contact a member of the Uighur Society in Canada. A few minutes later he was arrested.
Late in the evening of Aug. 23, I drove a rented car to Elishku township in Yarkand County. Within 15 minutes of arrival, police began to arrive. Local villagers, I believe, had reported my presence. I was escorted to a local government office, where I was questioned by the local party secretary, police chief, officials from the propaganda department and local waiban, as well as agents from the Ministry of State Security. When police demanded to look through my photographs, I called my contact at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who after a lengthy phone call said the local officials would only heed his intervention if he sent a formal document. As it was midnight by this time, this was not a feasible option. My MFA contact, however, said the local officials had agreed to only look at and not delete photographs. I showed them my pictures. They did not delete any, largely because there were none to delete.
On multiple occasions, I was told that according to local policies, I could not come to this area without prior notification or permission. I was told I had broken the law by coming here “surreptitiously” and without government authorization. My reply — that Chinese law allows anyone to be interviewed with consent — produced no effect. It was clear throughout that their intention was to delete any reporting I had managed to accomplish in the area.
Two men introduced as agents with the MSS then said they wanted to search my bag. They asked me to remove everything, and asked to see any digital media or tape recorders. They also asked to search my laptop. When I told them I would have to first call MFA before agreeing to this, they relented. Local officials then took me to dinner; it was by this time nearly 1 a.m.
When I returned to the local government office, the MSS agents again asked to search my bag, saying they wanted to see my laptop. When I handed it to them, they immediately took it away, saying they wanted to examine the contents. Chinese law requires any police seizure to be properly and formally documented (I used my FCCC “legal rights” card to show them as much). However, when they examined the relevant statute, they quickly concluded that this law applies to the MPS, not the MSS. They also said I was free to call my MFA contact, but they weren’t convinced he was actually with MFA and did not intend to listen in any case. They penned me a short handwritten note instead, and said they were taking my laptop to Kashgar at the request of “higher-ups.” I was told to drive to Kashgar, and the two MSS agents followed me in their vehicle, taking my laptop with them. We left just before 2 a.m. In total, I was detained just under 3.5 hours.
I informed my embassy of what happened, as well as MFA, and believe both sides made appeals on my behalf. As I prepared to leave Kashgar that afternoon, a local waiban official called to say my laptop had been “found.” Three officials delivered it to me at the airport, telling me that it had to be secured for my safety and because of many reports of “fake journalists” in the area.
Nathan VanderKlippe is the Globe and Mail correspondent for Beijing. He is a winner of many awards for journalism, including the 2014 Amnesty International Media National Print Award for a feature about the Uighur region, Xinjiang province in China.