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Documentary : Catching the Shadow: On Being Tailed in China : The security agent following a Times correspondent wasn't hard to spot in his white trousers and maroon sweater. His presence added some intrigue to the country's exotic far west.

November 27, 1990|DAVID HOLLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

YINING, China — It didn't take long before we knew that the Chinese man in white trousers and maroon sweater was following us.

He tried to stay a couple of hundred yards behind. But he never disappeared. When we stopped, he stopped. When we turned, he turned. When we slipped around a corner and stepped into a family courtyard, he passed on by. But soon he was back.

I had conducted several government-arranged interviews that morning, and after lengthy argument had managed to cancel an unwanted afternoon interview that I had never requested. That freed me to spend a precious half-day walking around this largely Uighur town, located not far from the Soviet border in China's far western region of Xinjiang.

My wife and I skipped the time-consuming lunch arranged for us at our hotel and quickly set out to explore the town's tree-lined residential streets and colorful bazaars. We wanted to get a feel for the place, take in the sights of Central Asian street life and chat with people free from our official guides.

But that guy in the maroon sweater--clearly a government security agent-- was on our tail.

He followed us for more than four hours. We still accepted invitations into residential courtyards. But for the sake of our new acquaintances, who might be questioned after our departure, I didn't press political questions.

I already knew there were severe tensions between the region's Turkic minorities--Muslim groups such as Uighurs, Kazakhs, Kirghiz and Uzbeks--and the dominant Chinese. Official media had reported that 22 people died last spring in a clash between anti-Chinese rioters and security forces outside the ancient Silk Road city of Kashi. I knew that many people in Kashi believed the true death toll was higher.

I had already heard the views of Uighurs angry at Chinese domination. The security agent's persistent presence now provided a different kind of testimony to the level of repression in Xinjiang today.

We finally started doubling back on the man or waiting for him around corners. He ultimately disappeared, presumably after realizing that we had caught on to him.

It is hard to say who won this little game. My attempts to hear honest views from ordinary people suffered. But to achieve this, China's apparatus of repression and control exhibited itself with extraordinary clarity during my 11 days in Xinjiang.

A journalist here need look no further than the behavior of governmental hosts and security agents to find evidence of oppression and misrule. One is left wondering how Chinese authorities can possibly be hiding such terrible things that they feel it best to treat journalists this way.

For Beijing-based correspondents, the process of taking a trip to Xinjiang begins the same way as for a reporting visit anywhere in China, with an application to the "foreign affairs office" of each province to be visited. These offices arrange formal interviews, provide translators if required, and sometimes help with hotel or transportation arrangements. But their most important job is to keep an eye on the foreign visitors.

In the more sophisticated coastal cities, these offices are often run by people who are open and helpful enough that their enforced involvement in a reporter's efforts may be a relatively minor annoyance.

But the Xinjiang foreign affairs office, which only occasionally grants approval for correspondents to visit the region, has a reputation among Beijing-based journalists for being among the most heavy-handed.

Before leaving Beijing, I heard from other reporters that journalists are usually forced to take someone from this office, located in the regional capital of Urumqi, along with them when they fly to other cities in Xinjiang.

I knew that in any case I would have to deal with officials of the local foreign affairs office of each city I visited. So I informed the Xinjiang office by telex that I did not want to pay for anyone to accompany me to other cities. I stressed that I could do my interviews in Chinese and therefore even if other cities did not have English translators, I did not need to take one with me.

When we arrived, however, there was Song Zhen--a young Xinjiang foreign affairs office translator who announced firmly that not only would he be accompanying us to the cities of Kashi and Yining, at my expense, but that even while in Urumqi I must pay for him to spend every night at our hotel rather than his own residence.

"My job for the next 11 days is to be with you," Song said. "If I am not with you, you cannot come to Xinjiang."

In addition to all meal and travel expenses, the Xinjiang government's bill for Song's unwanted assistance would be $230, he explained. Car costs, he added, would be calculated at the end of our journey, and would include payment for times when the car was used to bring officials to our hotel. Conducting interviews at hotels is a common practice because foreigners are often barred from entering government offices.

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