The Current

'They followed me everywhere': Reporter tailed, deterred while investigating Uighur detention in Xinjiang

What's really happening inside China's so-called "training camps" for the country's Uighur ethnic minority? Globe and Mail Asia correspondent Nathan Vanderklippe has been following that story for years.

Nathan VanderKlippe says he's been 'surrounded by people' who reached into his car, grabbed his camera

Nathan VanderKlippe, the Globe's correspondent in Asia, says his investigation was often hindered by individuals who refused to say their name or who they worked for. (Nathan VanderKlippe/Twitter)

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Journalist Nathan VanderKlippe says he's been "followed by large numbers of people" in Xinjiang, China while investigating the detention of the country's Uighur minority.

"Oftentimes it was actually very, very overt … Over about 1,600 kilometres I was either followed or sort of appeared to be electronically tracked," VanderKlippe, The Globe and Mail's Asia correspondent, told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"At another point … I was surrounded by people. They reached into my car. They grabbed my camera, they grabbed my phone away from me so I didn't have any of those things. They didn't let me go until I deleted pictures."

The people tailing VanderKlippe refused to tell him their names or who they worked for. Some, he wrote, were dressed in plain clothes. Others appeared to be police officers.

People protest at a Uyghur rally on Feb. 5, 2019 in front of the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York, to encourage the State Department to fight for the freedom of the majority-Muslim Uighur population detained in Chinese detention camps. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

The journalist has been based in Beijing for more than five years. Most recently, his research has focused on the country's Uighur Muslim population, who are being systematically placed in detention centres, referred to by Chinese authorities as "re-education centres" meant to provide valuable training and deter extremism.

Uighurs, who primarily practice Islam, are one of China's officially-recognized ethnic minorities and live mainly in the Xinjiang province.

Human Rights Watch estimates that up to one million Uighur Muslims are currently in these camps.

VanderKlippe said that while he has felt uneasy at times while working, he is in a much safer position than most who live in Xinjiang, who are frequently subject to police questioning and surveillance.

"I have a foreign passport. I have an ability to leave China. People who live in Xinjiang don't possess that," he said.

Centres produce 'positive social effects', China says

The Current requested comment from the Embassy of the People's Republic of China in Canada. Their emailed response reads:

"The vocational and educational training institutions there were set up as a preventive measure to combat terrorism. Relevant measures were taken entirely according to law, which are endorsed and supported by people of all ethnic groups and have produced positive social effects.

"The number of people in the vocational and educational training institutions is dynamic, changing every day, some people come in and some go out. In general, the number will become less and less."

A perimeter fence is constructed around what is officially known as a vocational skills education centre in Dabancheng in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China in 2018. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

VanderKlippe has his doubts.

"If, in fact, this is an anti-radicalization campaign, is it reasonable to think that quite a substantial percentage of Uighurs living in China are in fact radical?"

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.

Written by Émilie Quesnel. Produced by Karin Marley and Anna Maria Tremonti.