The white Volkswagen Tiguan slipped into the rearview window a few kilometres past the checkpoint, on the blacktop that cuts across the parched eastern stretches of Xinjiang.
The SUV bore no licence plates. But inside were two police officers who, moments before, had questioned me about why I had come as a journalist to this region in China’s distant west. Authorities here continue to expand what they say is an anti-extremism campaign, which has involved locking large numbers of Muslims in centres for political indoctrination and skills training.
Chinese state media declared the effort a success and that the arid landscape was now an oasis of peaceful productivity. I had come to see for myself.
Related: Inside China’s campaign against the Uyghurs
Within minutes of entering Xinjiang, I had to register at a highway checkpoint, one in a dense network of armed sites that ensure locals cannot move far without official permission, giving the region the air of an occupied military zone.
An officer in riot gear, noting my journalist visa, demanded to know where I was going before calling ahead to ensure others were alerted to my presence. As he spoke, a rifle lay on his desk, pointed at my chest.
It was the first sign this reporting trip would be unlike any I’ve done, offering a glimpse of the surveillance and control regime that has made Xinjiang among the world’s more authoritarian places.
The white VW kept pace with my rented vehicle for 250 kilometres before it gave way to a police car, two white Volkswagen sedans – following so close they came within inches of slamming into me – a black Buick, a silver Ford, a blue Kia, a black VW and finally another white VW. In total, I was followed and tracked for nearly 1,600 kilometres. At least nine cars and 20 people, nameless and dressed in plainclothes, kept watch across freeways, city streets and desert roads. At night, they posted hotel lookouts.
Over roughly 80 hours in Xinjiang, I received three police escorts, had pictures deleted from my camera twice and was threatened with arrest several times. I was accused of fleeing the scene of an accident and, separately, of breaking highway rules before being informed I had done neither. Once, as I typed notes in my car, police advanced on me as if I were a wanted criminal. Two officers held up anti-explosive shields, while a third grasped his gun, ordering me to place both hands outside the window.
This was all in a place Chinese media proclaim is “peaceful and serene,” where “people dance in the squares in the afternoon, and the lively night fairs make people stay for a long time.”
If that were true, the security apparatus was going to unusual lengths to monitor a good news story. “They are not following you,” a propaganda official assured me. “They are offering you service.”
The service, by that measure, was extraordinary.
One time, on a darkened sidewalk around a construction site, I discovered I had shaken the man trailing me on foot. I entered a restaurant and lingered over a plate of yellow noodles, before noticing a different man outside, slouched against a light pole in a leather jacket and white earbuds. It was then I realized I had two tails.
Later, I ducked off the freeway unnoticed. Freedom lasted the 30 seconds it took to arrive at a checkpoint, where an officer then walked me to a restaurant. The tail returned before I could order.
It grew difficult to imagine how anyone here could escape the grasp of state control for more than a few minutes. Local Muslims also contend with officials who inspect their homes and install monitoring software on their phones.
The hours I spent with police did yield some insights. At one checkpoint, I watched three officers sit down to study a slim blue book with what they described as instructions on work and responsibility. The entire region, it appears, is under some form of ideological tutelage – although one officer, hearing I was Canadian, emerged from the dogma long enough to say he loved Justin Bieber’s Baby and regretted the singer’s relationship travails.
At the same checkpoint, an officer examining my pictures seized upon an image of a high wall topped with razor wire. “Is that a mosque?” he asked. It was actually a detention centre for indoctrination and skills training. It was hard not to see the misapprehension as revealing, in a place where people fear entering a mosque can label them an extremist in need of indoctrination.
Chinese authorities have called such facilities ”employment and vocational training centres,” describing them as friendly places where people learn skills and play sports. But that description is hard to square with the prison-like mien of those I saw: high walls, floodlights and, at one, a big-character sign demanding those inside “Be Grateful to the Party, Obey the Party, Follow the Party.”
It was only when I approached those centres that the followers ceased being passive monitors.
Near one, they leapt from their car to form a human wall, blocking me from getting closer. At another, men with guns and anti-ballistic vests seized my phone and camera, refusing to let me go until I deleted pictures. Near a third, traffic rumbled past as a propaganda official told me road construction made it impossible to proceed closer.
“We are not hiding anything,” she said. Seeing the centre is just ”not necessary for you.”
Her words reminded me of a poster I spotted at a checkpoint bearing a secrecy stanza historically used by the Chinese military. Today, it reads like an unofficial hymn for Xinjiang:
Don’t speak secrets that shouldn’t be spoken
Don’t ask secrets that shouldn’t be asked
Don’t see secrets that shouldn’t be seen
Don’t take secrets that shouldn’t be taken
Don’t spread secrets that shouldn’t be spread
Don’t remember secrets that shouldn’t be remembered
Don’t save secrets that shouldn’t be saved.