The Corner


Finding Things Out

Megha Rajagopalan (Oslo Freedom Forum)

Megha Rajagopalan is one of my favorite foreign correspondents. She grew up in Maryland and now works for BuzzFeed News. I’ve done a Q&A podcast with her, here.

She is newly in the Middle East, but she worked in China for years. China is the main topic of our podcast. I ask, “What’s it like to work as a correspondent there?” Interesting answers.

Megha knows a lot about Xinjiang Province, or East Turkestan, where the Uyghurs live, and die. The Chinese government has launched a major, horrifying assault on them. I quoted Megha in a piece I did about the issue last year.

She has spoken on this topic at the Oslo Freedom Forum. Here is one video: “The Police State of the Future Is Already Here.” And here is another: “Inside China’s Digital Authoritarianism.”

In our podcast, she talks of backpacking around Xinjiang in 2009 or 2010 — this was when she was a student. It was no paradise, no democracy, but it was not an Orwellian hellscape. When she returned as a reporter in 2017, everything was different.

I will paraphrase her: “There’s a city called Kashgar in the West. This is the cultural heart of the Uyghur people. Kashgar is an ancient city. It sat on the Silk Road, and generations of traders have gone through it. Because of that, Kashgar is very multicultural, and there are lots of colorful things: night markets, vendors selling pomegranate juice, street life, music …

“When I visited in 2017, all of that was gone. Storefronts had bars on them. When you walk through the historic part of the city, people are literally not speaking. You can feel how tense they are. There’s no music playing, which is very strange for China, because Chinese cities are vibrant, with lots of music all the time.

“All sorts of weird things now happen. You see ‘spontaneous patriotic parades,’ as bands of Uyghur people are led through the streets by Party officials, holding Chinese flags and singing patriotic songs.”

Then there is the surveillance state — pervasive, 1984-like — “visible to the naked eye,” says Megha.

She has seen a lot and learned a lot in a still-young career. Toward the end of our podcast, I ask her what drew her to journalism in the first place. A big part of the answer is: She likes to find things out. Again, our Q&A is here.

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