It's the role of investigative journalists to lift the lid on injustices and expose government corruption - a job that can have deadly consequences. Steve Chao has seen interviewees disappear, members of his team have been assassinated, and yet he remains dedicated to exposing wrongdoings. One investigation, in particular, has stayed with him. Chao tracked down a former Chinese government spy to ask what was really going on in the ‘internment camps’ for Uighurs.
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True Spies Episode 60: The Destroyed Man

DISCLAIMER: This episode of True Spies contains descriptions of violence, including torture, that some listeners may find distressing. 

NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? 

This is True Spies Episode 60: The Destroyed Man.

STEVE CHAO: It was while he was in prison in China at one of these internment camps that authorities told him very clearly: "We are going to hold you in this place, and we are going to hold your mom and your loved ones in these places and torture them unless you agree to work for us and spy for us.”

NARRATOR: Behind closed doors, a reluctant spy is made.

STEVE CHAO: He said that once he agreed to spy for them, he was allowed more freedoms than other people being held there were allowed. He would be allowed to go into the interrogation areas after the interrogations had been done. And he talked about the fact that men were often beaten with electrical cords that had been stripped of the plastic exteriors and were just bare wires. And they were whipped with these bare wires until there was blood all over the walls.

NARRATOR: The work he will carry out brings no satisfaction, no glamor.

STEVE CHAO: He eventually was released from this area with a clear understanding that he would be working for the government. He was given a handler who managed him, and then he was sent back to his hometown. And he talked about how, over time, he began to report on family members of his, on friends. And a number of them ended up disappearing, being taken and put in these camps.

NARRATOR: The life that awaits him holds no promise of adventure or opportunity. The only guarantee in this hidden world is deceit, betrayal, and guilt.

STEVE CHAO: And as he was sharing all this, you could see the guilt on his face. I could see that the fact that he had sent his friends, and sometimes family, to these places was eating away at him.

NARRATOR: The world you are about to enter might very well have remained hidden were it not for the bravery of one, tired, broken spy, and the unflinching professionalism of the man who told his story.

STEVE CHAO: My name is Steve Chao. I'm an investigative journalist and filmmaker, and I'm currently based somewhere in Asia. I prefer not to say exactly where partly because of the work that I do, which is often undercover.

NARRATOR: Steve Chao has more experience than most when it comes to exposing hidden truths.

STEVE CHAO: We, as investigative journalists, essentially take the story deeper. And the topics that we choose, we try to really uncover or lift the lid on areas of the world that often aren't exposed. 

NARRATOR: It is this instinct - to shine a light in dark corners - that plunged Steve into the depths of a different kind of espionage story. There are inherent risks in telling a story like this one but this week’s True Spy has never let risk stand in his way. It’s just an inconvenient condition of the job he was born to do.

STEVE CHAO: In many ways, investigative journalism chose me, or at least that's the way I like to think of it. It really began in university as a keen young person, eager to try and change the world. I went down in the first summer of university to Guatemala to do health-work surveys.

NARRATOR: At the time, Steve Chao saw a future for himself in NGOs or perhaps as a health worker. But that trip to Guatemala, in the summer of 1993, changed everything.

STEVE CHAO: We were up in the highlands, in the north of Guatemala, when a coup took place. During the coup, the villagers that we were working with actually hid us. Because, what was happening was, the soldiers who had taken over were coming into the town and claiming it as theirs. And then, the next day, the rebels, those opposed to the coup, would be coming in and they saw that this town had been designated a government town or a military town. And so, they began lining up men from the village against a wall and shooting them dead. And then, subsequent days later, the military would come back and say: "Hey, wait a second. This has become a rebel town, what's going on?" And they would line up more men against the wall and shoot them dead.

NARRATOR: The violence left Steve stranded in rural Guatemala for weeks, unable to do anything but watch in horror, until finally, the coup fizzled out and he was able to return home.

STEVE CHAO: When we finally got out of Guatemala, I remember being on the plane, headed back to Canada, where I'm originally from, and I picked up a Time magazine in the plane and it was several weeks old.

NARRATOR: Buried in the pages of that out-of-date magazine was a strange, unsettling report.

STEVE CHAO: In the section that said: ‘This Week in News’, it talked about this coup in Guatemala and called it ‘a bloodless coup’. It was at that moment that I thought: "You know what? There needs to be more people in the world, more journalists, more reporters in underreported areas, shining a light in dark places, exposing what is actually going on.”

NARRATOR: When he graduated from university, a few years later, Steve wasted no time in putting his money where his mouth was. As a young, hungry broadcast journalist, his first big break came when he exposed an international ring of drug dealers, smuggling teenagers from two villages in Honduras all the way to the streets of Vancouver, to sell crack cocaine.

STEVE CHAO: I remember, after reporting on that first story, I could hear in my ear, my producer saying as soon as I finished my live [broadcast]: "Congratulations, you're now an investigative reporter.”

NARRATOR: His next investigation began with an enigma: a rusty fishing vessel arriving onto the shores of the west coast of Canada.

STEVE CHAO: And we soon learned that on that vessel were hundreds of asylum seekers.

NARRATOR: Chinese asylum seekers, to be precise, from villages in the Fujian province.

STEVE CHAO: They had been brought onto these ships by smugglers known as Snakeheads and each had paid US$38,000 for this journey - from China across the Pacific into Canada - with a promise that they were going to arrive in the promised land and have guaranteed jobs, etc.

NARRATOR: The reality of their voyage was quite different.

STEVE CHAO: In that investigation, we learned a lot of horrors. The fact that many people died on that journey; that they were living in abject conditions on those boats. But what happened was, when this first boat arrived, Canadian authorities allowed these asylum seekers to claim refugee status and set them free in Vancouver.

NARRATOR: As Steve embedded himself in this community of freshly arrived refugees, he began to notice something strange.

STEVE CHAO: One by one, they began disappearing from Vancouver and they weren't showing up for the refugee hearings.

NARRATOR: When he scratched a little deeper, Steve uncovered a grim truth.

STEVE CHAO: We soon learned that because the Snakeheads charged them $38,000, these people couldn't afford to pay that. So they owed that debt to the Snakeheads and the Snakeheads were essentially selling them as indentured slaves for 70 years to restaurant owners, to massage parlors, to supermarkets all through North America.

NARRATOR: In his efforts to track down those enslaved refugees, Steve had his first encounter with undercover work.

STEVE CHAO: We spent a lot of time in massage parlors, in restaurants, posing as prospective customers, posing as restaurateurs, if you will, checking out the Triads and the Snakeheads that were running a lot of these places, and trying to match the faces with the people I had met on that rusty vessel over the last several weeks and months.

NARRATOR: Eventually, he was able to uncover the Snakeheads’ entire network. And, in the process, he learned some of the fundamentals that would provide the basis for his career in journalism.

STEVE CHAO: What I learned from those initial investigations is that you need to be really passionate as a journalist to get into investigative work. These aren't stories that you stick onto for a day, or a few days, or a few weeks. You're often working months or years at it and to really keep at it, you need to be passionate. You need to be determined.

NARRATOR: But passion and determination can only get you so far. If this line of work interests you, you’ll also need a keen eye for detail. Take the Snakehead investigation. The entire thing hinged on Steve’s knack for joining the dots.

STEVE CHAO: The breaks that you get come in the details. It might be just a few words that an informant tells you, or mentions to you, and you click in your head and go: "Okay, that little piece of information actually relates to this other informant's information where he told me this was happening, you know? This meeting happened in one hotel. And then there was another meeting in that same hotel. Wait a second. Who owns that hotel? Let's find out more. Oh, it's the Sun Yee On. Now I got it. The Sun Yee On are the Snakeheads. They're the ones with the maritime fishing vessels." And then you start chasing that lead and you realize those fishing vessels are being bought in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Then you start chasing the registration of these vessels. And then, from there, you're like: "Oh, okay. So there's buy-in, actually, from governments."

NARRATOR: Undercover work, criminal rings, murky state sponsorship… It’s safe to say there’s some overlap between Steve and that of more conventional espionage. And, as such, the toolkit that he depends on is much the same as a spy’s. Except that in the dramatically underfunded world of journalism, Steve is often taking on work that would occupy an entire team of agents.

STEVE CHAO: So, another of the features I believe an investigative journalist needs to have is the ability to multitask and be able to do everything across several different fields - whether it's the technical understanding of how to operate hidden cameras; understanding how to protect yourselves from deep surveillance on your phones; on your computers; how to do counter-surveillance; how to know when you're being followed - to the straight gumshoe journalism, knowing how to ask questions; knowing how to interview informants; how to get their trust; to the storytelling part; knowing how to make sure the hidden cameras are filming beautifully so you get that shot when you're talking to a criminal.

NARRATOR: So that explains the mechanics of a job like this, but it does little to illuminate exactly why someone would carve out a niche in this small, under-resourced world.

STEVE CHAO: You know, I'm sure all of us have stories in our youth that sort of pinged in ourselves and we had a desire to make the world better. In my case, it was watching my mom being abused by my father and then seeing a court and legal system, at the time, that was more skewed towards males, more patriarchal if you will. I can definitely say that justice is a big part of what drives me as an investigative journalist.

NARRATOR: Over the years, that desire for justice has guided Steve through countless explosive stories. He has exposed international wildlife traffickers, criminal organizations, and corrupt businesses. He has reported from the streets of Cairo during the violence and turmoil of the Arab Spring. And, for the past two decades, he has spent much of his professional life reporting on one of the world’s foremost emerging superpowers.

STEVE CHAO: In the early 2000s, I was working for a Canadian network, CTV, and I was sent to Beijing as the Asia bureau chief.

NARRATOR: While he was stationed in Beijing, Steve grew acquainted with the limitations around where he could report freely and where was out of bounds.

STEVE CHAO: While China, at the time, allowed - and even now allows - for international journalists to be based there, they really do have careful areas where they try to control the message as much as possible. And that level of sophistication, that level of control, is not seen as much in other parts of the world.

NARRATOR: So how did that ‘sophistication’ announce itself to the young ambitious journalist covering stories there?

STEVE CHAO: I lived in a diplomatic compound right in the heart of this city. And it's where a lot of journalists actually lived. And they would make it clear if they were unhappy with you. Sometimes, we would run an exposé, on say, tenants being evicted ahead of the Olympics. And if they were very unhappy with you, they would let it be known that they would start following you. So, as soon as you left the compound, there would be two or three people that would stay, say, 20 meters away from you. Or they would be sitting in a car and they follow your every move, and they would jot down and note anyone you'd spoken to. That was the very overt message from the Chinese government.

NARRATOR: In his time reporting in China, Steve began to get used to the constant background hum of surveillance.

STEVE CHAO: You would know that your phones would be bugged because you hear the click-click-click of the fact that they were routing your calls. But then, there were also a lot of the more covert ways that they would follow you everywhere you went. I remember cases of going to another city, and all of a sudden going: "Hey, wait a second. I recognize that person in the restaurant. I saw him or her in the previous city where I was.” Or: “Wow, this cab driver that just picked me up. He looks very much like somebody else that I had just seen in the previous city."

NARRATOR: That makes life very difficult for investigative reporters like Steve, although he’s never let it stand between him and a story that needs to be told. And, in his years covering China, one story has demanded Steve’s attention time and time again.

STEVE CHAO: One of the most memorable investigations included the look at the treatment of Uighurs in the Western part of China.

NARRATOR: If you’ve followed the news in recent years, you will have heard more and more about China’s Muslim Uighur population.

STEVE CHAO: Uighurs are a Turkic ethnic minority group in China. They've been around for centuries. There's about 12m, in terms of population, in this special region known as Xinjiang. And what we saw from 2004, when I was based in Beijing onward from there, was this increasing control by the Chinese state over the Uighur population.

NARRATOR: It might be international news only recently, but the tension between the Chinese state and Xinjiang’s Uighur population goes back decades. In the '90s, things threatened to boil over.

STEVE CHAO: The Uighurs were getting increasingly upset because their area of Xinjiang was being flooded with Han Chinese, ethnically Mandarin Chinese people from other parts of China. And it was the ethnic Chinese that were getting a lot of the opportunities when it came to business ownership, when it came to working with the government. And the Uighurs were being pushed further and further to the recesses of society, in terms of opportunities. So there was growing anger and the way the government interpreted that, we understand, is they started seeing them as a threat. 

NARRATOR: And, remember, this is in the late ‘90s, before one event stoked the fire of anti-Islamic rhetoric the world over.

STEVE CHAO: And then 2001 happened. And we saw the attacks on the twin towers in New York, and it was an Islamic-backed attack by al-Qaeda. And so, the Chinese then began seeing this Turkic ethnic group, the Uighurs, as a terrorist threat because they were Islamic.

NARRATOR: And, the truth is, some members of the Uighur community had become radicalized.

STEVE CHAO: There was a splinter group known as the East Turkestan Islamic movement, ETIM, that really had been fighting for independence in that area. From 2010 to 2014, we saw a growing level of attacks from these groups.

NARRATOR: The response to these attacks has been the subject of intense speculation by the world’s media.

STEVE CHAO: What we saw happen in the last several years is this huge ramping up by the Chinese government for control in Xinjiang. Over the last several years, according to a lot of the analysts - this has been well-documented - the government has set up 380 ‘internment camps’, for Uighurs. And these camps are barbed wired. There are security towers. These are locked facilities. Essentially, in the words of some of the workers we spoke to, these are prisons. The government denies this, saying that they are simply vocational training centers where Uighurs are allowed to learn new skills, and they're there willingly.

NARRATOR: More than one million Uighurs are believed to be detained. Over the past few years, journalists like Steve have attempted to expose the conditions inside these facilities.

STEVE CHAO: We've seen the US government, the Canadian government, and others, come out to describe what's happening in Xinjiang as genocide. And, what we've seen in our investigations is that there is a large degree of that. You know, according to the witnesses, many of the women being held in these centers are being forced to be sterilized. We understand by the census that came out recently, that the population in Xinjiang, in terms of growth, has actually plummeted. It's negative growth. And so, when you look at the UN markers for genocide, a lot of what is happening in Xinjiang hits those markers.

NARRATOR: So, that’s the bigger picture but for Steve, understanding the scale of this phenomenon is only part of his work. 

STEVE CHAO: We felt that we needed to get deeper into the story of what was happening. We wanted to ensure that we were getting an accurate picture. And we wanted to hear from the other side. We wanted to understand more clearly from the Chinese side, if you will, in terms of what was being ordered, what they were essentially carrying out.

NARRATOR: But getting a detailed account of what was happening proved to be nearly impossible.

STEVE CHAO: Trying to get into Xinjiang at the time was extremely difficult in the sense of... if we went there to report, we would be followed, closely followed. And those that we would speak with would obviously disappear. So there were huge repercussions.

NARRATOR: The potential for collateral damage was too great.

STEVE CHAO: So, we decided that we needed to find people who had left China to speak to. This was truly a global search. And we had to be very careful because we also knew - and were told by many Uighurs - that the Chinese government had spies throughout the community. 

NARRATOR: These whispers of espionage within the Uighur community troubled Steve deeply. They meant that, even outside of China, his inquiries could send shockwaves rippling through the Xinjiang province.

STEVE CHAO: And so, we try to keep it very hush-hush. We began our exploration in North America. Then we ended up in Geneva meeting other contacts, and we were asking: Who, perhaps, has worked for the Chinese government as a spy? Who in the community can we speak to? And that was the question we asked a lot of our informants and the people that we had met. And, eventually, everyone kept saying to us: "Go to Turkey. You'll find your answer in Turkey.”

NARRATOR: At that time, Turkey had an open-door policy to displaced Uighurs who share an ethnic lineage with the nation. It’s there that many who had fled Xinjiang ended up settling.

STEVE CHAO: We ended up going to Istanbul and starting to tap into the Uighur population there. And through some very helpful contacts that we had made in North America, and in Europe, we heard of this young gentleman by the name of Yusuf Amat.

NARRATOR: Enter into the picture Yusuf Amat.

STEVE CHAO: He was hiding in a city - and I can't tell you which one - and we understood from the informants that he had worked for the Chinese government spying on the Uighur community.

NARRATOR: Of course, no matter how trusted your sources are, there’s always a mutual wariness between a journalist and an informant. As such, Steve had to tread carefully.

STEVE CHAO: It took us several weeks through the informant that we were working with to convince Yusuf to meet with us. And we agreed on a neutral city in Turkey to meet, one that was very far away from where he was living.

NARRATOR: There’s a protocol when it comes to these kinds of meetings, where tensions run high and no one can be sure who to trust.

STEVE CHAO: We arranged to meet in a hotel lobby. And, of course, there's always nerves when you arrange for these kinds of meetings because you just don't know how it's going to go. You always look for exits and you always look for safeties. We had an extra producer sitting somewhere else to inform our network in case things went south.

NARRATOR: After weeks negotiating the terms of their rendezvous, Steve had built a picture of the man who would soon walk through the hotel’s revolving doors.

STEVE CHAO: I was seeing, in my head, someone who was street-savvy, perhaps even sly. This was supposed to be somebody that had worked for years for the Chinese government, spying on Uighurs, so I expected a shiftier character and perhaps a tougher character. I even sort of imagined that he might be tattooed.

NARRATOR: But the character who approached Steve from across the hotel lobby didn’t match that profile at all.

STEVE CHAO: I saw this guy walk through the door at the time that we had arranged and I'm like: "Huh? Is that the guy?” And he definitely looked Uighur. But he was in these workman overalls, and he was such a quiet figure. And he eventually saw me and our informant and a few others, and he came over and he said: "Hello, I'm Yusuf.” He was so soft-spoken and I thought: "Is this the spy? Is this the person working for the Chinese government?”

NARRATOR: In this game, trust is a dangerous thing to throw around.

STEVE CHAO: I didn't know whether he was still a Chinese spy and what kind of risks we were facing.

NARRATOR: And despite his gentle demeanor, there was something unsettling about Yusuf Amat.

STEVE CHAO: I could see he was trying to read me, as well, in his eyes. He may be quiet, but he was taking everything in.

NARRATOR: And so begins a tightly choreographed dance.

STEVE CHAO: We went to the restaurant, sat down, and we just sort of spent the first hour just feeling each other out.

NARRATOR: Steve has to determine, first and foremost, whether he believes Yusuf’s story. And Yusuf, for his part, must decide whether to place his trust in the man claiming to be an international journalist.

STEVE CHAO: He didn't know whether we were working for another state, working for the Chinese government.

NARRATOR: There is no science, no methodology to a conversation like this one. Each man must be guided by his own intuition.

STEVE CHAO: And I think, by the end of the hour, I think there was a level of trust between us. I believed his story. And I think he believed that we were people he could trust to share his story with. 

NARRATOR: Steve and Yusuf Amat agreed to meet again on another day for the interview.

STEVE CHAO: And, of course, you almost always want to do the interview right away, in a sense, because you don't want to give people too much time to think about it and then change their mind. But in this case, we agreed to give ourselves that space. It's always nerve-wracking to wait, but he showed up a few days later for the interview.

NARRATOR: It was during that interview that Yusuf laid out the long pathway that had brought him into hiding in Turkey, thousands of miles from his home.

STEVE CHAO: What he shared was incredible. He talked about the fact that he, as a young 19-year-old, was actually so upset at the Chinese government that he decided to join the armed militia militant group known as ETIM, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. 

NARRATOR: Yusuf had been seduced by the notion of standing up for his people but fate had other plans.

STEVE CHAO: He was caught at the airport and he was sent to prison for wanting to do this.

NARRATOR: You’ve already heard some of Yusuf’s story. He claims he was held, along with his innocent mother - the pair of them threatened with indefinite imprisonment, torture if he did not agree to inform on his fellow Uighurs.

STEVE CHAO: He talked about women, young women, being brought in and then leaving with their clothes torn, leaving bloody and disheveled.

NARRATOR: In short, he provided Steve with first-hand accounts of what was happening deep in Xinjiang province. But he also helped piece together what life looked like for Uighur people and all the seemingly benign activities that could land someone in trouble with the authorities.

STEVE CHAO: How many times a day they prayed; whether they read the Koran; whether they had religious sayings on their phones. The handler asked him to report on everything - and he did.

NARRATOR: Before long, Yusuf’s friends and members of his extended family began disappearing from sight. He saw no way forward but to cooperate. 

STEVE CHAO: Eventually, the government sent him to try to get into Afghanistan, to try to infiltrate ETIM. And he tried, and he spent a few months down there, but he didn't get very far. And, eventually, the handler, being very upset at him, told him to come out and asked him to spy on Uighur populations in Pakistan.

NARRATOR: It was then that something snapped in Yusuf Amat.

STEVE CHAO: He got fed up, he says, cut off contact and ended up in Turkey.

NARRATOR: Which is how he found himself sitting across a table from Steve, a voice recorder between them, in the comforting anonymity of a busy Turkish city. It was only now that Steve began to understand the forces that had driven Yusuf Amat to this moment of unburdening.

STEVE CHAO: In his eyes, you could see that he was the destroyed man. He had done so much wrong to others that, no matter what happened, he felt he really needed to make it right.

NARRATOR: Yusuf Amat had arrived at a dangerous state of being. Cut off from his home, his family, his people, he was a man with nothing left to lose.

STEVE CHAO: I think we came to him at a point where he needed to unload, needed to confess, needed to do something for his Uighur people.

NARRATOR: The interview left Steve in no doubt that Yusuf Amat was telling the truth. But he still had to go through the painstaking process of corroborating Yusuf’s harrowing account, which was no mean feat given the circumstances.

STEVE CHAO: It's not like we could go to his hometown in China, in Xinjiang province, and basically confirm through friends or family. At the time the Chinese government had enforced, in parts, internet blackouts. People in Xinjiang had apps put on their phones that monitored their every movement. If they went out the back door, as opposed to the front door of their house, it would alert authorities and they would have to go report at the police station. This truly is a police state to a level that we've never seen before in human history. And so how do we corroborate his story? Well, we worked through other informants to confirm his hometown. And we did that. We also really grilled him on the details of places where he had been to. We looked at Afghanistan and his description of where he had gone, and then I talked to my US military contacts, and NATO intelligence contacts, to confirm whether that area, where he said he was, was a place where ETIM was believed to be hiding out.

NARRATOR: And bingo, that all checked out.

STEVE CHAO: And then we tried to look at his testimonies of what happened inside these camps and whether those incidents were shared by other Uighurs. And they were. So, after all these checks, we believed that we had enough to go on, to run with the story.

NARRATOR: But before he could do that, he wanted to give Yusuf one last opportunity to change his mind.

STEVE CHAO: When it comes to investigations and interviews like this, I always try to be very frank and open with the interviewee about the risks. And when we learned that he had a wife and a child back in China, we told him: "Hey, are you sure you really want to publish? We're not covering your face. You are sharing your story to the world and to the Chinese government, which you worked for. And there are definite repercussions for this, not only on yourself but also on your wife and young child.” And he said: "I understand." 

NARRATOR: The other essential skill for a journalist of Steve's ilk? Becoming intimately familiar with the devastating realities of collateral damage.

STEVE CHAO: I’ve had interviewees disappear. I've had producers killed, assassinated, in places like Afghanistan. And I am keenly aware that sharing, uncovering, exposing things - especially against a state - have big repercussions.

NARRATOR: It’s part of Steve's job to make a source like Yusuf understand those repercussions.

STEVE CHAO: We laid it bare with Yusuf Amat. And he was very clear that he was willing to go ahead.

NARRATOR: With Yusuf’s blessing, Steve forged ahead with preparations for airing the piece. There’s a kind of protocol to follow with a story like this one.

STEVE CHAO: We're often looking to silo our computer systems and our networks to make sure that we don't face a big ‘distributed denial-of-service (DDoS)’ attack. We look at perhaps taking a vacation after we run a story, and disappearing from where you normally stay for a while, just to allow things to cool off because you don't know if someone's going to show up at the office where you're working or at your home.

NARRATOR: And that protocol extends beyond Steve’s personal safety and that of his team. 

STEVE CHAO: We are always trying to do our best with our limited resources to protect those that are brave enough to share their story. And, I guess the question with Yusuf Amat is, what did we do?

NARRATOR: The problem is, you can only offer as much help as a source is willing to accept.

STEVE CHAO: He didn't want us to do much, you know? He said he wanted to share his story and then he wanted to go to ground. And he believed that where he was staying was quiet enough. He was working in a small town in a nondescript place in Turkey. What we agreed with him was that after interviewing him, we would try to limit contact with him, in order to not have a direct trail that led to him.

NARRATOR: In other words, they would hit and hope. It’s a curious thing, realizing a story that has taken up months of your life has occupied your every waking thought for so long. There’s very little way of telling, you see, what impact it will have on the world at large.

STEVE CHAO: You never fully know what kind of reaction you'll get when you release an investigation. Sometimes, a lot of things happen where you see a lot of change. And, other times, there is a stillness, a calm, and nothing. In this case, when we released the investigation into what was happening in Xinjiang, it was already in a space and time where there were a number of reports of what was happening.

NARRATOR: You’ll remember that Steve and his team were not the only journalists detailing the plight of the Uighur people.

STEVE CHAO: We were the only ones with Yusuf Amat's story, however, of somebody who had spied for the Chinese state.

NARRATOR: It was this aspect of the story that could prove most explosive but the Chinese government emphatically denies the allegations.

STEVE CHAO: We had already given the Chinese government a chance to reply and their line was very clear from the very start, not only with us, but with all the publications out there questioning whether these were more than vocational training centers that the Chinese government alleges they are, that these were internment camps where people were being tortured, where people are being held against their will.

NARRATOR: The official line from China didn’t budge one inch.

STEVE CHAO: What did happen, however, was at the time Turkey was getting a lot of pressure to not allow a safe haven for the Uighurs that were escaping China. And Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s leader, was facing a lot of pressure because Turkey relies on a great deal of trade with China. And yet, it also valued the brotherhood that people in Turkey felt towards Uighurs because of ethnicity. 

NARRATOR: This is where Yusuf Amat’s determination to tell his story had its real impact on the world.

STEVE CHAO: I think, when we broadcast our story, many people in Turkey felt and perhaps spoke to the government saying that they really do want to keep protecting Uighurs and allowing them to stay in the country. And we saw a movement towards that at the time.

NARRATOR: It’s a heartwarming conclusion to the story: a man, driven to confession by his own guilt, helps expose the oppression that he played a part in. In doing so, he improves the circumstances of the Uighur diaspora in Turkey. The end. Cut to credits. But in real life, things are rarely tied up so neatly. 

STEVE CHAO: A few months ago, I got a ping on my Twitter from an informant. And that informant said to me: "Hey did you hear what happened to Yusuf?” And he sent me a link, and it was to a local story, and it was heartbreaking.

NARRATOR: This is the moment that you dread, as a journalist, the eventuality you do everything in your power to prevent.

STEVE CHAO: Yusuf Amat had gone to visit friends in the capital, in Istanbul, in Turkey. And, as he was leaving that friend's home, two men met him in the stairwell and one of them shot him.

NARRATOR: Yusuf Amat survived his encounter in Istanbul - barely. He remains paralyzed after the shooting. For Steve Chao, the event served as a potent reminder of the ways his stories, his words, become tangled up with the lives of his subjects. But for Yusuf, the attack was less of a shock.

STEVE CHAO: In the time after our interview, I said to him: "Well, what do you think will happen to you?" And he said: “Somebody is going to come after me. And if it's not the Chinese state then it's going to be other Uighurs who felt I betrayed them.” And he goes: "Uighurs have every right to come after me because I really betrayed my own people."

NARRATOR: For Steve, it brings to mind a piece of advice he heard often enough as a young journalist.

STEVE CHAO: Many people have said to me throughout my career: "You have to distance your emotions when you're doing investigative work. You have to not feel so much because there's going to be a lot of pain and suffering along the way, because you're going to see people get hurt when you expose wrongdoing."

NARRATOR: It’s advice he would have good reason to subscribe to, given all that’s happened over his turbulent career.

STEVE CHAO: I've had good friends killed. I've had people injured, harmed, beaten up, threatened.

NARRATOR: But Steve sees things differently. 

STEVE CHAO: I don't believe that we, as journalists, should distance our emotions because we have to stay passionate about what we're doing, because we are ultimately trying to bring a bit of justice into this world. And if we distance our feelings, if we try to tell ourselves not to care so much, then I think that's reflected in the way we write our stories. I think that's reflected in the way we do our interviews. I think we need to feel. We need to hurt as much as humanly possible in order to keep that passion in the story, in the investigation.

NARRATOR: I’m Vanessa Kirby. Join us next week for another brush with True Spies.

Guest Bio

Canadian journalist Steve Chao has spent more than two decades on the frontlines in the world's hotspots. He reported on the surrender of the Taliban in Kandahar, Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks, terrorist attacks in Mumbai, and the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Steve was Asia bureau chief for CTV News before joining Al Jazeera as the network’s senior Asia correspondent.

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