TIME The Philippines

It’s Been Five Years Since the Maguindanao Massacre and the Perpetrators Are Still Free

Filipino journalists light candles to commemorate the 2nd year anniversary of the "Maguindanao Massacre" at the National Press Club compound in Manila
Filipino journalists light candles to commemorate the second-year anniversary of the Maguindanao massacre at the National Press Club compound in Manila on Nov. 23, 2011 Erik de Castro—Reuters

On Nov. 23, 2009, in the southern Philippines, 57 people were killed, most of them journalists. There have been no convictions

The killers used a state-owned backhoe to dig a pit, then shoved the bodies in. When investigators arrived on the scene of Nov. 23, 2009, massacre in Ampatuan — a small town in the southern Philippine province of Maguindanao — they found the bullet-riddled corpses of 57 men and women, dozens of whom were journalists.

It has now been five years since the worst-ever act of election violence in the Philippine history, and the worst recorded attack on journalists the world has known. By now, the awful details of what happened that day are well established: 57 people, en route to register an opposition candidate for an upcoming election — or, in the case of journalists, to cover that registration — were stopped, executed by gunmen, and buried on site. It was a brutal, sloppy job; the executioners, it seems, were not worried about getting caught.

Five years on, that culture of impunity persists. Though the Philippine’s popular President, Benigno Aquino III, promised swift action on the case, there have been no convictions. Lawyers for the clan accused of orchestrating the massacre — who, like the town are also called Ampatuan — have successfully stalled as prosecutors scramble to hold together their case while assailants track and target witnesses. (Many of the alleged masterminds plead not guilty on charges related to the deaths and deny involvement.)

The trial is a case study in intimidation and abuse. Human Rights Watch (HRW) and have others documented multiple attempts to silence witnesses with cash. Where that fails: violence. Four witnesses have already been killed, including Dennix Sakal, once a driver for one of the chief suspects, who was this month shot to death as he drove to meet state prosecutors. “Dead men tell no tales,” was the bitter remark of the National Press Club.

Even before the killings in Maguindanao, the Philippines was considered one of the world’s worst countries for journalists. More than 100 journalists have been killed in the line of duty since the 1980s, according to local rights groups, and those who target media personnel usually go unpunished. The Committee to Protect Journalists estimates that upwards of 90% of killers walk free.

Part of the problem is that swaths of the country are controlled by political clans with private armies and legal protection. A 2010 HRW investigation into the Maguindanao killings described them as “an atrocity waiting to happen.” The 96-page report was titled They Own People — a reference to family that, with the help of local police and military personnel, “has controlled life and death in Maguindanao for more than two decades.”

Aquino was supposed to stop this. Early in his term, the scion of an altogether different political family promised to eliminate private armies that thrived under his predecessors, and to pursue justice for Maguindanao. But his government’s handling of the Maguindanao case, as well as the use of violence against media in general, is seen by ordinary people and rights activists alike as a striking and somewhat perplexing failure. The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) says that 23 journalists were killed in the first 40 months of Aquino’s tenure — the worst rate since 1986.

Asked about violence against journalists during a press conference with President Obama last spring, Aquino bungled his reply. First, he said that “something like 52 journalists,” were killed at Maguindanao, when the total dead was 57, of which no more than 32 were journalists. Many were surprised by his confusion over a basic fact about an atrocity that, as the PCIJ describes it, “put the Philippines on the world map.”

He then appeared to suggest that the journalists who were killed were corrupt and that this was the reason justice was slow in coming. “Perhaps we are very sensitive to personal relationships by the people who are deceased who were killed not because of professional activities, but shall we say, other issues,” he said.

Graft has been endemic in Philippine journalism for years, but the unfounded suggestion — if that it what it was — that the reporters killed at Maguindanao were corrupt, or that they somehow brought about their own fate, or that they deserved less than swift, sure justice, is naturally outrageous and the President’s comments have appalled the Philippine media corps.

“The lack of justice in Maguindano has merely emboldened those who would kill journalists,” says Shawn Crispin, an adviser for the Committee to Protect Journalists who has investigated the case. “If they can’t prosecute worst ever massacre of media personnel in the history of the world, what message do you send?”

TIME China

The APEC Summit Closes With a ‘Historic’ Climate Deal Between the U.S. and China

Barack Obama, Xi Jinping
U.S. President Barack Obama, left, toasts with Chinese President Xi Jinping at a lunch banquet in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Nov. 12, 2014 Greg Baker—AP

But serious differences remain on issues ranging from human rights to trade

On Nov. 9, the eve of President Obama’s arrival in Beijing for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, a bright moon climbed across a dark sky. This took months of staging: to clear the air for arriving dignitaries, the government closed factories, cut traffic and ordered workers home. But by the time Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping sat down to dinner on Nov. 10, the smog was back, and the moon rose, as it usually does, through a toxic pall.

And so went the summit: days of diplomatic murk punctuated by carefully created blue sky. The highlight was the announcement, on Nov. 12, of an ambitious Sino-U.S. plan to curb emissions to tackle climate change. The agreement, which was the result of months of negotiations, includes new targets for the U.S. and China’s first-ever commitment to stop emission growth by 2030. The broader goal is to “inject momentum” into efforts to negotiate a new global pact on emissions in Paris in 2015.

In a joint press conference, President Obama hailed the accord with China as a “historic agreement” and a “major milestone in the U.S.-China relationship.”

The past few years have been tough on those ties. China bristled at U.S. plans to “pivot” to Asia; the U.S. is unhappy with China’s assertive posture on various territorial disputes, as well as on human rights and trade. All this, says Cheng Li, a China expert at the Brookings Institution, has created a “difficult atmosphere for U.S.-China relations.”

The strategy seems to be to find ways to collaborate on issues of common concern while steering clear of the more contentious stuff. In addition to the landmark emissions goals, the U.S. and China reached an understanding on tariffs for technology products, and a military accord aimed at preventing clashes in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

Xi, in a rare appearance before the press, said China would “make our due share of contribution” to peace and stability in the region. “Both President Obama and I believe that when China and the United States work together we can become an anchor of world stability and a propeller of world peace,” he said.

“Counter to the heated rhetoric over the last few years, U.S.-China relations show more signs of cooperation than confrontation right now,” says Yun Sun, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.–based Stimson Center. “The key question is, does this adjustment reflect a change in foreign policy in the longer run?”

And that, of course, is very complicated. The last time it hosted APEC, in Shanghai in 2001, China was an emerging market and still finding its way geopolitically. Now China is the world’s second largest economy and a coming superpower. It deals with the U.S. as an equal.

At APEC, both Washington and Beijing pushed for different trade agreements, with the U.S. pushing the Trans Pacific Partnership, which excludes China, and Beijing backing its own Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific. China also used the run-up to the summit to announce $40 billion for infrastructure development along what it calls the new Silk Road — a network of railways and airports across Central Asia.

“This is a message for the U.S.,” says Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. “China wants to be at the center of economic life in the region.”

Political differences are also acute. The U.S. and its allies, including Japan and the Philippines, are no closer to accepting China’s territorial claims than before. Beijing still seems to think the U.S. and other unspecific foreign forces somehow have a hand in the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. And the ruling Communist Party refuses to budge on visas for reporters from the New York Times and Bloomberg, who have been given the cold shoulder since running stories about the wealth of China’s top leaders, including Xi.

At the Nov. 12 press conference to close out the meetings, the talk of cooperation was undercut somewhat by awkward exchanges. Xi, unaccustomed to questions from the foreign press, first ignored a question from a Times reporter about the visa issue, turning instead to a reporter from the state-controlled China Daily. After reading a response to the China Daily, he returned to press access, sort of.

“In Chinese,” he said, “we have a saying: The party which has created the problem should be the one to resolve it. So perhaps we should look into the problem to see where the cause lies.”

So much for blue skies and sunshine.

Read next: Time for Change on the Climate

TIME China

A Beleaguered Barack Obama Goes to Meet a Confident Xi Jinping at APEC

What a difference five years makes

The last time President Obama’s plane touched down in the Chinese capital, it was November 2009. The U.S. economy was in the doldrums, Obama was bold and charismatic, riding high on hope and change, and promising a “pivot” east. He met then with China’s stone-faced former President, Hu Jintao, a cadre who oversaw rapid economic expansion but will be remembered for his sheer colorlessness.

Today, the U.S. economy is back on track, but Obama is politically battered. He meets this time around with his new Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping. Since coming to power, Xi has proved himself as savvy as his predecessor was a snore. As growth slowed, he moved quickly to consolidate power and purge rivals, earning comparisons to strongmen like Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. His goal is nothing short of the “revitalization of the Chinese nation.” He talks evocatively of the “Chinese dream.”

The reversal of fortune is not lost here. Though the atmosphere at this week’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit is outwardly welcoming — heck, they literally cleared the skies of smog for the event — there is definitely a “my, how the tables have turned” sentiment in the air. “Obama always utters ‘Yes, we can,’ which led to the high expectations people had for him,” scoffed one particularly strident editorial in the Global Times, a state-linked newspaper. “But he has done an insipid job, offering nearly nothing to his supporters.”

But the meet may yield more than schadenfreude alone. Having essentially shut down swaths of the northern China to keep the pollution away and the traffic flowing, China will be laying out the welcome mat for the visiting dignitaries, Obama included. On Monday, Nov. 10, the U.S. President delivered a speech at APEC, before a dinner and a fireworks display. The main event will be a meeting at the Great Hall of the People on Wednesday. (From there, Obama flies south to Burma, officially known as Myanmar, and then on to the G-20 in Australia.)

Though the Xi-Obama talks are unlikely to make headway on issues like human rights, cyberspying or disputed territories in the South China Sea, both sides insist there is room for some positive steps, perhaps on climate change or antiterrorism cooperation. And the release of two U.S. prisoners from North Korea on the eve of Obama’s arrival may give them reason to talk about how to manage relations with North Korea’s young dictator, Kim Jong Un.

The U.S. will be pushing hard for a trade pact called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an American-led agreement between 11 nations that would put the “pivot” into action at last. Secretary of State John Kerry called it “a battle that we absolutely must win.” In Beijing on Nov. 10, Obama emphasized economic integration. There is “momentum building around a Trans-Pacific Partnership that can spur greater economic growth, spur greater jobs growth, set high standards for trade and investment throughout the Asia-Pacific,” he says.

The challenge, however, is that China — which is not part of the TPP — is fighting for a separate pact, the Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific, or FTAAP. On this and other issues Beijing’s message is clear: We’ll be cordial, but this is a new era, and we can play by our rules.

Read next: It’s Not Obama, It’s Just the Sixth Year

TIME China

Back to the Roots

Since 2001, Yi and her Green Life NGO have planted countless numbers of trees Photograph by Sean Gallagher for TIME

Yi Jiefang draws strength from a 
 personal loss to help make China 
a greener place

Almond orchards once bloomed in Kulun, a parched county in China’s northern Inner Mongolia region. Villagers remember the orchards as lush and white, with petals that fell like snowflakes. When Yi Jiefang first visited Kulun in 2001, she was captivated by the thought of the now absent groves. The image reminded her of springtime in Japan, where she had lived for decades and raised her son. After he died in a motorcycle accident the year before, at the age of just 22, Yi left Tokyo and returned to China, bereft. She wanted to do something to honor the young environmentalist’s memory. He loved trees, so she decided to plant.

At the time Kulun County was under siege, its small farms swamped by waves of sand from the Gobi Desert. The sand swallowed land and seeped into the threadbare hotel room Yi had turned into a temporary base. Too late for orchards, the farmers told her—the earth was too far gone. “It’s like a body,” says Yi, now 65. “You can’t bring it back to life.”

For more than a decade, though, she has done little else but try. Using the money from her son’s insurance claim, she founded a nonprofit called Green Life that is dedicated to planting trees. Her first few seasons were disastrous: saplings shriveled and were blown away by harsh, dry winds. She was frustrated but pushed ahead; she needed a project big enough to distract her from her gnawing grief.

For an office worker from Shanghai, Kulun was an education. The region was once grassland and home to nomadic herders. As the population grew, an ever greater area was cleared to make way for agriculture. During the Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong’s disastrous attempt to quickly modernize China’s economy in the late 1950s, peasants used scarce foliage to stoke the fires that turned scrap metal to steel. Now factories and water-sucking coal plants dot the landscape, and experts worry that climate change will reduce rainfall, compounding Kulun’s woes.

It’s a story playing out across China. More than three decades of rapid development have wreaked havoc on the environment. Unchecked industrialization has tainted the country’s air, earth and water, threatening both the economy and public health. The World Bank estimates that environmental degradation and resource depletion cost China 9% of its gross national income in 2008. A Global Burden of Disease study published by the Lancet found that air pollution contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths in 2010. In many parts of northern China, dirty air blankets cities in a soupy smog, turning day to night.

Desertification is a huge factor. Northern China’s toxic air is thickened with sand. In 2011, China’s State Forestry Administration estimated that over 27% of the country—some 2.6 million sq km—was undergoing desertification, affecting about 400 million people. In 2013 a weeks-long spell of extreme air pollution—dubbed the “airpocalypse” in English—spurred official promises to double down on the pollution fight. China spends about $13 billion a year on tree-planting, including an initiative known as the Great Green Wall. Launched in 1978 and slated to continue until 2050, it aims to plant nearly 36 million hectares of trees across 4,500 km of northern China, theoretically thwarting the desert’s southward march.

Yi sees her work as an extension of this vision. She splits her time between her home in Shanghai, where Green Life has a small office, and Inner Mongolia, where she works with the local government, forestry experts and villagers, as well as volunteers who fly in from across China and around the world. Their efforts are supported by corporate donors as well as private grants, including several from parents who, like Yi, have lost a child. In Kulun the effort has yielded tidy rows of poplar or pine. They are not as elegant as almond orchards, but the oldest trees are straight and tall. The youngest are tiny and windblown, sticks bobbing on a sea of sand. Yi inspects them with the pride of a new mom. “These ones are the youngest!” she says. “Come, look at this!”

Tree-planting has its critics. Researchers note that many trees die, and dust storms persist. Jiang Gaoming, an ecologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, once likened tree-planting to the story of the emperor with no clothes—as in nobody wants to say it won’t work. Studies have spotlighted the dangers of plantations with just one kind of tree as they lack biodiversity and are more vulnerable to disease. Researchers worry, too, that thirsty roots may further deplete groundwater. Some even wonder if it would be better to do nothing and let the ecosystem recover naturally. Yi disagrees. Such a program is often a matter of trial and error, she says, and Green Life is now experimenting with native shrubs. Besides, says Yi, tree-planting raises environmental awareness.

The work is hard, but she sticks to it for those moments of grace when she feels close to her son amid the trees. After a long day touring sites near Kulun, we stop the car. The scene is otherworldly: white, rippling dunes framed by fading light. To one side is her fledgling forest, to the other, a stark expanse of scrub and sand. Says Yi, smiling, her eyes wet: “Isn’t it beautiful?” —With reporting by Gu Yongqiang / Kulunn

TIME

It’s a Long Way to the Top (if You Wanna Be a Uighur Pop Star)

Heartthrob Ablajan embodies the tension between pop and politics in China's Xinjiang region

Sangzhu is not the sort of place you’d expect to find a pop star. An oasis town of some 30,000 people off the old Silk Road in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region, Sangzhu is home to ethnic Uighur farmers, mosques and a bazaar. Women move quietly through courtyards, pulling their kerchiefs tight against the wind from the Taklamakan Desert. Bearded men lead donkeys down the road.

Then a bus rattles around the corner, shaking sleepy Sangzhu to life. From the backseats of the rusty clunker comes the kind of feral scream that can only be produced by wild packs of teenage girls. They pound the windows and wave their hands with celebrity-stricken abandon, jostling for a better view. “Ablajan!” they yell as they roll by. “Ab-laaa-jaaan!”

Standing street-side in a studded leather jacket and shades, glancing down at his iPhone, is the object of their frenzy: Uighur pop star, and hometown hero, Ablajan Awut Ayup. He looks up at them, smiles a little sheepishly, and touches his hand to his heart. Then he turns to me and pops his collar with all the mock swagger he can muster. “The ladies,” he says in English, “they like my style.”

Ablajan, 30, is one of the hottest singers in China’s vast northwest. His catchy songs fuse the rhythms of Central Asia with the stylings of global pop—a sort of Sufi poetry-meets-Justin-Bieber vibe. On stage, he channels the theatricality of his childhood idol, Michael Jackson, and the tight choreography of K-pop. His first album, Shall We Start?, sold more than 100,000 copies, no small achievement in a limited market. Local businesses vie to endorse Ablajan, and his face graces billboards in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi.

For Uighur youth growing up amid marginalization and strife, Ablajan’s story is the stuff of legend. Born and raised in a mud-brick courtyard in one of China’s poorest and most isolated counties, unable to speak Chinese or English until his teens, and lacking training and connections in the music industry, Ablajan somehow made it. To his fans, he symbolizes the possibility of a life that is at once modern, successful and Uighur. He often gives free shows and, during performances, tells kids to study hard and get a good job. “The message is that this is the 21st century,” says Ablajan. “We cannot make a living buying and selling sheep.”

Now Ablajan wants to take his music east to the Chinese heartland. He sees his story as proof that there is more to Xinjiang than what you read in the news. He is right, of course, but Xinjiang is a region on edge, and conflict has a way of creeping in. When my Chinese colleague Gu Yongqiang and I returned to our hotel after visiting Ablajan’s childhood stomping grounds, the police were at the door. They thanked us for coming and asked us to be on our way. Said one cop: “It’s a sensitive time.”

China’s Outsiders

Unlike the country’s majority Han Chinese, Uighurs are of Turkic origin and mostly Muslim. As with Tibet, Xinjiang is historically a contested space, held by a series of Turkic, Mongol and Han empires, including the 18th century Qing Dynasty, which gave the region its current name, meaning “New Frontier.” In the 1930s, Uighur leaders in the ancient Silk Road entrepôt of Kashgar declared the first of two short-lived East Turkestan Republics.

When the People’s Republic of China (PRC) came into being, its troops marched into Xinjiang, followed by waves of military personnel and migrants to settle a territory three times the size of France. In 1949, the year the PRC was founded, Han Chinese accounted for roughly 6% of Xinjiang’s population; today the figure is about 45%. Uighurs say they are outsiders in their own land. While Beijing has brought development to Xinjiang, most of the new wealth is concentrated in Han hands. Many Uighurs want greater autonomy, some call for independence.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party views those demands as an existential threat. In recent years, any unrest has been met with ever escalating force by Beijing. In 2009, protests in Urumqi degenerated into clashes that claimed nearly 200 lives, both Han and Uighur. The authorities responded by detaining Uighurs and cutting off the Internet for nine months. They have since further curbed the teaching of the Uighur language in schools, banned under-18s from praying in mosques, and stopped civil servants and students from fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. On Sept. 23, Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti, a moderate activist, was sentenced to life imprisonment for “separatism,” a charge many say was trumped up and a verdict many condemn as excessively harsh.

Such government action has radicalized some Uighurs. In October last year, a vehicle carrying three members of a Uighur family crashed through crowds of sightseers in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, killing five, including the passengers. Some months later, eight knife-wielding assailants—whom the authorities called “Xinjiang separatists”—slaughtered 29 civilians at a railway station in Kunming, capital of southwestern Yunnan province. Two subsequent attacks by extremists in Urumqi killed dozens more and sparked what Beijing calls an anti-terror campaign that has resulted in mass trials, convictions and executions. On Sept. 22, state media said that blasts in Luntai County, which is about a day’s drive from Urumqi, killed at least two people and injured several others.

Security personnel in riot gear now blanket Xinjiang’s major cities, and towns like Sangzhu are increasingly sealed off by police checkpoints. Chinese security posters feature racist caricatures of Uighurs: scowling, bearded men with big hooked noses—reinforcing the perception many Han have of Uighurs as backward, dissolute and violent. It’s against this backdrop of suspicion and prejudice that Ablajan—and other young Uighurs—try to climb the economic ladder.

Rhythm and Blues

When we landed in Urumqi, two members of Ablajan’s crew, the improbably named Frank and Caesar, met us at the airport and led us to a black SUV. As Frank steered the beast through rush hour traffic, Caesar talked, in rapid-fire Uighur, English and Chinese, about competing as breakdancer in southern China, and lamented that the central government blocks sites like YouTube where you can listen to rap artists like his personal favorite, Notorious B.I.G., “may he rest in peace.”

Most of Ablajan’s dancers and aides are, like him, Uighur kids from the countryside who dreamed of making it big. They live between worlds, learning Chinese to survive, and English as a cultural lubricant, while still clinging to a language and tradition of their own.

Ablajan attended Uighur-language school and spent his evenings toiling beside his father in the fields, singing folk songs to pass the time. He looks back fondly on his youth. “Xinjiang used to be peaceful,” he says. “Then we lost the peace.”

At 14, Ablajan caught a glimpse of Michael Jackson on TV and, for the first time, imagined a life outside Sangzhu. “When I saw him, I was like, Oh my God,” he says. He started practicing the moonwalk and writing songs, and at 19 made the 32-hour bus journey to Urumqi to study dance.

The next six years were a struggle to make it as a musician, and a struggle with the reality of being poor and Uighur in an increasingly expensive, segregated city. He worked as a wedding singer and practiced English and Chinese. Eventually, he was befriended by another young Uighur musician who gave him a computer, his first, and a workspace in his studio. He spent his days writing music and his nights working Urumqi’s restaurant and wedding circuit.

One of his breakthrough hits, “Is There Space to Play?,” turns rural-urban migration into a metaphor for coming of age, according to Darren Byler, an anthropologist at the University of Washington who studies and translates Uighur music. The song opens with the sights and sounds of Xinjiang childhood: the call to prayer, distant mountains, a bleating goat. By midway, we’re in China’s pressure-cooker schools, where the bags of books are heavy. It ends in the city—skyscrapers and cars are everywhere. Where are the stars at night? Is there space to play?

Hot Ticket

Ablajan is a big star in a small place. When he walks down the street, there’s an endless stream of people waiting to shake hands. At a Chinese Muslim restaurant in Urumqi, two cooks rush out of the kitchen, aprons and, gloves still on, to wish him well: “Peace be upon you,” they say, using the pan-Islamic greeting. In the town of Hotan, a teenage taxi driver refuses to let him pay. “Just write some more love songs,” he says.

With success and celebrity comes perks that young Ablajan might not have imagined. He has enough to live on his own and to send money and gifts to his family. When he visits his hometown he takes a flight, not the grueling overnight bus. And Uighur girls from as far away as Europe and the U.S. send him messages on Instagram, his social network of choice. “So many beautiful ladies,” he says.

But Ablajan also faces obstacles. Many of his fans do not have the money to buy tickets for his shows, and organizing a concert requires multiple layers of state approval. There are technical issues too. For a late spring performance at a college in Urumqi, his team set up a stage on a basketball court and students carried in wooden chairs to form an ad-hoc auditorium. Police lined the perimeter to watch the crowd. When the music started — two hours late because of technical problems — Ablajan was electric. But the guy manning the spotlight from a Toyota pickup mid-court could not quite keep him illuminated.

After the show, the performers gathered in the school stairwell that served as their dressing room. The dancers greeted friends and basked in the post-show glow, but Ablajan held back, despondent about the delays and glitches. He worries about letting people down, he says, and feels the pressure of being a role model to an entire generation of Uighur kids. “I’m only a bad boy on stage,” he said.

When we met the next morning to catch a flight south, he looked beat. I had bought tickets for 8:00 a.m. not realizing that half the region ignores government-mandated “Beijing time” in favor of “Xinjiang time,” which is two hours earlier. It was actually 5:00 o’clock in the morning and Ablajan had been up all night, replaying the performance in his head. But by time we got to the airport, he was himself again, greeting fans and cracking jokes.

As we boarded the plane, Ablajan was humming the tune to a 2013 hit by Toronto-born rapper Drake: Started from the bottom and now we here / Started from the bottom now the whole team here.

The Politics of Music

Ablajan rarely talks politics, wary, no doubt, of jeopardizing his career. But on July 31, violent clashes erupted in a village outside Kashgar, leaving at least 100 dead, according to state media reports. (The cause of the violence and the death toll are still disputed.) When the authorities then canceled a long-planned concert in Urumqi, Ablajan could no longer hold back. His team spent nearly a month, and a whole lot of money, preparing for what was to be a display of ethnic unity performed in front of officials and broadcast to audiences. Police shut it down less than an hour from showtime. Ablajan posted a picture of himself on Instagram, with a caption that read like a cri de coeur: “My name is Ablajan! I am not a terrorist.”

Late last year, Ablajan released his first Chinese-language music video, “Today,” an MJ-inspired epic featuring a car chase and shots of his entourage dancing on rooftops and roads in Urumqi and Kashgar. The goal was to generate some excitement online for the Mandarin single, his first, giving him a foothold in the bigger, more lucrative Chinese-language market. His manager, Rui Wenbin—a Han Chinese born and raised in Urumqi and formerly of Xinjiang’s culture ministry—believes Ablajan’s music can help bridge the divide between the Uighur and Han worlds. Says Rui: “He can be a messenger of peace.”

It won’t be easy. On my last night in Xinjiang, Ablajan and I walk to a public square near the local government office. It’s a warm evening and many people are out, walking arm-in-arm or pushing strollers. On one side, a group of elderly Han women practices a synchronized dance. Nearby, clusters of young Uighurs listen to music. Before the clock strikes nine, however, the cops come out in golf-cart-size squad cars, sirens blaring. Everyone has to go home.

As we walk back, Ablajan talks about going to Kazakhstan in the fall. If he can scrape up the money, he’d love to see Beijing someday too. “I need proper equipment, a choreographer, costumes, but …” He pauses and searches for the right expression. “Mei banfa,” he says in Mandarin: No solution. “I mean, this is Xinjiang, man.”

— With reporting by Gu Yongqiang / Sangzhu

TIME Canada

The Ottawa Attack ‘Changes Everything’ and Hopefully Nothing at All

CANADA-ATTACKS-POLITICS-PARLIAMENT
Soldiers lock the gates at the John Weir Foote V.C. Armouries in Hamilton, Ontario, on Oct. 22, 2014, after a soldier believed to be from the base was killed in an attack in Ottawa Geoff Robins—AFP/Getty Images

The Canadian capital has been shaken by the unprecedented attack at the National War Memorial, and yet is already showing its resilience

It was Canadian humor. On Oct. 21, I emailed an old friend in Ottawa. After updates on life and work and weather, I asked about what was happening in the capital these days. I once worked for the local paper and have fond memories of the city. But as a Toronto native, I could never admit that. “What’s the mood?” I ventured. “Does Ottawa even have moods?” You see, Ottawa is so safe and nice that even Canadians joke about how safe and nice it is.

Not today. At around 10 a.m. local time on the morning of Oct. 22, the heart of the Canadian capital came under attack. A man with a rifle approached and shot and killed 24-year-old Nathan Cirillo, a reservist standing guard at the National War Memorial, a granite cenotaph that memorializes fallen soldiers.

From there, a male suspect, now identified as 32-year-old Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, seized control of a vehicle and drove to the nearby Parliament buildings. Set on rise above the Ottawa River, looking out on Quebec, the site is elegant, but exposed. The north of the complex is a grassy field, the site of group tours, Frisbee tosses and the occasional yoga class. The approach is open and welcoming. You can pretty much walk in.

When the gunman arrived, many members of Parliament (MPs), and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, were gathered inside the Centre Block. Video shot by Josh Wingrove, a reporter for the Globe and Mail, shows police officers rushing in as shots ring through the building’s vaulted stone corridors. Politicians and journalists took cover in offices or under desks, live-tweeting the lockdown from their phones.

Though what happened next is still unclear, several top Canadian politicians reported that Sergeant at Arms Kevin Vickers, a retired veteran of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, took down the shooter, potentially saving lives. The position of the sergeant at arms is part security, part ceremony, and involves carrying a ceremonial mace into the House of Commons. Vickers is already being hailed as a hero, and a most Canadian one at that: he is described as competent, community-minded, kind.

Outside the Gothic towers, police shut down swaths of the city’s core, and security personnel appeared on rooftops. By the standards of world capitals, Ottawa is very, very safe. When I worked as a journalist at the Ottawa Citizen, I covered more barn fires and county fairs more than murders (there were just nine homicides in 2013). There could have been panic. But footage from the scene shows police officers calmly asking commuters to take cover. Out of habit, they use “please.”

Local authorities released the name of the victim and a suspect, but did not speculate on motives just yet. The press, for the most part, was careful not to jump to conclusions in the hours after the gunfire, noting only that this was the second time in three days that members of Canadian security forces were targeted. (On Oct 20 an assailant ran over two soldiers in Quebec, killing on of them; it is being investigated as a potential terrorist attack.)

Across the border, media critics took note of the nonhysterical, fact-based live broadcasts. “Canada’s CBC News Shows What Thoughtful Breaking News Coverage Really Looks Like,” read one headline. “The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation today gave a master class in calm, credible breaking news reporting,” observed a piece from Mother Jones.

For all its calm and restraint, Ottawa is clearly, and understandably, shaken. In an interview with the Canadian Press newswire, MP John McKay, who was on Parliament Hill during the attacks, said he could not even contemplate what came next. “This changes everything,” he said.

Everything, yes, and hopefully, nothing at all. For those affected and their families, all is different, darker. In the weeks and months to come, the country and the city will face questions about security. Questions about motive. There will be pointed fingers, grief and fear.

But already, the city is showing its best self. People are sending words of support to the victim’s family, praising the sergeant at arms, trying not to think, or say, the worst. Within hours, in tweets that would melt any Canadian’s heart, was the type of news that lets you know that good old Ottawa will be just fine: Minor hockey games are canceled. The Toronto Maple Leaf–Ottawa Senator showdown is delayed, for now.

When the smoke clears, they will play the game — and, hey, the Senators might actually win. Our capital, our lovely capital, lives to laugh another day.

TIME China

Risen Again: China’s Underground Churches

Millions find their faith, away from the prying eyes of the state

The pastor places a palm on the man’s head. As he closes his eyes, gentle hands tilt the man backward, below the surface, then guide him up. He emerges cleansed of sin and spiritually committed to Jesus Christ.

It’s a scene that plays out every Sunday, somewhere. This time the rite took place below a makeshift altar, in an unmarked building, on the outskirts of Beijing. When the man rose from the makeshift baptismal tub he joined a community tens of millions strong and growing by the year: Chinese Christians.

Though Christianity has deep roots in China — it dates as far back as the 7th century — it is hard, in the present day, to get a clear picture of the community. The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is wary of organized religion, and has alternately tried to crush, discourage, or co-opt Christian groups. But having survived the ravages of the Cultural Revolution, the faith is now flourishing: a 2010 study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences estimated there are 23 million Christians in China. In 2011, Pew Research put the figure closer to 67 million, or 5% of the population.

The numbers mask great variety — so much so that it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what “Chinese Christian” means. Consider the country’s Catholics: the Holy See and Beijing do not have formal diplomatic relations, and the Pope is not welcome on Chinese soil. Yet Pew estimates there are 10 million Catholics in China. Of these, just over half are affiliated with the state-sanctioned Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, which does not recognize the Vatican. Millions of others worship in secret churches.

So it is with Protestants. The government-approved Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Movement is 23 million strong, according to Pew, while as many 35 million others are unregistered, practicing their faith in underground or “house” churches. But the line between “permitted” and “forbidden” is always shifting. The southern city of Wenzhou, known as China’s Jerusalem, was last spring rocked by the destruction of ostensibly state-approved spires. Elsewhere, underground churches thrive in plain sight.

It was this ambiguity that drew photographer Kevin Frayer to an unmarked church outside Beijing on Sunday, Oct. 12. The people there worship quietly, but not covertly. The authorities know they exist, but seem content, for now, to look the other way. “Christianity is tolerated sometimes, to some extent,” says Frayer, “as long as it is controlled and behind closed doors.”

Though CCP cadres remain suspicious of what they consider “Western” dogma, their biggest fear is not the doctrine itself, but its popularity — they worry that Christianity could grow more popular than the party. At the church outside Beijing, at least, the service was steeped in the rituals of worship, not the language of politics. A Chinese flag hanging near the pulpit was the only reference to the state.

After sharing a snack of fried bread and cabbage, about 80 men and women gathered for the service. There was prayer and song and sleeping babies. A woman wept. “It was very emotional,” Frayer says.

When he lived in Jerusalem, Frayer witnessed baptisms in the Jordan River. This time, it was a wooden tub — different, but just as deeply felt.

TIME Hong Kong

The Voice of a Generation

Joshua Wong and his fellow students have triggered a youthquake that’s shaking up Hong Kong

Photograph by James Nachtwey for TIME

Joshua Wong does not want to grow up. He’s a Hong Kong kid and that’s why, just before midnight on Oct. 6, he and his girlfriend (and his girlfriend’s friend, because teenagers travel in packs) have ducked into a barbecue joint in the working-class neighborhood of Mongkok to feast on grilled scallions, roasted pineapple and Chinese egg noodles bathed in cheese and garlic—a classic Hong Kong fusion dish. Wong, who turns 18 this month, sucks down the pasta with one hand and checks his smartphone with the other. Slurp, swipe, slurp, swipe.

The clatter of Cantonese rattles around the restaurant. An overhead TV displays images of the student-led protest movement that has occupied key commercial districts of Hong Kong, highlighting the dilemma of a hybrid city reared on democratic ideals but ruled by an authoritarian China. No one in the eatery, though, pays much attention to the news. This kind of place—fluorescent-lit, Formica-clad, Hong Kong soul food of the cheesiest, noodliest variety—is why Wong, one of the organizers of the protest campaign, says he will never leave his home city, why he, like Peter Pan, never wants to become that most disdainful of species: an adult. “The future will not be decided by adults,” says Wong. “I would like to ask adults, people with capital and power, Why are they not fighting for democracy?”

(PHOTOS: A New Generation Speaks: See Inside Hong Kong’s Protests)

If Wong is wary of adulthood, his beloved home, Hong Kong, is also suspended in adolescence. The city may be the financial heart of the world’s most dynamic region, a collection of 7.2 million people for whom pragmatism and efficiency are a guiding faith. But since its inception as a tiny fishing port plundered by the British from the enfeebled Qing dynasty in the mid–19th century, to the colony’s hand­over back to China in 1997, Hong Kong has never been permitted political maturity. It was always a pawn of empire.

When Hong Kong reverted to Chinese sovereignty, the former Crown Colony was given a 50-year adjustment period to mainland rule. The “one country, two systems” policy guaranteed the territory a “high degree of autonomy” from Beijing on most everything but security matters. In 33 years’ time, though, the city will revert to full Chinese governance. Little Hong Kong will be forced to grow up and merge with the masses.

The trajectory toward 2047 is particularly troubling for Hong Kong youth, who will inherit this new political reality. Already, many locals worry that China’s communist rulers are eroding the freedoms—like an independent judiciary and an open press—that differentiate the city from the rest of China. Beijing’s recently announced plan to prevent Hong Kong from freely electing its chief executive galvanized the first batch of protesters who crowded the city’s downtown in late September. But it was the overreaction to this display of civil disobedience—sprays of tear gas from the police and outright thuggery from elements of Hong Kong’s underworld—that led tens of thousands to occupy more streets, a spontaneous, sympathetic outpouring no one, least of all Wong, expected. Umbrellas, unfurled by students against the pepper spray, turned into the movement’s symbol. Hong Kong’s very public struggle now ranks as China’s most consequential protest since the 1989 pro-democracy rallies were crushed at Tiananmen—and young Hong Kong residents have provided the crusade with both its population and its passion.

The student-led siege of prime Hong Kong property is not going to suddenly transform the territory into a full-fledged democracy—certainly not if the Chinese Communist Party remains in power on the mainland. As a government ultimatum to clear the streets expired without incident on Oct. 6, the urge for solidarity against the authorities faded; protest numbers have waned. Nevertheless, the events of the past few weeks have awakened a political consciousness that few, even in the city itself, knew they possessed. Their idealism, not to mention their organizational acumen and communal spirit, is exactly what threatens China’s rulers, who, from the heady days of Tiananmen and further back in the country’s history, know well the transformative potential of students on the streets.

Teen Icon

It was past 1 a.m. on Oct. 2, and the throngs gathered outside Hong Kong’s government headquarters in Admiralty district were starting to dissipate. Protesters had spent days camped on an overpass, sleeping curled around their backpacks, subsisting on crackers and KFC. Throughout the campaign, some had been pepper-sprayed and soaked by rain. The air was growing thick again, and restlessness had set in.

As a light mist fell, word spread: Joshua Wong—who on Sept. 26 was arrested for trespassing and spent 46 hours in detention for the students’ initial occupation—was about to speak. Many in the crowd raised their phones to capture the moment. With his bowl-cut bangs, sparse stubble and thick-framed spectacles, Wong looks like any other nerdy kid in a society where nearly half of youngsters wear glasses. His delivery at the makeshift podium set in the shelter of a pedestrian bridge came in confident, quick-fire Cantonese. The fight for full democracy is not over, he told protesters. “Stay,” he said. They did.

Off the podium, Wong is polite, prone to bringing his hands together in a penitent clasp. He was raised in a Christian family that dispatched him to rural China for volunteer teaching; some of his fellow student activists are friends from church. In 2011, when he was just 14 years old, Wong formed a group of students in Hong Kong called Scholarism to stop the territory from implementing a mainland-designed “national education” policy that ignored the Tiananmen massacre and pushed fealty to the Chinese Communist Party. After 100,000 people joined his 2012 street rally, the Hong Kong government backed off.

Wong had taken on Hong Kong’s bosses in Beijing—and notched a rare victory. Local celebrity followed, with breaking-news reports on his (mediocre) college-entrance examination results. Despite the attention usually reserved for Canto-pop heartthrobs, Wong lacks physical presence. His shoulders are hunched in the kind of phone-tethered posture that annoys mothers everywhere. Yet his rhetoric, often delivered with eyes squeezed shut, is unequivocal. “I don’t want to follow the games of adults,” he says, “handing out business cards that you’ll just put in the rubbish bin, chit-chat. Political reform is not going to come from going to meetings … We had to do radical action because our leaders did nothing.”

Wong has a girlfriend named Tiffany and thumbs picked raw from stress. He wishes he had more time to play mobile-phone games and displays no overriding affection for any particular book. Despite the command his speeches claim over the protesters, Wong says he has no wish to serve as an icon and is still shocked that his arrest last month galvanized so many to join the cause. He doesn’t have any heroes himself, neither Mahatma Gandhi nor Wang Dan, the Beijing university student whose leadership of the Tiananmen pro-democracy struggle made him “enemy No. 1” to the Chinese government. To Wong, the leaderless nature of the territory’s democracy movement is a strength, not a weakness. “If Hong Kong just relies on me,” he says, “the movement will fail.”

Generation Gap

Compared with their peers in mainland China, Hong Kong’s youth are wealthier, healthier and have access to social media like Facebook and Twitter that are blocked by Chinese censors. Wong is often asked if his parents are activists; they are not. There’s an assumption there must be something unusual about his upbringing, beyond his Protestant faith, that makes him care. “People think that every night we were talking about how the government was violating democratic principles,” he says. “[My parents] just gave me the freedom to do what I want.”

Such liberty in China is unique to Hong Kong, and the city’s prospects depend on the whims of a Communist Party led by a President, Xi Jinping, who has shown little tolerance for dissent. Even the local economy is not immune to jitters about the future, especially as worries proliferate that Hong Kong’s reputation for clean governance is being compromised by Communist Party politics. Hong Kong has long thrived as a conduit for foreign investors to China, but growth is slowing, chiefly because of sliding exports. “If Hong Kong is so obviously becoming just another mainland city, why not set up one’s regional headquarters in Beijing or Shanghai?” asks Carsten Holz, an economics professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Income inequality has surged since 1997 and now ranks as the highest in the developed world. The fertility rate is so low that the local population cannot sustain itself. Instead, an influx of mainland Chinese—40.7 million visited last year—has brought with it a flood of new wealth that has made Hong Kong’s homes the least affordable in the world, yet also the smallest, according to one housing survey. “We don’t see good prospects for our future,” says Katie Lo, 21, a university student.

Proud of their heritage—the Cantonese language instead of the Mandarin spoken on the mainland, for instance—locals fear a cultural and economic invasion from the north. “Stand on Canton Road,” frets legislator Claudia Mo, speaking of a major Hong Kong thoroughfare, “and you’ll hardly hear any Cantonese.” Mandarin has eclipsed English as the city’s second language. For her own part, Mo speaks very upper-class British English. She comes from a coastal mainland Chinese family that fled the communists and came to Hong Kong. But like many of her peers, she identifies as a Hong Konger first, global citizen second and a resident of the People’s Republic a distant third.

There’s plenty of chauvinism toward mainlanders in Hong Kong. A nasty local phrase labels them “locusts.” For all the hope that Hong Kong’s struggle might catalyze a similar awakening in the rest of China, where dissent usually earns activists jail terms, many Hong Kong students’ concerns are locally cocooned. “Hong Kong people want to protect our freedoms,” says Hiu Wah, a 19-year-old early-childhood education student. “I am not interested in changing Chinese politics.”

While Britain extended rule of law to its colony, it kept the populace all but disenfranchised. Since the 1997 handover, China has provided the territory with a string of proxies for its chief executive, the latest being the widely unpopular Leung Chun-ying. Hong Kong still boasts competent civil servants and veteran democracy legislators, with their crisp British accents and posh overseas degrees. But the youth at the barricades defending the protest sites wonder what all that conventional activism has done to change Hong Kong’s political predicament. “People always say to me, ‘Oh, if you want to change the world, first you need to go to university, then work as a government administrator or a businessman, then you can make policies,’” says Wong. “No, to affect the world, you go to the streets.”

Backlash

Movements need great men and women, and practical ones too. Already the protests have lost momentum, as the crowds thin. By the night of Oct. 7, no more than a couple thousand people milled around the main occupied zone in Admiralty district, well below the tens of thousands days earlier. So much energy has gone into figuring out how to get the protesters off the streets—endless talk about talking with the government, in addition to the actual talking—rather than figuring out how to turn this movement into practical policy that Beijing might consider. The protest leaders have declined to invite opposition politicians, who are well practiced at negotiating with the central government, into their movement. The same organizational and factional dysfunction that has beset protest movements around the world may undercut the Hong Kong campaign too. “They want to do it on their own,” says Emily Lau, head of the Democratic Party. “But why alienate pan-democrat legislators? Our goals are the same.”

Even for Hong Kong residents who support the students’ ideals, the lengthy shutdown of major roads and neighborhoods is a significant inconvenience. Paul Zimmerman, a district councillor who pointedly carried an umbrella to an official ceremony marking China’s National Day on Oct. 1, says it’s time to withdraw. “You’ve given people a voice,” he says, “now you give them the street back.”

Wong isn’t bothered. “You need to create the rules yourself,” he says. “Students have more time, more energy, so they should stand on the front lines.” Whenever Wong is spotted shuffling through any of the protest sites, he’s mobbed by dozens of news cameras and fans requesting snapshots with him. Hollywood actors might be used to the attention, but Wong is a student who, as he likes to point out, attends the ninth-ranked of nine universities in Hong Kong. (He is studying politics and public administration.) The attention, all those demands to explain his political philosophy and smile for selfies, is exhausting.

No wonder Wong is sometimes most comfortable going underground, literally. As he hops onto the subway, almost no one recognizes him. He’s just another teenager, swaying as the train tunnels under Hong Kong’s harbor, updating his Facebook page and WhatsApping madly. Three friends, also in Scholarism, stand next to him, absorbed in their own online lives. Barely a few seconds go by without frantic swiping. “Taking action is more meaningful than words,” says Wong. He dismisses planned negotiations with the authorities as “just an opportunity to show our anger to the government.” Inevitably, his head soon bends over his phone again, just a lone Hong Kong kid connecting with the world.

With reporting by Elizabeth Barber, Rishi Iyengar, Nash Jenkins and David Stout / Hong Kong

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