As the global pandemic raged and international travel was put on pause, we started work on a documentary to investigate China’s persecution of the Uyghurs population, an ethnic minority in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, some 12,000 kilometres away from our base in Auckland, New Zealand.
When we began the project in mid-2020, human rights abuses in China had barely been reported in New Zealand. But there was clearly a big story to tell, as the international awareness of mass-scale human rights violations grew along with stories of intensive surveillance, extra-judicial detentions, and forced labour.
What we didn’t know was that our documentary, Deleted, would uncover some disturbing New Zealand links to the covert genocide. It would reveal how all of us — including the New Zealand government — were compromised.
Stuff Circuit is Stuff’s specialist video investigative journalism unit. I work alongside producer Louisa Cleave, director/editor Toby Longbottom, and cinematographer Phil Johnson. Stuff owns New Zealand’s No. 1 news site, Stuff.co.nz, along with a suite of magazines, newspapers, and the online community platform Neighbourly.
The business leverages its trust and scale to deliver quality news, content, and experiences that help make Aotearoa New Zealand a better place.
Speaking out for those who can’t
We identified a New Zealand Uyghur woman who was willing to speak about her fears for her brother, who had been extrajudicially imprisoned in China. We then found many other members of the small New Zealand Uyghur community who also agreed to tell their stories.
The scale and horror of what was (and still is) happening to Uyghurs became increasingly apparent. Hearing accounts from the community about their friends and family who have disappeared was heartbreaking.
We wondered what other connections there might be, given that New Zealand is economically dependent on China as our biggest trading partner.
We found relationships between New Zealand businesses and a Chinese company singled out for playing a leading role in the human rights violations of Uyghurs. The documentary exposed business and political links to the Chinese tech giant iFlytek, which had been blacklisted by the U.S. government.
Being 12,000 kilometres away meant this was one of the most visually challenging projects we’ve worked on. We weren’t able to report from Xinjiang, so we decided to innovate.
We commissioned detailed models from one of Auckland’s leading special effects companies to give the project a visual motif that both enabled the video storytelling and made it stand out in the online environment.
They created a miniature movie set, including characters, that set the scene. The use of models was clearly explained to prevent any risk of viewers being misled. Some model elements were realistic — the recreation of Xinjiang, while others were not — the faceless pink plastic characters representing the real humans denied their human rights.
We wanted the video to be strong investigative journalism, housed within a presentation that gave wider context and explanation for what was happening in Xinjiang, and the New Zealand connections. The models provided a unique, striking, and visually engaging way to illustrate the story.
Investigation creates change
Our investigation led to the New Zealand entities who’d partnered with the blacklisted Chinese company severing those relationships and the government ordering Crown agencies to reassess their frameworks on ethical investment.
But perhaps more importantly, the feedback showed clearly that people who previously knew nothing about the persecution of Uyghurs now understood one of the world’s most serious human rights abuses — and how New Zealand was implicated.
Deleted was made with support from NZ On Air. Explore interactive content at www.stuff.co.nz/deleted.