Stories That Matter: How Ben Mauk and The New Yorker Took Readers — and Viewers — Inside China's Gulag State
Years of reporting on Xinjiang led to what's been described as "the most ambitious immersive visual storytelling [the magazine] has ever undertaken."
Ben Mauk’s reporting on Xinjiang has taken years. It began in 2018, when he was in Kazakhstan, writing a story about the Belt and Road Initiative for The New York Times Magazine; he thought it’d be a labor story, not one that would cross into systems.
Yet when he was in Zharkent, a Kazakh town that was supposed to be The Next Big City, what was going on over the border in China was “foremost in people’s minds.” They had family members on the other side; back when the border was porous, people went back and forth frequently.
By then, CNN, the Washington Post, Reuters, and several smaller Eurasian-based news outlets had done pieces on the “re-education centers,” in which Uighur detainees were drilled in Mandarin, kept in cramped conditions, and strongly pushed to renounce key aspects of their identities by the “teachers” and guards installed by the Chinese government. Academics, whose Uighur colleagues had disappeared, were also sounding the alarm. But there wasn’t much magazine reporting done yet — if there was any at all.
By serendipity, during Mauk’s visit, a very public extradition trial of a woman who’d been forced to teach at one of these camps was taking place — she was fighting to not be returned to China, after she’d publicly testified as to what was going on in the camps. Members of Kazakhstan’s civil society were there, including, unbeknown to Mauk at the time, several activists who would help connect him to interviewees in the future. It became clear to him that all his Times Magazine reporting was going to converge on this trial, which was an indication that the real story was taking place only several miles away, even though a lot of the material he’d gathered in that trip would not make it into that article.
It was obvious this was a “critically under-covered story,” one he would devote himself to, including a diary piece for the London Review of Books, an oral history of the camps for The Believer, and not just a feature for The New Yorker, but a VR film too, on three subjects who’d been detained in the same camp — an improbable find. In total, he made four trips to Kazakhstan.
We spoke via Zoom, both from our childhood homes, about the substance of his reporting, as well as the hows and wherefores about freelancing and writing in general. The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Is this kind of story able to be pursued by someone without a magazine or publication that’s able to pay expenses?
Mauk: I would say it pays to be very creative about funding. Since before I was reporting for places like the New York Times, I had sought grants from places like the Pulitzer Center [on Crisis Reporting], for example, which has given me five reporting grants.
When I went to Kazakhstan in April of 2018, I had already been assured of funding from the Jamal Khashoggi Award and the NYU Matthew Powers reporting award, both of which went to fund the Believer and London Review of Books pieces. I didn’t pay out of pocket for the reporting on that trip; both were awards I applied to specifically to fund my Xinjiang reporting.
Do those grants cover enough, in addition to whatever the magazine can front?
Mauk: Yes, they do. [Laughs.]
Sometimes students or early career journalists will ask me if they should fund their own travel and reporting for a story, and without knowing more, I would say “no.” I don’t think impecunious freelance writers like us should have to pay our way to report a story when we don’t even know if it’s going to run. None of this advice applies to the independently wealthy.
But in terms of freelancing, it’s like, who’s able to put in that kind of time? Who’s able to put their life on hold and fly to Kazakhstan? Obviously, it requires interest from publications, or some kind of financial security. In fact, I was invited to speak at a media conference the first time I went back, and I was like: “Hey! Can I stay an extra week?” And they said sure, so I stayed. I did interviews probably like nine or 10 hours a day, just in that extra week.
I remember that trip in April was exhausting, it was wall-to-wall hearing these stories — it was not a permanent state of affairs and if I wanted to collect these accounts, I had to get there and not waste any time. I remember my interpreter and I would go, at the end of the day, to a fast food place and sit, so dead we couldn’t even talk to each other.
Those interviews made up a bulk of your 24,000-word oral history for The Believer. How did you get them on board?
Mauk: You can probably count on three fingers a place you could send something like that, and have them actually consider it. It’s just a really huge commitment in terms of page count — it’s 40 pages in The Believer — in terms of dealing with such a big piece, in terms of being willing to own a work of journalism and the liability that comes with this — levying accusations against the Chinese government. The most important thing for me was to get the interviews out and in unexpurgated form. I knew James [Yeh, then features editor] socially already, so I called him in February of 2019, before going to Kazakhstan in April, and talked about the idea. He was the only editor I approached with the story.
Had I taken this to The New York Times Magazine, Bloomberg Businessweek, The New Yorker or whatever — a big glossy — it would not have been 24,000 words, for one thing, because they don’t run stuff that length and haven’t for a long, long time. But, for me, it was important to do right by the stories people had given me. Each person was desperate. Of course, as a journalist, you’re always emphasizing “all we can do is report, and you should not expect anything to come of it.” I don’t want people to have false hopes about talking to me. Nevertheless, you do feel like people have trusted you with something. In this case, I was so affected by the material that it was important to me that it come out in a place that could appreciate that fact, and appreciate this was not merely a news piece, that it was trying to be an oral history. I wanted them to run the whole thing.
And James really fought for it — it wasn’t like an automatic yes. James really saw the value in doing it that way.
Did you expect people to read all those 24,000 words?
Mauk: Heh heh heh, heh. Yes.
So why an oral history?
Mauk: I wanted to publish an oral history in the mode of Studs Terkel or Svetlana Alexievich because I thought that was the form best sorted to this material. I had wearied of refugee articles that took this main-character approach and tried to heavily psychologize the experience of the refugee — that always felt like cheating to me; it felt manipulative. I didn’t want to perform analysis on it, or do the writerly thing, where I wrap quotes together and then summarize their meaning or their import. I just wanted to edit into chronological shape with the interviews, add a few pieces of context here and there, and then just get out of the way, let the material do what it wanted to do.
You obviously think a lot about narrative structures; you wrote a bit about them in your newsletter’s first iteration. You also went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Has your fiction experience influenced your thoughts on this matter?
Mauk: Non-fiction is unforgiving in terms of structure. If your piece has an insufficient or poorly thought-out structure, disclosing information in a way that is failing to communicate what you want, then the piece is a failure.
On the other hand, I’ve read novels that I’ve liked very much that have appeared to have almost no structure whatsoever, or seem to have been written just by starting at the beginning and going to the end, which is not to say you can’t have an intricately structured novel, or that fiction writers don’t think about structure — they certainly do, and I certainly did, maybe to a fault, when I was writing fiction — but I do think that fiction is a much more forgiving genre in terms of the way in which information is disclosed.
There are other demands of fiction: The psychological demands are much more stringent than in a work of non-fiction. In fact, I think my own non-fiction work strives to say as little about the psychology of the subjects as possible, quite consciously, but even when I’m reading a piece of non-fiction where I’m thinking a writer has failed to convince me on a subject’s psychological make-up, that does not make a work an automatic failure to me.
I’m somewhat critical of non-fiction that aspires to the qualities of fiction because I think they do different things well. Different moments will land differently in a non-fiction piece. Something that’s too tidy or coincidental in a novel, if it happens in a non-fiction piece, it’s because it happened. It’s quite a different resonance because our shared reality is the presupposition of all non-fiction writing and that creates different expectations from a reader. I also think one thing the fiction writer can say is that they control every feature — some fiction writers don’t agree with this — they are basically in charge of the inner lives of their characters, which, of course, is not the case in non-fiction: You should not get it in your head that you can divine a neat narrative arc for your characters — people’s lives don’t become tidy like that.
I hate — maybe hate’s a strong word — I dislike when people try to praise non-fiction writing as “novelistic,” which I often find they mean it has a lot of concrete details. I do try to resist the urge to psychologize subjects, because you don’t know that they’re feeling what they say they’re feeling; I do think, to a certain extent, you can take a subject at their word if they say “I was scared,” but I think the best thing a non-fiction writer can do is show characters’ motion and use that to illuminate these larger structures the non-fiction piece will often be about. I think non-fiction explains systems really well. I think it’s possible to really open a system for readers in ways that are special to the genre.
So you’ve done several reporting trips to Kazakhstan now, and have all this testimony. What made you think about collaborating on a VR film?
Mauk: I had talked with Sam Wolson, a VR filmmaker living in the same neighborhood in Berlin at the same time as me, about someday doing a project together. When I returned after a trip to Kazakhstan in 2019, having met these three ex-detainees who had been in the same detention center at the same time, I approached him. This struck us both as a compelling project because we had this unprecedented group of guys, all of whom could talk about the same facility, whose detentions overlapped, they had met each other there, their stories were extremely cross-corroborating, they were all very reliable witnesses.
Sam has often said one really needs to work for the right kind of project for VR because if you don’t, you end up with something that feels gimmicky and unnecessary. This was a story that had a lot of inherent drama in the spaces that we were talking about, where, in fact, what was most journalistically valuable about the material that I had gathered was the nature of these spaces — what they looked and sounded like, and the things that happened in them. It’s an authoritarian space that’s inaccessible. All this stuff put together makes it a subject that VR can illuminate in a special way.
So we put together a pitch, and we took it to a couple places. It was obviously going to be a large project; it was not going to be cheap. There were varying levels of enthusiasm; no one said no outright, but obviously The New Yorker was going to be the place that would run it.
How long did it take for The New Yorker to say yes?
Mauk: That process took over maybe a month and a half talking about it on Zoom calls and emails and stuff. At one point, we had a Zoom call with a terrifying number of people on it — 15 or 20 people — which is a lot, just as we were cementing the project in place. It was a process, not because anyone was slow or hesitant, but we were thinking through the problem of what this project was going to look like, because it’s formally different to what we had done before, and what The New Yorker had done before.
Even when we went to Kazakhstan together in December, we didn’t exactly know it was going to be a VR film or if it was going to be online with an interactive element. Were we going to do an article along with a VR project? All of this was up in the air.
We had partial deadlines where we were going to decide what we were going to do with the material once we had synthesized it and figured out what kind of stories we had.
At the same time, I wanted to write a feature about them. I didn’t want it to just be a film, and I didn’t think there’s really a good one-stop shop narrative feature piece about Xinjiang and I wanted to write that — this is back in September of 2019. I wanted it to be a panoramic view of Xinjiang, as told by several of its residents.
The bulk of that discussion happened after that trip, when we came back and had all this incredible material, not just from the three main subjects of the film, but many other people that I’d interviewed on that trip who end up as subjects in the [feature].
How did you go about writing it up?
Mauk: I wrote the first draft pretty early; I’d say I finished it by June of 2020, and it came out in February of 2021. So a lot did come out and a lot did change, but the structure of my piece never radically changed; little things did, but I would say that, more than other stories I’d written, it stayed kind of true to its initial vision pretty nicely through to the end. Even down to the visuals and how they would interact with the text.
As you were writing, were you planning where the interactive elements were going to be?
Mauk: Sam, Matt Huynh (the artist), Monica Racic (the editor), Sandra Garcia (who led the interactive department), and I storyboarded this story, as you might a film, even before I really finished a draft. We talked about what we might want to be interactive in this piece, and it definitely shaped how I wrote it too: I wrote it very differently to something that would have no illustrations, or have photos, or whatever. There was never any question, in my mind, that a map would be required. This was the first time I’d written a story where I knew it was going to have these strong visual components, and audio components, before I drafted it, and it influenced how I wrote the piece.
One thing I like about this New Yorker project is that I envisioned it as something that was polyphonic. As with the Believer piece, albeit on a different scale, and using different forms, the polyphony of the voices was important to the strength of the piece — it was how we got a robust sense of what the truth is for people living in Xinjiang and I think that same effect is not conveyed by a story that is laser-focused on a single subject.
What’s the biggest problem you faced with placing these stories?
Mauk: The issue is that it’s quite difficult to find room in a newspaper or magazine for coverage of any foreign topic; that already puts someone who’s working on a foreign beat at a disadvantage. Of course, there is editorial interest in China, because of geopolitical tensions with the United States, and China’s economic importance. I’ve found it’s hard to get editors interested in stories of mine if they’re about a country that’s not viewed as relevant to U.S. economic interests, and that is a failing of the media ecosystem, but I don’t think that’s anything to do with an absence of talented writers or editors. Often, you will pitch a story and an editor will be really interested in it, and it just fails to land as it moves up the chain. Many people with divergent interests have to agree that it’s an important story for their readership.
Throughout 2020, I failed to place several stories that I wanted to find a home for. Maybe they were about smaller countries, or countries where the U.S. might have preconceived ideas about. I put as little emphasis on “U.S. readers will care about this because blah, blah, blah.” Part of this is because, like a place like The New York Times Magazine, they have a very international audience, so it’s not just U.S. readers; it’s readers from all over.
I try to find a story that’s interesting, that I don’t think has been told, for which there’d be value in my telling it. For me, often the most salient cases of the topics I like to write about are taking place outside the U.S., which is not to say the U.S. does not have a hand in what’s happening, but it does mean that it may be a little bit of an uphill battle in certain respects. All you can do is present the story as one that is vital and important — the chips fall where they fall.
A lot, not a lot, let’s say some publications that do publish excellent foreign coverage view themselves as a primarily domestic publication. Maybe half their readership’s in New York City, for example, so they may feel they’re a New York publication, even if they publish reports from all over the world.
Are we both thinking about the same publication there?
Mauk: I’m not actually trying to target one publication here, I think this is systemic. Part of the reason why I pick on New York is because virtually the whole magazine industry is based there, so it’s an easy one to pick.
Anyway, I think there’s a preponderance of people writing about Xinjiang and other important human rights issues, and issues related to China, and Asia more generally. I would say it is always a struggle to get stuff published for these larger reasons of what the landscape looks like.
What are you doing next with your Xinjiang reporting?
Mauk: I have a book review coming that includes some content I wish could’ve made it into the New Yorker piece but didn’t. That’s probably going to be the last thing on Xinjiang for a while; I already have some stuff in the hopper about other subjects that’s going to come out, but probably I will be working on my book for the next long while.
Do you think Western outlets will keep reporting on Xinjiang, or do you think it will fade away like other major news events?
Mauk: I think it will continue because it has become such a poker chip for the U.S. in its foreign policy interests. I think it is just part of this anti-China stuff in the U.S., which I find a little scary, and that’s part of the reason why I think it’s important to produce really high-quality journalism on this subject and to show the situation as it is. I think the reporting has been very good — there’s been really good reporting in the Times, BuzzFeed, NPR. I think the rhetoric that surrounds the reporting — the opinion pieces or the political posturing — that’s a different matter and that’ll be of the quality that you’d expect.
Stories That Matter is a series of interviews with the people behind some of the best and most influential journalism being done today, focused on reporting, writing, and lessons we can learn from the process of creating great work.
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Predict: What Happens Next?
The trouble with these international events is that media attention inevitably moves away from them. Ben Mauk established himself as a foreign affairs journalist while reporting on the record number of refugees entering Europe — Germany, specifically, for him — but a year after outlets started talking about a “refugee crisis” (scary quotes intentional), the news cycle moved on. With Xinjiang, the international community is dealing with a nation that is not only a leviathan in the larger geopolitical context, but also intent on controlling the narrative.
This being said, Mauk thinks the international attention has made a difference. China’s claims “have certainly changed radically,” he says, since he started reporting on the subject in 2018 — it has since confirmed these camps exist, for one. The pressure from constant reporting has led to people being released from detention. What’s more, the fact China is such a geopolitical force means it’s unlikely Xinjiang will disappear from the discourse any time soon.
Read: More on Xinjiang and China’s Control of Autonomous States
Megha Rajagopalan and Alison Killing have been analyzing satellite images of the camps to determine their reach and their growth in a multi-part investigation in BuzzFeed News: “China Can Lock Up a Million Muslims in Xinjiang at Once,” July 21, 2021
Austin Ramzy and Christ Buckley revealed a 403-page document leak from the Chinese government about its Xinjiang activities in the New York Times: “‘Absolutely No Mercy’: Leaked Files Expose How China Organized Mass Detentions of Muslims,” November 16, 2019
Lavender Au talks to and about a teen boy arrested and jailed for spray-painting a bakery as part of the Hong Kong protests, and not just his birth parents, but also his adopted “protest parents” in the New York Review of Books: “The Protest Families of Pro-Democracy Hong Kong,” May 22, 2021
Meet: About the Author
Brian Ng is a writer, originally from Aotearoa–New Zealand, currently living in Te Awa Kairangi–Lower Hutt.