Terror & tourism: Xinjiang loosens its grip, but fear remains


A convenience store cashier spoke about declining sales ?? then was visited by the dark men who followed us. When we returned she didn’t say a word, instead passed us and ran out of the store.

Whenever I tried to chat with someone, the guards moved closer, straining to hear every word.

It is unclear why the Chinese authorities have shifted to more subtle methods of controlling the region.

Uyghur activists accuse the Chinese government of genocide, pointing to falling birth rates and mass detentions. The authorities say their goal is not to eliminate the Uyghurs, but to integrate them.

Regardless of the intention, one thing is clear: most of the practices that made Uyghur culture a living being ?? loud gatherings, strict Islamic habits, heated debate ?? were restricted or banned, replaced by a sterilized version.

Xinjiang officials gave us a tour of the Grand Bazaar in central Urumqi, which has been rebuilt for tourists, like many other cities in Xinjiang. Here there are giant plastic bearded Uyghur men and a giant plastic Uyghur instrument. Crowds of Han Chinese take selfies.

James Leibold, a leading expert on ethnic politics in Xinjiang, calls it the “museumification” of Uyghur culture. Chinese authorities call this progress.

China has long struggled to integrate the Uyghurs, a historically Muslim group of 13 million people with strong linguistic, ethnic and cultural ties to Turkey. The more the government tried to control the Uyghurs, the more they clung to their identity. Some have resorted to violence, launching bombings and stabbing attacks against a state they say would never give them real respect.

The debate ended shortly after President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012. The state opted for forced assimilation, labeling dissidents “terrorists” and detaining them.

Today, many checkpoints and police stations have disappeared, but the racial divide remains clear.

Uyghurs live trapped in an invisible system that restricts their every move. In the suburb of Kashgar, a Han woman in a tailor shop tells my colleague that most Uyghurs were not allowed to leave their homes.

” Is not it ? Can’t leave this store? The woman said to a Uyghur seamstress.

Down the street, I see identical Lunar New Year banners with slogans in Chinese characters like “The Chinese Communist Party is good” plastered on every storefront. An elderly Han Chinese trader tells me that officials printed the banners by the hundreds and ordered them, even though Uyghurs traditionally celebrate Islamic holidays rather than the Lunar New Year.

She approved of the strict measures. The Uyghurs “don’t dare do anything here anymore,” she told me.

Control is even stricter in the countryside. In a village where we stop, an old Uyghur man wearing a square skullcap answers a single question before a local Han Chinese executive demands to know what we are doing.

He told the Uyghur villagers, “If he asks you something, just say you don’t know anything.

Behind him, a drunken Uyghur was screaming. Alcohol is prohibited for practicing Muslims, especially during the holy month of Ramadan.

“I drank alcohol, I’m a little drunk, but that’s okay. We can drink however we want now!” He shouted. “We can do whatever we want! Things are going well now! “

In a nearby store, I notice liquors lining the shelves. In another city, my colleague and I meet a drunken Uyghur, passed out near a trash can in broad daylight. Such sites were once unimaginable in the pious rural areas of southern Xinjiang.

On a government-sponsored tour, officials took us to meet Mehmet Ahat, a truck driver, who said he resumed drinking and smoking because he had retracted from religious extremism. after a stint in one of Xinjiang’s infamous “training centers”.

“It made me more open-minded,” Ahat told reporters, as officials listened to him.

Xinjiang officials say they are not forcing atheism on Uyghurs, but rather defending freedom of belief against rampant extremism. The unique hallmark of state-controlled Islam in Xinjiang is mostly on display at the Xinjiang Islamic Institute, a government school for imams.

Here, young Uyghur men sing verses from the Quran on a newly built campus – one with a police station set up at the entrance.

“Freedom of religion is enshrined in the Chinese constitution,” student Omar Adilabdulla said as officials watched him speak. “It’s completely free.”

As he speaks, I open a textbook on another student’s desk. A good Chinese Muslim must learn Mandarin, he says, the main language of China.

“Arabic is not the only language that compiles the classics of Allah,” the lesson said. “Learning Chinese is our responsibility and our obligation, because we are all Chinese.

Uyghur is still spoken everywhere, but its use in public spaces is slowly fading. In recent years, the government has made Mandarin the mandatory standard in schools.

The most criticized aspect of the crackdown in Xinjiang has been its so-called “training centers,” which, according to leaked documents, are in fact extrajudicial indoctrination camps.

After a global outcry, Chinese authorities declared the camps closed in 2019. Many indeed appear to be closed.

But in their place, permanent detention centers were built, in an apparent move from makeshift camps to a system of long-term mass incarceration. We encountered a massive installation rolling along a country road, men visible in tall guard towers. Another is one of the largest detention centers in the world.

Officials are dodging questions about the number of Uyghurs detained, although statistics show an extraordinary increase in arrests before the government stops releasing them in 2019. Instead, they tell us during the tour that they devised the perfect solution to terrorism, instead protecting Uyghur culture. than to destroy it.

One night, I was sitting next to Dou Wangui, the Party secretary of Aksu Prefecture, watching smiling Uyghurs in traditional dresses dance and sing. Dou turns to me.

“You see, we can’t have genocide here,” said Dou, pointing to the artists. “We are preserving their traditional culture.”

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