The razor wire that once ringed public buildings in China’s far northwestern Xinjiang region is nearly all gone.
Gone, too, are the middle-school uniforms in military camouflage and the armored personnel carriers rumbling around the homeland of the Uighurs. Gone are many of the surveillance cameras that once glared down like birds from overhead poles, and the eerie eternal wail of sirens in the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar.
Uighur teenage boys, once a rare sight, now flirt with girls over pounding dance music at rollerblading rinks. One taxi driver blasted Shakira as she raced through the streets.
Illustration: Mountain People
Four years after Beijing launched a brutal crackdown that swept up to 1 million or more Uighurs and other mostly Muslim minorities into detention camps and prisons, its control of Xinjiang has entered a new era. Chinese authorities have scaled back many of the most draconian and visible aspects of the region’s high-tech police state. The panic that gripped the region a few years ago has subsided considerably, and a sense of normality is creeping back in.
However, there is no doubt about who rules, and evidence of the terror of the past four years is everywhere.
It is seen in Xinjiang’s cities, where many historic centers have been bulldozed and the Islamic call to prayer no longer rings out. It is seen in Kashgar, where one mosque was converted into a cafe, and a section of another has been turned into a tourist toilet. It is seen deep in the countryside, where Han Chinese officials run villages. And it is seen in the fear that was ever-present, just below the surface, on two rare trips to Xinjiang I made for The Associated Press, one on a state-guided tour for the foreign press.
A bike seller’s eyes widened in alarm when he learned I was a foreigner. He picked up his phone and began dialing the police.
A convenience store cashier chatted idly about declining sales — then was visited by the shadowy men tailing us. When we dropped by again, she did not say a word, instead making a zipping motion across her mouth, pushing past us and running out of the store.
At one point, I was tailed by a convoy of a dozen cars, an eerie procession through the silent streets of Aksu at 4 in the morning. Anytime I tried to chat with someone, the minders would draw in close, straining to hear every word.
It is hard to know why Chinese authorities have shifted to subtler methods of controlling the region. It might be that searing criticism from the West, along with punishing political and commercial sanctions, have pushed authorities to lighten up. Or it might simply be that China judges it has come far enough in its goal of subduing the Uighurs and other mostly Muslim minorities to relax its grip.
Uighurs abroad accuse the Chinese government of genocide, pointing to plunging birthrates and the mass detentions. The authorities say their goal is not to eliminate Uighurs, but to integrate them, and that harsh measures are necessary to curb extremism.
Regardless of intent, one thing is clear: Many of the practices that made the Uighur culture a living thing — raucous gatherings, strict Islamic habits, heated debate — have been restricted or banned. In their place, the authorities have crafted a sterilized version, one ripe for commercialization.
Xinjiang officials took us on a tour to the Grand Bazaar in the center of Urumqi, which has been rebuilt for tourists, like many other cities in Xinjiang. Here, there are giant plastic bearded Uighur men and a giant plastic Uighur instrument. A nearby museum for traditional naan bread sells tiny plastic naan keychains, Uighur hats and fridge magnets. Crowds of Han Chinese snap selfies.
James Leibold, a prominent academic of Xinjiang ethnic policy, calls it the “museumification” of Uighur culture. Chinese officials call it progress.
China has long struggled to integrate the Uighurs, a historically Muslim group of 13 million people with close linguistic, ethnic and cultural ties to Turkey. Since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took control of Xinjiang in 1949, Beijing’s leaders have debated whether stricter or softer measures are more effective in absorbing the vast territory, half the size of India.
For decades, policy in Xinjiang swung back and forth. Even as the state granted special benefits to minorities, such as hiring quotas and extra points on entrance exams, glass ceilings, racism and restrictions on religion alienated and angered many Uighurs.
The harder the government tried to control the Uighurs, the more stubbornly many clung to their identity. A few resorted to violence, carrying out bombings and knifings against a state they believed would never accord them genuine respect. Hundreds of innocent civilians, both Han Chinese and Uighur, perished in increasingly deadly attacks.
The debate ended soon after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) rise to power in 2012. The state chose forced assimilation, detaining Uighurs and other minorities indiscriminately by the thousands and branding them as suspected “terrorists.”
Today, many checkpoints and police stations are gone and the bombings have stopped, but the racial divide remains clear.
Uighurs live trapped in an invisible system that restricts their every move. It is near impossible for them to get passports, and on planes to and from Xinjiang, most passengers are from China’s Han Chinese majority.
Uighurs who live outside Xinjiang must register with local police and report to an officer on a regular basis, their moves tracked and monitored. Many Uighurs living in Xinjiang are not allowed to leave the region.
Information on Xinjiang within China is heavily censored, and state media now promote the region as a safe, exotic tourist destination. As a result, Han Chinese outside Xinjiang remain largely unaware of the restrictions that Uighurs face, one of a number of reasons why many in China are supportive of Beijing’s crackdown.
Within Xinjiang, Han Chinese and Uighurs live side by side, an unspoken, but palpable gulf between them. In the suburbs of Kashgar, a Han woman at a tailor shop tells my colleague that most Uighurs are not allowed to go far from their homes.
“Isn’t that so? You can’t leave this shop?” the woman said to a Uighur seamstress.
Down the street from the tailor shop, I spot Lunar New Year banners with slogans in Chinese characters like “The Chinese Communist Party is good” plastered on every storefront. An elderly Han Chinese shopkeeper tells me that local officials printed the banners by the hundreds, handed them out and ordered them put up, although Uighurs traditionally celebrate Islamic holidays rather than the Lunar New Year.
She approved of the strict measures. Xinjiang was much safer now, she said, than when she had first moved there with her son, a soldier with the Bingtuan, Xinjiang’s paramilitary corps.
The Uighurs “don’t dare do anything around here anymore,” she told me.
Such sentiments are extremely common among Han residents, who are told by the government that the region has not seen a violent terrorist incident since 2017.
City centers now bustle with life again, with Uighur and Han children screeching as they chase each other across streets. Some Uighurs even approach me and ask for my contact — something that never happened on previous visits.
However, in rural villages and quiet suburbs, many houses sit empty and padlocked. In one Kashgar neighborhood, the words “Empty House” is spray-painted on every third or fourth residence. In a village an hour’s drive away, I spot dozens of “Empty House” notices on a half-hour walk, red lettering on yellow slips fluttering in the wind on door upon door.
Control is also tighter deep in the countryside, away from the bazaars that the government is eager for visitors to see.
In one village we stop in, an elderly Uighur man in a square skullcap answers just one question — “We don’t have the coronavirus here, everything is good” — before a local Han Chinese cadre demands to know what we are doing.
He tells the villagers in Uighur: “If he asks you anything, just say you don’t know anything.”
Behind him, a drunk Uighur man was yelling. Alcohol is forbidden for practicing Muslims, especially in the holy month of Ramadan.
“I’ve been drinking alcohol, I’m a little drunk, but that’s no problem. We can drink as we want now,” he shouted. “We can do what we want. Things are great now.”
At a nearby store, I notice liquor bottles lining the shelves. In another town, my colleague and I encounter a drunk Uighur man, passed out by a trash bin in broad daylight. Though many Uighurs in big cities like Urumqi have long indulged in drinking, such sights were once unimaginable in the pious rural areas of southern Xinjiang.
On a government-sponsored tour, officials took us to meet Mamatjan Ahat, a truck driver, who said he was back to drinking and smoking, because he had recanted religion and extremism after a stint at one of Xinjiang’s infamous “training centers.”
“It made me more open-minded,” Ahat told reporters, as officials listened in.
Xinjiang officials say they are not forcing atheism on the Uighurs, but rather defending freedom of belief against creeping extremism. “Not all Uighurs are Muslim” is a common refrain.
Controls on religious activity have slackened, but remain tightly bound by the state. For example, the authorities have allowed some mosques to reopen, although hours are strictly limited. Small groups of elderly worshipers trickle in and out.
Xinjiang’s unique brand of state-
controlled Islam is most on display at the Xinjiang Islamic Institute, a government school for imams.
Here, young Uighur men chant verses from the Koran and pray five times a day. They get scholarships and opportunities to study in Egypt, officials say as they walk us around. Tens of thousands have graduated, and recently they have opened a new campus — albeit one with a police station installed at the entrance.
“Religious freedom is enshrined in China’s constitution,” said a student, Omar Adilabdulla, as officials watch him speak. “It’s totally free.”
As he speaks, I crack open a textbook on another student’s desk. A good Chinese Muslim has to learn Mandarin, it says, China’s main language.
“Arabic is not the only language that compiles Allah’s classics,” the lesson said. “To learn Chinese is our responsibility and obligation, because we are all Chinese.”
As I flip through the book, I spot other lessons.
“We must be grateful to the Party and the government for creating peace,” one chapter reads.
“We must strive to build a socialist Xinjiang with Chinese characteristics,” another says. “Amen.”
Uighur is still spoken everywhere, but its use in public spaces is slowly fading. In some cities, entire blocks, freshly constructed, have signs only in Chinese, not Uighur.
In bookstores, Uighur language tomes are relegated to sections labeled “ethnic minority language books.” The government boasts that nearly a thousand Uighur titles are published a year, but none are by Perhat Tursun, a lyrical modernist author, or Yalqun Rozi, a textbook editor and firebrand commentator. They, like most prominent Uighur intellectuals, have been imprisoned.
On the shelves instead: Xi Jinping thought, biographies of Mao Zedong (毛澤東), lectures on socialist values and Mandarin-Uighur dictionaries.
Many Uighurs still struggle with Mandarin, from young men to elderly grandmothers. In recent years, the government has made Mandarin the mandatory standard in schools.
On the state tour, a headmaster tells us that the Uighur language continues to be protected, pointing to their minority language classes. However, all other classes are in Chinese, and a sign at one school urges students to “Speak Mandarin, use standard writing.”
The most heavily criticized aspect of Xinjiang’s crackdown has been its so-called “training centers,” which leaked documents show are actually extrajudicial indoctrination camps.
After a global outcry, Chinese officials declared the camps shuttered in 2019. Many indeed appear to be closed.
On the state-led tour in April, they took us to what they said was once a “training center,” now a regular vocational school in Peyzawat County. A mere fence marks the campus boundaries — a stark contrast from the barbed wire, high watchtowers and police at the entrance we saw three years ago. On our own, we see at least three other sites that once appeared to be camps and are now apartments or office complexes.
However, in their place, permanent detention facilities have been built, in an apparent move from makeshift camps to a long-lasting system of mass incarceration. We encountered one massive facility driving along a country road, its walls rising from the fields, men visible in high guard towers. At a second, we were blocked by two men wearing epidemic-prevention gear. A third ranks among the largest detention facilities on earth. Many are tucked away behind forests or dunes deep in the countryside, far from tourists and city centers.
In Urumqi, at an anti-terror exhibition in a vast, modernist complex near glass office towers and freshly laid highways, the Chinese authorities have rewritten history. Although Xinjiang has cycled in and out of Chinese control, and was independent as recently as the 1700s and also briefly in the past century, the territory’s past is casually dismissed.
“Although there were some kingdoms and khanates in Xinjiang in the past, they were all local regimes within the territory of China,” one display says.
It is written in English and Chinese. No Uighur script is seen anywhere in the exhibit. Guns and bombs sit in glass cases, ones the exhibit says were confiscated from extremists.
A prim Uighur woman in a Chinese traditional qipao presents a video depicting Beijing’s vision for Xinjiang’s future, where the sun sets over pagodas and a futuristic skyline. Many scenes look like they could be filmed anywhere in China.
“Our anti-terrorism and de-radicalization struggles have achieved remarkable results,” she says in crisp Mandarin.
Officials dodge questions about how many Uighurs were detained, although statistics showed an extraordinary spike in arrests before the government stopped releasing them in 2019. Instead, they tell us during the tour that they have engineered the perfect solution to terrorism, protecting Uighur culture rather than destroying it.
One night, I was seated next to Dou Wangui (竇萬貴), the CCP secretary of Aksu Prefecture, and Li Xuejun (李學軍), vice chairman of the Xinjiang People’s Congress. They are both Han Chinese, like most of Xinjiang’s powerful men.
Over grilled lamb and yogurt, we watched grinning Uighurs dressed in traditional gowns dance and sing. Dou turns to me.
“See, we can’t have genocide here,” Dou said, gesturing to the performers. “We’re preserving their traditional culture.”
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