A Holiday in XinjiangFebruary 04, 2019
Yet an alarm somewhere must have sounded within a couple of seconds of us entering the bus station. Out of nowhere the home guard surrounded us, their medieval pole-arms at the ready. Scary though this was, the idea that 21st century China was protecting its people with relics from the 10th century was, once my heart beat had returned to normal, somewhat comical. One of the guards surreally brandished his boat-hook-tipped staff with a broad smile on his face. The others were made of sterner stuff; they glared at us, brandishing variously a body restrainer, a metal pole decorated with two feet of jagged nails at right angles to each other, a red-tipped spear, and the usual clubs and riot shields. We were surrounded and trapped. This was week two of our holiday to Xinjiang, the Muslim Uyghur region of northwest China.
There was a surreal feel about our days in Xinjiang. An innocent wander down a mud-walled alleyway, soaking up antiquity, could be hijacked in an instant by yelling, baton-thrusting young police cadets coming out of nowhere. They would sprint past the tourists, position themselves in formation nearby, advance toward an invisible foe, spears at the ready, and finally stab the air for all they are worth. Regardless of the effect this might have on an unsuspecting foreigner drinking in the evening air, the drills, the whistle-blowing, and the mock stabbings and garottings of each other continue apace.
While Uyghur residents’ ID’s are checked everywhere they go, tourists and Han Chinese are waved through with smiles. Uyghurs going to work are ordered off city buses during trips across town while Han Chinese and holiday makers continue their journey uninterrupted.
Since then the invading armies have melted into the infrastructure, sitting behind razor wire topped iron cages, manning “convenient police stations” built at 500 meter intervals along every street, or stationed inside parked armed personnel carriers blazing sirens 24/7.
Streets and markets are patrolled by lines of weapon-wielding new recruits wearing bullet proof vests and tin helmets, and carrying riot shields and restraining poles. Whenever a whistle blows in loud short bursts, they all run in one direction, huddle behind shields and face the invading army. Of course there is no enemy and no invading army, but the trick is to instill such suspicion, terror, and tension in every member of society that they believe there is, or could be at any moment.
“Protected” from invisible threats from supposed Islamists, splittists who are struggling for independence, and Uyghur “terrorists,” which had deterred Han Chinese from coming here before, they now wander around, huge lenses dangling from their necks, posing with the few remaining nan sellers and local craftsmen and waving “victory” salutes with smiling faces. Oblivious to the fact that now at least one-third to half the homes are padlocked, with the owners “gone away” and there are disproportionately more children and elderly people on the streets than is normal, they meander unquestioningly