‘Admit Your Mistakes, Repent’: China Shifts Campaign to Control Xinjiang’s MuslimsFebruary 06, 2020
During a recent visit to several cities and towns in the Uighur heartland of southern Xinjiang, it was clear that many of the overt security measures employed in recent years have been rolled back after months of international scrutiny and criticism from the U.S. and other Western nations.
Yet other, at-times more subtle, forms of control remain in place.
A semblance of normalcy appears to have returned to areas that were once patrolled by paramilitary police and armored vehicles and were once largely devoid of working-age Uighur men—targets of the re-education campaign. Street-corner checkpoints have been abandoned. Young men laughed and joked with friends.
Facial-recognition scans and manual and electronic ID checks are still pervasive, taking place at the entrances of residential compounds and public buildings rather than on the street. The doorways to some Uighur homes are still marked with a QR code that police can scan for information on the people living inside.
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A range of factors likely contributed to the decision to shut down some camps and roll back some of the police presence, including officials’ confidence that they had achieved their goal of diluting the influence of Islam, said James Leibold, an expert on Chinese ethnic-minority policies at Melbourne’s La Trobe University.
“I do think international pressure has played some role,” he said. “Another big driver is the energy and expenses of creating a police state.”
Xinjiang’s domestic security spending nearly doubled in 2017 to 27 billion yuan ($3.9 billion), according to research by the Washington-based think tank Jamestown Foundation.
A significant portion of that money was spent building more than 7,500 “convenience police stations” around the region that made it easy for police to monitor local residents and mobilize rapidly in response to threats. Many of those stations now sit empty, their windows papered over.
Outside Kashgar in Shule county, a scattering of police officers watched idly as villagers sold vegetables and live sheep on a main thoroughfare. Nearby shopfronts remained fortified with metal bars, but armed police patrols, once ubiquitous, had almost disappeared.
At the height of the crackdown, young Uighur men tended to refrain from venturing out after dark, deterred by omnipresent vehicle checkpoints and routine phone checks in which police plugged pedestrians’ smartphones into a device that scanned their files and apps. Nightlife has picked up again with the thinning of security forces.
In Hotan, a remote former Silk Road city famed for its jade, the cold winter weather didn’t stop Uighur men from gathering at a freshly renovated basement billiards parlor. They laughed and smoked cigarettes, as a cheerful Han Chinese proprietor logged the ID card numbers of new arrivals.
Still, the effects of authorities’ assault on expressions of Islamic faith are visible. Almost no men had beards, a marked change from a few years ago. And few women could be seen wearing headscarves, though some wore loose-knit hats that covered their hair.