China promotes Xinjiang as tourist heaven while holding Muslim Uygurs in re-education campsJuly 19, 2019
Tourism packages to Xinjiang often feature the region’s rich array of natural beauty, from the azure waters of Karakul lake to Tianshan – a mountain range and Unesco World Heritage Site. Many also offer “ethnic” experiences, often in the form of dance performances. Some tour operators include visits to Uygur homes. Even as Chinese authorities seek to contain the region’s Muslim minorities, they are monetising ethnic culture – albeit a simplified version of it, experts say. “Uygur culture is being boiled down to just song and dance,” says Josh Summers, an American who lived in Xinjiang for more than a decade and wrote travel guides for the region. “What makes me sad is what ends up happening is there are only very specific parts of Uygur culture that get maintained because of the tourism,” he says, citing the neglect of Uygur paper-making traditions and desert shrines.”
The government wants Uygurs to “show how they excel in singing and dancing, instead of living under religious rules and restrictions”, he says. But while ethnic song and dance is showcased to tourists, Uygurs are often restricted in how they express their own culture. Large, spontaneous gatherings of Uygurs – even if they involve dancing – are less frequent because of tightened security, says Summers.