In the Sinister Disneyland of Xinjiang: China's Ongoing Oppression of the UighursMay 27, 2021
The images seem made-to-order, and they are. Following prayer, the Uighurs of Kashgar dance in the square in front of the Id Kah Mosque, one of the largest in the Xinjiang region. They spin by the hundreds, throwing their hands in the air, performing the Sema, a traditional dance of the Muslim Sufi brotherhoods, as drummers on the mosque’s huge portal beat out the rhythm. It is the morning of May 13, the date of this year’s Muslim festival of Id al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan.
Two drone cameras from Chinese state television buzz over the scene. Later, Chinese propagandists will disseminate the footage over social media channels – welcome images to the leadership in Beijing. They seem to prove, after all, that Uighurs can spontaneously and freely observe their traditions.
There is, however, nothing spontaneous about them. In previous days, the men had practiced the performance on the same square. One Uighur man says that he had been summoned for the occasion by a “lingdao,” a person of authority. A producer for state television shared the information in advance that the performance was scheduled for 11 a.m. Dozens of agents in civilian clothing are out on this holiday, standing in dark alcoves around the mosque even before sunrise. Stewards direct the dancing crowd.
Videos of earlier Id celebrations from Kashgar show that the Sema has been performed by Uighurs in previous years, so the staging isn’t completely improbable. And many of the children do look like they’re having fun. But upon closer inspection, many of the dancers look more discontented than joyful. One old man, moving along with labored, scurrying steps, seems almost out of breath, but he keeps on dancing anyway.
Is participation compulsory? Can those who have had enough simply leave? We’d like to ask the participants, but the state informers are listening in. This is how things always go in Xinjiang for journalists: Even as we observe something with our own eyes, we can’t be sure of what we are seeing. People cannot speak freely, and state control is omnipresent. But there are signals, gestures, contradictions everywhere. And so the impression grows that Xinjiang, four-and-a-half times the size of Germany, is little more than a Potemkin village, a make-believe world.
The repression has changed and become less obvious. There are uniformed men patrolling here and there, but they carry batons instead of firearms. The density of security cameras isn’t higher than in Beijing and we are only stopped once at a checkpoint – and allowed to pass without much fuss. It seems like Chinese leaders believe that they have broken all resistance and can therefore allow things to relax. But the oppression of Muslims in Xinjiang isn’t over. It has merely entered a new phase.