Terror & tourism: Xinjiang eases its grip, but fear remainsOctober 10, 2021
City centers now bustle with life again, with Uyghur and Han children screeching as they chase each other across streets. Some Uyghurs even approach me and ask for my contact — something that never happened on previous visits.
But 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 Uyghur 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 Uyghur, “If he asks you anything, just say you don’t know anything.”
Behind him, a drunk Uyghur 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 Uyghur man, passed out by a trash bin in broad daylight. Though many Uyghurs 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 declared 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.
Controls on religious activity have slackened, but remain tightly bound by the state. For example, the authorities have allowed some mosques to reopen, though hours are strictly limited. Small groups of elderly worshippers 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 Uyghur men chant verses from the Quran 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’ve 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,” reads one chapter.
“We must strive to build a socialist Xinjiang with Chinese characteristics,” says another. “Amen!”
Uyghur 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 Uyghur.
In bookstores, Uyghur language tomes are relegated to sections labeled “ethnic minority language books”. The government boasts that nearly a thousand Uyghur 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 Uyghur intellectuals, have been imprisoned.
On the shelves instead: Xi Jinping thought, biographies of Mao, lectures on socialist values, and Mandarin-Uyghur dictionaries.
Many Uyghurs 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 Uyghur language continues to be protected, pointing to their minority language classes. But all other classes are in Chinese, and a sign at one school urges students to “Speak Mandarin, use standard writing.”