Terror & tourism: Xinjiang eases its grip, but fear remainsOctober 10, 2021
Four years after Beijing launched a brutal crackdown that swept up to a million or more Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim minorities into detention camps and prisons, its control of Xinjiang has entered a new era. Chinese authorities have scaled back many of the most draconian and visible aspects of the region’s high-tech police state. The panic that gripped the region a few years ago has subsided considerably, and a sense of normality is creeping back in.
But there is no doubt about who rules, and evidence of the terror of the last four years is everywhere.
It’s seen in Xinjiang’s cities, where many historic centers have been bulldozed and the Islamic call to prayer no longer rings out. It’s seen in Kashgar, where one mosque was converted into a café, and a section of another has been turned into a tourist toilet. It’s seen deep in the countryside, where Han Chinese officials run villages.
And it’s seen in the fear that was ever-present, just below the surface, on two rare trips to Xinjiang I made for The Associated Press, one on a state-guided tour for the foreign press.
A bike seller’s eyes widened in alarm when he learned I was a foreigner. He picked up his phone and began dialing the police.
A convenience store cashier chatted idly about declining sales – then was visited by the shadowy men tailing us. When we dropped by again, she didn’t say a word, instead making a zipping motion across her mouth, pushing past us and running out of the store.
At one point, I was tailed by a convoy of a dozen cars, an eerie procession through the silent streets of Aksu at 4 in the morning. Anytime I tried to chat with someone, the minders would draw in close, straining to hear every word.
It’s hard to know why Chinese authorities have shifted to subtler methods of controlling the region. It may be that searing criticism from the West, along with punishing political and commercial sanctions, have pushed authorities to lighten up. Or it may simply be that China judges it has come far enough in its goal of subduing the Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim minorities to relax its grip.
Regardless of intent, one thing is clear: Many of the practices that made the Uyghur culture a living thing – raucous gatherings, strict Islamic habits, heated debate – have been restricted or banned. In their place, the authorities have crafted a sterilized version, one ripe for commercialization.
Xinjiang officials took us on a tour to the Grand Bazaar in the center of Urumqi, which has been rebuilt for tourists, like many other cities in Xinjiang. Here, there are giant plastic bearded Uyghur men and a giant plastic Uyghur instrument. A nearby museum for traditional naan bread sells tiny plastic naan keychains, Uyghur hats and fridge magnets. Crowds of Han Chinese snap selfies.
James Leibold, a prominent scholar of Xinjiang ethnic policy, calls it the “museumification” of Uyghur culture. Chinese officials call it progress.