After Mass Detentions, China Razes Muslim Communities to Build a Loyal CityMarch 20, 2019
In this old Silk Road city in western China, a state security campaign involving the detention of vast numbers of people has moved to its next stage: demolishing their neighborhoods and purging their culture.
Empty mosques remain, while the shantytown homes that surrounded them have been replaced by glass towers and retail strips like many found across China.
Food stalls that sold fresh nang, the circular flatbread that is to Uighur society what baguettes are to the French, are gone. The young men that once baked the nang (or nan in Uighur) have disappeared, as have many of their customers.
Uighur-language books are missing from store shelves in a city, the capital of China’s Xinjiang region, that has long been a center of the global Uighur community.
Supplanting the Turkic culture that long defined large parts of Urumqi is a sanitized version catering to Chinese tourists. On a recent morning in the Erdaoqiao neighborhood, the once-bustling heart of Uighur Urumqi, nang ovens were nowhere to be seen—but souvenir shops sold nang-shaped pocket mirrors, nang bottle openers and circular throw pillows with covers printed to look like nang.
When plans for Urumqi’s urban overhaul were announced in 2017, the party-controlled Xinjiang Daily said the government would offer compensation to residents forced to move, and planned new residential districts “designed with full consideration of the customs and convenience of all ethnic groups.”
“We can’t have a culture anymore,” said a Uighur resident of Urumqi who works at a state-owned resources company. He said he stopped visiting his local mosque after officials came to his house to confiscate his Quran. “No one goes any more. It’s too dangerous,” he said.
“A lot of people have left,” said an employee at a once-popular live-music bar in one of Urumqi’s Uighur-dominated districts. With barely a dozen customers on a recent Saturday night, he declined to explain where the people had gone. “That’s political. I can’t say,” he said.
Moments later, three men, one equipped with a body camera, entered the bar and wrote down the identification card numbers of the Uighur customers. The employee said the men had been sent by local officials, and that such inspections were routine.
But in a single year, 2017, Urumqi’s official population fell by 15%—to 2.2 million from 2.6 million the year before, the first drop in more than three decades. That was the year, in May 2017, that city police began rounding up local Uighurs and taking them to detention camps, residents said. Around the same time, they said, authorities in Urumqi forced Uighur migrants from other parts of Xinjiang to return to their hometowns. The Urumqi government has yet to release a new population breakdown by ethnicity.
The Urumqi government also earmarked 70 billion yuan ($10 billion) last year to demolish and rebuild the city’s shantytowns, which housed large numbers of Uighur migrants from southern Xinjiang. Authorities see young migrant men, the same group that baked the city’s nang, as instigators of violence and ripe targets for radicalization. One settlement reduced to rubble is Heijiashan, once a low-rise jumble of makeshift houses built around a market and two mosques. Before being flattened over the course of 2017 and 2018, it was a center of Uighur migrant life in the city, said the University of Washington’s Mr. Byler. “On Fridays, 5,000 to 10,000 people would come for the prayer,” Mr. Byler said. On a recent visit, the mosques still stood in the shadows of rising apartment towers, but appeared abandoned. While attempting to film them, Journal reporters were detained and taken to a nearby police station.Summoned by police, a district propaganda official said the government had taken care not to raze the mosques. “That shows the government’s respect for Islam,” said the official, a Mr. Xing.
The city had more than 400 mosques as late as 2015, according to state media. Several have been closed down or repurposed in recent years, while those still in service are surrounded by razor wire and surveillance cameras, with only a trickle of elderly worshipers.
Authorities in Xinjiang are also looking to promote tourism, which would bring more investment and help eradicate the poverty they say nurtures radicalism. North of downtown Urumqi, tourists can pose for pictures under a towering sculpture of a nang and purchase more than 150 varieties of the staple from industrial kitchens at a new 226,000 square-foot Nang Culture Industry Park. “Staff wear white, and their squeaky clean image bumps up the ‘attractiveness index’ not a small amount,” a local Communist Party-controlled newspaper said in a story on the park in January.
The tourism effort can also be seen in the transformation of the former Uighur commercial center, Erdaoqiao. The neighborhood was the site of the worst violence during the 2009 riots. In November 2017, when the Journal visited to document the reach of Beijing’s surveillance state, Erdaoqiao hummed with activity and tension. A year later, it resembled a theme park. A pair of pedestrian promenades guarded by large security gates have replaced streets previously dense with cars, pedestrians and police outposts. Around a large central bazaar, the sounds of commerce conducted in Uighur have given way to a loudspeaker broadcast offering cheerful greetings in Mandarin and English. “Hello, dear tourists!” says the recorded voice, inviting visitors to enjoy “the magnificent reappearance of the commercial hub of the Silk Road.”