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 China’s far west Xinjiang region has entered a new era. Chinese authorities have scaled back many of the most visible aspects of the region’s high-tech police state.
The razor wire that once ringed public buildings in Xinjiang is nearly all gone. Gone, too, are the armored personnel carriers and many surveillance cameras. Uyghur teenage boys, once a rare sight, now flirt with girls over pounding dance music at rollerblading rinks.
But there is no doubt about who rules, and evidence of the terror of the last four years is everywhere. 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.
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 about declining sales – then was visited by the shadowy men tailing us. When we dropped by again, she didn’t say a word, instead pushing past us and running out of the store.
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.
Uyghur activists accuse the Chinese government of genocide, pointing to plunging birthrates and the mass detentions. The authorities say their goal is not to eliminate the Uyghurs, but to integrate them.
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, replaced by a sterilized version.
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. 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.
China has long struggled to integrate the Uyghurs, a historically Muslim group of 13 million people with close linguistic, ethnic and cultural ties to Turkey. The harder the government tried to control the Uyghurs, the more stubbornly they clung to their identity. Some resorted to violence, carrying out bombings and knifings against a state they believed would never accord them genuine respect.
The debate ended soon after President Xi Jinping’s rise to power in 2012. The state chose forced assimilation, branding dissenters as “terrorists” and detaining them.
Today, many checkpoints and police stations are gone, but the racial divide remains clear.
Uyghurs live trapped in an invisible system that restricts their every move. In the suburbs of Kashgar, a Han woman at a tailor shop tells my colleague that most Uyghurs weren’t allowed to go far from their homes.
“Isn’t that so? You can’t leave this shop?” the woman said to a Uyghur seamstress.
Down the street, I spot identical Lunar New Year banners with slogans in Chinese characters like “The Chinese Communist Party is good” plastered on every storefront. An elderly Han Chinese shopkeeper tells me that officials printed the banners by the hundreds and ordered them put up, even though Uyghurs traditionally celebrate Islamic holidays rather than the Lunar New Year.
She approved of the strict measures. The Uyghurs “don’t dare do anything around here anymore,” she told me.
Control is even tighter deep in the countryside. In one village we stop in, an elderly Uyghur man in a square skullcap answers just one question 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 liquors lining the shelves. In another town, my colleague and I encounter a drunk Uyghur man, passed out by a trash bin in broad daylight. Such sights were once unimaginable in the pious rural areas of southern Xinjiang.
On a government sponsored tour, officials took us to meet Mehmet Ahat, a truck driver, who declared he was back to drinking and smoking because he had recanted religious 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.
Xinjiang officials say they aren’t forcing atheism on the Uyghurs, but rather defending freedom of belief against creeping extremism. 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 on a newly-built campus — 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.”
Uyghur is still spoken everywhere, but its use in public spaces is slowly fading. In recent years, the government has made Mandarin the mandatory standard in schools.
The most heavily criticized aspect of Xinjiang’s crackdown has been its so-called “training centers”, which leaked documents show are actually extrajudicial indoctrination camps.
After global outcry, Chinese officials declared the camps shuttered in 2019. Many indeed appear to be closed.
But in their place, permanent detention facilities have been built, in an apparent move from makeshift camps to a long-lasting system of mass incarceration. We encountered one massive facility driving along a country road, men visible in high guard towers. Another ranks among the largest detention facilities on earth.
Officials dodge questions about how many Uyghurs were detained, though statistics showed an extraordinary spike in arrests before the government stopped releasing them in 2019. Instead, they tell us during the tour that they’ve engineered the perfect solution to terrorism, protecting Uyghur culture rather than destroying it.
One night, I was seated next to Dou Wangui, the Party Secretary of Aksu Prefecture, watching grinning Uyghurs dressed in traditional gowns dance and sing. Dou turns to me.
“See, we can’t have genocide here,” Dou said, gesturing to the performers. “We’re preserving their traditional culture.”