Western countries have accused China of genocide for its treatment of the Uighurs in Xinjiang. Beijing claims that everything is just fine in the homeland of the Muslim minority. We went there to take a look for ourselves.
By Georg Fahrion in Xinjiang
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.
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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.
We spend a week travelling through the region, with stops in the capital of Urumqi, the rural area of Shanshan, the sleepy town of Yarkant and the oasis city of Kashgar.
The last time a team from DER SPIEGEL visited Xinjiang was in 2018. My colleague Bernhard Zand described Kashgar as being like “Baghdad after the war.” He wrote of museum guards in flak jackets and imperious policemen everywhere – he described a region that seemed to be under siege.
Three years later, that’s no longer the case. 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.
This area of Central Asia has always been a place where different populations have mingled. Xinjiang means “new frontier”: Emperor Qianlong didn’t force it into the control of the Qing Empire until the middle of the 18th century. Purposely settled Han Chinese are now the second-largest population group here after the Uighurs, but the region is also home to Kazakhs, Mongols and Russians.
Following riots and terror attacks involving Uighur extremists, Beijing intensified a campaign against Muslims in 2017. According to estimates, up to one million people have been interned in camps – facilities leaders in Beijing denied existed before declaring them “vocational training centers.” There have been reports of forced labor and forced sterilizations, and according to China’s own statistics bureau, Xinjiang’s birth rate nearly halved between 2017 and 2019 alone.
The parliaments of Canada, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Lithuania as well as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken have designated China’s behavior as a “genocide” – an accusation that Beijing has angrily rejected. The fate of the Uighurs is also an issue in Germany. Just last week, the Human Rights Committee in German parliament, the Bundestag, spent three hours discussing the situation in Xinjiang and how it should be viewed under international law. The discussion came ahead of a vote on a new supply-chain law, which provides for sanctions against companies whose suppliers use forced labor. The vote was ultimately postponed, but if the law passes, it will impact German companies like VW, which operates a plant in Xinjiang.
Recently, the Bundestag’s Research Services established in an analysis that China’s campaign in Xinjiang fulfills the criteria for genocide. Should this become the accepted view among Germany’s political leadership – once pro-Beijing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s tenure comes to an end this fall, for example – it would have grave consequences for Germany’s relationship with its most important trading partner.
It isn’t long after landing in Urumqi on our flight from Beijing that we discover our first tails. The men from state security always look the same: Between 20 and 40 years of age, physically fit enough to follow their targets for a couple of hours at a time, and dressed in a baseball cap, facemask and sunglasses. Their favorite accessory is a men’s handbag.
As we step out of the arrivals hall, a man wearing a wine-red T-shirt stares at me for a few seconds before turning away and raising his smartphone to his ear. At the taxi stand, he is a couple spots behind us in line. When we get a car after a 15-minute wait, he steps out of line and wanders away speaking into his phone, likely passing along the license plate number of our taxi. We’ll see him again that afternoon, seemingly randomly running into him in the center of the city – population 3.5 million. He follows us at a distance of 20 to 30 meters. It’s all rather obvious, a message to us that we are being watched.
Such shadows will be our constant companions in Xinjiang. In Urumqi, they follow us in a metallic-brown SUV. In Shanshan, it’s a white VW. In Yarkant, we are able to pinpoint five men who follow us on foot and on a moped. One of them is clearly not Han Chinese, and we guess that he might be Uighur. We are sometimes able to shake them: In Urumqi, for example, we suddenly cross the street through stop-and-go traffic and enter a shopping center, before then going out the back entrance. We turn around at each corner and see nobody following us. Later, though, they’re suddenly there again. We can only assume that they found us with the help of cameras and facial recognition technology.
They follow us everywhere, but they don’t interfere – a rather reserved approach compared to years past. Still, normal reporting isn’t possible under such conditions. Normally, we would speak with community leaders, clerics and intellectuals, but internal government documents – the so-called Karakax List – makes it clear that Uighurs have been interned for far milder infractions than speaking with foreign journalists. Things like phoning family members abroad, wearing beards or simply being seen as “unreliable” by state agencies. We don’t want to put anybody in danger. Our discussions are limited to random encounters and our impressions are thus inevitably incomplete.
The vineyards shine bright green, interspersed with rows of darker poplars, with the desert starting just behind the last irrigation ditch. It’s 39 degrees Celsius (102 degrees Fahrenheit). A region of sand dunes and barren mountains and dotted with oil rigs. Shanshan, a rural area in eastern Xinjiang, is home to a breathtaking landscape. Our Uighur driver Ayni – a self-confident 31-year-old who likes to talk – is playing Turkish pop music on the car stereo.
He says that life here has become more relaxed in recent years. The police used to stop him all the time, he says, with roadblocks everywhere. Luckily, he says, that is now over. Indeed, we don’t have to stop once until we run low on fuel.
In front of the gas station is a gate manned by two men in uniform. One of them opens all of the doors of our car, including the trunk and the hood. The other notes down the number of Ayni’s driver’s license. All passengers have to get out and Ayni has to have his ID scanned before the gate is opened and he can drive in – alone in the car. He seems to accept the procedure as a completely normal part of his daily life.
In fact, Ayni seems to have no shortage of patience when it comes to his encounters with the state. He emphasizes, for example, that the police who suddenly showed up in front of the door of his hotel room to examine his ID during his 2019 vacation in Beijing were extremely polite. And the fact that he was unable to travel to the national boxing championships in 2009 because there had been unrest in Urumqi a short time before was a pity, he says. “But on the other hand, our own people brought this upon us.”
He loves the action movie “Wolf Warrior,” in which a Chinese hero routs his Western foes. During his drives, he listens to audio books to improve his Chinese. The Communist Party, he says, did a fantastic job during the pandemic – just look at India or the U.S. “I am proud to be Chinese.”
In Xinjiang, we frequently encounter Uighurs who announce unprompted their loyalty to the party. It could be that it is a genuine emotion. It could also, however, be a preventative step to ward off any potential suspicion.
In the train to Yarkant, an old man shows us pictures of a piece of woodwork he produced – apparently a hobby of his. It was not a mosque or anything like that, but the Gate of Heavenly Peace, a symbol of Beijing’s power. It bears Mao’s portrait, and it also features on the national coat of arms. The man’s model includes five wooden figures intended to represent the leaders of the People’s Republic: “Mao Zedong, Den Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hun Jintao,” he recites eagerly. “And this is Xi Jinping.”
In Kashgar, we are happy to see that the city is so much livelier than in 2018. Back then, many of the shops in the old town were closed up, and when asked why, people would frequently respond: “The owners have gone to school to study,” a common euphemism for the re-education camps.
“You must have misheard,” says a young Uighur man.
Apparently, everyone has taken to heart a message that can be read on red banners hanging from several mosques in Yarkant: “Ai dang, ai guo” – “Love the Party, Love the Fatherland.”
Uighur Culture – in Beijing Style
The city of Kashgar is located between the Taklamakan Desert and the snow-covered Pamir Mountains. For centuries, Kashgar was an important hub on the old Silk Road, a place of bazaars and caravanserais, a mud-brick maze of alleys, courtyards, passageways, staircases and squares. In 2006, director Marc Foster filmed “The Kite Runner” here because of its resemblance at the time to prewar Kabul.
Now, with Xinjiang largely pacified in the eyes of Chinese officials, they are hoping to leverage the city’s potential. Kashgar is being developed into a mecca of tourism, a destination with an oriental flair. “It’s great, like Morocco,” says a visitor from the southwestern Chinese city of Guiyang. The old, mud-brick walls have disappeared behind a uniform coat of plaster, with walls now decorated with wagon wheels and amphoras. Tourists now wander through gates with pointed arches like in Baghdad and a city wall of concrete has been built on the clay cliffs. A Chinese temple with its curved roofline now graces the highest point of the old town. A tout tries to lure guests into a restaurant – dressed as the monkey king from “Journey to the West,” a classical novel of Chinese literature.
“I came for the spectacle. I think it’s great,” says one Chinese visitor as the Uighurs are dancing the Sema. He introduces himself as Yann and says that he studies philosophy in France. Because of the pandemic, though, he has taken a year off, which he is using for travel. By the way, he adds, “there will be a spectacle with a princess later in the old town.” As it turns out, it involves five princesses. They arrive on camelback, dressed in colorful costumes, before they perform a dance – as they do every day.
Uighurs as obedient extras in a portrayal of their own lives, a religion without passion or youth, a culture reduced to Disney-esque exoticism, easily digestible for the masses: This version of Uighur existence appears to be the one desired by China’s leaders.
Behind the colossal gate of the Id Kah Mosque – flanked by two squat minarets – is a roomy ground shaded by poplars, the wind rustling through the branches. A few old men are sweeping up fallen leaves, the only people here aside from a small group at the entrance.
The All-China Journalists Association, which is overseen by the Communist Party’s propaganda unit, is currently leading a tour through Xinjiang. In contrast to correspondents traveling on their own, such politically backed organizations are able to set up interviews, but only under official surveillance. The association has invited the Russian broadcaster RT, the Brazilian newspaper O Globo and Dutch television. They are currently interviewing the mosque’s Friday preacher. We join them.
Abbas Muhammat is 55 years old, a clean-shaven man wearing a Doppa, the traditional Uighur head covering. He has apparently been well briefed, not even pausing for thought at the more sensitive questions.
According to a recent report by the Uyghur Human Rights Project, an NGO based in Washington, D.C., China has arrested at least 1,046 imams and religious figures in Xinjiang since 2014. “Those weren’t real Islamic clerics, but pseudo-clerics,” Muhammat says through an interpreter. “These imams spread extremism and soiled our reputation. They misled people.”
Yes, he says, one of his predecessors at the Id Kah Mosque had been arrested and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Yes, some members of the parish were also interned. “Some people followed this imam, they were his victims, so to speak. There were a couple such incidents, yes.”
Muhammat seems unconcerned by how empty his mosque is: “It’s a common global trend that young people are increasingly focused on earning money. For them, employment is the priority,” he says. “But if they have a bit of spare time, they can come here to pray. There are no restrictions in place to keep the younger generation from praying.” He urges the group to return during prayer if they want to see worshippers. They can even hear the call of the muezzin, he says.
A few of the preacher’s claims are not borne out by our observations. We don’t hear a single call to prayer during our trip, not even on Id al-Fitr, the day marking the end of Ramadan. Thousands streamed into the mosque for morning Id prayers, that is true. But in contrast to everywhere else in the world, not a single child or teenager was accompanying his father. And among all of the faithful Muslims, only a few elderly men wore a beard.
“In China’s constitution, it says that every Chinese citizen has the right to believe in a religion or not. The laws are very well implemented here,” says Muhammat. “There is no such thing as a crackdown or discrimination.”
The streets speak a different language. According to Muhammat, there are at least 150 mosques in Kashgar. Yet the doors of many of the neighborhood mosques are padlocked shut and the minarets have been stooped. The mosques are no longer in use.
Officials have repurposed one of the houses of prayer. Through a side door, passersby can walk into the room where the devout used to wash themselves before prayer: masonry benches for sitting facing a wall lined with water faucets and a long, tiled basin. Today, it is used as a urinal. Outside hangs a wooden sign reading in Chinese, Uighur and English: “Tourist toilets.”
On the morning that we set out to look for the camps, our minders are surprisingly nowhere to be seen. We spent most of the past few days walking – perhaps they have grown a bit inattentive and didn’t notice that we’ve had a rental car delivered to the front of our hotel.
In 2020, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) published a much-cited study on the camp system in Xinjiang. The researchers examined satellite images from the entire region and were thus able to identify at least 380 facilities. We have set out to track down a few of the coordinates from the study.
A 27-minute drive south of Kashgar’s center, a uniformed guard patrols on a walkway on top of a wall roughly eight meters (25 feet) high. Google Earth shows that there are around two dozen structures behind it. Through a telephoto lens, we can see that the guard has a rifle slung over his shoulder. He approaches a watchtower that juts up from the wall.
Is it a high-security prison of the kind to be found everywhere in the world? Or is it one of the region’s infamous camps? Chinese authorities leave our inquiries about the facility unanswered. ASPI analyst Nathan Ruser says that it is, in fact, a camp – inaugurated in 2020, at a time when China was claiming that it had already released all interned Uighurs.
The wall is blindingly white and the parallel, razor-wire fences glitter in the sunlight. It certainly looks as though the complex hasn’t been here for long. And from the road, it is possible to read slogans affixed on one of the roofs in large, red characters, including “qu ji duan hua” – which means “deradicalization.”
We also find another facility listed in the ASPI database – a similar ensemble of buildings set up parallel to each other. As we slowly drive by the entry gate, we can see two watchtowers in the back of the compound. But there is no razor wire on the wall circling the compound and the gate is only secured with a roll shutter. According to the signs, the facility is now a party school.
These are just two cursory observations, but they do not contradict the conclusions reached in the ASPI study – namely that fences and watchtowers have been removed from some of the complexes as they have been repurposed, with security at others having been intensified.
One possible interpretation: Those who China has deemed incorrigible may have since been sentenced and transferred to regular prisons. Many of those who officials believe had assimilated to a sufficient degree could very well have been released – or put into the Labor Transfer Scheme that has distributed Uighurs among factories across the country. The system of surveillance has since been perfected and the populace brought into line.
A sandstorm kicks up as night falls on our final evening in Kashgar. Visibility is poor as we step out of a restaurant and wave down a taxi. Plus, we are all wearing facemasks. The driver cannot clearly see who is stepping into his vehicle.
As we drive off, he says cheerfully that he is a Uighur, before asking what ethnicity we belong to. We answer that I am a German and my photographer a Ukrainian. “Foreigners?” the driver blurts, suddenly seeming uncomfortable. “Oh no. If I had known that, I wouldn’t have picked you up. I thought you were maybe Tajiks!” Xinjiang borders Tajikistan and there is a Tajik minority in the region, many of whom have Caucasian features similar to our own – and they make for much less-sensitive fares for a taxi driver than we Europeans.
We try to calm him by telling him that we have taken a number of taxis in Xinjiang and none of the drivers have voiced similar concerns. “But you have no idea what happens to us once you get out,” he replies. “Look, there are two cameras here in the car!” He does drive us the few hundred meters to our hotel but asks that we pay him cash instead of via WeChat, as is standard. He doesn’t want a data trail.
The image that we take home with us from Xinjiang remains a bit fuzzy. But one thing is clear: The fear persists.