Uygurs locked up as doors open to tourists

| Eva Xiao 6 Aug 2019

From the expansive dunes of Taklamakan Desert to the snow-capped peaks of Tianshan, Chinese are selling Xinjiang as a tourist idyll, welcoming travelers even as they send locals to internment camps.

An estimated one million Uygurs and other mostly Muslim Turkic-speaking minorities have been sent to re-education camps, but it has also created a parallel universe for visitors, who are only shown a carefully curated version of traditional customs and culture.

In Kashgar, an ancient Silk Road city, smiling vendors serve mouthwatering skewered lamb as children play.

"It didn't look to me like - unless you were put in a camp - that these Uygur communities seemed to be living in some kind of fear," says William Lee, who has taught at universities in China for 10 years and visited the region in June. "That's just my impression."

Xinjiang is one of the fastest-growing areas for tourism. Armed police and frequent checkpoints have not dampened the flow of vacationers: 2018 saw a 40-percent increase in visits - mainly from domestic tourists - outstripping the national average by 25 percent.

Business has grown mainly because "Xinjiang is very stable," says Wu Yali, who runs a regional tour agency. Tourists are not used to the high level of security at first, but "they adapt after a few days."

But travelers are barred from witnessing the most controversial part of Xinjiang's security apparatus: the network of internment camps spread across the vast region. Many of these facilities are outside main tourist hubs and are fenced with razor wire.

On a six-day trip last month, reporters encountered roadblocks and were turned away by security forces upon nearing some camps.

Beijing describes them as "vocational education centers" where Turkic-speaking "trainees" learn Putonghua and job skills.

"The violence being inflicted on the bodies of Uygur and other Muslim people has been rendered invisible," says Rachel Harris, who studies Uygur culture and music at the School of Oriental and African Studies University of London. "For a tourist who goes and travels around a designated route, it all looks nice. That's because there's a regime of terror being imposed on the local people."

According to the People's Daily, the regional government offered travelers subsidies worth 500 yuan (HK$570) each in 2014 after tourism plunged following a deadly knife attack blamed on Xinjiang separatists. Xinjiang is now aiming to hit 300 million visits by tourists and rake in 600 billion yuan by next year.

Tour packages often feature an array of natural beauty, from the azure waters of Karakul lake to World Heritage site Tianshan.

Many also offer "ethnic" experiences, often dance performances. Some tour operators even include visits to Uygur homes.

Even as authorities seek to contain the Muslim minorities, they are monetizing ethnic culture - albeit a simplified version of it.

"Uygur culture is being boiled down to just song and dance," says Josh Summers, an American who lived in Xinjiang for more than a decade and wrote travel guides for the region.

"What makes me sad is there are only very specific parts of Uygur culture that get maintained because of the tourism," he says, citing neglect of Uygur paper-making traditions and desert shrines.

Beijing's security clampdown has also squeezed Yengisar city's artisanal knife trade, says Summers. "The impact has been very large - now there are very few shops selling small knives," agrees Li Qingwen, who runs a tourism business in Xinjiang.

Large, spontaneous gatherings of Uygurs - even if they involve dancing - are less frequent because of tightened security.

Night markets too are more controlled. In Hotan, what used to be an outdoor night market is now inside a white tent, where red lanterns hang from the ceiling and uniform food stalls adorned with Chinese flags sell skewers of lamb but also sushi and seafood.

Over the past few years cultural leaders have disappeared.

In February, Turkish officials claimed Uygur musician and poet Abdurehim Heyit had died in a prison - prompting Beijing to release a "proof-of-life" video of an inmate who identified himself as Heyit.

Famous Uygur comedian Adil Mijit is also missing, according to his son-in-law, Arslan Hidayat.

And though tourists are buffered from the ugliest parts of Xinjiang's security crackdown, it is not difficult to bump against the region's many red lines.

A traveler from Southeast Asia describes barriers he faced when trying to pray in Kashgar. Many places of worship were closed, and at Idkah Mosque - Kashgar's central mosque - he was told he couldn't pray inside - and that he had to buy a ticket to enter.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

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