Across the westernmost stretches of China where Islam has flourished for centuries, the signs of a government effort to engineer a society of model citizens loyal to the Communist Party stand in plain sight.
In the sun-scorched lowlands of Turpan, a city in the Xinjiang region, cranes tend a construction site where high walls surround both completed buildings and concrete shells. This site, part of an expanding network of centres for forced political indoctrination and skills training, will soon hold additional people who authorities say need to be scrubbed of what they deem to be extremist thoughts. Western scholars estimate hundreds of thousands of people are already detained in such centres, many of whom are Uyghurs, a largely Muslim ethnic group.
In the regional capital of Urumqi, past the scanners that register each person entering a residential compound, stickers affixed to apartment doors ask residents to report for an “in-home interview.” At a prominent mosque in the city, the prayer hall sits empty behind locked doors. A security guard says it’s under renovation.
But it’s not clear any work is being carried out. Three weeks earlier, a young man working nearby caught a glimpse inside when he was asked to move furniture. It looked “the same as before,” he says, with one exception: “a big camera” pointed at anyone who might enter.
Chinese authorities and academics say Xinjiang is besieged by religious radicals bent on national upheaval. After years of a militarized attempt to combat what authorities say is terrorism, China is declaring success in stamping out violence in the region.
Now the state has shifted to an educational effort, a sweeping “de-extremization” campaign to instill patriotism and Chinese socialist values while excising what authorities say is cancerous thinking that has endangered social stability.
But what China calls a bid to defeat extremism, the young man near the empty mosque sees it as trying to “defeat Islam.”
In late October, The Globe and Mail travelled to Xinjiang to better understand what is taking place. For nearly 1,600 kilometres, The Globe was followed and tracked by people who would not provide their names, some of whom drove vehicles without licence plates and followed The Globe on foot.
The heavy surveillance made independent reporting difficult since, according to many accounts from residents who have left Xinjiang, local authorities are suspicious of contact with foreigners. Uyghurs living outside China say relatives in Xinjiang have cut communication to avoid falling under suspicion.
As a result, The Globe spoke with only a few Muslims in Xinjiang, a group that includes ethnic Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Hui, and is withholding their identities out of concern for their safety.
Those who did answer questions described fear of practising their religion both in public and in private. State surveillance and the threat of detention in centres for political indoctrination and skills training keeps them away from mosques, even the ones that remain open.
“I don’t go,” one restaurant owner said. “We can’t go,” said a woman in a village in eastern Xinjiang, before declining any further questions. The situation, her son said, has grown too “intense.” A few minutes later, six police entered the village on motorcycles, some of them bearing large black metal shields.
Throughout the region, authorities equipped mosques with cameras to watch entrances and ID scanners with facial-recognition systems to document each person who walks inside.
As far as the young man in Urumqi can tell, almost no one is taking that risk.
In Xinjiang, he said, “You can believe. But you can’t tell anyone.”
The United Nations Human Rights Council is expected to scrutinize the Chinese government’s actions in Xinjiang on Tuesday as part of a periodic review of the country. In the lead-up, authorities and state media have emphasized that the government acted to quell a rising tide of extremism, safeguarding the well-being of all residents by ensuring their security.
A Chinese delegation in August told the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination that China “pays special attention to respecting the religious beliefs of ethnic minorities and to protecting their cultural heritage” and “invests a great amount of capital in the maintenance of temples and religious sites.” Supportive government policies brought almost 1.85 million people in the region out of poverty between 2014 and 2017, state media reported in October.
“After years of trying to obliterate the scourge of terrorism, Xinjiang stabilized,” Liu Sai, a researcher at the Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences, wrote last month in the Communist Party-run Global Times. Now, “the region is developing steadily and there is amity among all ethnic groups.”
Chinese state television have aired interviews with detainees in what officials called a centre for ”vocational education and training.” Such centres are part of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of facilities built in the past 18 months where Western scholars say authorities detained as many as a million people and subjected them to forced political indoctrination. Former detainees have told The Globe they were ordered to recite lines expressing loyalty to Chinese President Xi Jinping and faith in the Communist Party rather than religion.
The Chinese government, however, says it offers employment and skills training. On state television, one detainee credited his studies with allowing him to realize his “mistakes,” be a good citizen “and influence the people around me.” Another said studying Chinese had improved her language skills, and as a result “I’ll be able to work and make money anywhere.” A third expressed gratitude for having been saved from extremism, saying “the Party and government have found me in time and saved me, giving me a chance to reform and start anew.”
In a lengthy interview published by state media, Xinjiang’s highest-ranking Uyghur official said such centres, which include sports and entertainment facilities, have helped people realize that “life can be so colourful.”
That description stands in striking contrast to what current and former residents of the region told The Globe and Mail.
Because of the difficulty of reporting inside Xinjiang, The Globe interviewed overseas Uyghurs and foreign researchers who have visited the region in recent months. Their accounts, like that of the young man near the mosque, describe a place where, both inside and outside centres for political indoctrination and skills training, authorities have so profoundly interfered with normal religious observance that some people believe the real target is Islam itself.
‘We cannot do anything’
Across Xinjiang, Muslims have set fire to religious books and thrown out prayer mats to avoid being seen as radical. Mosques are padlocked or unused; some are now tourist attractions or, in one case, a café that serves alcohol. Restaurants have torn down signs advertising halal food, and authorities have embarked upon a sweeping “anti-halal” campaign, after local laws warned against “generalizing the concept of ‘halal,’ expanding and mutating it into social life and other areas.”
The authorities created complex human and digital monitoring systems that can detect even private religious observance. This includes a system of mutual reporting that makes people responsible for each other, and a “homestay” policy in which a million local Chinese people – most of them members of the dominant Han ethnicity – have been recruited to regularly sleep inside the homes of Muslim ethnic minorities.
According to a recent report by University of Washington anthropologist Darren Byler, these state-imposed “relatives” must fill out checklists with questions such as “Are there any religious items still hanging on the walls of the house?”
In one Urumqi apartment building visited by The Globe, several doors were sealed with a sticker from a “household cadre” telling the resident to call a number to receive an “in-home interview.” Such inspections have made Muslims wary of even praying at home.
The Chinese government “wants to change the religion” in Xinjiang, said Erhan Arip, a Uyghur linguistic historian living outside China who visited Xinjiang three times this year. Authorities want to shift allegiances to “Marxism, or Chinese government ideas,” he said.
Government pressure on the Uyghur community is long-standing, with scholars pointing to the Soviet Union’s dissolution – which had some of its former territory fracture into the independent countries bordering western China – as when Beijing began to worry that the people of Xinjiang, too, could one day push for secession.
Joanne Smith Finley, senior lecturer in Chinese Studies at Britain’s Newcastle University, said last spring was a turning point in what she calls a continuing campaign “to stop Uyghurs living their everyday lives and carrying out their everyday practices in a way that is Islamic.”
On April 1, 2017, a new Xinjiang anti-extremism regulation came into force that labelled “face-masking robes” a sign of extremism – along with refusing to watch television or “other extreme speech or behaviours” – and provided a legal basis for guiding “religions so they can adapt themselves to socialist society.”
“This is what kicked off the really awful excesses that are happening now,” said Prof. Smith Finley, who started researching China’s Uyghurs 27 years ago. She spent three weeks in Xinjiang this summer, splitting her time between Urumqi, the capital, and Kashgar, which has long been the region’s most vibrant centre of Islamic life.
“They have desanctified most of the mosques in Kashgar,” she said, in part by removing the crescents that once stood atop their minarets (crescents were briefly removed in Urumqi, but have since been reinstalled).
Other mosques have been changed from their religious function. Official statistics still show more than 24,000 mosques in Xinjiang. But in Kashgar, “the only mosque I saw that was open was the one that was converted to a café,” Prof. Smith Finley said.
The city’s main Id Kah Mosque, which dates to the year 1442, now functions as a tourist attraction. It charges $8.50 for an entrance ticket, $4 less than the average disposable daily income in Kashgar. Men in riot gear stand inside underneath where a banner that once read, “love the country, love religion” was replaced by one that declares: “love the Party, love the country.”
“So religion is absolutely enemy number one,” Prof. Smith Finley said. Arabic calligraphy that adorned the front entrance to the mosque “has been ripped off,” she said, leaving broken masonry in its place. In years past, 10,000 worshipers might crowd Id Kah on Fridays. When Mr. Arip visited a few months ago, he saw only a few elderly people praying. Other mosques in the area have “already been destroyed,” he says.
Although mosque attendance remains allowed in Xinjiang, those entering a place of worship are identified, registered and, Prof. Smith Finley said, can face severe consequences. State employees can lose jobs; retirees can lose pensions; owners of independent businesses can be sent away for political indoctrination and training.
The animosity toward the Muslim population extends beyond government officials. Charles, a Uyghur Canadian whose full name The Globe is not using for fear of reprisal against his family in Xinjiang, described an encounter he found disturbing from a recent trip back to the region.
He watched a Uyghur friend cower after accidentally bumping the shoulder of a Han man – a member of the Chinese ethnic majority – in a narrow corridor outside a restaurant. The man grabbed his friend by the throat and called him a racial slur. The friend apologized and backed away, telling Charles later: “We are like dogs. They do whatever they want. We cannot do anything.”
It is reminiscent, Prof. Smith Finley said, of the Cultural Revolution, the tumultuous period in the 1960s and 1970s that included a national campaign against the “four olds,” one of which was religion.
In Xinjiang, authorities have strengthened bans on religious observance by Communist Party members, government workers and students.
During Ramadan this year, teachers prevented exchange students at Xinjiang University from leaving their dormitory building in the morning until they had something to eat and drink, one former student told The Globe.
Women on campus were banned from wearing all head coverings, even newsboy-style caps, and foreign students signed an undertaking, which The Globe reviewed, to adhere to “Interim Provisions on the Prohibition of all Kinds of Religious Activities and Religious Behaviours.” It included a pledge that “I won’t pray in illegal religious places or on the campus of Xinjiang University (dormitory included).”
Muslims interviewed by The Globe said their own homes have also effectively become illegal places for religious observance.
Uyghur poet and filmmaker Tahir Hamut recalled the day last year he and his wife placed their religious books in a pot and set them on fire inside their kitchen. Because matches have largely been banned, they lit the books using the flame from their gas stove. Watching them burn left his wife afflicted. She felt “as if she had betrayed her own faith,” said Mr. Hamut, who left for the United States last August with his wife and daughters.
But, he said, government officials had been dispatched to search for religious materials inside homes, and “we knew that burning those things would help us avoid a lot of trouble.”
The Dui Hua Foundation, a U.S. non-profit that focuses on the Chinese legal system, found court records that show authorities enforcing a ban on Islamic clothing inside private homes. Men in Xinjiang have also been dissuaded from wearing traditional ethnic square-sided ”dopa” hats, three people said.
Local party officials, meanwhile, have published academic articles citing “secularization” as a goal for government policy.
Government actions in Xinjiang, Mr. Hamut said, suggest “their top priority is to break our religious system as a whole. Why would they want to do this? Because to many people, religion is spiritual sustenance. It can bring them together and inspire them to fight for a common goal. It connects Uyghurs. But the Chinese government fears that we would use this religion as power and fight against Communist Party rule.”
Even the most intimate areas of life have received state attention. In 2014, one area in Xinjiang offered a 10,000 yuan bounty – worth $1,890 today – to Uyghurs who married someone from the dominant Han Chinese ethnicity, Chinese media reported at the time.
Those efforts continue: On Oct. 12, the state-run Hotan Daily published an article about three such weddings celebrated inside the gates of the No. 14 special police detachment, in the city of Kurumkash, whose name in Chinese is Kunyu.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Muslim World Today.