Features | Society

A Holiday in Xinjiang

What it’s like being a tourist inside a police state.

By Ruth Ingram for
A Holiday in Xinjiang

Armed policemen stand guard near Xinjiang’s tourism advertisement boards, which authority used to block off the road heading to Urumqi People’s Intermediate Court in Urumqi, Xinjiang, China, Sept. 17, 2014.

Credit: AP Photo/Jack Chang

We survived the metal detector and emerged with ourselves and our bags intact on the other side of the X-ray machine. Yet an alarm somewhere must have sounded within a couple of seconds of us entering the bus station. Out of nowhere the home guard surrounded us, their medieval pole-arms at the ready. Scary though this was, the idea that 21st century China was protecting its people with relics from the 10th century was, once my heart beat had returned to normal, somewhat comical. One of the guards surreally brandished his boat-hook-tipped staff with a broad smile on his face. The others were made of sterner stuff; they glared at us, brandishing variously a body restrainer, a metal pole decorated with two feet of jagged nails at right angles to each other, a red-tipped spear, and the usual clubs and riot shields. We were surrounded and trapped.

This was week two of our holiday to Xinjiang, the Muslim Uyghur region of northwest China. With every day of our journey, the Orwellian proportions of the clampdown in the area became increasingly surreal. Since Chen Quanguo, fresh from success in Tibet, took over as Party secretary in 2016, more than 1 million Uyghur people from every walk of life have been extrajudicially detained for re-education or worse. Their “crimes”? Wearing a headscarf, turning up late for a compulsory Monday morning flag raising ceremony, lackluster or “unpatriotic” rendering of the national anthem, or growing an “unusual” beard, to list a few of the many “misdemeanors” that can get a Uyghur taken away these days.

We had inadvertently stumbled into a no-go region for foreigners. We learned that this bus terminal, at which we had to change to travel to a particularly interesting local bazar, was one of the most heavily militarized areas in the region and strictly off limits. We were told to sit down and “rest a while” while our passports were taken.

A land cruiser arrived 15 minutes later. Out jumped an official with a translator. It was our job to convince her that we really were tourists off to a local market before she would let us go. Having decided that groveling was our best option, we apologized profusely for straying from the tourist route and begged to be able to return to the safety of Kashgar’s walled city and the tourist trail. Off-piste forays in Xinjiang, China’s frontier for the war on terror, were likely to cause an avalanche of unpredictable proportions, and I for one was not up to the challenge.

Strangely, tourism is on the rise in this predominantly Turkic speaking, so-called autonomous region. If the propaganda is to be believed, tourists are flooding into the area, mainly Han Chinese from other provinces eager to see the ancient Silk Route culture, including the colorful native “minorities” who, according to state-run media, love to sing and dance and eat meat on skewers and mutton pilau piled high on huge plates with their hands. While the world watches and condemns the incarceration of more than 1 million Uyghurs in re-education camps, China is trumpeting tourist numbers to the Xinjiang region as never before. A Global Times report in January even attributed the “skyrocketing” tourist numbers to “Xinjiang’s current efforts to eliminate extremism and to ensure social stability,” citing “the establishment of vocational training and education centers” as having “contributed to the booming tourism,” according to officials reached by the state-owned newspaper on January 21.

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Xinjiang’s tourism industry took a sharp tumble following a knifing incident outside Urumqi railway station in April 2014 and an attack on shoppers at an early morning market shortly afterwards, where 44 people were killed and scores injured. Tourist numbers crashed significantly from 50 million the year before to a mere trickle. To reverse the dwindling numbers a “special fund” worth 20 million Chinese yuan ($3 million) was created to pay 500 yuan ($74) bonuses to those who came to the region.

This — and of course the incarceration of one-tenth of Xinjiang’s Uyghur population deemed “troublemakers” — must have helped, because it seems that visitor numbers have rallied considerably. That not a single terrorist incident has been reported in the region since Chen has come to power is trumpeted as evidence that Xinjiang is now safe. Beijing’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang, countering international criticism over the re-education camps, said in September 2018 that Xinjiang had stabilized, its economy was developing well, and its people were living in harmony and enjoying religious freedom. He said that in 2017, Xinjiang had received more than 100 million domestic and overseas tourists, up a third over the previous year’s figures. “If Xinjiang were not safe, stable, and harmonious, then there would not be so many Chinese and foreign tourists going to Xinjiang for sight-seeing,” Geng said. “I think that this aspect proves Xinjiang’s current good situation.”

The latest statistics for January 2019, show the trend is continuing. A surge of 2.1 million tourists converged on Xinjiang during the three day New Year’s holiday, a year-on-year increase of 40.58 percent.

Back in 2014, Inaam Nesirdin, Xinjiang’s tourist chief, had insisted Xinjiang was safe, noting that “not a single” tourist had been injured by an attack there in around 10 years. He has always maintained that ‘‘Seeing is believing. Come to Xinjiang to take a look.’’

But these days Xinjiang is a tourist destination unlike any other. It doesn’t take long before the all-reaching proportions of the clampdown begin to be blatantly obvious to any tourist with their eyes open. Half the GDP of this area, which is four times the size of France, has been spent on security.

We were keenly aware from the moment our irises were scanned and fingerprints taken at the airport that this would be an unusual holiday.

Every minute of every day, every person is monitored on screens, through listening devices and cameras in cafes, at work, on public transport, and on the streets. Compulsory monitoring apps are installed on phones and in cars and every face in a crowd can be identified within minutes. Every ID card is scanned and phones are checked scores of times a day. Uyghurs tremble at night, listening to footsteps on the stairs; every knock on the door could be for them.

There was a surreal feel about our days in Xinjiang. An innocent wander down a mud-walled alleyway, soaking up antiquity, could be hijacked in an instant by yelling, baton-thrusting young police cadets coming out of nowhere. They would sprint past the tourists, position themselves in formation nearby, advance toward an invisible foe, spears at the ready, and finally stab the air for all they are worth. Regardless of the effect this might have on an unsuspecting foreigner drinking in the evening air, the drills, the whistle-blowing, and the mock stabbings and garottings of each other continue apace.

While Uyghur residents’ ID’s are checked everywhere they go, tourists and Han Chinese are waved through with smiles. Uyghurs going to work are ordered off city buses during trips across town while Han Chinese and holiday makers continue their journey uninterrupted.

Throughout 2017 entire cities around the region ground to a halt while the contents of China’s military machine marched through the streets every morning, stomping, shouting slogans, and brandishing an intimidating array of military hardware in the face of every would-be rebel. Since then the invading armies have melted into the infrastructure, sitting behind razor wire topped iron cages, manning “convenient police stations”  built at 500 meter intervals along every street, or stationed inside parked armed personnel carriers blazing sirens 24/7. Streets and markets are patrolled by lines of weapon-wielding new recruits wearing bullet proof vests and tin helmets, and carrying riot shields and restraining poles. Whenever a whistle blows in loud short bursts, they all run in one direction, huddle behind shields and face the invading army. Of course there is no enemy and no invading army, but the trick is to instill such suspicion, terror, and tension in every member of society that they believe there is, or could be at any moment.

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Now that the natives have been subdued, Han Chinese holidaymakers are flooding in because it is “safe” to do so. “Protected” from invisible threats from supposed Islamists, splittists who are struggling for independence, and Uyghur “terrorists,” which had deterred Han Chinese from coming here before, they now wander around, huge lenses dangling from their necks, posing with the few remaining nan sellers and local craftsmen and waving “victory” salutes with smiling faces. Oblivious to the fact that now at least one-third to half the homes are padlocked, with the owners “gone away” and there are disproportionately more children and elderly people on the streets than is normal, they meander unquestioningly. No smoke is without fire, of course, many Han Chinese think. Unquestioningly, were Beijing to have made a terrible mistake incarcerating innocent people, this would of course be put right immediately.

Meanwhile, back to our bus station adventure. After 15 minutes of negotiating trick questions designed to expose our true motives, we managed to convince the woman with a badge around her neck and a clipboard that we were not there to bomb the Chinese military base. By this time, suitably terrorized and panicking that we might lose our passports forever, we had decided against the bazar visit. But no, having determined our innocence, the official was now determined to make us finish the trip. She saw to it that we were escorted to a taxi that would take us from door to door and assured us that getting back would be a breeze.

How could we say no in the face of her insistence — and those weapons?

Ruth Ingram is a researcher who has written extensively for the Central Asia-Caucasus publication, Institute of War and Peace Reporting, the Guardian Weekly newspaper and other publications