Capturing the often-wrenching change in one of China's most fraught regions.
Photographer Gilles Sabrié has been traveling to Xinjiang, a nominally autonomous region in China’s west, since 1995, capturing what he finds on camera. Sabrié tells ChinaFile’s David Barreda:
“When you travel in Xinjiang, you see two communities living side by side but rarely interacting. Relations between Uighurs [a Turkic-language-speaking, mostly Muslim minority that predominantly lives in Xinjiang] and the [majority] Han Chinese have soured to the point where little dialogue seems possible. The 2009 Urumqi riots, in which a Uighur mob went on a killing spree that ultimately resulted in at least 194, mainly Han, deaths, was a turning point. Beijng’s ‘strike-hard’ policy in the aftermath of the riots, which continues to this day, has only created more resentment, hatred, and misunderstanding.
“On top of economic alienation, Uighurs feel culturally threatened. The shutdown of Uighur-language schools and websites and the new rules curtailing the practice of Islam have only reinforced the sense of a Uighur identity, which wasn’t as strong a few decades ago. Twenty years ago, there weren’t many women wearing the jilbab in Kashgar [China’s westernmost city] or men wearing beards. Religious repression has only increased the appeal of a stricter form of Islam.
“One of the most recent and dramatic changes in Xinjiang is the ubiquitous presence of armed police everywhere. Dozens of surveillance cameras are at every corner. You have the feeling of a region under siege, a police state.”
Click on any image below to enlarge. —The Editors
Han and Uighur visitors to the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region Museum look at a map of Xinjiang, in 2008. The western Chinese province is home to close to a dozen ethnic groups. Combined, the Uighur and Han populations account for more than 80 percent of the region’s total population, though the Uighur proportion of the population shrinks as more Han migrants flood the province.
Two days after an episode of interethnic violence in July 2009, a group of Uighur demonstrators in Urumqi, mostly women, confronts the police, demanding information about the disappearance of their husbands, brothers, and sons. According to New York-based NGO Human Rights Watch, in the days following the riots, dozens of Uighur men and teenagers were detained by police and have not been heard from since.
Uighurs walk beneath a video surveillance camera, which monitors street activity at a weekly marketplace in the city of Kuqa, on September 12, 2008.
Uighurs pass by a propaganda poster featuring the People’s Liberation Army in Kuqa, some 2,200 miles west of Beijing, in 2008.
Donkeys and horses rest and tractors are parked on a dry riverbed at the weekly market in Kuqa. Southern Xinjiang is one of China’s poorest regions, where for many the main source of income is farming and animal husbandry.
A resident of Kashgar’s old city heads to a local mosque for evening prayer in the summer of 2009. On the wall of the mosque next to a board promoting AIDS awareness is a legal reminder in both Uighur and Mandarin: “Individual pilgrimage is strictly prohibited. Take the path of organized pilgrimage.” The pilgrimage to Mecca, one of the pillars of Islam, is strictly controlled by the government. In general, it is much more difficult for Uighurs than for Han Chinese to obtain a passport and travel overseas.
In what is seen as an act of defiance in today’s political climate, Uighurs pray near a shrine of Imam Asim, who, in the 11th century, according to legend, successfully fought off the encroachment of Buddhist forces at the edge of the Taklamakan Desert near Hotan.
Next to a construction site in the old city of Kashgar, inhabitants of a traditional courtyard house stand by the wall of their house, demolished a few hours earlier, in June 2009. The residents were left to clean up the rubble. The city, one of the oldest on the Silk Road, has been demolished and rebuilt, with many of its inhabitants forced to move to the outskirts.
The slums of Urumqi — which have largely been demolished since this photo was taken in 2010 — once stood a world away from the high-rises that make up the skyline of Xinjiang’s provincial capital. Many Uighurs who migrated to the urban center of Xinjiang lived in these slums, and government officials pinned the July 2009 riots on members of this community. Most of these slums have since been removed to make room for a high-speed train linking Urumqi to the rest of China.
Han migrant workers from Henan dance in the grassland of Tashgurkan at the end of the day in the summer of 2013. Massive investment in the development of Xinjiang has resulted in an influx of Han workers, but, many locals say, has not benefited the local population.
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