Tea Leaf Nation
‘De-radicalizing’ Xinjiang, One Bad Pop Song at a Time
Authorities hope the saccharine 'Little Apple' can calm tensions in the western region.
Beijing’s latest weapon against Islamic extremism? A viral Internet song. On Feb. 8, a reported 10,000 people danced in a plaza next to the Id Kah, China’s largest mosque, in Kashgar, the westernmost city in the Xinjiang region in western China. Organized by city government, they stepped to the tune of “Little Apple,” a viral Internet ditty that The Los Angeles Times has called the “Chinese Macarena.” The gathering appears to be part of Xinjiang’s effort to “de-radicalize” the Uighurs, a mostly-Muslim Turkic people that comprise approximately 47 percent of the region’s population of 22 million, and, to quote state media, “save” them from extreme forms of Islamism that the government claims are driving adherents towards separatism and even terrorism.
The people who most need saving, presumably, are the Uighurs, at least those turning to radical strains of Islam that the government accuses of destabilizing the region. On July 30, 2014, three young Uighurs stabbed and killed the government-friendly imam of Id Kah mosque. In July 2014, almost 100 people, both Uighur and members of the majority Han, were killed when a group of axe-wielding Uighurs attacked local government building and police station in Shache, a smaller town near Kashgar, according to the government, followed by another attack in Shache that led to at least 15 deaths in Nov. 2014. Beijing has linked each of these incidents to radical Islam.
By contrast, the latest campaign in Xinjiang is determinedly cheery. Photos on Tianshan Net, a Xinjiang government news portal, showed hundreds of people in matching outfits, both Uighur and Han, lined up in a coordinated square dance. The women wore blue or red dresses — with no veils in sight — and the men were clean-shaven. Large Chinese national flags flapped in the wind, as the crowd danced to “Little Apple.” The song, with an up-tempo beat and sugary lyrics — “You are my little apple, little apple, I can never ever love you enough” — swept China in 2014, inspiring recruiting videos from China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army, and a cover version from a Korean girl group.
It’s all part of “de-radicalization,” which Xinjiang party secretary Zhang Chunxian described in June 2014 as the government’s “most urgent task.” Since then, the government has organized mass lectures, one-on-one counseling, art contests, speech contests, variety shows, and soccer games to advance the effort. Yet it’s unclear precisely what de-radicalization means; state media frequently uses the term lodged in quotation marks, without precisely defining it. State media reports have clearly linked it to public safety, stability, and religion, sending the signal that de-radicalization has something to do with increased government control in Xinjiang.
It’s doubtful the local population has warmed to the recent charm campaign. At least some Muslims well versed in Han culture and active on Weibo, the popular microblogging platform, seem to find the government’s attempt to secularize their brethren distasteful. “I really don’t want to eat apples any more,” wrote Kurbanjan Samat, a Uighur photographer working in Beijing for China Central Television, the state-owned television. (Samat has previously had spoken out against radical Islamism in an interview with Phoenix Weekly, a Hong Kong based magazine.) Someone identifying as a young Uighur rapper wrote on Weibo, “Don’t organize such useless activities to lie to the higher-ups in the party, lie to the people, and lie to the rest of the country. Even if you move the dancing into the halls of Id Kah Mosque, the problems would remain, and no form of dancing can make it go away.” One Internet user who identified as a Uighur woman commented, “Are they crazy? How does this solve any problems? The local leaders must be quite thick.”
To be sure, “de-radicalization” programs are not unique to China. Many Western countries concerned with Muslim extremism, including Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Denmark, have launched programs aimed at stemming the influence of jihadist groups like the Islamic State. But China’s approach – such as banning veils and beards in some Xinjiang cities – can sometimes seem heavy-handed, even culturally insensitive. Although the local party announced that it’s planning more dance competitions, that softer approach is thus far doing little to calm persistent tensions between Uighurs and the Han.