Tea Leaf Nation

Young and Muslim in China’s Tense Far West

Checkpoints at schools, confiscated passports, and no cell phones. Beijing is tightening the screws on Uighur youth in Xinjiang.

Two ethnic Uighur women pass Chinese paramilitary policemen standing guard outside the Grand Bazaar in the Uighur district of the city of Urumqi in China's Xinjiang region on July 14, 2009. A mosque was closed and many businesses were shuttered a day after police shot dead two Muslim Uighurs, as ethnic tensions simmered in restive Urumqi.   AFP PHOTO / Peter PARKS (Photo credit should read PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images)
Two ethnic Uighur women pass Chinese paramilitary policemen standing guard outside the Grand Bazaar in the Uighur district of the city of Urumqi in China's Xinjiang region on July 14, 2009. A mosque was closed and many businesses were shuttered a day after police shot dead two Muslim Uighurs, as ethnic tensions simmered in restive Urumqi. AFP PHOTO / Peter PARKS (Photo credit should read PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images)

KASHGAR, ChinaAs Muslims worldwide immerse themselves in the holy month of Ramadan, which started June 17, Uighurs in China’s far-west region of Xinjiang, the majority of whom follow the Islamic faith, are experiencing intensified state assault on their religious freedom. Earlier this month, the region’s top party official said that religion must be “sinicized” in order to serve the unification of the country. In the days leading up to the holy month, official notices published on government websites, similar to those from the same time in 2014, demand that Uighurs who are party members, civil servants, teachers, and students forgo fasting.

After an array of crude measures — from a blanket travel ban to offers of cash and other incentives to encourage marriages between Han and Uighur, the Turkic-speaking ethnic minority — came into effect last year to dilute what the government deems the threat of Muslim extremism in the region, experts say the current level of control represents the harshest the region has seen in decades.

As a member of the majority Han growing up in Beijing, I had always viewed the vast collage of mountains, basins, and oases that comprise Xinjiang, as well as the diverse populations inhabiting it, as akin to a bright poster with indistinct images. While in kindergarten, I donned a Doppa cap with fake curls attached and danced to the rhythm of “My Motherland Is a Garden” — a Xinjiang folksong that celebrates China’s ethnic diversity — at a school gala. At a family reunion years ago, I met a distant aunt who had spent a decade at a state-owned oil company in the Gobi desert. She spoke of the incessant drilling noise of the yellow cranes, as well as the “black gold” bubbling through the sand.

In the past half-decade, Xinjiang has surged to the forefront of Chinese mainstream consciousness with a different image. A string of bloody conflicts between discontented Uighurs and the Han Chinese claimed more than 100 lives nationwide last year. Bare-bones statements from official media blamed the clashes on Uighur Islamic extremists, while foreign journalists have limited freedom to report in the region. Human rights organizations say the conflicts were largely fueled by the government’s restrictive religious and economic policies in the area.

The government’s yearlong “strike hard” campaign, launched in May 2014, which included the censoring of prayers, the closing of Islamic schools, and the banning of certain religious dress, has threatened virtually all forms of local religious and cultural expressions and triggered an identity crisis among Uighurs. By further alienating people who might otherwise serve to bridge the gap between China’s dominant Han and Uighurs, the policies also constrain the Chinese state’s ability to seek ethnic reconciliation.

On a trip to the region earlier this year, I witnessed the ruthless state policies at work — and the dire impact they had on local society. In Kashgar, a city in far-west Xinjiang and home to much of the recent conflict, I met Alim, a Uighur student at the local teacher’s college, who preferred not to give his real name. He showed me a piece of wrinkled paper he carried around in his pocket: a photocopy of his passport. Police had confiscated his original documentation after a mass killing took place in the prefecture last year.

Alim’s profile makes him an unlikely suspect of the state. His father works at the local court, and his mother teaches at a local vocational school. He has been to Beijing twice on family trips. A junior in college, he studies painting, “particularly birds,” he explained with a mild grin. Like most Uighurs, he speaks the local language. But he chatted with me in competent Mandarin Chinese, which he had learned at school.

Alim lives like any young college student elsewhere. In his early 20s, he enjoys sweating his weekends away on the soccer field and in nightclubs. A practicing Muslim, he refrains from drinking and never fails to keep his daily prayers.

In the past year, however, Alim’s penchant for fun has been curtailed by a new round of toughening policies, triggered by another wave of ethnic conflict in the region. These waves have arrived with increasing frequency since the 2009 riots in the regional capital of Urumqi, the severest violence Xinjiang has witnessed in recent decades, which left 200 dead and more than 100 injured.

Closed-circuit television cameras have now been installed in classrooms and dormitories at Alim’s university. Checkpoints have sprung up at school gates, where students are stopped to have their cell phones inspected for Islam-related content. IPhone owners are particularly vulnerable, Alim explained, for the gadget, an innocent symbol of wealth and status elsewhere in China, evokes the suspicion of clandestine foreign connection in Kashgar.

Equally onerous is the new dress code, instituted after the 2009 Urumqi violence, which prohibits all but the most surreptitious expression of religious or ethnic identity. Face veils on women and beards on men are deemed unambiguous signs of deviance. Even Doppa hats and kerchiefs — accessories commonly featured in Communist Party propaganda to showcase Uighur culture — are off-limits on campus. “Sometimes I want to wear a hat just because I think it looks good,” Alim said with a wry smile.

An ideological offensive has accompanied the oppressive policies. After President Xi Jinping’s visit to Kashgar last April, during which he stressed the need to combat terrorism and push for bilingual education, the university organized a deluge of study meetings, where students are required to pledge their support for Xi’s directives. A classmate of Alim’s, who goes by the pseudonym Aykhan and works for the school’s party branch, spoke of her dread at having to relay to fellow students official slogans that she often shrugs off herself. “I joined the party branch at school only because I am outgoing and love to organize activities,” she told me as we chatted in a fast food restaurant in downtown Kashgar.

Venturing beyond campus, the students find a similarly denuded cultural landscape around the city. Once a fabled Silk Road trading hub, whose charm crystallized during centuries of cultural amalgamation between China, Central Asia, and beyond, Kashgar is now withering under the iron claw of the state.

On the People’s Square, which is across the street from a towering statue of Mao Zedong and where Alim remembered playing soccer as a child, now sits two dozen police trucks. The 600-year-old Id Kah mosque, the largest in China, has been off-limits to young Uighur males during service hours since the summer of 2014, when extremists stabbed a pro-Communist imam to death outside the gate.

The most iconic part of Kashgar, the famed Old City, has experienced the worst ravages. Emerging from a five-year remodeling project, it saw its warren of zigzagging alleys straightened, the overhead tunnels connecting houses yanked, and the colorful façades of residences painted dull brown. When Alim and Aykhan walked me through Gaotai Ancient Homes — a cluster of mud-brick houses perched on a hill and surrounded by concrete apartment buildings and a giant Ferris wheel — they smiled with evident embarrassment. It was the last vestige of the city’s medieval neighborhood.

Like many of my Han peers immersed in Western culture, Alim and Aykhan also strive to straddle different worlds. Having had his passport confiscated, Alim prays to be able to retrieve it before it expires. “It has nine years left,” he said hopefully. “I’ve always wanted to go to Turkey and Saudi Arabia.” His voice trailed off.

Aykhan, too, hopes to see the world. Having learned that I attended college in the United States, she peppered me with questions about Western pedagogy. Her dream, she said, is to study psychology abroad and spread it among Uighurs by becoming a motivational speaker. At the moment, she said she had her eyes set on a graduate program in international relations at a university on China’s east coast, but recently heard the school does not accept Uighur students.

All over China, individuals are seeking ways to pursue their aspirations within state-sanctioned terrain. For Uighurs like Aykhan and Alim, who hope to participate in society as their authentic selves rather than versions sanitized to placate government bureaucrats, the wiggle room is particularly small. Their cosmopolitanism and cultural ambidexterity, if channeled through a liberal system, could easily help breed the cross-ethnic understanding and goodwill required to mend a divided society. Instead, effectively quarantined to the ground under their feet, they are forced to relinquish their claims to an independent identity, or face the threat of state sanctions.

According to a report released by the Dui Hua Foundation, a U.S.-based human rights advocacy group, out of the more than 2,300 people arrested for political offenses in China in 2013, the majority appears to be Tibetans and Uighurs, who account for a much smaller fraction of the total Chinese population. Out of the 44 journalists jailed in China in 2014, as documented by the Committee to Protect Journalists, 17 were Uighurs.

Last fall, prominent Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti was sentenced to life in prison for his measured critiques of the Communist Party. A professor at Beijing’s Minzu University of China, he had long championed efforts to bridge differences between Uighur and Han. His position within the state apparatus, once seen as protection, ultimately rendered him most vulnerable when Beijing’s stance hardened.

Before his arrest, in a video interview with the New York Times in 2010, Tohti lamented the Chinese government’s full-fledged assault on Uighur identity. “The Chinese government is trying to cultivate the Uighurs,” he said. “Because you are a Uighur, you are not allowed to keep your identity. Because you are a Uighur, I will have to shave your beard. I can burn the Koran. You’d better let go.”

But more worrisome, Tohti added, was the muzzling of moderate voices the crackdown has caused. The radicalization of Uighur society has made ethnic reconciliation a more distant goal than ever. “Separatism among the Uighurs continues to strengthen,” he said, the gloom on his face giving way to a sad, prescient smile. “In the end, there won’t be any results.”

Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images

A Beijing native, Helen Gao is a frequent contributor to Foreign Policy and an MA candidate in East Asian Studies at Harvard.

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