China's Muslim gulag is tough to cover, but a few reporters aren't giving up

The Wall Street Journal has been one of the chief chroniclers of the de-Islamization of western China to date and its latest piece on the literal razing of Uighur neighborhoods in the regional capital Urumqi is a depressing read. And the Chinese gumboots are getting away with it.

Paired with the above piece is an editorial slamming Muslim governments for selling their persecuted brethren in Xinjiang province down the river for economic incentives and investment from the Chinese. Even Turkey, the traditional defender of its Turkic-speaking relatives among the Uigurs, no longer calls China’s actions “genocide.”

Yet genocide it is, not just of a million-plus people imprisoned in concentration-style camps who may never be released, but of their culture.

It can’t be easy to cover this stuff and I appreciate publications like the Journal and Foreign Policy and Reuters, which has done amazing work mapping out the concentration camps. has a thorough list of press coverage of China’s gulag for the past three years.

This is truly crucial coverage. As the Journal describes here:

URUMQI, China—In this old Silk Road city in western China, a state security campaign involving the detention of vast numbers of people has moved to its next stage: demolishing their neighborhoods and purging their culture.

Two years after authorities began rounding up Urumqi’s mostly Muslim ethnic Uighur residents, many of the anchors of Uighur life and identity are being uprooted. Empty mosques remain, while the shantytown homes that surrounded them have been replaced by glass towers and retail strips like many found across China.

Food stalls that sold fresh nang, the circular flatbread that is to Uighur society what baguettes are to the French, are gone. The young men that once baked the nang (or nan in Uighur) have disappeared, as have many of their customers. Uighur-language books are missing from store shelves in a city, the capital of China’s Xinjiang region, that has long been a center of the global Uighur community.

Supplanting the Turkic culture that long defined large parts of Urumqi is a sanitized version catering to Chinese tourists. On a recent morning in the Erdaoqiao neighborhood, the once-bustling heart of Uighur Urumqi, nang ovens were nowhere to be seen—but souvenir shops sold nang-shaped pocket mirrors, nang bottle openers and circular throw pillows with covers printed to look like nang. …

To realize its “deradicalization” goals, authorities have detained what United Nations experts say have been as many as a million Muslims in a network of internment camps—and subjected the rest to mass digital surveillance.

The newspaper posted GoogleEarth photos showing what once were vibrant Muslim neighborhoods now razed to the ground. In cities all over the Xinjiang province, a new totalitarian police state of historic proportions has been set up.

“We can’t have a culture anymore,” said a Uighur resident of Urumqi who works at a state-owned resources company. He said he stopped visiting his local mosque after officials came to his house to confiscate his Quran. “No one goes any more. It’s too dangerous,” he said.

By squeezing some expressions of Uighur identity and turning others into cultural kitsch, the government is trying to weaken ethnic bonds, said Darren Byler, who studies Uighur migration at the University of Washington…

One settlement reduced to rubble is Heijiashan, once a low-rise jumble of makeshift houses built around a market and two mosques. Before being flattened over the course of 2017 and 2018, it was a center of Uighur migrant life in the city, said the University of Washington’s Mr. Byler.

“On Fridays, 5,000 to 10,000 people would come for the prayer,” Mr. Byler said.

The reporters tried to investigate what Muslim life still remains but didn’t get far.

On a recent visit, the mosques still stood in the shadows of rising apartment towers, but appeared abandoned. While attempting to film them, Journal reporters were detained and taken to a nearby police station.

Summoned by police, a district propaganda official said the government had taken care not to raze the mosques. “That shows the government’s respect for Islam,” said the official, a Mr. Xing.

Whatever they’re cooking up in Urumqi, it’s not Islam.

It’s the amusement park version of religion, complete with native dancers, sanitized markets and empty mosques. Another thing the tourists don’t see are the dozens of new orphanages in the region being built to house the children of imprisoned adults. You can imagine what kind of propaganda these kids are getting.

The Communist Party’s aim isn’t to eradicate Uighurs, according to Adrian Zenz, an expert in Chinese ethnic policy. Instead, he says, the party wants to strip the influence of Islam from Uighur culture to present the semblance of cultural diversity without the substance.

“It was supposed to be automatic. With material progress, the masses should be rescued from the opium of religion,” Mr. Zenz said. “The current regime is trying to lend history a hand.”

Note this: “To present the semblance of cultural diversity without the substance.”

That’s the best line in the whole article. That reminds of how the Soviets tried to replace Christmas with a youth communist league-related holiday in the 1920s. By mid-century, they had come up with other faux rites, such as a Ceremonial Registration of the Newborn to replace Christian baptism.

I never dreamed a worse villain than Russia would come on the scene but the Chinese have filled that spot.

Authorities in Xinjiang are also looking to promote tourism, which would bring more investment and help eradicate the poverty they say nurtures radicalism…

The tourism effort can also be seen in the transformation of the former Uighur commercial center, Erdaoqiao. The neighborhood was the site of the worst violence during the 2009 riots. In November 2017, when the Journal visited to document the reach of Beijing’s surveillance state, Erdaoqiao hummed with activity and tension.

A year later, it resembled a theme park.

A pair of pedestrian promenades guarded by large security gates have replaced streets previously dense with cars, pedestrians and police outposts. Around a large central bazaar, the sounds of commerce conducted in Uighur have given way to a loudspeaker broadcast offering cheerful greetings in Mandarin and English.

“Hello, dear tourists!” says the recorded voice, inviting visitors to enjoy “the magnificent reappearance of the commercial hub of the Silk Road.”

I looked around for what kind of tourism the Chinese are pushing and found this site for Urumqi and this one for more of western China.

One warning for the Chinese, however. Prison tends to stoke radical movements, not waylay them. Unless they intend to kill every Muslim they have in these camps, what do they think these folks will be hatching once they’re released? This BBC piece asks the same question.

To get a feel for what it’s like to try to cover these horrors, Reuters said:

Foreign reporters who arrive in Xinjiang are closely followed by Chinese security forces. Reuters reporters who visited 10 different cities in the region this year were under surveillance from the moment they got off the plane. They were followed in their car, on foot and on trains. On several occasions, police threw up temporary roadblocks to block the reporters from reaching the camps.

One of the mosques in Kashgar, it added, has been transformed into a hookah lounge. A city that was once a world center for traditional Islamic and Central Asian architecture is now Disneyland meets Aladdin, (a fairytale that originally was set in China, by the way).

It’s tough covering China and the journalists who try to do it well inevitably end up expelled. Maybe they can masquerade as some of the new tourists Beijing is trying to pour into the region? The killing of Islamic culture in western China may not be the sexiest religion story out there but, when we look back 10 years from now, it may be the most important one.

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