China's Uighur Muslims struggle under 'police state'
Worshippers quietly passed through metal detectors as they entered the central mosque in China's far western city of Kashgar under the stern gaze of stone-faced police officers. The increasingly strict curbs imposed on the mostly Muslim Uighur population have stifled life in the tense Xinjiang region, where beards are partially banned and no one is allowed to pray in public.
For years, the square outside the mosque in Kashgar was packed with teeming crowds as worshippers jostled for space to unroll their prayer rugs and celebrate the end of Ramadan. But no longer. This year, an eerie silence hung over the plaza outside the imposing prayer hall as devotees gathered to mark the end of a month of fasting – the lowest turnout in a generation according to residents.
Authorities declined to comment on the numbers. But local businessmen told journalists the government had used the multiple checkpoints encircling the city to prevent travellers to Kashgar from joining Eid prayers.
"This is not a good place for religion," said one trader.
Beijing says the restrictions and heavy police presence seek to control the spread of Islamic extremism and separatist movements, but analysts warn that Xinjiang is becoming an open air prison.
China is "essentially creating a police state of unprecedented scale," said James Leibold, an expert on Chinese security at Australia's La Trobe University.
China's Uighur heartland turns into security state
China says it faces a serious threat from Islamist extremists in its Xinjiang region. Beijing accuses separatists among the Muslim Uighur ethnic minority of stirring up tensions with the ethnic Han Chinese majority. By Nadine Berghausen
Economy or security? China routinely denies pursuing repressive policies in Xinjiang and points to the vast sums it spends on economic development in the resource-rich region. James Leibold, an expert on Chinese ethnic policy says the focus on security runs counter to Beijing's goal of using the OBOR initiative to boost Xinjiang's economy, because it would disrupt the flow of people and ideas
China's far western Xinjiang region ramps up security: three times a day, alarms ring out through the streets of China's ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar and shopkeepers rush out of their stores swinging government-issued wooden clubs. In mandatory anti-terror drills conducted under police supervision, they fight off imaginary knife-wielding assailants
One Belt, One Road Initiative: an ethnic Uighur man walks down the path leading to the tomb of Imam Asim in the Taklamakan Desert. A historic trading post, the city of Kashgar is central to China's "One Belt, One Road Initiative", which is President Xi Jinping's signature foreign and economic policy involving massive infrastructure spending linking China to Asia, the Middle East and beyond
China fears disruption of "One Belt, One Road" summit: a man herds sheep in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. China's worst fears are that a large-scale attack would blight this year's diplomatic set piece, an OBOR summit attended by world leaders planned for Beijing. Since ethnic riots in the regional capital Urumqi in 2009, Xinjiang has been plagued by bouts of deadly violence
Ethnic minority in China: a woman prays at a grave near the tomb of Imam Asim in the Taklamankan Desert. Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking distinct and mostly Sunni Muslim community and one of the 55 recognised ethnic minorities in China. Although Uighurs have traditionally practiced a moderate version of Islam, experts believe that some of them have been joining Islamic militias in the Middle East
Communist Party vows to continue war on terror: Chinese state media say the threat remains high, so the Communist Party has vowed to continue its "war on terror" against Islamist extremism. For example, Chinese authorities have passed measures banning many typically Muslim customs. The initiative makes it illegal to "reject or refuse" state propaganda, although it was not immediately clear how the authorities would enforce this regulation
CCTV cameras are being installed: many residents say the anti-terror drills are just part of an oppressive security operation that has been ramped up in Kashgar and other cities in Xinjiang's Uighur heartland in recent months. For many Uighurs it is not about security, but mass surveillance. "We have no privacy. They want to see what you're up to," says a shop owner in Kashgar
Ban on many typically Muslim customs: the most visible change is likely to come from the ban on "abnormal growing of beards," and the restriction on wearing veils. Specifically, workers in public spaces, including stations and airports, will be required to "dissuade" people with veils on their faces from entering and report them to the police
Security personnel keep watch: authorities offer rewards for those who report "youth with long beards or other popular religious customs that have been radicalised", as part of a wider incentive system that rewards actionable intelligence on imminent attacks. Human rights activists have been critical of the tactics used by the government in combatting the alleged extremists, accusing it of human rights abuses
The government began ramping up security and religious restrictions in Xinjiang in 2009, following a series of riots in the regional capital Urumqi that left around 200 dead. In March, President Xi Jinping ordered security forces to build a "great wall of steel" around the region after Uighurs claiming to belong to a division of the Islamic State group in Iraq threatened to return home and "shed blood like rivers".
Over the last year, Beijing has flooded Xinjiang with tens of thousands of security personnel, placed police stations on nearly every block and rolled out tough regulations aimed at "eliminating extremism".
Public signs say no one is permitted to pray in public or grow a beard before the age of 50, while government employees are forbidden from fasting during Ramadan.
In Tashkurgan, near the Pakistan border, authorities shut a halal restaurant as "punishment" for refusing to serve food during the holiday, according to a shopkeeper working next door. A teacher and a government official told journalists that schools discourage students from using the traditional Arabic Muslim greeting "As-Salaam Alaikum" ("peace be upon you").
"The government thinks this Islamic word is equal to separatism," the official said.
The region's ubiquitous surveillance cameras are particularly abundant in places of worship: an empty mosque in the southern city of Yarkand had three of them pointing directly at the spot where the imam leads prayers. Even more hung from the wooden rafters like bats.
At police stations, officers monitor screens with direct feeds from mosques as well as other buildings and nearby streets.
In the run-up to Eid in the south-western desert oasis town of Hotan, police manned checkpoints with rifles and crude spears made from metal pipes. At one intersection, men in bulletproof vests stopped traffic for a fleet of dozens of heavily armoured trucks, personnel carriers with mounted guns and black vans. The caravans patrolled the city every day during the month of Ramadan, a police officer said.
At a mosque in the heart of Hotan, Muslims gathering for Friday prayers passed through a police barricade and showed identity documents at two checkpoints before entering. Inside, plainclothes men with Communist Party lapel pins and sunglasses kept a close eye on hundreds of worshippers.
At the front of the mosque, an LED signboard reminded people that "the greatest task for Xinjiang's masses is harmonising ethnic unity and religion."
Such signs are a common sight throughout Xinjiang, where tensions between Uighurs and the majority Han ethnic group have led to violent clashes.
Chinese authorities have long linked their crackdown on Uighur Muslims to international counter-terrorism efforts, arguing that separatists are bent on joining foreign extremists like al-Qaida.
Uighurs have been tied to mass stabbings and bombings that left dozens dead in recent years across the country. Riots and clashes with the government killed hundreds more.
Worries about extremism notwithstanding, many Xinjiang residents fear the loss of their cultural identity and question whether the government has gone too far.
"We don't want it to become another Pakistan or Afghanistan," a shopkeeper in Tashkurgan said, fearing violence could spill into China from the nearby countries. But, he added, "only a small minority of Muslims are extremists. The Chinese government can't differentiate." (AFP)
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