Uyghur music played in the center of the Grand Bazaar in 2019
Over the past two years, multiple news reports, academic research, and eyewitness accounts have pieced together a picture of the tight surveillance in the police state the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region has become.
I experienced some of this surveillance myself during a trip to Urumqi and Xinjiang’s south in the spring of 2018. One year later, in 2019, I was prepared to encounter even more restrictions during a second trip to Ürümchi and two southern cities, where surveillance has been reported to be most severe.
To my surprise, I noticed soon after my arrival that much of the visible surveillance measures had been reduced noticeably compared to 2018. This created an illusion of a more relaxed atmosphere, at least on the surface. However, as I was to discover during my travel, surveillance had not decreased but emerged in more discrete ways.
Despite still being many, the overall number of surveillance cameras seemed to have declined, at least it didn’t look like that there were more cameras than in Beijing or Shanghai. Police in the streets rarely checked the ID cards and mobile phones of the region’s non-Han population, whereas this had been routine last year at every large intersection, especially in southern Xinjiang. The sometimes-hourly patrolling police convoys consisting of about ten huge black armored police cars driving at walking speed with their sirens turned on, reminding everyone that police were watching, had also completely disappeared during my visit in 2019.
A kind of normality had returned to Ürümchi, the capital of the region. In 2018, the once crowded and lively area in and around the streets of the Grand Bazaar where many Uyghurs operate their restaurants and shops had looked like a ghost city. Someone seemed to have turn off the volume. Walking around had felt like being in a silent film.
In 2019, the same area had become more animated with more people in the streets – noticeably more young and elder Uyghur men than last year – and the sound had returned as well. In the afternoon, Uyghur music was played in the center of the Grand Bazaar where Han, most probably tourists, and Uyghurs were dancing together (see video at top). Still, this “happy” get-together was overseen by armed SWAT police, standing just two meters behind the crowd which had gathered around the dancers.
In 2018, big black police vehicles had been stationed around the Grand Bazaar area. This year, not a single police car was visible. Instead, white minivans decorated with ornate lettering saying “Grand Bazaar Pedestrian Mall” with bored-looking, middle-aged, mostly Han men sitting inside were parking outside the tourist attraction. That these were not cars belonging to staff of the Disneyland-style reworked Grand Bazaar became clear when three SWAT policemen climbed out of one of these minivans. Moments like this reminded me that, despite suggesting normality, things were not back to normal at all.
The most striking example of hidden surveillance I encountered was at the Idkah Mosque in Kashgar. Whereas mosques in Ürümchi looked more like high-security prisons rather than places of worship, the Idkah Mosque does not even a metal detector at the entrance, which is now standard for mosques in Xinjiang and even some outside Xinjiang.
In April 2019, the New York Times published several short videos taken in October 2018 reflecting the heavy securitization of Xinjiang. The videos showed two police stations outside Idkah and two policemen at the entrance of the mosque. This had all disappeared during my visit in 2019. None of the surveillance cameras in the mosque portico were there anymore during my visit. There were also no other visible cameras either inside the courtyard, except those at the entrance or inside the prayer hall of the mosque (see below).
Two visitors, who had visited the mosque in the second half of 2018, explained to me that they had not been allowed to film or take pictures or take their belongings inside. In spring 2019, the mosque had been cleared of most of its surveillance cameras and police. Tourists were allowed to take photos and videos as the friendly Uyghur lady at the entrance explained. She also pointed out that I would need to purchase a ticket since the mosque was a “national tourist attraction”. In Hotan, another town in southern Xinjiang, I was loudly refused to take pictures from the outside of a mosque let alone enter it, possibly because it was not officially labeled a “national tourist attraction”.
When I exited the Idkah Mosque which until then had appeared to be the least securitized and the only almost camera-free place in Xinjiang, I noticed that I had been followed by two Chinese men who stayed nearby until they saw me leaving the area. Later, up to four persons in plainclothes followed, filmed and photographed me at all four tourist sites I visited in Kashgar, however never following me outside the tourist spots. Human surveillance seems to have partially replaced the otherwise omnipresent cameras, at least in tourist areas.
Besides reducing visible surveillance, designated tourist areas are also undergoing a make-over to become more attractive to the increasing number of Chinese tourists visiting Xinjiang. The famous Old Town of Kashgar had been rebuilt years ago and Ürümchi’s tourist attraction, the Grand Bazaar, has now followed suit. According to a shop assistant, the renovations had been completed by August 2018. The Grand Bazaar now looks more like an amusement park with newly opened “Uyghur-style” shops and a large pedestrian shopping street (see above). The street located behind the Grand Bazaar used to be busy with traffic but now features a nan (a traditional Uyghur type of flatbread) museum (see below). Although nan is a Uyghur specialty, the presentation of the history of nan is only available to Chinese- and English-speakers, who are the main tourist targets.
Night markets which had previously been closed are now re-opening or newly built in Ürümchi, Kashgar, Hotan, and Ghulja, catering mostly to Han tourists. A new “Uyghur-style” decorated shopping area, including an “ethnic unity” supermarket, was still under construction in Hotan in May 2019 (see below).
Not having found the same extent of surveillance as in 2018, I intentionally touched on potentially sensitive topics during brief conversations with Uyghurs, probing how this perceived decrease in surveillance had affected them. It quickly became evident that fear was still omnipresent, impacting Uyghurs’ everyday life: A young Uyghur shop owner was watching a tv series in Turkish in her small supermarket in southern Xinjiang. When I asked her if she spoke Turkish, she became very nervous and hissed at me “I don’t know what you are talking about.”
Another day, I accidentally gave a coin from a Muslim-majority country to a taxi driver in Kashgar. He looked at it curiously and so I offered it to him as a gift. He refused, explaining that he would be “in really big trouble” if he kept it.
Internalized fear functions as an invisible surveillance measure. Instilled with great intensity over the past two years in the non-Han population by state terror, it has now penetrated people’s minds so deeply that it works as a means of control even with less visible means of surveillance.
Police checkpoints had fewer and less attentive staff this year, making it possible for me to avoid an obligatory security check at a certain point. Last year, humans, fences, and bars blocked the traveler’s way at each of these checkpoints staffed with armed police who made sure everyone scanned their bags, ID cards, and faces correctly before passing the gates. This year, at one particular checkpoint in southern Xinjiang, even though no police were present at the entrance, everyone, except me, passed through the left lane – without police supervision, undergoing all the habitual security checks automatically, almost robot-like. My fellow Uyghur travelers, in theory, could have passed through the right lane, as I did. In this “green lane,” the gate was open and no security check required. They did not choose this lane, of course, knowing that any misbehavior would have severe consequences.
The message of propaganda slogans which permeate literally every corner of Xinjiang had changed as well. Last year’s red banners announced that the “three evils” (terrorism, extremism, and separatism) needed to be defeated. This year, these three words had vanished and had been replaced by slogans such as: 有黑扫黑，有恶除恶，有乱治乱 which roughly translates as “eliminate crime, eradicate evil and control chaos” (see above). The elimination of crime and corruption is a nation-wide campaign introduced in January 2018 aiming to create long-term stability. The change in propaganda may indicate a shift away from Xinjiang being a specific case in need of the eradication of “terrorists”, “separatists” and “extremists”. Setting up the same propaganda messages as in Shanghai and Beijing (see below) removes Xinjiang’s special status by integrating it into the nation-wide anti-crime and corruption campaign.
The recent changes in the decrease of visible surveillance, possibly brought about in anticipation of the visits of foreign delegations in combination with the increase in the construction of artificial “minority-style” tourist attractions are most likely to have three goals: 1. appeasing critical foreign governments and disproving their criticism, 2. giving non-critical foreign governments “a way out” by providing visual “proof” supporting the Chinese government line, 3. attracting more Han tourists.
Since the police state is hiding itself, attempting to convey a feeling of normalcy, it is very unlikely for visitors now to experience surveillance as reported by media throughout 2017 and 2018, especially at popular tourist destinations. In this play directed by China, Xinjiang has been transformed into a prettier stage set. As the play continues, the world keeps on watching and some are even applauding.