The Kazakh activist Serikzhan Bilash was arrested in Almaty last month, and charged with extremism and inciting ‘inter-ethnic hatred’. The police later raided the office of his organisation, Atajurt, confiscated computers and documents, and sealed the premises. For the past two years Atajurt has been campaigning on behalf of the Kazakh citizens detained in the huge network of concentration camps across the Chinese border in Xinjiang.
When I met Professor Rahile Dawut in Urumqi in 2013, we didn’t talk about the soldiers and armoured vehicles patrolling the streets of the Uighur neighbourhoods. I didn’t ask her about the transformation of Xinjiang’s capital into an intensively policed space, or the government’s spurious claims that the region was under threat from Islamist terrorists, in part because discussing such topics, even in private, seemed too dangerous for any Chinese citizen. It was far safer to confine our talk to her extensive, brilliant ethnographic research into Xinjiang’s rich and plural cultural traditions, most notably her work on mazâr, the shrines of local saints dotted around the region, most of them in remote desert locations. She was funny, modest about her work, and gracious enough to listen to my anecdotes about visiting shrines in other parts of Xinjiang. Last week, Dawut’s family announced that she has been missing since December.
The last dodo was sighted late in the 17th century near Mauritius, but the creature’s place in popular culture was cemented by its appearance in Alice in Wonderland in 1865. After Alice and various animals fall in the Pool of Tears, the Dodo makes a suggestion. ‘The best thing to get us dry would be a Caucus-race,’ it suggests, and makes them all run round in circles. When asked which of them has won the race, the Dodo is stumped for a moment, but then declares: ‘Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.’ Natural selection is a more brutal game: extinctions are inevitable.
Last week, Cambridge University Press, the world’s oldest publisher, admitted it had blocked online access in China to 315 articles from China Quarterly, at the request of Chinese censors. The decision was taken without consulting the journal’s editor, Tim Pringle, who wrote an open letter expressing ‘deep concern and disappointment’ at the decision. The blocked articles are concerned with such politically sensitive subjects as the Cultural Revolution, Tibet, Xinjiang and the Tiananmen Square protests. The demand to remove them came from China’s General Administration of Press and Publications, which threatened to block the entire China Quarterly website if they weren’t.
Last week the Chinese government announced the end of its one-child policy; married couples will now be allowed to have two children. The policy was introduced in 1980, when the population had almost doubled since the Communists took control in 1949. It never applied to all citizens. People living in the countryside were allowed to have a second child if their first was female or born handicapped. Exemptions were also granted to ethnic minorities and people in high-risk occupations.
The huge blast at a chemical factory in Tianjin on 12 August, which killed around 150 people, was China's worst industrial accident for several years. Since then there have been two more explosions in Shandong province, and now another in Zhejiang province on Monday. There have been at least 38 explosions so far this year at chemical plants, firework factories and mines. Among the causes are a lack of oversight, local corruption and attempts to boost profits by employing less qualified workers or ignoring safety protocols. These problems are endemic to most areas of the Chinese economy, whether it be food provision, the rail network or domestic tourism, all of which have seen serious accidents or health scares in recent years.
Last week China claimed it had arrested 181 terrorist groups in Xinjiang over the past year. Mass arrests, wide spread surveillance and an increased military presence have targeted 'religious extremism'; some Xinjiang terrorist groups have been said to have links to Isis. The crackdown followed a number of violent incidents including bombings and knife attacks. According to one estimate, 72 people were killed in less than eight months. At the start of the campaign last year, President Xi Jinping said that terrorists must be made to ‘become like rats scurrying across a street, with everybody shouting “beat them!”’
On 1 March, a group of men and women armed with knives and machetes killed 29 people and injured 130 at the railway station in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province in south-west China. Nothing like this has happened in China in recent memory. Protests and riots are far from uncommon, but deliberate, co-ordinated attacks aimed at causing widespread fear and major loss of life are almost unknown. Still, as soon as the news from Kunming came through, social media were full of speculation that the attack was carried out by Uighurs from Xinjiang. When I first went to Xinjiang, in 2001, the main stereotype of Uighurs amongst Han Chinese people was that they led happy, colourful lives full of singing and dancing. But since the riots of 2009 this has been replaced by a common perception of Uighurs as violent terrorists. When the Chinese government compared last weekend's attacks to 9/11 and blamed ‘separatists’ from Xinjiang, who had ‘launched deadly attacks over the past months, years and decades', no one was surprised.
The most surprising thing about the charges that have been brought against Ilham Tohti is that it didn’t happen sooner. Tohti, a 44-year-old professor of economics in Beijing, has for a long time been an outspoken critic of government policies in Xinjiang. The religious and cultural repression of Uighurs in the region is almost never publically discussed in China: apart from conditions in Tibet, and the legitimacy of Communist Party rule, few topics are more sensitive. When the Chinese media cover violent incidents in Xinjiang, such as the riots in Ürümqi in 2009, they always take the line that it's the fault of Islamic terrorists who wish to separate Xinjiang from China.
In 2002 the photographer Lisa Ross was taken to the edge of the Taklamakan Desert in western China by her driver. She did not know why, but there was a path in the sand, and so she followed it, over the dunes: Colours began to reveal themselves. In the distance I could see what looked like wooden cribs or rafts, cresting on dry land, animated by coloured flags beating in the wind. As I neared the markers, there seemed to be animals with arms and legs stuck atop tall wooden posts.