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.
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.
Last week a jeep exploded in Tiananmen Square after crashing into the wall of the Forbidden City. Five people were killed, including the three passengers, and more than forty injured. The Beijing police said it was a suicide attack, and that the passengers were all ethnically Uighur. The five people they arrested the next day were all Uighur too.
Ürümqi may be the capital of Xinjiang, but in most respects Kashgar is the province’s first city. Until the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, Ürümqi was a small garrison town. Kashgar, which was part of the Silk Route, has been at the centre of the region’s trade, and at the heart of Uighur culture and tradition, for more than a thousand years.
After the protests in Ürümqi on 5 July 2009, thousands of extra police and soldiers were brought into the city. On 7 July the authorities reported that almost 1500 people had been arrested for taking part in the demonstration, which they described as ‘a pre-empted, organised violent crime’. Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International published eyewitness reports of official brutality, but there hasn’t been much corroborating evidence. Last week however a video appeared on YouTube that shows police and soldiers making arrests in Ürümqi. The clip appears to have been shot for state TV, since the reporter has permission to film.
I took these pictures in the villages around Turpan, a small oasis town an hour's drive from Ürümqi, earlier this year. Propaganda murals used to be common throughout the Chinese countryside, but are much rarer now. The slogans are in both Uighur and Chinese. Language is a tricky political subject in Xinjiang at the moment, as it is in Tibet – there have been protests over plans to phase Uighur and Tibetan out of classrooms.
In the past 18 months, Ürümqi, the capital of China’s Xinjiang province, has been subject to riots, syringe attacks, further riots, and an elevated military and police presence. Last week the provincial authorities announced their plans to transform the city into 'a bright pearl of the western region' (perhaps a more achievable task than making the city deserve its name, which means 'beautiful pastureland' in Mongolian).
Yesterday the People’s Daily reported that there had been an explosion in Aksu in southwest Xinjiang. Seven people were killed and 14 injured when a Uighur man drove a three-wheeled vehicle into a crowd and detonated explosives. This is the first major act of violence in the region since the Urumqi riots in July 2009, which led to more than 200 deaths.
Last Thursday the Chinese police claimed they had ‘cracked a terrorist cell headed by [Uighur] separatists’. At a press conference in Beijing, a Ministry of Public Security spokesman said that 10 people had been detained for their role in attacks on a police station in Kashgar in August 2008, and for ‘bombing supermarkets, hotel and government buildings’ in Kuqa.
On 16 September the Chinese government claimed to have arrested six people in Aksu (a city in western Xinjiang) for making bombs. Two of the six – Seyitamut Obul and Tasin Mehmut – have Uighur names. Li Wei, the director of the Centre for Counterterrorism Studies at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, warned that 'terrorists have gone underground to organise different forms of terror attacks in Xinjiang . . . such as the recent syringe attacks in the region and plotting bomb attacks.’ He went on to claim that the recovered explosives were to be used in car and suicide bombings. The timing of the arrests is suspiciously convenient: in the run up to the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic on 1 October, the government would like to show that it has the region under control.