China Destroyed Muslim Culture In This Ancient City — Then Turned It Into Disneyland

The government’s campaign in Kashgar began with CCTV cameras watching people pray. Now it features tourists taking Instagram selfies.

For centuries, the arched entrances and ornate patterned brickwork of Kashgar’s mosques signaled Uyghur culture’s essential place in the ancient city.

Then the mosques fell into the crosshairs of China’s campaign targeting Muslims, including Uyghurs and Kazakhs, in the province of Xinjiang. The government removed minarets and painted over Arabic calligraphy, according to video obtained by BuzzFeed News. Police officers and metal detectors greeted worshippers as they entered. Inside Id Kah, Kashgar’s largest and most revered mosque, cameras spaced 6 meters apart kept watch over the carpet lining the prayer hall. A photograph of Chinese President Xi Jinping hung over one of the doors, even though Islam forbids most figurative images.

Now the government is using the mosques that remain as part of another campaign: to draw tourists to Xinjiang. Travelers pose in the mosques’ doorways for Instagram photos to which they append hashtags such as #travel, #streetphotography, #travelblogger, #chill, and #holiday. The city has been optimized for social media, and the mosques fit right into this image. A tree outside one is filled with hanging ornaments, and beneath it sits one of many new rustic-style benches found in the city’s public squares — a perfect view for a holiday snap.

In the span of a few years, China assembled a vast and sophisticated infrastructure to lock up Muslims in Xinjiang and to force them to labor in factories. The government built enough space to detain 1 million people at any given time.

The camps and detention centers form the fulcrum of a campaign that the US and other governments have labeled a genocide. But China has also been systematically hollowing out Uyghur culture in Xinjiang’s towns and cities, degrading Muslim landmarks, and inviting non-Uyghurs to move in — or visit for a vacation.

Journalists and independent observers have been largely unable to see the shape and scale of these changes, because it is nearly impossible for them to travel within the region without police harassment. Earlier reporting has described a lot of the surveillance infrastructure and some of the ways that the city has been transformed for the benefit of tourists, but extensive visual documentation has been lacking, with journalists frequently forced to delete any photographs they take.

But BuzzFeed News has compiled and analyzed a large trove of videos and photos that provide an intimate portrait of recent life in Kashgar, which is Xinjiang’s second most populous city. Much of this documentary evidence was captured by tourists, who are able to move around Xinjiang much more freely.

A series of videos taken by a Russian-speaking tourist who walked around Kashgar in October 2017 shows how, at the same time it was rounding up Muslims by the thousands, the government was suffocating the practice of Uyghur culture in the city. Cameras and police checkpoints are everywhere. Chinese flags are hanging from every market stall and shop front; in one video, a group of police officers stops to check that the flags are hanging correctly.

We analyzed the videos, recording the presence of CCTV cameras as well as police checkpoints, stations, and patrols, then geolocated them from the footage to build a detailed map of the city and its surveillance infrastructure at the height of the crackdown. We then compared later videos and photographs to document how the city changed from 2017 through to the present day.

In mid-2019, after locking up 1 million people in the region according to UN estimates, the government declared victory, saying it had stamped out terrorism — and was turning its focus to tourism. “As the infiltration of religious extremism has been curbed, public order and security have returned to society, where equality, solidarity and harmony among ethnic groups and religions have prevailed,” the government wrote in a white paper. In the same paper, the government touted Xinjiang’s tourism industry.

Around that time, the government began to draw back some of its most menacing surveillance features in Kashgar, according to an analysis of contemporary photos and videos. In the three years since, a very different type of visual began to stand out: visor-wearing tour groups, Uyghurs dressed up in 100-year-old costumes to entertain visitors, and a fleet of Disneyland-like golf buggies to ferry people around.

Many of Xinjiang’s cities now resemble Potemkin villages with carefully manicured facades obscuring massive human trauma, experts said. But nowhere is that more apparent than in Kashgar.

“The city is completely changed,” said Rian Thum, a historian of Islam in China at the University of Manchester. “It’s absolutely Disneyfication. It’s an alien place — a theme park.”

Kashgar sits on the ancient Silk Road and has featured prominently in Uyghur literature for hundreds of years. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, well before the Communist Party came to power in China, Kashgar served as the capital for two states controlled by Turkic cultures. Densely packed with busy markets and home to many sacred tombs and monuments, it was long regarded as the best-preserved example of a central Asian city, Thum said.

But in 2009, as part of a modernization campaign, the Chinese government began demolishing Kashgar’s old city, moving families who had lived there for generations to newly built apartment blocks on the outskirts. The older mud-brick buildings and winding alleyways were replaced by new concrete buildings, albeit in an ornate style. By mid-2015, an enormous city gate was under construction to the southeast of the old city, in addition to city walls, all styled to look as though they had been in place for hundreds of years.

Abduweli Ayup grew up in Kashgar. When the demolitions began, he started seeing bulldozers everywhere. When he ate in street stalls, every mouthful tasted like dust.

Ayup said he was first locked up in 2013 after opening a chain of schools that taught Uyghur children in their own language, instead of Mandarin Chinese. He was detained for 15 months in a suffocatingly crowded prison where there was no flush toilet, he said. For the first six months, he was interrogated every day, he said. After his release, Ayup fled to Turkey.

In late 2016, the government dramatically escalated its repression of Uyghurs and other Muslims, embarking on the campaign that the US and other countries now refer to as a genocide. China has pointed to maintaining social stability as a reason for its policies in Xinjiang. The government began detaining people for infractions that included wearing a beard or downloading a banned app.

Stuck thousands of miles away, Ayup was unable to watch as his hometown descended into a police state. But the Russian-speaking tourist who visited Kashgar in October 2017 and took video of his experiences provides a rare window into a terrifying time for Uyghurs in Kashgar and Xinjiang.

The tourist narrates what he sees as he films it, over what appears to be the course of one single day. The camera often lingers on surveillance cameras, checkpoints, and policing infrastructure in between shots of craftspeople at work or the food on display at market stalls. Some of his observations stand out. “I noticed some people, just this morning I saw a few of them, who walk around and knock at the doors, and check something according to the information in their lists," he says at one point.

The videos are often filmed as a single shot. This enabled BuzzFeed News to record and geolocate the surveillance tools across a wide swath of the old city — and build a detailed picture of Kashgar at the height of the crackdown.

Checkpoints were typically a couple of hundred meters apart — roughly a three-minute walk — but some were as close as 50 meters. Key intersections had heavier controls, with metal detectors, heavy metal barriers across the road, and gazebos to protect the police stationed there. Even at minor junctions, string tied between traffic cones often blocked the road — and police seated at a nearby table checked documents of locals who wished to pass. The entrance to one small street was blocked by barriers similar to ticket gates at the entrance to a subway.

The changes at the mosques were equally dramatic. More than a dozen smaller neighborhood mosques identified by BuzzFeed News were affected. So too was Id Kah. With its grand entrance and exterior walls clad in lemon yellow tiles, it dominates the large square in Kashgar’s old city center and holds special meaning for Muslims. In less tense times, people would gather in the square outside the mosque to celebrate festivals like Eid. Before he fled, Ayup came to Id Kah less for prayer and more to meet up with friends, whom he’d smile at from across the room.

a before and after photo showing people praying inside the Id Kah mosque in 2006 versus an empty mosque with many security cameras installed

In the tourist’s video of Id Kah, two police officers in helmets and flak jackets sit at a table outside the entrance, and a CCTV camera points back at the doorway to capture everyone coming in. Visitors pass through metal detectors to enter. Inside, the grounds are peppered with cameras, mounted on walls around the compound, as well as on scaffolding-like arches built over pathways.

The entrance to the Id Kah mosque

Along the length of the prayer hall’s back wall is a row of CCTV cameras at 6-meter intervals, watching people kneel to pray. The photograph of Xi Jinping, which shows him meeting Muslim religious leaders, sits above a door to an enclosed part of the prayer hall. At several other mosques, propaganda signs above or beside the entrance urge people to “love the party, love the country” or remind them of the importance of ethnic unity. Large posters on the walls lay out what constitutes illegal religious activities.

A before and after photo of an intersection in Kashgar in 2017, and the same intersection in 2021, where large sculptures related to the region's history are placed in a plaza

Starting in 2019, a shift began to happen in Kashgar that has carried through to the present day, according to a BuzzFeed News analysis comparing newer videos, photos, and satellite imagery to the 2017 videos. The heavy metal barriers and fencing topped by barbed wire that had been built at the entrances to schools and police stations were gone by mid-2019. Some of the cameras that had proliferated throughout the city went away, too — and so did several checkpoints.

The police also scaled back their presence. The officers that remained were less obviously obtrusive and had traded their riot helmets for soft caps.

But the surveillance of Uyghurs hasn’t disappeared. Many people released from camps were being monitored through their cellphones and prevented from leaving their towns without a permit.

“The authorities scrutinize and surveil former detainees to check if ‘re-education’ helped them to be transformed into ‘normal human beings,’” said Nury Turkel, chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, who interviewed former detainees for a recent book.

Recent photos and videos show that there are still checkpoints at key access points, often partly hidden from view and in places where they might fit more naturally — such as at the main gate to the old city or as part of the imposing new gate at the end of the street where the night market is held.

Cameras are now distributed along roads in a more regular pattern as well as at key access points to the old city, providing more comprehensive coverage of the area and giving authorities a clear overview of who is there. New cameras have often been installed at locations where police were stationed earlier.

The surveillance remains. It’s just less obvious — and less intrusive for holidaymakers.

Abduweli Ayup has not been back to Kashgar since 2015, and his chances of doing so anytime soon seem slim. The Chinese government has canceled his passport, he said.

Sometimes he watches videos on YouTube of his hometown. They do not make him feel better. It feels compulsive, he said, “like eating bad food.”

“You know, you want to keep eating it, but afterward your stomach feels upset,” he added. As he watched one video while speaking with a BuzzFeed News reporter, Ayup pointed to a giant sculpture of a traditional stringed instrument by the gates of the city. “See that, that’s just for tourists,” he said.

The city is now full of these sorts of photogenic additions. There are giant teapots at the main junction near the city gate. Elsewhere, murals show maps of Xinjiang or carry slogans such as “Xinjiang Impressions” where visitors stop to take holiday snaps. A new entrance has been added to the metalwork market, with a large sign featuring silhouetted figures hammering iron. The anvil statue at the corner now comes with projection-mapped fire, as well as sparks and a piped soundtrack of metal being struck. Camel rides are available too.

In the videos he has seen, Ayup has also noticed footage of people dancing while wearing traditional Uyghur dress — costumes that they might have worn more than a century ago. Figures like these can be seen on Chinese state television and at the country’s annual rubber-stamp parliamentary session. “Nobody would wear that clothing anymore unless it was for show,” Ayup said.

Tourism is now booming in Xinjiang. Last year, even as global numbers fell as a consequence of the pandemic, 190 million tourists visited the region — more than a 20% increase from the previous year. Revenue increased by 43%. As part of its “Xinjiang is a wonderful land” campaign, the Chinese government has produced English-language videos and held events to promote a vision of the region as peaceful, newly prosperous, and full of dramatic landscapes and rich culture.

Chinese state media has portrayed this as an economic growth engine for Xinjiang natives, too. One article described how a former camp detainee named Aliye Ablimit had, upon her release, received hospitality training. “After graduation, I became a tour guide for Kashgar Ancient City,” Ablimit said, according to the article. “And later, I turned my home into a Bed and Breakfast. Tourists love my house very much because of its Uygur style. All the rooms are fully booked these days. Now I have a monthly income of about 50,000 yuan," or about $7,475.

The facade holds up less well with Kashgar’s mosques. Many of the smaller neighborhood mosques appear to be out of use, their wooden doors damaged and padlocked shut — and others have been demolished completely or converted to other uses, including cafés and public toilets.

Inside the Id Kah mosque, many of the cameras, including inside the prayer halls, have disappeared. But as might be expected given the past five years, many of the worshippers have disappeared too, down from 4,000–5,000 at Friday prayers in 2011 to just 800 or so today.

The mosque’s imam, Mamat Juma, acknowledged as much in an interview with a vlogger who often produces videos that support Chinese government narratives, posted in April 2021. Speaking through a translator, he is at pains to point out that not all Uyghurs are Muslims and to diminish the role of the religion in Uyghur culture. “I really worry that the number of believers will decrease,” he said, “but that shouldn't be a reason to force them to pray here.” ●

Additional reporting by Irene Benedicto

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