Kashgar is one of the hardest places in China for foreign journalists to visit. The westernmost major city in China’s Xinjiang Province is in the middle of a region where Beijing’s internal oppression is tightest and where 45% of the population consists of Uighurs, Muslims of Turkic ethnicity.
BBC China editor Carrie Gracie recently received a relatively rare permission to report from Kashgar. The city has been the target of Beijing’s efforts to remake the province, and the government has undertaken a full reconstruction of the ancient city’s historic center.
In a report from the city published on Jan. 1, Gracie writes that seemingly everyone is under surveillance and that she was herself constantly in the presence of a government handler.
She writes that China has tightened restrictions on Uighurs in Xinjiang during a six-month-old crackdown, which Beijing portrays as a counter-terror operation essential to internal stability.
“I wanted to see the counter-terror crackdown at first hand,” Gracie writes, “to hear from Uighurs about the religious restrictions they now face, and to make my own assessment of how the two relate. The mission was made much harder by government surveillance both of me as a foreign journalist and of the people I was trying to talk to.”
Earlier in the story, she says that “the government is watching every citizen.”
Xinjiang has been the site of numerous reported human rights incidents this year, including an alleged massacre in the village of Elishku in July of 2014, and the killing of 50 alleged “rioters” that September. Meanwhile, China has reported increasing activity from separatists and religious extremists in the province, including an attempted infiltration by Uighur religious extremists in December.
The past couple of years have seen a supposed increase in Uighur militancy, including an October 2013 suicide bombing in Beijing’s Tienanmen Square. Gracie says that around 200 people have been killed in militant incidents in the province in recent months, although that number includes the attackers themselves.
She saw evidence of the government’s heavy hand, including strict age limits on mosque visits, young men having their mobile phones checked for religious content at checkpoints, and allegations from unarmed Uighur government officials that there are “spies everywhere.”
But she saw little evidence that the province was in danger of slipping out of control, or that the situation is as unstable as the government claims.
“After a brief visit to Xinjiang, my provisional assessment is that … the overall security situation in the province was under control and there was no meaningful challenge from militant Islam,” she writes. “What I did see instead was a Uighur community under intense surveillance, a community whose already very limited freedoms of speech, religion and movement are now being shrunk further.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose rule has had an ambitious and energetically nationalistic character to it, has promoted a policy of aggressive “integration” of the country’s Uighurs. Gracie’s report documents what the policy requires: strict internal measures that show little sign of ever being lifted.
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