URUMQI, China – In this old Silk Road city in western China, a state security campaign involving the detention of vast numbers of people has moved to its next stage: demolishing their neighborhoods and purging their culture.
Two years after authorities began rounding up Urumqi’s mostly Muslim ethnic Uighur residents, many of the anchors of Uighur life and identity are being uprooted. Empty mosques remain, while the shantytown homes that surrounded them have been replaced by glass towers and retail strips like many found across China.
Food stalls that sold fresh nang, the circular flatbread that is to Uighur society what baguettes are to the French, are gone. The young men that once baked the nang have disappeared, as have many of their customers. Uighur-language books are missing from store shelves in a city, the capital of China’s Xinjiang region, that has long been a center of the global Uighur community.
Supplanting the Turkic culture that long defined large parts of Urumqi is a sanitized version catering to Chinese tourists. On a recent morning in the Erdaoqiao neighborhood, the once-bustling heart of Uighur Urumqi, nang ovens were nowhere to be seen-but souvenir shops sold nang-shaped pocket mirrors, nang bottle openers and circular throw pillows with covers printed to look like nang.
Urumqi’s transformation is the leading edge of a campaign by China’s ruling Communist Party to forcibly assimilate the Uighurs. Beijing says the detentions combat terrorism and the demolition, along with billions of dollars of investment in the region, is bringing development.
“Ethnic unity is the lifeline of all ethnic groups in China and the foundation of economic progress in Xinjiang,” the region’s governor, Shohrat Zakir, told China’s annual legislative session last week.
The party’s goal, experts say, is to reinforce its control in Xinjiang by remaking the long recalcitrant region in its own image, and to secure it as a hub for President Xi Jinping’s global development ambitions.
When plans for Urumqi’s urban overhaul were announced in 2017, the party-controlled Xinjiang Daily said the government would offer compensation to residents forced to move, and planned new residential districts “designed with full consideration of the customs and convenience of all ethnic groups.” The Urumqi and Xinjiang governments didn’t respond to requests for comment about the urban overhaul.
China’s Communist Party has waged an aggressive campaign in Xinjiang to counter what it says are violent, extremist tendencies among the region’s 14 million Turkic Muslims, most of them Uighurs.
To realize its “deradicalization” goals, authorities have detained what United Nations experts say have been as many as a million Muslims in a network of internment camps-and subjected the rest to mass digital surveillance. Chinese leaders characterize the camps as vocational training centers, promoting them as an innovation in the global war on terror and disputing the one-million figure.
“We can’t have a culture anymore,” said a Uighur resident of Urumqi who works at a state-owned resources company. He said he stopped visiting his local mosque after officials came to his house to confiscate his Quran. “No one goes any more. It’s too dangerous,” he said.
By squeezing some expressions of Uighur identity and turning others into cultural kitsch, the government is trying to weaken ethnic bonds, said Darren Byler, who studies Uighur migration at the University of Washington.
Since the post-Mao reform period began in the 1980s, Urumqi has seen bombings, protests and other acts of ethnic strife. Riots in 2009 left close to 200 dead and many more injured.
Since then, the party has grown steadily more forceful in trying to snuff off out a long-simmering Uighur separatist movement. Beijing says the separatists are motivated by radical Islam and blames them for the riots and a series of attacks in the years following.
Scholars and human-rights activists say much of the violence has been a response to heavy-handed policing, restrictions on religion and perceptions among Uighurs of being marginalized in what they see as their homeland.
“A lot of people have left,” said an employee at a once-popular live-music bar in one of Urumqi’s Uighur-dominated districts. With barely a dozen customers on a recent Saturday night, he declined to explain where the people had gone. “That’s political. I can’t say,” he said.
Moments later, three men, one equipped with a body camera, entered the bar and wrote down the identification card numbers of the Uighur customers. The employee said the men had been sent by local officials, and that such inspections were routine.
Urumqi served as a garrison town for much of its roughly 250-year history, and its residents are mostly members of China’s Han majority, with Uighurs over the past decade accounting for around 13% of the city’s people.
But in a single year, 2017, Urumqi’s official population fell by 15%-to 2.2 million from 2.6 million the year before, the first drop in more than three decades.
That was the year, in May 2017, that city police began rounding up local Uighurs and taking them to detention camps, residents said. Around the same time, they said, authorities in Urumqi forced Uighur migrants from other parts of Xinjiang to return to their hometowns. The Urumqi government has yet to release a new population breakdown by ethnicity.
As Uighurs were forced out of the city, government money flowed in. Beijing wants Urumqi to serve as a hub for the Belt and Road Initiative, Xi’s plan to build infrastructure across Eurasia and elsewhere in an updating of Silk Road trade routes. Last year, the city approved a $6 billion airport expansion and broke ground on $4 billion in construction projects in the city’s suburbs, including a Belt and Road industrial park.
Total investment in infrastructure, factories and other fixed assets topped 202 billion yuan ($30 billion) in 2017, up 25% over the previous year, and grew a further 9% in the first 10 months of 2018, according to official data.
The Urumqi government also earmarked 70 billion yuan ($10 billion) last year to demolish and rebuild the city’s shantytowns, which housed large numbers of Uighur migrants from southern Xinjiang. Authorities see young migrant men, the same group that baked the city’s nang, as instigators of violence and ripe targets for radicalization.
One settlement reduced to rubble is Heijiashan, once a low-rise jumble of makeshift houses built around a market and two mosques. Before being flattened over the course of 2017 and 2018, it was a center of Uighur migrant life in the city, said the University of Washington’s Byler.
“On Fridays, 5,000 to 10,000 people would come for the prayer,” Byler said.
On a recent visit, the mosques still stood in the shadows of rising apartment towers, but appeared abandoned. While attempting to film them, Journal reporters were detained and taken to a nearby police station.
Summoned by police, a district propaganda official said the government had taken care not to raze the mosques. “That shows the government’s respect for Islam,” said the official, a Xing.
The city had more than 400 mosques as late as 2015, according to state media. Several have been closed down or repurposed in recent years, while those still in service are surrounded by razor wire and surveillance cameras, with only a trickle of elderly worshipers.
Chinese authorities have lately started to release some detainees and put them under house arrest, according to Gene Bunin, a Russian-American who lived in Urumqi and who helps maintain a database of members of minority groups who have gone missing in Xinjiang. Bunin said he began receiving reports of the releases from detainees’ friends and relatives in December, following a wave of criticism of the camps in international media and at the UN.
The Communist Party’s aim isn’t to eradicate Uighurs, according to Adrian Zenz, an expert in Chinese ethnic policy. Instead, he says, the party wants to strip the influence of Islam from Uighur culture to present the semblance of cultural diversity without the substance.
“It was supposed to be automatic. With material progress, the masses should be rescued from the opium of religion,” Zenz said. “The current regime is trying to lend history a hand.”
Authorities in Xinjiang are also looking to promote tourism, which would bring more investment and help eradicate the poverty they say nurtures radicalism.
North of downtown Urumqi, tourists can pose for pictures under a towering sculpture of a nang and purchase more than 150 varieties of the staple from industrial kitchens at a new 226,000 square-foot Nang Culture Industry Park.
“Staff wear white, and their squeaky clean image bumps up the ‘attractiveness index’ not a small amount,” a local Communist Party-controlled newspaper said in a story on the park in January.
The tourism effort can also be seen in the transformation of the former Uighur commercial center, Erdaoqiao. The neighborhood was the site of the worst violence during the 2009 riots. In November 2017, when the Journal visited to document the reach of Beijing’s surveillance state, Erdaoqiao hummed with activity and tension.
A year later, it resembled a theme park.
A pair of pedestrian promenades guarded by large security gates have replaced streets previously dense with cars, pedestrians and police outposts. Around a large central bazaar, the sounds of commerce conducted in Uighur have given way to a loudspeaker broadcast offering cheerful greetings in Mandarin and English.
“Hello, dear tourists!” says the recorded voice, inviting visitors to enjoy “the magnificent reappearance of the commercial hub of the Silk Road.”