Xinjiang, China (Associated Press)-The barbed wire that once encircled public buildings in the northwestern part of Xinjiang, China has almost completely disappeared.
Gone are the middle school uniforms dressed in military uniforms and camouflage and the armored personnel carriers rumbling in the hometown of Uyghurs. Gone are the surveillance cameras that used to be as dazzling as a bird on an overhead pole, and the weird and eternal sirens of the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar.
A Uyghur teenage boy who was once rare, now flirts with the girl by tapping dance music on the skating rink. A taxi driver slammed Shakira as she crossed the street.
Four years after Beijing launched a brutal crackdown and put as many as 1 million or more Uurs and other mainly Muslim minorities in detention camps and prisons, its control of Xinjiang has entered a new era. The Chinese authorities have scaled back many of the toughest and most compelling aspects of the high-tech police state in the region. The panic that enveloped the region a few years ago has greatly subsided, and a normal feeling is slowly recovering.
But there is no doubt about who is ruling, and evidence of terror in the past four years is everywhere.
It appeared in cities in Xinjiang, where many historical centers were flattened, and Islamic prayers no longer sounded. It appeared in Kashgar, a mosque turned into a coffee shop, and a part of another mosque turned into a tourist toilet. It can be seen deep in the countryside, where Han officials manage the village.
I saw this in two rare trips to Xinjiang for the Associated Press, one of which was a national tour guide for foreign media.
A bicycle seller's eyes widened when he learned that I was a foreigner. He picked up the phone and began to dial the police.
A cashier at a convenience store chatted about the decline in sales-and was visited by the shady man following us. When we passed by again, she didn't say a word, but made a zipper movement on her mouth, pushed away from us, and ran out of the store.
Once, I was followed by a convoy of more than a dozen vehicles. At 4 in the morning, a weird team passed through the quiet streets of Aksu. Whenever I tried to chat with someone, the caregiver would approach and try to hear every word.
It is difficult to know why the Chinese authorities have turned to more subtle methods of controlling the region. It may be the sharp criticism from the West and the punitive political and commercial sanctions that prompted the authorities to relax their vigilance. Or it may just be that China believes that it has relaxed enough in its goal of conquering Uyghurs and other mainly Muslim minorities, thereby relaxing its control.
Overseas Uyghur activists accused the Chinese government of genocide, pointing to a drop in birth rates and mass detentions. The authorities stated that their goal is not to eliminate Uyghurs, but to integrate them into society. Strict measures must be taken to curb extremism.
Regardless of the intentions, one thing is clear: many practices that make Uyghur culture alive-boisterous gatherings, strict Islamic customs, heated debates-have been restricted or banned. Instead, the authorities produced a sterilized version, a mature commercial version.
Xinjiang officials took us to visit the Grand Bazaar in the center of Urumqi. This Grand Bazaar, like many other cities in Xinjiang, was rebuilt for tourists. Here, there are huge plastic Uyghur men with beards and a huge plastic Uyghur musical instrument. The nearby Traditional Naan Museum sells miniature plastic Naan keychains, Uyghur hats, and refrigerator magnets. Groups of Han Chinese take selfies.
James Leibold, a well-known scholar who studies Xinjiang's ethnic policies, called it the "museumization" of Uyghur culture. Chinese officials call it progress.
China has been working hard to integrate into Uyghurs for a long time, a Muslim group with a population of 13 million in history, and has close linguistic, ethnic and cultural ties with Turkey. Since the Communist Party took control of Xinjiang in 1949, Beijing leaders have been arguing whether stricter measures or milder measures are more effective in absorbing this vast territory, which is only half of India.
For decades, Xinjiang's policies have swayed back and forth. Even if the state grants special benefits to ethnic minorities, such as recruitment quotas and extra points for entrance exams, glass ceilings, racism, and restrictions on religion, they alienate and anger many Uyghurs.
The more the government tries to control Uyghurs, the more stubbornly many people insist on their identities. Some resorted to violence, bombing and cutting a country that they thought would never give them real respect. Hundreds of innocent Han and Uighur civilians were killed in increasingly deadly attacks.
This debate ended shortly after President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012. The state has chosen forced assimilation and indiscriminately detained thousands of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities, and classified them as suspected "terrorists."
Today, many checkpoints and police stations have disappeared, and bombings have stopped, but the racial divide remains clear.
Uyghurs live in an invisible system that restricts their every move. It is almost impossible for them to get a passport, and on the plane to and from Xinjiang, most of the passengers are from China, with the Han Chinese in the majority.
Uyghurs living outside Xinjiang must register with the local police and regularly report to officials, and their actions are tracked and monitored. Many Uighurs living in Xinjiang are not allowed to leave the area.
Information about Xinjiang in China is under strict scrutiny, and state media are now promoting the area as a safe and exotic tourist destination. As a result, Han people outside Xinjiang are basically unaware of the restrictions that Uyghurs face, which is one of the many reasons why many Chinese support Beijing’s repression.
In Xinjiang, Han and Uyghurs live side by side, and there is a self-evident but obvious gap between them. In the suburbs of Kashgar, a Han woman in a tailor shop told my colleague that most Uyghurs are not allowed to leave their homes too far.
"Isn't that true? Can't you leave this shop?" the woman said to a Uyghur seamstress.
On the street of the tailor's shop, I saw Lunar New Year banners posted on each storefront with slogans in Chinese characters such as "The Chinese Communist Party is good." An elderly Han shopkeeper told me that although Uyghurs traditionally celebrate Islamic holidays instead of Lunar New Year, local officials printed hundreds of banners, distributed them and ordered them to erect.
She approves of these strict measures. She said that Xinjiang is much safer than when she first moved to Xinjiang with her son, who is a soldier in the Xinjiang Paramilitary Corps.
She told me that Uyghurs "don't dare to do anything here anymore."
The city center is now bustling again, with Uyghur and Han children screaming as they chase each other on the street. Some Uighurs even approached me and asked to get in touch with me-this has never happened in previous visits.
But in the countryside and quiet suburbs, many houses are empty, with padlocks hanging. In a block of Kashgar, every three or four households will be sprayed with the words "Empty House". In a village an hour’s drive away, I saw dozens of "empty houses" notices within a half-hour walk, and the red words on the yellow paper were blowing in the wind.
Controls in the depths of the countryside are also stricter, far away from the markets where the government is eager for tourists to visit.
In a village where we stayed, an old Uyghur man wearing a square hat only answered one question-"We don't have coronavirus here, everything is fine"-and then a local Han cadre asked to know what we were doing .
He said to Uyghur villagers: "If he asks you something, he will say that you don't know anything."
Behind him, a drunk Uyghur man was yelling. Muslims prohibit drinking alcohol, especially during Ramadan.
"I've been drinking, I'm a little drunk, but that's okay. Let's drink it now if we want!" he shouted. "We can do whatever we want! Everything is fine now!"
In a nearby store, I noticed that the shelves were full of wine bottles. In another town, my colleague and I met a drunk Uyghur man who was dumped by the trash can in broad daylight. Although Uyghurs in big cities such as Urumqi have long been addicted to alcohol, such a scene was once unimaginable in the pious rural areas of southern Xinjiang.
On a government-sponsored trip, the officials took us to meet the truck driver Mamatjan Ahat, who declared that he had restarted drinking and smoking because he had given up religion and extremism after spending some time in Xinjiang’s notorious “training center” Ism.
"It makes me more open-minded," Ahart told reporters when the officials were in attendance.
Xinjiang officials say they are not forcing Uyghurs to believe in atheism, but defending freedom of belief and opposing spreading extremism. "Not all Uyghurs are Muslims", this is a common saying.
The control of religious activities has been relaxed, but it is still strictly restricted by the state. For example, the authorities allow some mosques to reopen, but their opening hours are strictly limited. A small group of older worshippers came in and out.
Xinjiang’s unique state-controlled Islamic brand has been most widely displayed in the Xinjiang Islamic Academy (a government imam school).
Here, young Uyghurs recite and pray the Quran five times a day. They received scholarships and the opportunity to study in Egypt, officials said as they walked. Tens of thousands of people graduated, and they recently opened a new campus-despite installing a police station at the entrance.
"Religious freedom is enshrined in the Chinese Constitution," said a student, Omar Adilabdulla, as officials watched him speak. "It's free."
While he was talking, I opened the textbook on another student's desk. A good Chinese Muslim must learn Mandarin, which is the main language of China.
"Arabic is not the only language that compiles Allah's scriptures," the course said. "Learning Chinese is our responsibility and obligation, because we are all Chinese."
When I flipped through this book, I found other courses.
"We must thank the party and the government for creating peace," the chapter reads.
"We must work hard to build a socialist Xinjiang with Chinese characteristics," another netizen said. "Amen!"
Uyghur is still ubiquitous, but its use in public places is slowly disappearing. In some cities, entire newly constructed blocks have only Chinese signs instead of Uyghur.
In the bookstore, Uyghur language books are included in the section labeled "Minority Language Books". The government boasts that nearly a thousand Uyghur books are published every year, but none of them are written by the lyrical modernist writer Perhat Tursun or the textbook editor and inciting commentator Yalqun Rozi. Like most famous Uyghur intellectuals, they were imprisoned.
Replaced by: Xi Jinping Thought, Mao Zedong's biography, lectures on socialist values, and Mandarin Uyghur dictionary.
Many Uighurs are still struggling with Mandarin, from young people to elderly grandmothers. In recent years, the government has listed Putonghua as a mandatory standard for schools.
During the state visit, a principal told us that Uyghur language continues to be protected and pointed out their minority language classes. But all other courses are in Chinese, and a school slogan urges students to "speak Mandarin and use standard writing."
The most criticized aspect of Xinjiang's crackdown was the so-called "training centers." Leaked documents show that these training centers are actually extra-legal education camps.
After a global outcry, Chinese officials announced that these camps would be closed in 2019. Many camps do seem to be closed.
During the state-led tour in April, they took us to what they called a "training center", which is now a formal vocational school in Peyzawat County. Just a fence marks the campus boundary-in stark contrast to the barbed wire, tall watchtower, and police that we saw at the entrance three years ago. As far as we are concerned, we have seen at least three other locations, which used to be camps and are now apartments or office buildings.
Instead, they were replaced by permanent detention facilities, which apparently changed from a temporary camp to a system of long-term mass incarceration. We came across a huge facility on a country road. Its walls rose from the fields, and people could be seen in the high guard towers. In the next second, we were blocked by two men wearing epidemic prevention equipment. The third place is the largest detention facility on the planet. Many people hide behind forests or sand dunes deep in the countryside, away from tourists and the city center.
In Urumqi, the Chinese authorities rewrote history at an anti-terrorism exhibition held in a large modernist complex near glass office buildings and newly paved highways. Although Xinjiang came and went under Chinese control, and became independent for a short time in the recent 1700s and last century, the past of the territory has been arbitrarily ignored.
"Although there were some kingdoms and khanates in Xinjiang in the past, they are all local governments within Chinese territory," said one exhibit.
It is written in English and Chinese. No Uyghur text can be seen anywhere in the exhibition. Guns and bombs were placed in glass cabinets, and the exhibition said they were confiscated from extremists.
A dignified Uyghur woman in traditional Chinese cheongsam showed a video depicting Beijing's vision for the future of Xinjiang, where the sun sets on the pagoda and futuristic skyline. Many scenes seem to be shot anywhere in China.
"Our fight against terrorism and de-radicalization has achieved remarkable results," she said in crisp Mandarin.
Officials avoided the question of how many Uighurs were detained, although statistics show that the number of arrests surged before the government stopped releasing them in 2019. Instead, they told us during the visit that they designed the perfect solution to terrorism, not to protect Uyghur culture instead of destroying it.
One night, I was sitting next to Dou Wangui, Secretary of Ake Suzhou Committee, and Li Xuejun, Vice Chairman of Xinjiang People's Congress. They are all Han people, just like most powerful people in Xinjiang.
We ate roast lamb and yogurt while watching the smiling Uyghurs in traditional robes dance and sing. Dou turned to me.
"Look, we can't have genocide here," Dou said, pointing to the performer. "We are protecting their traditional culture."