Abduweli Ayup didn’t come back to Kashgar since 2015, and his chances of doing so soon look slim. The Chinese government canceled his passport, he said.
Sometimes he watches YouTube videos about his hometown. They don’t make him feel better. It feels like coercion, he says, “like eating bad food.”
“You know, you want to keep eating it, but then your stomach gets upset,” he adds. While watching a video while speaking to a BuzzFeed News reporter, Ayup pointed to a giant sculpture of a traditional stringed instrument by the city gate. “See, that’s just for tourists,” he said.
The city is now full of these kinds of photogenic additions. There are giant kettles at the main fork near the city gate. Elsewhere, murals show maps of Xinjiang or carry slogans such as “Xinjiang Impressions,” where visitors stop to take holiday photos. A new entrance has been added to the metalwork market, with a large sign showing the silhouette of a man hammering an iron. The anvil statue in the corner now comes with projected mapped flames, as well as sparks and a generated metal sound track. Camel rides are also available.
In the videos he has watched, Ayup also notices footage of people dancing while wearing traditional Uyghur clothing – which they may have worn more than a century ago. Figures like these can be seen on Chinese state television and at the country’s annual parliamentary session. Ayup said: “Nobody wears that outfit anymore, unless it’s for a performance.
Tourism is currently booming in Xinjiang. Last year, even as global numbers fell as a result of the pandemic, 190 million tourists visited the region – an increase of more than 20% from the previous year. Revenue increased 43%. Is a part of “Xinjiang is a wonderful land”, the Chinese government has produced videos in English and organized events to promote its vision of a peaceful, prosperous new region, filled with impressive landscapes and rich culture.
Chinese state media also describe it as an engine of economic growth for the indigenous people of Xinjiang. An article described how a former prisoner named Aliye Ablimit, upon release, received training in hospitality. “After graduating, I became a tour guide for the Old City of Kashgar,” Ablimit said, according to the article. “And later on, I turned my home into a Bed and Breakfast. Tourists love my house because of its Uygur style. All rooms are fully booked these days. Now I have a monthly income of about 50,000 yuan”, or about 7,475 USD.
The facade is kept less well with the mosques of Kashgar. Many smaller mosques in the vicinity appear to be out of use, their wooden doors damaged and locked – and others have been completely demolished or converted to other uses, including both cafes and public restrooms.
Inside the Id Kah mosque, many cameras, including inside the prayer room, have disappeared. But as expected in the past five years, many of the worshipers have also disappeared, from 4,000–5,000 on Friday prayers 2011 only 800 or so today.
The mosque’s leader, Mamat Juma, admitted so in an interview with a vlogger who often produces videos supporting Chinese government narratives, posted in April 2021. Speaking through a translator, he was heartbroken to point out that not all Uyghurs are Muslim and downplay the role of religion in Uyghur culture. “I am really worried that the number of believers will decrease,” he said, “but that is no reason to force them to pray here.”
Additional reporting by Irene Benedicto