The transition from Kyrgyzstan to China could not be more subtle. Barbed wire, watchtowers, motes, legions of police – the Chinese border anticipates World War III. After passing through several agonizing checkpoints, we encountered a large, prison-like facility, which we naïvely assumed was the border crossing into Xinjiang, China’s vast, Uyghur-populated western region. There we found a large, overstaffed police force swarming around little waiting rooms, bored out of their minds and ready to harass the occasional visitor at a moment’s notice. At first they didn’t notice us, and it’s a great shame we didn’t just slide through without announcing our presence with a loud “Nî Hâo!”
As soon as they heard us, the police assembled themselves and began herding us through a long series of humiliating security procedures, which included X-rays, conveyor belts, and body scans. When they inspected our bags, they took their sweet time scrutinizing the creases in my shirts, poking through my pill bottle, uncoiling the wires of my chargers, and jingling through my house keys.
When it was all done, we didn’t get our passports stamped. In fact, we didn’t get our passports back at all. As we soon learned, this was just one border checkpoint among dozens. The next checkpoint was 90 kilometers away, and we would only be permitted to travel there by hiring an expensive taxi, which they would assign us the next day. Our passport would be held hostage until we made it to the end of this forced odyssey. That night we slept in a warehouse-type dorm facility and ruminated on how quickly our expectations for China fell from low to dismal. I amused myself by kicking rocks into a polluted river while my friend jogged through low-hanging smog clouds.
The next day around noon, our taxi driver arrived. Initially, we attempted to bargain down the price, but he threw a tantrum and told us we either pay up now or languish at the border indefinitely.
We rode in this jerk’s taxi for six hours. At each checkpoint we passed, we had to exit the car to be interrogated by imbeciles who could not infer my nationality from my passport. Time slowed to a snail’s crawl as they struggled to decipher every bit of demographic information in our passports and manually enter it into a computer.
The searches, the interrogations, the long waits, I ask you, dear reader, can you imagine repeating this 13 times in one day? The final, official border was located 120 kilometers inland because apparently one, two, or eleven levels of security weren’t enough.
On level 13, we finally got our entrance stamps and were free to go. Hallelujah! The nightmare was over.
Except, it wasn’t. In Xinjiang, the security apparatus is everywhere. At the train station, in the bank, at the hotel, on the bus, in the bathroom, the mosque, the market — EVERYWHERE. China gives new meaning to the phrase “open-air prison.” We found Turfan’s beautiful Ermin Mosque wrapped in barbed wire and surrounded by watch towers. In Kuqa, residents lived in fenced-off enclosures where their photos must remain affixed to their doors at all times, and security checks greeted us at the entrance of even the smallest alleyway. When we rode on night buses, we were woken up a half dozen times en route to our destination and forced to perform the whole nauseating security repertoire at ungodly hours. Then once we reached our destination, we were turned away from countless hostels and hotels due to government restrictions on where foreigners can stay.
The low point was when we were stopped, searched, and interrogated while jogging on a sidewalk outside.
“What are you doing?” one policeman asked in broken Mandarin.
“Running,” I said.
“Why are you here?” he barked.
He paused. “What are you doing now?”
The policeman, recognizing the absurdity of the situation he created, seemed to be prolonging our encounter in a desperate attempt to save face. A few minutes later another batallion of policemen speeded toward us on motorbikes.
“Why are you here?” he asked.
This is actually a good question: why in the hell would I come here?
I came to Xinjiang in search of an alternative China — an alternative to the ruthless redevelopment and cultural dislocation I encountered on the Eastern Seaboard while studying in Shanghai in 2014. The remote, western minority regions would be completely different from Eastern China, I thought.
As it turns out, in the short three years that elapsed since my Shanghai days, old Xinjiang was wiped off the face of this earth. Its cultural heartland, the ancient Silk Road oasis of Kashgar, was swept into the jaws of a bulldozer and replaced with a grotesque, Disney-style tourist attraction where Arab, Indian, and Persian architecture stand in for the indigenous Uyghur culture that was erased. Meanwhile, the much-anticipated oasis of Turfan was reduced to rubble and the illustrious silk entrepôt of Hotan was demolished and rebuilt as a utilitarian, copy-and-paste routine of residential high-rises — a mirror image of Eastern China. In short, I came looking for a Xinjiang that China has successfully and systematically erased.
The government’s official rationale for destroying this priceless heritage was that these cities were non-compliant with fire and earthquake codes. Well, no shit. Old building rarely are. Shall we also demolish Venice, Prague, and Jerusalem? Historic cities around the world have been inexpensively retrofitted to address fire and earthquake vulnerability. The International Scientific Committee on Earthen Architectural Heritage pointed this out and offered assistance to the Chinese government in culturally sensitive methods of renovation, but, quite predictably, the experts were ignored. The local residents were forced from their homes with minimal compensation and relocated to high-rises on the outskirts of town.
Interestingly, demolitions in Xinjiang tend to follow periods of instability, suggesting redevelopment is primarily a security strategy. Complex, organic cities are difficult to command and control; winding corridors, narrow alleyways, and multi-tier terrain favor local residents over security forces. Naturally, China rebuilt the demolished districts with all the mainstays of the totalitarian playbook: wide avenues, linear grids, clear sight-lines, and level terrain. This style of urbanism allows government forces to quickly contain and defuse protests. Moreover, the wholesale destruction of historic cities facilitates just the kind of cultural amnesia that China has adopted as state policy. The next generation of Uyghurs will never see the cities their ancestors inhabited for millennia. They will grow up in Han cities surrounded by Han culture and their distinct heritage will become less tangible and less accessible. The demolitions thus facilitate an insidious Sinification process.
My last night in Turfan, I chatted with a Uyghur teenager who, eager to practice his English, exchanged small talk with me over dinner at a local restaurant.
“Do most Uyghers still resent Chinese rule?” I finally asked when I was sure the two of us were alone.
His pupils dilated, and I regretted my question when I saw the alarm on his face.
“Xinjiang is China’s,” he recited in Mandarin, as if reading from a script. He swiveled his head like a meerkat, then crossed his arms forming an X to signify the topic was off-limits. I felt ashamed for not considering how such a discussion could threaten his safety.
“Try not to think too much,” he said, returning to English. He forced an unconvincing smile.
Indeed, in this context, not thinking much might just be the best coping strategy. Or at least my host in Ürümqi, a middle-aged Han man and stay-at-home father of two, thought so.
“There’s nothing you can do about it, so why think about it? Sure, I wish I could use Google and YouTube, but the government ruins your life if you speak up. I’m better off thinking about simple things.”
In a telling sign of Han privilege, his main grievance was internet censorship. He didn’t have to worry about police raids or arbitrary arrest. He did not watch the city of his ancestors demolished, nor did he see his culture restricted by racist laws.
“You know what all this is for, right?” he said after I complained about the constant security checks.
In 2009, a police crackdown on peaceful protesters in Urumqi ignited a riot that left 197 people dead. Bouts of violence have continued to rock Xinjiang ever since — an unsurprising outcome considering Uighers are denied all peaceful channels for airing their grievances. I cannot condone violence, but I also cannot blame Native Americans for attacking European colonists. In an episode that wreaks of neo-colonialism, the Chinese government continues to incentivize Han immigration to this resource-rich region while forcing the dispersal and assimilation of the indigenous Uyghurs.
I do not know what it is like to be Uyghur. I do not know what it is like to live in Xinjiang. But in my China-induced bouts of rage and despair I do not question why individuals who suffer constant indignity would heap themselves into this fire of nihilist violence.
When Qing Emperor Qianlong deliberated over whether to annex the lands that now constitute Xinjiang in 1759, his advisors warned against it, insisting that China’s subjects should be Han Chinese and that he had no business ruling over foreign peoples. The emperor did not listen. Only today does his imperial project reach its tragic conclusion. Let it not go unnoticed.