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Xinjiang’s Tourist Spots Are Flourishing Right Beside Its Internment Camps

Despite reports of China’s persecution of Uighurs in Xinjiang, authorities are touting it as the country's new tourist destination.

by Meera Navlakha
18 July 2019, 8:42am

Image via Flickr.

Xinjiang, China is home to picturesque mountains ranges, ancient Silk Road cities, and the expansive desert of Taklaman. It is also the location of the much-scrutinized re-education camps targeting the Uighur, the region’s minority Turkish population.

While both aspects of Xinjiang are gaining widespread attention, the Chinese government is keen to promote one over the other. The cultural offerings of the region are being publicized by the authorities as a new tourist destination. Apparently, Xinjiang’s tourism industry is not facing any setbacks over China's violations towards Uighurs, according to the South China Morning Post.

The persecution of Uighur Muslims in the region has led to worldwide condemnation over what critics have unequivocally called ethnic cleansing. Xinjiang essentially closed its doors to the outside world in previous years in order to hide their systematic oppression of the Uighurs, a VICE investigation has found.

These doors seem to be re-opening—except this time the country is diverting attention away from the Uighurs and using Xinjiang as a spot to reel in foreign interest.

The People’s Daily, China’s biggest newspaper group, reports that Xinjiang’s government is offering tourists subsidies of $73. Their packages prioritize the region’s natural offerings, such as the UNESCO World Heritage mountain range, Tianshan. Other packages focus on “ethnic” experiences, like dance performances.

Strangely enough, some of the cultural offerings are, in fact, Uighur-related.

“Uighur culture is being boiled down to just song and dance. What makes me sad is…there are only very specific parts of Uighur culture that get maintained because of the tourism,” said Josh Summers, an American who lived in Xinjiang for over a decade.

But apart from tourism, Uighur culture is notoriously restricted. Any spontaneous gatherings of Uighurs are allegedly limited by constant surveillance and security.

Wu Yali, a travel agent in the region, told the South China Morning Post that “Xinjiang is very stable” in terms of its businesses expanding. He alleges that tourists have adapted quickly to the city’s high levels of security. However, tourists are banned from seeing any of the internment camps, which are also subject to maximum security. Some of these camps are reportedly right next to tourist hubs, separated by barb-wired walls.

“For a tourist who goes and travels around a designated route, it all looks nice,” said Rachel Harris, a student of Uighur culture at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. “It’s all very quiet and that is because there’s a regime of terror being imposed on the local people.”

Muslims countries have recently gotten heat over their lack of solidarity with the Uighurs. Many of them have chosen instead to support China.

This month, over 20 countries issued a joint statement to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. The statement called for China to “end arbitrary detentions and related violations." But in response, 37 other countries had ambassadors praising China’s efforts in the field of human rights. These countries included Saudi Arabia, Syria, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Pakistan. Critics have stated that the leaders of these countries are hereby complicit in China’s atrocities.

“It’s one thing to keep quiet and abstain. It’s another thing to overtly support when there was no need for them to do so,” Azeem Ibrahim, a director at the Center for Global Policy, told CNN.

“I think that’s indicative of the influence and support China has.”

Perhaps it is this influence which is stopping tourism from stalling in Xinjiang.

In 2018, there was a 40 percent increase in visits to the region (albeit mostly domestic). The national average percentage of tourists is 25 percent. By 2020, the government is hoping to gain $87 billion from tourism and have over 300 million tourists.

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