The Beauty and the Sorrow That I Witnessed in Xinjiang: Interview
The stories of Xinjiang's people are the 'sorrows that need to be told,' a traveler from Taiwan says.
Abu is a young man from Taiwan. In 2019, he rode on his bicycle to Xinjiang, traveled around the province for almost two months, and shared on social media what he saw and heard. In a video taken in Kashgar’s Old Town in southern Xinjiang, he shared details of his conversations with locals about what really happens in Xinjiang’s re-education camps, and this sparked further discussions online. Below is RFA reporter Jane Tang’s interview with Abu:
RFA: The videos you took in Xinjiang have generated a lot of response online. Now that you are back in Taiwan, can you tell us prompted you to visit Xinjiang?
Abu: I had just left my job in China, and had thought about riding my bicycle from the coastal province of Guangdong all the way to Europe. I particularly wanted to visit Xinjiang. In China, public opinion about China’s Xinjiang policy is polarized. I was hoping that I could learn more about the issue with my own eyes and ears, rather than from hearsay or the news.
According to my original itinerary, after leaving Xinjiang, I would have continued my trip until I reached Europe. However, several things happened, so I called the trip off early and returned to Taiwan.
RFA: Many journalists have been put under surveillance while in Xinjiang. What was your experience there?
Abu: In Xinjiang, there are security check points in every small town. My name was taken, and I was searched, so it was not difficult [for police] to track me down. I was searched about ten times. I entered Xinjiang in late June of 2019, and left in the middle of August, so stayed there for about one and a half months.
Each police search took more than hour. I had to put every one of my personal belongings on the ground for them to check. I felt like a street vendor. The police would check the pictures I took, too.
I had some strange encounters with the police. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, the police would come and announce that I could not stay in the hotel and demanded that I check out of the hotel immediately. At other times, when I camped out, the police would call to locate me and force me to leave.
RFA: The location where you shot your video “The Beauty and Sorrow of Xinjiang” is full of stories, and you walked past many piles of rubble and numerous abandoned houses. What were these?
Abu: Those are the Gaotai Dwellings, traditional Uyghur residential homes in Kashgar in south Xinjiang. I did some research prior to the trip, and I wanted to check out the rich culture there. It was not until I had almost reached Xinjiang that I heard that the residents of the Dwellings had been relocated and the Dwellings demolished. The residents were made to relocate after the Chinese government rolled out the Poverty Alleviation Policy.
The Chinese government built a new “Ancient Town” nearby, but that is nothing compared to the Old Town. All the cultural and the ethnic historical sentiments have diminished with the demolition. Yes, everyone is entitled to a modern civilization, but I do not agree with this kind of comprehensive demolition and relocation.
RFA: So you learned that the Gaotai Dwellings were abandoned, but how did you manage to get in to the Old Town?
Abu: I still wanted to see the Old Town with my own eyes, so I scouted the area for a few days, hoping to find a manhole of some sort to sneak in, and I did. I found a secret entryway, and once I got in I made a few turns, climbed through a plank, and landed in the streets in the old town. I shared that information on Taiwan’s Backpackers Forum.
I chose to shoot the video and talk about the re-education camps in that location because of my experience in Urumqi, where I was stalked. I wanted to have the video taken in a place where there were no surveillance cameras.
RFA: You talked with many locals about the changes that have occurred in Xinjiang over the past few years. What stories did they share with you?
Abu: I met a herdsman whose livestock was taken away by the Chinese government in the name of Poverty Alleviation. The herdsman and his family were then forced to relocate from their grazing area to government-arranged housing. The Chinese government also arranged jobs for them, so they do earn a wage. As a result, their income level met the poverty alleviation standard, and they became just another number in the data. Meanwhile, the Chinese government placed their children in a centralized education setting, claiming this was intended to provide childcare for the working parents.
Additionally, the ethnic minorities in the area—not just the Uyghurs, but everyone whose religion is Islam—are never allowed to leave Xinjiang. If anyone applies for a passport, the Chinese government will not issue it. There are checkpoints everywhere at the stops leaving Xinjiang. And if an ID identifies the holder as an ethnic minority person, that person is not allowed to leave their town, to say nothing of leaving the country. It is almost as if these people in the region are in a lockdown.
RFA: In the videos of Xijiang shot by China’s official media outlets, Xinjiang residents praise China and thank the CCP. However, the outside world has also seen many reports and classified documents about the re-education camps in Xinjiang. What was the Xinjiang that you saw like?
Abu: I would categorize the Xinjiang people in two groups. One group consists of those who may benefit from this policy. In some of the tourist spots, for example, the Xinjiang people there would shout “Thank you, Party! Thank you, our Country!” as soon as they saw me. Maybe they really felt grateful for the Chinese government, or maybe they did this to protect themselves. Nevertheless, other civilians that I came in touch with slowly revealed some more details. They felt too helpless, sad, or scared to say much about the re-education camps or the tight controls imposed on the ethnic minorities.
One Xinjiang man told me that his brother was taken away and was never again seen again after the police found a copy of Koran in the house. In many situations, Xinjiang people are monitored, warned, taken away, or even jailed. And those prisoners turned silent when they got out. They would say “the Party is really good to me,” but you could see that the way he spoke and his facial expressions were completely contradictory.
RFA: What was the atmosphere like in Xinjiang?
Abu: I felt very oppressed. I could walk in the main roads, but if I turned into any alleyway, there would be a check stop. Foreign tourists like us are not allowed in many areas.
To see more around the Old Town, I used the cabs a lot. I would ask the cabbie to drive me to some place, and then I could chat with the driver. On one of these rides, my driver became infuriated during our conversation. He said, 'It is not free here at all. Even a dog would be happier here than humans.The humans want to leave town, but they are not allowed to.'
It was as if the entire town had become a huge jail house. Everyone is trapped inside.
RFA: Xijiang was not like this at all before. When did all these changes begin?
Abu: The locals said it was after the July 2009 Urumqi Riots.
RFA: What are the things that the Xinjiang civilians want the outside world to know?
Abu: They want the world to know what the Chinese government is doing to them: the re-education camps, the random checks and surveillance, and the manipulating of ethnic minority groups to spy on one another.
I could feel the sense of their helplessness from their body language and from their eyes. It was as if you were trying to hold still against a flood, but still got washed away. When I was in Xinjiang, the Muslims were celebrating Eid al-Adha, or the Festival of the Sacrifice. Eid al-Adha is an important Muslim holiday celebrated around the world. In China, Muslims in Qinghai or Gansu may be able to gather and celebrate, but not in Xinjiang. Here, the Muslims were told to return home once the celebration was over. They could not congregate on the streets, because no gatherings were allowed.
On the morning of the holiday, people went onto the streets to celebrate, but the police then announced through a PA system that everyone should return home. That was it. The largest Mosque in Kashgar was also banned from holding any gatherings. I feel that the entire culture is being annihilated.
One day, I saw a poster in an abandoned house. The content was even more disgusting. The poster was about the Chinese version of Dos and Don’ts with regards to the Islamic culture. For example, the Muslims eat Halal food, but the poster said that parents are forbidden to tell children to eat only Halal food. There are many prohibition orders like that in Xinjiang. These orders are forcibly destroying the Muslims’ religious culture.
RFA: Why did you end your trip early and return to Taiwan?
Abu: My experience in the Kashgar Airport really spooked me. The airline agent tore up my flight ticket and would not let me board my flight. He asked me to return to the hotel that I had checked out from earlier. Luckily, I was able to book another flight right away, using my new “Mainland Travel Permit for Taiwan Residents” (MPT) number. My second attempt to leave the region was successful, and I managed to fly to Sichuan.
However, as soon as I passed the border control, I was immediately taken to a small room. There were many video cameras pointing at me. The interrogator asked me what I was doing in China? What did I do on a specific date? All my belongings were tossed around and searched, all my memory cards confiscated. I probably would not have been able to make it back to Taiwan at all had I not synced all my videos to cloud storage in real time and burned all my video-containing memory cards before I left.
I arrived at the airport in Sichuan in the early morning at 4 a.m. The search and interrogation there lasted for almost four hours, and I eventually caught a 9:00 flight to Macau. When I landed in Macau, I almost burst into tears. I no longer needed the MPT. From here on I could use my passport, issued by the Republic of China, Taiwan.
RFA: What was the biggest impact this trip had on you?
Abu: I did not expect that so many locals would share their information with me. They trusted me to tell their stories. I am now a firm believer in the idea that freedom is a birthright. I have seen so much beautiful scenery in Xinjiang, but the stories of its people are the sorrows that need to be told.