Crackdown in Xinjiang: Where have all the people gone?

Crackdown in Xinjiang: Where have all the people gone?

US officials fear a mass incarceration is under way in north-west China but Beijing insists nothing is wrong in a region rich in resources but short on freedoms 

The first thing you notice is the quiet. Then the white strips of paper stretched diagonally across the front doors of stores that look like they were vacated in a hurry. Once you get close enough, you can read the painted serial numbers on the house walls — WB-BUK 1 to 15 on one street — that tell you no one is coming back to these homes, and that many of those who lived there have been detained.

Welcome to Xinjiang in China’s north west. Twice the size of Germany, it holds crucial energy assets in its deserts: the country’s largest natural gas reserves, almost half of its coal, a fifth of its oil. It is a vital artery for President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and markets in central Asia and the Middle East. 

Yet it has also, over the past two years, become the scene of one of China’s most intense, largely hidden crackdowns. Hundreds of thousands of people have been placed in extralegal detention, in a move that has focused on the Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim group that makes up almost half the 23m population in the region.

In the eyes of the ruling Communist party, the geopolitical dreams it holds for Xinjiang are complicated by the Uighurs, who are far from the pliant workforce it needs to exploit the region’s resources. It is a deficit Beijing has so far remedied through the mass recruitment of Han workers, China’s dominant ethnic group. But a history of shortlived Uighur independence movements has put Beijing — ultra-sensitive about Taiwan and Tibet already — on edge. 

“Xinjiang is a crucial element in the BRI because two of its economic corridors pass through [the region],” says Wang Dehua, a professor at Shanghai Institute for International Studies. “Without Xinjiang’s stability, nothing else can be achieved.”