George was an American from California. I met him in 1991 when he was teaching English at a medical college in Beijing. His greatest dream in his 38 years of life was to visit Kashgar.
“Why Kashgar?” I asked. Born and raised in Beijing, I had never heard of Kashgar, let alone as a dream place for anyone. George smiled and said, “Kashgar has the oldest market in the world; people sing and dance on the streets; it is just unique.” George eventually went to Kashgar and saw his dream city before he left China.
George was fortunate. Today’s Kashgar has lost its charm. Residents of Kashgar were particularly proud of the Old City, a maze-like area of mudbrick homes, but today, those beautiful, historic buildings have mostly been demolished. The Chinese regime claimed that it was for safety and sanitation. The new brick homes seem more comfortable, but Uighurs mourn their old neighborhoods. Why not? They lost their heritage; Kashgar lost its spirit.
The rebuilding of Kashgar has created wider streets that easier for police to monitor and patrol. This year, the New York Times reported – every 100 yards, the police stand at checkpoints with guns, shields and clubs; Muslim minorities line up, stone-faced, to swipe their official identity cards; at big checkpoints, they lift their chins while a machine takes their photos, and wait to be notified if they can go on; sometimes the police take Uighurs’ phones and check to make sure they have installed compulsory software that monitors calls and messages.
In George’s dream city, Kashgar people were very kind, welcoming foreigners with smiles, singing and dancing. They still are, but why today’s American tourists have completely different experience in Kashgar. A young blogger wrote:
“Rumor has it that the local Uyghur population is usually very kind, but our experience was different. We never felt particularly welcome walking around Uighur neighborhoods. In the true old town of Kashgar, no one would respond to our greetings. People in Tuyoq Valley refused us entry into streets and shrines with cold stares. When hunting for lunch options in Kuche, people just glared at us as we moved towards places to sit, not turning around until we had grown uncomfortable and moved on.”
The truth is that George’s Kashgar has turned into a prison, and people live not only in fear but also in despair. Empty lots of land in southern Kashgar have become a so-called re-education camp with a capacity of roughly 20,000 people; a careless comment, a vengeful neighbor, a frightened child – all could lead to detention and torture in the camp.
Last year, the 13 camps in Kashgar grew in size, reaching 1 million square meters. Surveillance cameras are everywhere; in streets, doorways, shops, mosques. Neighborhood monitors are assigned to watch over groups of families, and thousands of police and official monitors question Uighurs and search their homes on a daily basis. At the mosque, worshipers have to register and go through a security check; inside, they pray under surveillance cameras that the police can monitor.
Some Uighur women were forced to marry Han men approved by the Communist Party as politically reliable individuals. Uighur children were interrogated. “In the kindergarten, they ask little children, ‘Do your parents read the Quran?’” A Uighur mother told reporters. “My daughter had a classmate who said, ‘My mom teaches me the Quran.’ The next day, they were gone.”
Like the notorious “social credit” system used by the Chinese authorities to monitor citizens, police in Kashgar grade residents for reliability. A low grade brings more “visits” by the police, and even detention in the re-education/indoctrination camps. People in Kashgar have no freedom of speech or religion; they lost their essence of life.
Cuban patriot and poet Jose Marti once said, “Like bones to the human body, the axle to the wheel, the wing to the bird, and the air to the wings, so is liberty the essence of life.” , the Chinese Communist Party has destroyed Kashgar’s bones, axle, wings and air; it has destroyed Kahsgar’s essence of life.