China's Uighur Muslims forced to eat and drink as Ramadan celebrations banned

Sophia Yan
China's treatment of ethnic Uighur Muslims has drawn protest around the world - AFP

For the handful of elderly men inside one of China's largest mosques, the first bow comes not when prayers begin but as they duck through metal detectors.

Lined with facial recognition security cameras both inside and out, Id Kah mosque in Kashgar is under the constant watch of patrolling police officers armed with batons and riot shields.  

Ramadan is a quiet, fearful affair in this oasis town on ancient trade routes. Despite mounting international pressure and condemnation, the massive crackdown on the Uighur people and their shrinking culture here shows no signs of abating for the Muslim holy month.

Widespread intimidation - from inside mosques to family homes - mean residents don't dare utter the traditional Islamic greeting, “as-salaam alaikum”, while fasting is also banned, with restaurants forced to stay open. 

At schools and local authority offices, “the Chinese government provides water, food – lunch – to force you to drink and eat,” said Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress, an advocacy group.

Local officials are increasing checks to people’s homes, too, to make sure they aren’t secretly observing the practice, according to a government notice posted online. 

They’ll even “bring gifts to Uighur families – pork,” Mr Isa told The Telegraph. Although Muslims don’t eat the meat, “you cannot refuse it; you have to accept it, and they are monitoring them and eating together.”   

Kashgar lies in the heart of Xinjiang, a far-western region in China home to the Uighurs, an ethnic minority of mostly Sunni Muslims. US officials believe up to three million of them have been locked up in internment camps in what amounts to a virtual whitewash of religion and culture.

The city of Kashgar has changed dramatically under the Chinese crackdown Credit: Guillaume Payen/Getty Images

Former detainees interviewed by The Telegraph have recounted horrific torture, being forced to memorise Chinese Communist Party propaganda, and to renounce Islam.

This year's Ramadan is a far cry from ones in the past – tens of thousands used to flock to Id Kah, spilling out into the public square to pray before boisterous celebrations erupted to break the day’s fast.

The old city's saffron-coloured alleys and archways were once so reminiscent of old Kabul that the film, The Kite Runner, was shot here – before the government bulldozed most of it in 2010.

In the corner that remains, Chinese tourists snap photos of Uighur children in the narrow lanes by homes with red signs that deem them “virtuous” households – a government programme that recognises ‘good’ behaviour.

That’s the Kashgar that Beijing wants the world to see, not the internment camps just a few miles away. Even with growing evidence of terrifying abuses inside, China insists the camps are “vocational skills training” centres that reform would-be terrorists. 

The Telegraph's efforts to track down and visit these illicit camps were largely scuppered by a near-constant surveillance and obstruction by groups of men watching reporters' every move. 

During four days in the city, the reporters were effectively kidnapped twice after nameless voices over the radio instructed taxi drivers to turn around rather than continue to the requested destination. 

As a result, the Telegraph navigated nearly 50 miles on foot, eventually reaching a vast internment camp with at least nine yellow and gray buildings and four watchtowers.

There, a dozen minders quickly faked an electricity line repair and surrounded reporters for over an hour to block them from advancing further down the road. “It’s for your safety,” they said. Four separate patrols also forced photographer Giulia Marchi to delete images. 

The Telegraph was followed so tightly that it was impossible to conduct interviews in the open. But in snatches of private conversations, Uighurs raised deep concerns without being prompted. 

Near one internment camp, our Uighur driver shut off the radio and snuffed out his cigarette, his lively demeanour suddenly subdued. That compound was “much trouble,” he said, making the motion of being handcuffed. Police tracked his vehicle and he never got too close out of fear he’d end up inside.

Another confided he’d been detained for a few days and that his wife remained imprisoned, now for 18 months, leaving him alone to raise their two young children. “I am worried,” he said. “I don’t know for how much longer [she will be held].”  

At highway checkpoints, Uighurs are stopped for full body and face scans and vehicle searches. To pass, they must swipe their ID cards at turnstiles, prompting personal details to pop up on screens for officers to monitor, creating a digital trail of their movements.   

The US says that up to three million Uighurs could detained in Chinese 're-education' camps Credit: Vyacheslav Oseledko/AFP

Beijing has long sought to arrest control of this resource-rich region where decades of government-encouraged migration of the Han – China’s ethnic majority – have fuelled resentment among Uighurs. The biggest outburst erupted in 2009 in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, resulting in 200 deaths.

Now, the ruling Communist Party has launched a propaganda campaign about snuffing out "criminal" and "terrorist" activity. All across Xinjiang – meaning "new frontier" – are bright red banners reminding people to fight illegal, "cult" behaviour, listing hotlines to report suspicious activity.

“Love the Party, love the country,” hangs a streamer at one mosque, just above the metal detector. A highway billboard proclaims, “Secretary Xi is linked heart-to-heart with Xinjiang minorities,” referring to Chinese president Xi Jinping.

The government is working to present an image of a happy, peaceful Xinjiang, in efforts to boost tourism and attract investment; this is the linchpin for Mr Xi's Belt and Road initiative.

While the local economy has yet to soar as officials hope – special economic zones and new housing complexes sit empty – the messaging is starting to work.

A retired Han couple said they finally felt safe enough to visit Xinjiang given the strong police presence. “We’ve been here for a week and we haven’t seen any scuffles,” Zuo Xiaofang, from Shanghai, told the Telegraph. “We heard it used to be a mess here.”

“Han and Uighur are a united family!” said a Han Chinese barista in the old city, now turned a garish cultural theme park, where many mosques have shuttered, with Islamic features like onion domes or the crescent moon removed.  

It’s all part of a vow Mr Xi made in 2015 to “Sinicise” religion, and Uighur advocates worry about tradition, language and culture – cultivated from centuries as a trading stop on the old Silk Road – being erased.

“‘Sinification’ of Islam means adjusting religion to be comfortable for the Chinese Communist Party,” said Mr Isa. “If Uighurs are thinking, living Chinese, then Uighur culture [will be] all destroyed.”