Red paint and barbed wire: how China created a dystopia for Uyghurs
Throughout the course of her fieldwork, Elke Spiessens experienced first-hand how the Chinese government stepped up the oppression of Uyghurs. ‘It’s dystopian. You start to doubt yourself: is this really happening?’
Anoushka Kloosterman
Monday 1 May 2023
Children playing in front of a closed mosque in Kashgar, a city in southwest Xinjiang, 2019. Photo Gilles Sabrié/The New York Times/ANP

Within a few years, the situation for Uyghurs in China had deteriorated so drastically that researcher Elke Spiessens began to doubt her own perceptions when she travelled to Xinjiang province in 2018, for the first time in three years.
‘It was a world of difference. I couldn’t talk to anyone any more, including people I already knew. My contact, a university professor, had been missing for months - family and friends still don’t know where she is to this day. You had to go through metal detectors everywhere you went. At parks, you had to stand in the blazing sun for hours before you were allowed to enter. Male Uyghurs, aged 20-30, were constantly being checked right in front of me: their phones, everything.
‘Any reference to Islam had been removed: in the city of Turpan, there’s a famous minaret, the city’s pride and joy. There were beautiful drawings of it all over the city, but they had been painted over with red paint. My hotel wasn’t even allowed to sell postcards with a mosque on them any more.
‘In Kashgar, where they’ve been tearing down the historic city centre and rebuilding it with “traditional” architecture for tourists since 2009, there were still plenty of mosques in 2015 - which were under their control, but still active. In 2018, they were all closed off with chains. Minarets had been torn down, crescents removed - except for the mosques on the main road, where Chinese tourist buses pass. There, many posters of Xi Jinping had been hung. The message is clear: “Yes, there is local culture here, but it’s under control.” Meanwhile, the perception of Islam as a threat was growing.
‘It’s dystopian. You start to doubt yourself: is this really happening? Am I making it seem worse than it is? But no. This is actually happening.’

‘Providing neutral information is the most important thing I can do’

When Spiessens started her research on Islamic traditions among Chinese Uyghurs ten years ago, her subject was still so unknown to the vast majority that she was asked the same question time and again: ‘There are Muslims in China?’
She wanted to interview Uyghurs about how they keep their traditions alive under Chinese policies. The Communist Party - which adheres to fundamentally atheistic principles - did not suppress Islam, but tried to impose a nationalist pro-Chinese version of it.
‘It was such a contradiction: the atheist party, controlling religious institutions and trying to be a sort of Muslim authority’, says Spiessens. ‘How do the Uyghurs continue their traditions while the state tries to propagate its image of the good Muslim?’
A sensitive subject, said her PhD supervisor, but it was possible.
And it was... at that time.


Within a few years, the situation went from bad to downright miserable. Today, more than a million Chinese Uyghurs (and other Muslim minorities) are in ‘re-education camps’, where they’re systematically detained, indoctrinated and mistreated. Witnesses speak of forced sterilisations and organ donations. It’s the largest mass incarceration of an ethnic minority since the Second World War.
‘Those camps and the threat of being deported are the main means of instilling fear in people, and they’re very effective’, says Spiessens. ‘In 2014 and 2015, groups on social media still dared to talk about politics - in small circles. That’s no longer an option now. People are quite literally placed in families’ homes to keep an eye on them.’
Spiessens has had to alter her research twice: the first time was in 2015, when she was accosted by a mysterious Uyghur ‘guide’ during fieldwork who followed her everywhere. ‘Even if we went to another city, hundreds of kilometres away, he’d be there too. He was constantly trying to find out what I was doing there, and filling my time with things he thought were okay - like a monument that had been erected by the government. I was officially there as a tourist, because it was impossible to go as a researcher.’

‘The Uyghurs became a threat to Xi’s nationalism’

When her computer was taken from her bag and searched at a train station (‘I was lucky that they didn’t find any of my photos or written material’), she started looking for sources outside of Xinjiang. ‘I started establishing contacts with the Uyghur community in Europe. Many of them had received religious education in Xinjiang, so I was able to gather a lot of information from those interviews.’

But pressure was mounting outside of China as well. ‘I also wanted to go to the Uyghur community in Turkey and Egypt, but that didn’t happen: there had been a bomb attack in Istanbul which Uyghurs were blamed for, and people were feeling pressured. I received reports that Uyghurs in Egypt were being arrested by Chinese police. In the Netherlands and Germany, people were also afraid to make contact because their families were being threatened.’

So what to do? ‘My main concern is to not endanger people, so I returned to Xinjiang myself.’
When she saw the total cultural crackdown with her own eyes, she altered her research for the second time - more than four years after she had started. Instead of interviewing Uyghurs, she described how the Chinese government’s policy towards Islam was changing. She obtained her PhD on 6 April.


How could things escalate so quickly? ‘In 2013, the threat of Uyghur terrorism suddenly became very pressing due to a suicide attack in Beijing in 2013, and a knife attack in Kunming in 2014. This gave the party an opportunity to put terrorism high up on its agenda. In 2014, the “People’s War on Terror” started. That was a clear turning point.’
In 2016, Chen Quanguo became governor of Xinjiang. He was transferred from Tibet. ‘He’s the one who implemented such a strict control regime there too’, says Spiessens.
Chen also introduced an advanced system in Xinjiang with the infamous re-education camps and all kinds of technology that had been prepared in the years prior. ‘2013 to 2014 was an important tipping point. Collecting biodata, introducing a green card so people would become less mobile: that’s when those instruments were devised. But in 2016, the new governor intensified and expanded their implementation. That’s another explanation for the shift: it was technologically possible.’
Since the 1980s, China had actually been relatively tolerant with regard to religion. The Communist Party distanced itself from the religious repression carried out during the Cultural Revolution, and focused on economic development. But now, under Xi Jinping, the party is deviating from that. For a long time, the idea was that religion would naturally disappear as the country grows economically. But Xi is now emphasising its dangers: religion is not disappearing, religious extremism is actually on the rise. He calls it the “New Situation”. The tolerance shown in previous ambiguous policies is no longer an option. This ties in with Xi’s totalitarian and authoritarian regime.’
All over China, the reins have been tightened, says Spiessens, but nothing compares with the situation in Xinjiang. ‘The Uyghurs have long been a special case, with a strong demand to preserve their own identity and language. That became a threat to Xi’s nationalism.


The government has very much exploited the threat of Islamic terrorism that arose after 9/11 to justify oppressive policies. This didn’t exist in the 1990s: there were protests and incidents back then, but they were not branded as Islamic terrorism. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy: now, there are Uyghurs who participate in global Islamic terrorism, but that’s a problem created by the government itself.’
During her 2018 visit, she returned to a local restaurant where an acquaintance had taken her three years earlier. ‘Back then, many local Uyghurs gathered there and you could still eat authentic Uyghur food. “This is the last place where we can be ourselves”, they’d said.
Now, it was surrounded by barbed wire and you had to go through a metal detector. Inside were only Han Chinese.’
So what do you do, as a researcher who finds herself in a dystopia? ‘It took me a few months to come to terms with the realisation that the situation had become so grave. I struggled with it. You’re a researcher, not an activist. It felt selfish to go there just to answer my research question. But the best course of action was to bring the facts to light. Providing neutral information is the most important thing I can do.’

Elke Spiessens, China’s Islam in Xinjiang: from functio­nalization to elimination. PhD defence was on April 6.