Nov 30, 2021 - World

China promotes domestic tourism to Xinjiang, site of ongoing genocide

Illustration of a camera with a strap made out of barbed wire

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Chinese government is heavily promoting tourism in Xinjiang while committing genocide against the region's native residents.

Why it matters: Xinjiang's tourism industry profits from a system that largely excludes Uyghur people while appropriating their culture for state purposes and the financial gain of China's majority ethnic group.

  • International firms are trying to delink their supply chains from Xinjiang amid widespread forced Uyghur labor, which could potentially hamper the local economy. A growth in tourism could potentially offset this economic loss.
  • The Xinjiang regional government announced earlier this year that it aims to boost annual tourism to Xinjiang from 158 million visitors in 2020 to 400 million by 2025.
  • The booming tourism business has put U.S. company Airbnb in the crosshairs of U.S. and Chinese politics, as Axios reports that the U.S. vacation rentals company has 14 properties on land in Xinjiang owned by a Chinese paramilitary group sanctioned by the U.S. government for complicity in genocide.

Background: The Chinese Communist Party's tourism push in Xinjiang is aimed primarily at attracting Han Chinese (and some foreign) tourists who want to experience the "exotic" landscapes and cultures of the former frontier region.

  • The Chinese government officially recognizes 55 ethnic minority groups, spread throughout the country and concentrated in regions including Sichuan, Guizhou, Yunnan, Xinjiang and Tibet.
  • In recent decades an ethnic tourism industry has developed around the groups, frequently with state support. Chinese tourists enjoy visiting ethnic minority regions, watching traditional dances and sampling local cuisine. Ethnic minority theme parks have become commonplace as well.
  • Ethnic minority groups around China have often welcomed the influx of tourists, who bring an infusion of cash into remote, underdeveloped regions.
  • But local authorities sometimes use destructive methods to develop the tourism industry, including demolishing traditional villages and rebuilding them as "model villages" with daily scheduled dances, comfortable boutique hotels, and space for restaurants.

What's happening: In Xinjiang this trend has become a direct state tool to stamp out the entire culture, the Economist wrote earlier this year.

  • The Chinese government leveled traditional Uyghur neighborhoods and demolished mosques, cemeteries, religious shrines, and important Uyghur historical sites across Xinjiang — while rebuilding or renovating some select sites with tourists in mind, including the famous neighborhood of Kashgar's Old City, once a fabled oasis on the Silk Road.
  • Tourists from the majority Han ethnic group are permitted to travel relatively freely in the heavily securitized region — even as 10% or more of the Uyghur population is being held in roughly 380 internment facilities in the region, sometimes just blocks away from tourist-friendly sites. Many other Uyghurs are confined to their cities or neighborhoods.
  • Some Uyghurs are hired to perform traditional dances, staff restaurants or work in hotels, but they have largely been shut out of economic development by widespread discriminatory hiring practices. And Chinese authorities have seized assets belonging to Uyghur business owners now locked away amid the region's mass internment and incarceration drive.
  • The Chinese government has punished Uyghurs for basic expressions of religiosity, including praying regularly, fasting at Ramadan, wearing Islamic clothing, and teaching their children the Quran. More than a hundred Uyghur intellectuals have been detained in internment camps, while language education has been largely phased out in schools.

The big picture: The Chinese Communist Party has a long history of publicly parading performative aspects of ethnic minority cultures, particularly traditional dances with colorful costumes, while suppressing the meaningful practice of cultural traditions among those same groups.

  • The Chinese government's policies towards ethnic minorities are "highly assimilationist," Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur for extreme poverty and human rights, said in 2016 after Chinese authorities took him on what he called an “abysmal tour” of a staged ethnic minority village in Yunnan Province.

Go deeper: Airbnb hosts Xinijang rentals on land owned by sanctioned group

Go deeper