Travelling through Xinjiang, China’s western province, which plays a critical role in the ambitious Belt and Road initiative, what you don’t see is just as important as what you can see. The state is bustling with infrastructure building, with massive highways, flashy city centres and malls and activity at the Trans-Eurasian railway stations and land-ports, as operas and cultural performances promote connectivity in what the government calls the “core of the Silk Route”. But an uneasy silence lies below the surface of this prosperous picture in a state with 50 ethnicities and religions and a sizable Uighur population that is mainly Muslim, as the state tightens its control. Violence between the Uighurs and Han populations ten years ago and terror attacks still scars memories here, and security is at a level unprecedented even for China. There are other restrictions visible: Men don’t wear beards, and women don’t wear the veil or headscarf, mosques are unnoticeable, and there is no sound of an azaan from any minaret, despite half the population being Muslim. Religion is banned in schools, and those who do attend mosques must be adults. Meanwhile, the drive for modernity is also demolishing ethnic homes, and traditional agricultural living, as officials move thousands of “peasants” into high-rise buildings. Amidst such intense state control, even the success of President Xi Jinping’s prestige project, the BRI, could be a double-edged sword. As China’s Western region welcomes in trade and tourism from its neighbours (7 of 8 neighbours are already a part of the BRI, India being the single exception), can Beijing also keep out the winds of change, imported ideas of freedom and even the threat of radicalisation that such openings would allow?
About the Speaker
Suhasini Haidar is the Diplomatic Editor of The Hindu, writing regularly on Indian foreign policy, the Subcontinent and conflict regions. Previously Suhasini was a Delhi based correspondent for CNN International and the Foreign Editor of CNN-IBN.
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