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KASHGAR, China, June 17 (Reuters) – As visitors to Xinjiang China enjoyed new theme park-style tourist centers showcasing the area’s Muslim Uyghur culture on a recent national holiday, signs of strong security and government surveillance were never far away.
Tourists smiled and posed in traditional clothing on camels for photos between billboards boasting the ruling Communist Party.
China is trying to break security measures in Xinjiang, according to UN experts and researchers, which have detained more than a million ethnic Uyghurs in re-education centers since 2016 – part of what Beijing has called an attempt to eradicate extremism.
She aims to build a patriotic, multi-ethnic region that is secular, speaks Mandarin, and is attractive to local tourists who spend trillion yuan each year on group travel and curated experiences.
Although Beijing says reporters can travel freely in Xinjiang, two journalists were recently shadowed by a rotating cohort of plainclothes guards who were rarely out of sight day and night during a Reuters two-week reporting trip to the region.
The team couldn’t tell who the people were; they walked away when spoken to and did not respond when spoken to.
Within an hour of the reporters leaving their hotel in Kashgar City through a back gate, barbed wire was erected over the exit and fire escapes were locked on their floor.
Upon arrival in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang, uniformed police boarded the plane and escorted the reporters onto the tarmac in front of the other passengers. They photographed the reporters’ testimonies and recorded information, including the hotel where they were going to stay.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the regional government in Xinjiang did not respond to requests for comments on the specific security measures or their ambitions for tourism in the region.
“China has always maintained an open and welcome attitude towards reporting by foreign journalists in Xinjiang,” the statement said in a statement, adding that journalists must strictly adhere to Chinese law in the region.
“BUILD A BETTER XINJIANG”
Some new attractions in southern Xinjiang are just a short drive from the camps and prisons built for Beijing’s anti-extremism campaign.
In the city of Kashgar, when Uyghur musicians serenaded tourists from the balcony of a picturesque tea shop, around a dozen policemen with shields and batons appeared from the surrounding alleys during the afternoon shift.
Communist Party’s propaganda in the streets and countryside of Xinjiang calls for loyalty and ethnic unity.
Posters show President Xi Jinping standing in the midst of a crowd of smiling Uighur children. Murals on the house walls in a small village outside Hotan warn of the evils of extremism and show happy mixed Uighur and Han families.
“Build ethnic unity, build a Chinese life, build a better Xinjiang,” read a banner in a residential building in Urumqi.
“Strengthen the approval of every ethnic group for the motherland forever,” it says on a mosque wall in Changji City.
The tourist offensive is primarily aimed at domestic travelers and offers Xinjiang a new source of income amid US sanctions. China expects more than 200 million visitors to Xinjiang this year and 400 million by 2025, up from 158 million last year.
The US government has sanctioned Chinese officials after accusing China of genocide in Xinjiang in recent years, citing the internment program, forced sterilization and mass relocation of labor.
Beijing denies genocide allegations, saying its policies in Xinjiang were necessary to eradicate separatists and religious extremists who planned attacks and fueled tensions between the Uyghurs and the Han, China’s largest ethnic group.
A new “old city” is being built in Hotan, a predominantly Uyghur prefecture that has been badly affected by the internment programs.
Every few meters, posters show residential buildings before they were demolished and replaced by buildings that correspond to the architectural style of the tourist settlements.
“The old look became a new one, feel grateful for the Communist Party,” they read.
Adaptation by Mike Collett-White
Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.