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‘The Kite Runner’ and a Chinese Time Warp in Xinjiang

‘The Kite Runner’ and a Chinese Time Warp in Xinjiang
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Video production: Nik Yarst

Xu Guixiang

Xu Guixiang

Spokesperson for Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region

“China's Xinjiang is stable and harmonious, but the United States turns a blind eye to it and falsely accuses Xinjiang of violating human rights. How hypocritical that is.”


On August 30, “The Kite Runner,” a film adapted from Afghan-American novelist Khaled Hosseini’s best-seller, became a top subject of interest on the Chinese internet – thanks to a barrage of criticism by China’s state-run media of the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan.

Chinese state broadcaster CCTV reported on its August 30 “Live News” show that it had recently been “exposed” that the U.S. film was shot in Kashgar, Xinjiang, rather than in Afghanistan, because of security concerns.

The CCTV segment included a response from Xu Guixiang, spokesperson for the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region’s government, to “the hypocrisy of the United States.”

“We also noticed this film. It’s The Kite Runner. ... The background of the story was set in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. After 9/11, the United States invaded Afghanistan in the name of counter-terrorism, dragging Afghanistan into war, chaos and unrest. It was difficult to find a place of peace and tranquillity, so the film crew chose to shoot in places like Kashgar and Tashkurgan in Xinjiang," Xu said during an August 30 news conference.

“What did they [the United States] bring to Afghanistan? What they brought there were the flames of war, social unrest, and Afghan people in destitution. They can't even find a suitable place to shoot a movie there.”

Xu hailed the film as proof that Xinjiang was peaceful:

“China's Xinjiang, on the other hand, is stable and harmonious. The United States turns a blind eye to that and falsely accuses Xinjiang of violating human rights. How hypocritical that is.”

The implication that Xinjiang was stable while Afghanistan was not is misleading and conflates different periods of Xinjiang's history under Chinese government control.

It is true that the film wasn’t shot in Afghanistan because of security concerns in the war-torn country following the U.S. invasion in 2001.

In fact, Afghanistan was “perhaps the second most dangerous place in the world for Americans,” The New York Times reported on the film’s search for shooting location before the film was released in 2007.

Kashgar, once an important hub along the historic Silk Road trading route, was eventually chosen as the doppelgänger for prewar Kabul “for its diverse but overwhelmingly Muslim population and a countryside that plausibly resembles Afghanistan,” the Times reported.

But that was in 2006 – over a decade before China ramped up mass detentions of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, home to an estimated 11 million Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim Turkic minority.

According to the Times, Chinese authorities then welcomed the film project because they were “eager to put the country’s far west on the map quickly.”

Muslim men arriving at the Id Kah Mosque for morning prayers on Eid al-Fitr in the old town of Kashgar on June 26, 2017.
Muslim men arriving at the Id Kah Mosque for morning prayers on Eid al-Fitr in the old town of Kashgar on June 26, 2017.

“That in itself represented a huge turnabout,” the 2007 article noted. “Not long before, foreigners were barred from traveling to the region, where separatist sentiments have long existed.”

Indeed, Xinjiang has a long history of instability.

Uyghurs experienced brief periods of independence, even declaring an East Turkestan state in Xinjiang several times, before the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took the region over and incorporated it into the People’s Republic of China in October 1949.

Uyghur separatist groups gained traction in Xinjiang after several Muslim states in Central Asia declared independence when the Soviet Union collapsed. As has reported, a Chinese government plan to incorporate the region economically led to demographic changes and increased cross-cultural contact – which, in turn, sparked separatist terrorist attacks in the 1990s.

Beijing swiftly clamped down. In 2005, a Human Rights Watch report on the religious repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang noted that “celebrating religious holidays, studying religious texts, or showing one's religion through personal appearance are strictly forbidden at state schools.”

Despite signs that harsh controls were loosened around the time the film crew went in, the situation in Xinjiang was anything but perfect.

Tensions persisted over the migration of Han Chinese into the region and widespread economic and cultural discrimination against the Uyghurs and others.

In 2009, these boiled over into deadly riots. On July 5 of that year, a protest in the regional capital of Urumqi against false rape allegations against male Uyghur factory workers became violent. China’s government claimed the rioting was “plotted and incited” by outside forces, naming the World Uyghur Congress, a Munich-based organization of exiled Uyghur groups, and its leader Rebiya Kadeer. However, the underlying cause of the violence is disputed.

The 2009 Urumqi riots were a watershed, experts say.

“From that moment on, China took a very hard-line position toward the control of religion and the control of minority ethnic groups in the region,” Nicholas Bequelin, then Amnesty International’s regional director for East and Southeast Asia, told The Associated Press in 2019. “It increased dramatically its security operation. That really is what led to the situation today.”

“In the eyes of Beijing, all Uyghurs could potentially be terrorists or terrorist sympathizers,” wrote Lindsay Maizland, senior writer covering Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. “During the next few years, authorities blamed Uyghurs for attacks at a local government office, train station, and open-air market, as well as Tiananmen Square in Beijing.”

With access to much information about those attacks restricted, China’s claims remain unverifiable.

In subsequent years, Beijing’s policies to control and “re-educate” Uyghurs also were carried out under the banner of counter-terrorism.

Chinese President Xi Jinping officially launched the “People’s War on Terror” in 2014, after Uyghur militants set off a bomb attack at a train station in Urumqi. The bombing coincided with the final day of Xi’s visit to Xinjiang.

“Build steel walls and iron fortresses. Set up nets above and snares below,” Xi directed then. “Cracking down severely on violent terrorist activities must be the focus of our current struggle.”

Chinese authorities have enforced mass detentions of Uyghurs since at least 2016, and they were expanded in 2017 with the government’s adoption of “Regulations on De-extremification.” Reuters reported in November 2018 that satellite imagery showed “thirty-nine of the [detention] camps almost tripled in size between April 2017 and August 2018.”

As previously reported, research and reports by human rights organizations, think tanks and media, and leaked Chinese government documents, have shown that China operates a massive detention network – which China calls “Vocational Skills Education Training Centers” – where an estimated 1 million Muslims, most of them Uyghurs, have been interned.

Those not detained have been subjected to intrusive surveillance, political indoctrination, forced cultural assimilation,religious restrictions, forced labor and forced sterilizations.

Former detainees who fled China described being forced to renounce Islam and sing praises for the CCP, subjected to harsh living conditions and tortured during interrogation. Women said they were sexually abused and even raped.

Human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have stated that China’s treatment of Uyghurs amounts to “crimes against humanity.”

The U.S. State Department of State, along with the parliaments of Canada, the Netherlands, United Kingdom and Lithuania, have characterized Beijing’s behavior in Xinjiang as a “genocide.”

China’s government has repeatedly rejected all allegations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang, denouncing them as “politically motivated” and based on “lies.” Beijing has also resisted international calls for independent investigations in Xinjiang.

In May, Georg Fahrion, the Beijing correspondent for the German news magazine Der Spiegel, traveled to Xinjiang. “Even as we observe something with our own eyes, we can’t be sure of what we are seeing," he wrote. "People cannot speak freely, and state control is omnipresent.”

Fahrion and his team also made a stop in Kashgar. He recalled that colleagues who had last visited Xinjiang in 2018 had described Kashgar as similar to “Baghdad after the war” and “a region that seemed to be under siege,” with “museum guards in flak jackets and imperious policemen everywhere.”

Fahrion observed that this was “no longer the case” for Kashgar three years later.

“The repression has changed and become less obvious … It seems like Chinese leaders believe that they have broken all resistance and can therefore allow things to relax,” he wrote.