Authorities in Kashgar allegedly paid Muslim Uyghur men to dance outside the most famous mosque in northwestern China’s Xinjiang region to celebrate the end of Ramadan, a performance that was filmed and released by state media ahead of an anticipated visit by the United Nations human rights chief later this month.
Kashgar locals told RFA that people were not allowed to pray at Id Kah Mosque but instead were organized to dance on Eid al-Fitr on May 3, as shown in a YouTube video posted by China News Service (Zhongxinwang) on Tuesday. Chinese tourists can been seen observing the dancing and taking photos in the square.
A police officer from the city’s Kumdarwaza police station told RFA that prayers have not been allowed at the Id Kah Mosque since 2016. The dance was organized by residential committees, Chinese Communist Party organizations that oversee neighborhood units in cities and towns across China, he said.
“Several of our colleagues went to the square and met residential committee officials, and they told them that they had brought people to perform Sama,” the officer, who did not provide his name, said.
The Muztagh and Donghu residential committees sent about 500-600 people to perform the Sama, the officer added.
“Several weeks before the festival, the residential committees created a list with the names of those who would attend the Sama,” he said. “On one list, I saw there were four to five people I knew on one floor of our building.”
The U.S. and other countries have accused China of waging a campaign of genocide against the Uyghurs and other Turkic communities in Xinjiang through draconian policies designed to wipe away native cultures and traditions in the region, allegations the Chinese government has angrily disputed.
The filmed dance may be the country’s latest effort to show all is well ahead of the visit from U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet. Uyghur rights groups have pressed Bachelet to visit the region and release an overdue report on well-documented allegations of torture, forced labor and other severe rights abuses against the local population.
The Donghu residential committee paid 120-150 yuan (U.S. $18-23) to those who went to Kashgar to perform the dance because it would take them at least half a day, the police officer said. A typical worker in Kashgar earns about 250-300 yuan a day.
The Muztagh residential committee did not pay the Uyghurs, who comprise 90% of the residents in the community, to dance, he said.
“No one can reject the demands of the residential committees, especially in the communities where Uyghurs live,” the officer said
“I watched the video, and I guess some people missed the Sama dance because they haven’t danced it for six years,” he said. “Some people try to show themselves as being alive and happy — that’s what the residential committees want.
“Moreover, after 2017, people became worried about approaching the mosque,” he added. “There is no such thing as running to Sama now. That’s why they paid them.”
‘Forced to attend’
In 2017, Chinese officials ratcheted up a crackdown on Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities, detaining hundreds of thousands in a network of government-run detention camps that China says are vocational training centers meant to prevent religious extremism and terrorism.
Zumrat Dawut, a former Uyghur internment camp detainee who has said she was forcibly sterilized by government officials, said that if residential committee members sent notices to people via phone to appear at a particular place, they had to go to the site within 20 minutes.
“There is sometimes a payment for those who participate in organized activities when investigators arrive,” said Dawut, who now lives in the U.S. “For example, when my father went to the mosque, he was paid 100 yuan for a day’s stay in the mosque.”
Mamattohti Emin, a Uyghur who lives overseas, said he learned from acquaintances in Xinjiang that some of the Uyghurs who performed the Sama were paid by residential committees.
“Some of them were family members of Uyghurs in captivity,” he said. “They were forced to attend and warned that otherwise they would no longer be able to see their relatives onscreen.”
Ilshat Hassan Kokbore, a Uyghur political observer who lives in the U.S., posted a video clip of mostly men dancing in the square outside the historic mosque. A few women who appear to be Chinese tourists also are dancing.
“Carefully observe a group of young people in uniform French style in front of the camera, not only do they not know how to dance Sama, but they also look around, obviously they are arranged actors!” Kokbore tweeted in Chinese.
“The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has not yet set foot on the land of East Turkestan, the performance of ‘Made in China’ has begun!” the tweet says.
“If the High Commissioner for Human Rights can finally make the trip, they will see a group of Uyghurs dancing with the wind, with tears of happiness, drinking the northwest wind, singing praises, and thanking the party-state!” Kokbore tweeted.
In May 2021, the Xinjiang regional government invited foreign diplomats from more than 15 countries to observe live-streamed Eid al-Fitr festivities at several mosques in Xinjiang, including the Id Kah Mosque, the state-run Global Times reported.
“This is the first time that the Xinjiang regional government held such a reception for Eid al-Fitr and invited foreign diplomats to observe — a move, officials and observers said, that showed the region’s sincerity and openness amid outside slander, as Xinjiang has nothing to hide,” the report said.
Translated by Mamatjan Juma for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.