These days, the city of Kashgar in westernmost China feels a bit like Baghdad after the war. The sound of wailing sirens fills the air, armed trucks patrol the streets and fighter jets roar above the city. The few hotels that still host a smattering of tourists are surrounded by high concrete walls. Police in protective vests and helmets direct the traffic with sweeping, bossy gestures, sometimes yelling at those who don’t comply.
But now and then, a ghostly calm descends on the city. Just after noon, when it’s time for Friday prayers, the square in front of the huge Id Kah Mosque lies empty. There’s no muezzin piercing the air, just a gentle buzz on the rare occasion that someone passes through the metal detector at the entrance to the mosque. Dozens of surveillance cameras overlook the square. Security forces, some in uniform and others in plain-clothes, do the rounds of the Old Town with such stealth it’s as if they were trying to read people’s minds.
Journalists are not immune to their attentions. No sooner have we arrived than two police officers insist on sitting down with us for a “talk.” The next day in our hotel, one of them emerges from a room on our floor. When we take a walk through the city in the morning, we’re followed by several plain-clothes officers. Eventually, we’re being tailed by some eight people and three cars, including a black Honda with a covered license plate — apparently the secret police. Occasionally, our minders seem to be leaving us alone, but already awaiting us at the next intersection are the surveillance cameras that reach into every last corner of Kashgar’s inner city. The minute we strike up conversation with anyone, officials appear and start interrogating them.