The Xinjiang Data Project


Cultural erasure

Tracing the destruction of Uyghur and Islamic spaces in Xinjiang

Nathan Ruser with Dr James Leibold, Kelsey Munro and Tilla Hoja

The Chinese government has embarked on a systematic campaign to rewrite the cultural heritage of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in northwest China by desecrating or “rectifying” mosques and indigenous sacred sites.

This report maps over 900 mosques and other important Uyghur religious-cultural sites across Xinjiang, analyses their condition before and after 2017, and then used statistical extrapolation to estimate the full extent of their destruction and alteration.
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    Based on  Original Report by Australian Strategic Policy Institute September 2020

    Media and NGO reports have unearthed individual examples of deliberate destruction of mosques and culturally significant Uyghur sites in recent years.

    Our analysis finds that such destruction is likely more widespread than reported and has intensified in recent years, with an estimated one in three mosques in Xinjiang demolished mostly since 2017.

    Visit the NY Times to see their multimedia reporting on this report.

    The estimated number of mosques destroyed or damaged in each prefecture of the XUAR

    This equates to approximately 16,000 mosques across Xinjiang (65% of the total) destroyed or damaged as a result of government policies, mostly since 2017. More than half – around 8,500 (± 4%) of these – were demolished outright.

    This includes the protected gatehouse of the 16th century Grand Kargalik Mosque which has been destroyed, despite official XUAR level cultural protection, in late 2018, and replaced with a miniaturized recreation of its entranceway.

    • Kargilik’s Grand Mosque gatehouse as it appeared in the late 20th century

    • Kargilik’s Grand Mosque gatehouse in the 2010s

    • Kargilik’s Grand Mosque gatehouse in September 2018

    • Kargilik’s Grand Mosque gatehouse rebuilt at a smaller scale in 2019


    Due to government policies since 2017, we estimate the current number of mosques in Xinjiang is at its lowest level since the Cultural Revolution, when over 26,500 mosques were destroyed.

    The number of mosques in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region since its founding

    Furthermore, 30% of important Uyghur sacred sites (shrines, cemeteries and pilgrimage routes) across Xinjiang have been demolished despite many being protected under Chinese law, with an additional 28% damaged or altered in some way, mostly since 2017.

    The rates of damage to the various sacred and significant cultural sites surveyed in this report, by level of protection.

    This includes the sacred pilgrimage site of Ordam Mazar located in the Great Bughra desert between Kashgar and Yarkant, where the grandson of the first Islamic Uyghur king died in a battle to conquer the Buddhist Kingdom of Hotan.

    • A 2013 satellite image of Ordam Mazar

      Airbus via Google Earth
    • Ordam Mazar in May 2018, showing the nearly complete destruction of the desert outpost

      Maxar via Google Earth

    In December 2017, the same month that Ordam was demolished, the Uyghur anthropologist and leading international expert on Xinjiang’s sacred sites, Rahile Dawut went missing, one of over 300 Uyghur intellectuals who have been detained since 2017.

    Under President Xi Jinping, the Chinese government has adopted a more interventionist approach to nation building in ethnic autonomous regions like Xinjiang. The religious and foreign elements of non-Han cultures are viewed with particular suspicion by Chinese government officials.

    "The ultimate goal [of religious work] is to achieve its complete internal and external sinicisation."
    Zhang Xunmou Director, Religious Research Centre, CCP United Front Work Department, 27 August 2019

    Xinjiang officials now warn against the “Halal-isation” (清真泛化), “Muslim-isation” (穆斯林化), and “Arab-isation” (阿拉伯化) of religious and cultural practices in Xinjiang, and seek to actively rectify any practices, products, symbols, and architectural styles deemed out of keeping with “Chinese tradition.”

    Photograph of the inside of the biggest mosque of Hotan

    Tighter control over mosques and religious personnel is central to the plan to sinicise Islam in Xinjiang as is the “rectifying” (整改) of places of religious worship.

    Under the Chinese government’s “four entrances” campaign (“四进”清真寺活动), mosques across Xinjiang are required to hang the national flag, post copies of the Chinese constitution, laws and regulations, uphold core socialist values, and reflect “excellent traditional Chinese culture.”

    Architecturally, this involves the removal of Arabic calligraphy, minarets, domes, star and crescent and other symbols deemed “foreign” and their replacement with traditional Chinese architectural elements.

    • Four mosque in northern Xinjiang with domes and minarets, pre-2016

      Maxar via Google Earth
    • Same four sites in northern Xinjiang, 2018

      Maxar via Google Earth

    Many international organizations and foreign governments have turned a blind eye to these destructive policies.

    The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) have remained silent in the face of mounting evidence of cultural destruction in Xinjiang.

    UNESCO and ICOMOS should immediately investigate the state of indigenous, non-Han cultural heritage in Xinjiang and if they are found to be in violation of the spirit of both organisations, the Chinese government should be appropriately sanctioned.

    Governments throughout the world must speak out and pressure the Chinese government to end its campaign of cultural genocide in Xinjiang and consider sanctions or even the boycotting of major cultural events held in China, including sporting events like the 2022 Winter Olympic games.

    We used satellite imagery analysis and a statistical model to quantify the extent of erasure and alteration of tangible indigenous cultural heritage in Xinjiang.

    The basic methodological aim was the creation of a new unbiased, stratified dataset of locations of mosques and sacred sites before the 2017 crackdown. Those locations were then checked against recent satellite imagery to ascertain their current status.

    See the appendix of the report for a full explanation of our methodology.

    Download full report
    ASPI ReportCultural erasure: Tracing the destruction of Uyghur and Islamic spaces in Xinjiangby Nathan Ruser, Dr James Leibold, Kelsey Munro, Tilla Hoja
    Sep 25, 2020
    Cultural DestructionCultural GenocideCulture+1
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