This is the first article in a four-part series from Xinjiang. Read more here:

  • How China forces Xinjiang Muslims into slavery after torturing them in ‘re-education camps’​
  • Xinjiang 2.0: Is China’s persecution of millions of Muslim Uyghurs entering a sinister new phase?

The site where a mosque once stood in the heart of Hotan in China’s Xinjiang region is now under construction to become a commercial tower block that will house a Hampton by Hilton hotel, the Telegraph can reveal. 

The mosque, demolished in 2018 based on satellite images analysed for the Telegraph by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, is just one of many to disappear across Xinjiang, as China erases the region’s cultural and religious heritage as part of its forced assimilation of Uyghurs and other ethnic Muslim minorities.

A number of mosques and shrines have been destroyed completely, or their Islamic features – onion domes, crescent signs and minarets – have been removed.

At the Hotan site, the sound of the muezzin’s call for daily prayers has been replaced by the noise of grinding machinery. A crane hovers overhead, flanked by a blue entry gate for builders and an office with agents selling leases in the new development. One confirmed the site used to be a mosque. 

Propaganda on the construction walls urges passersby to “warmly celebrate the Communist Party’s 100th anniversary”. 

A model of the Hilton Hampton hotel to be built on the site of a former mosque in Xinjiang

Credit: Lorenz Huber

“The systematic campaign of cultural erasure in many ways shows how authorities in Xinjiang and Beijing view ordinary expressions of Uyghur identity, faith and culture as a strategic threat to them and Party rule,” said Nathan Ruser, a researcher with ASPI, a Canberra-based think tank. 

“There is this idea that being Uyghur is inherently antithetical to being a loyal member of the Chinese nation,” added Mr Ruser, who has mapped the rise of Xinjiang internment camps and the dismantling of mosques and shrines. 

The construction site where the mosque once stood

Credit: Lorenz Huber

ASPI estimates that 16,000 mosques in Xinjiang – about 65 per cent of the total – have been destroyed or damaged due to Chinese government policies since 2017. Roughly 60 per cent of the region’s Islamic sacred sites, such as shrines and cemeteries, have been razed or altered.

The Telegraph travelled across Xinjiang over nine days to investigate the state-led cultural eradication programme and document the current state of those sites.  

Xinjiang’s disappearing heritage was especially stark in Hotan’s city centre, where the Telegraph visited nine former mosque locations. Most, like the planned Hilton hotel site, had been completely demolished and converted for uses including a car park and a grassy knoll with Communist Party propaganda signs proclaiming, “Long live China’s great ethnic unity!”

In Urumqi, the capital of the region, one former mosque had simply been reduced to a patch of bare ground. 

In one instance, Telegraph reporters were assaulted by 30 men in plain clothes, who hit the journalists in the face, grabbed their necks and confiscated camera equipment in an attempt to prevent them from accessing Imam Musa Kazim, a mosque and major shrine in Hotan (pictured below). 

 Imam Musa Kazim shrine

Credit: Rian Thum

Villagers said they were no longer allowed to traverse the sand dunes to visit relatives’ graves at the site, a development experts described as a major blow to one of the remaining vestiges of Uyghur culture. 

“People would make weekly trips to care for their parents’ graves, because there’s an idea widely shared that your dead loved one is still there at the site of the grave,” said Rian Thum, a lecturer at the University of Manchester who has studied Uyghur shrines.

On another occasion, after the Telegraph hiked an hour into the desert to the wrecked Imam Asim shrine – or “mazar” in Uyghur – about a dozen minders jumped out from behind the trees and aggressively restrained the journalists, pushing and pulling them away. 

The Imam Asim shrine as it looked in 2010

Credit: Rian Thum

Thousands of pilgrims used to visit this ancient shrine, trekking across the desert as generations did before them to seek better health, harvests and fertility, tying colourful prayer ribbons to wooden poles.

Every spring, a major festival – now banned – would draw massive crowds for days. In Xinjiang, people believe that visiting the holiest shrines three times during their lives equals the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca – a religious duty some Uyghurs cannot afford and a  journey that requires the approval of Chinese authorities.

The Telegraph was surprised to find four pilgrims at the site, a risk to them given the crackdown and a testament to how important these shrines are to Uyghurs.

“Until the disruptions that were brought by the Communist Party of China’s rule over the region, these shrines would draw tens of thousands of pilgrims at the same time,” said Mr Thum. “People would come to ask for the intercession of the saint buried there to help with daily difficulties, or to ask for forgiveness.”

Shrines are part of what connects Uyghurs to the land, “so the destruction of these shrines is seen as an uprooting,” he added. “It’s also where people would meet from different oases and learn about their own history; these were crucial sites for the transmission of knowledge about Uyghurs.”

The Communist Party took power in 1949, but ethnic tensions between China’s Han majority and the Uyghurs go back centuries.

In the 1980s student demonstrations broke out in Xinjiang and swept east across the country, culminating in the Tiananmen Square massacre when the Chinese military fired on thousands of unarmed protesters. 

By the 1990s, Chinese authorities had grown concerned over a revival of Uyghur culture and identity and officials feared religious gatherings could breed extremism. 

Uyghur protests erupted in Xinjiang province in 2009

Credit: PETER PARKS /AFP

Anti-government attacks perpetrated by Uyghurs – including mass riots in 2009 in Urumqi that killed 197, mostly Han, and wounded 1,700 – led to a heavy-handed policy shift by 2017.

In Hotan, the weekly Sunday market – previously a boisterous affair when farmers would arrive via donkey and camel carts to sell produce – has been shut down. Once-bustling stalls now lie dilapidated behind a high gate chained shut – and even here the Telegraph was shooed away. 

Three hundred miles west in Kashgar – part of the historic Silk Road trading route, where alleys are framed by ochre mud brick dwellings – nearly all mosques are shut and their interiors derelict. 

An elderly Uyghur walks past a public toilet in Kashgar's touristic new old town. This public toilet used to be a mosque.

Credit: Lorenz Huber

One mosque has even been turned into a public toilet (pictured above). Behind the heavy poplar doors with flaking red paint, former ablution basins have become the men’s latrine. Uyghur script above the entrance archway depicting the name “Allah” has been covered in black paint. Neighbouring vendors shook their heads sadly when asked about the toilet’s previous purpose. 

Nearby, the pale yellow Id Kah Mosque, China’s largest, remains open – touted by government officials as an example of its embrace of the Islamic faith. But a plaque with Uyghur script that previously adorned the entrance arch has also been removed.

Inside, Islamic designs, such as six-pointed stars that had decorated the main prayer hall, have been scraped off the wall, leaving only a faint outline. Most visitors are selfie-taking tourists paying 45 yuan (£5) to enter, rather than people praying. 

The Id Kah mosque is still open but many visitors are tourists

Credit: Lorenz Huber

Across Xinjiang, few men grow beards, women have shed head coverings, and nobody dares carry a prayer mat – largely all banned as the Chinese state has tightened control. 

“China is looking for a long-term solution to what they view as a problem,” said Mr Ruser. 

“You can see that through its multi-faceted approach – not just not allowing culture, but detaining key individuals that were crucial nodes of traditional Uyghur knowledge… by researching, writing it down and passing it to the next generation.”

There’s also a move “to educate the ‘Uyghur-ness’ out of young children in very controlled state education; in many cases even in boarding schools.”

While state-sanctioned bookstores across Xinjiang still carry some adult and children’s books in Uyghur, the topics focus primarily on farming and cooking with no mention of culture or history. 

Students scampering out of schools largely speak unaccented Mandarin with each other when older generations spoke primarily in Uyghur. 

China has rejected allegations of mosque and shrine demolition as “total nonsense,” saying renovations are needed to give them a “modern touch.” 

Not all sacred sites have been razed – some, like the gleaming green-and-gold Afaq Khoja mausoleum in Kashgar have been turned into ticketed tourist attractions, while smaller shrines that draw fewer pilgrims have, for now, escaped the crackdown. 

Hilton said the hotel in Hotan was a franchise development, and directed the Telegraph to the Chinese firm overseeing the project, Huan Peng Hotel Management.

“The land was purchased through public auction by a local owner in 2019, at which point it was a vacant lot,” Huan Peng Hotel Management said in a statement. The firm added it would “continue to comply fully with all local laws, authorities and Hilton brand development standards”.

At least three Hilton-branded hotels are in operation in Xinjiang, all in the region’s capital of Urumqi.

Dotted around the city of Hotan, advertisements for the new Hilton development could be seen tucked on to car windshields: “There is no substitute! A five-star development!”