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‘Uyghurs are so bad’: Chinese dinner table politics in Xinjiang

One of the things Lu Yin anticipated most about going home to Southern Xinjiang was the opportunity she would have to eat Uyghur food. Her family is part of a largely segregated system of Han-owned state farms, factories, mines, and oil fields known as the People’s Production and Construction Corps, or Bingtuan, yet despite this, their relative proximity to a major Uyghur oasis city means she has always considered Uyghur food a taste of home.

But when she went back the last time, it seemed that all the Uyghur restaurants near her home village were closed. Undeterred, her uncle, a powerful Bingtuan official, said that he would arrange for her to have a home-cooked meal with a Uyghur family he knew.

It was after dark when they arrived at a small mud-brick house covered with clay. There was a courtyard in the center, between two small rooms. In the back was a larger room, with a coal-fired cooking stove beside a raised platform covered with rugs. Like most homes in Uyghur villages, there was no running water inside the house. As Lu Yin entered the living area, she noticed that the TV was on and that there was a single lightbulb dangling from the ceiling.

A middle-aged Uyghur couple greeted them effusively in heavily accented Chinese. The food was steaming on a low table that had been set on a platform. It was a meal that must have cost the family a considerable amount, given their economic status as rural farmers. Lu Yin told me, “They presented us with polu, the good kind with the leg of lamb.” She and the other three Han visitors took off their shoes and climbed up onto the raised platform.

As they began eating, the Uyghur hosts immediately began talking about “reeducation” centers. “They said in those places the guards say, ‘Who provides your daily bread?’ The answer is, ‘Xi Jinping! If you don’t answer this way then you don’t get fed!’”

The turn in the conversation and the banality with which the couple spoke shocked Lu Yin. What was even more startling was that none of her relatives or their Han colleagues challenged what they said. They did not attempt to explain away the violence of the camp system. There was no discussion of job training or free education. Lu Yin said, “Nobody questioned this, the Uyghur family spoke about the violence of the camps in incredibly matter-of-fact ways.”

In fact, her family members responded to this discussion of internment camps by using clichés about “social stability” and defeating the three evil forces of “separatism, extremism, and terrorism.”

Lu Yin was stunned. She said, “Everyone was talking in slogans.” As she observed the scene and listened to what they were saying, she realized that the slogans were not just in the spoken words. “Inside the house, there were slogans pasted everywhere,” she said. Her relatives, the Uyghur hosts, their home, and their village had been inundated with “reeducation.”

“No one interrupted the Uyghurs while they were speaking. No one contradicted what they said. When there was a gap in conversation, the refrain was ‘Uyghurs are so bad!’ The Uyghur husband and wife said in response, ‘Yes. Uyghurs are so bad.’”

As they drove away from the Uyghur home, Lu Yin’s aunt began to repeat some of the things that had been discussed over dinner. “Over and over she said, ‘Uyghurs are so bad. Uyghurs are so bad. Islam is bad. The Hui are bad too.’” The others in the SUV joined in, affirming the same lines.

Lu Yin asked her aunt what relationship they had with the host family. She told her that they had been “assigned” to them.

“Sometimes we bring them rice during our visits,” she said. The Uyghur couple was their “younger brother and sister.” Like over one million other mostly Han civil servants, they had been assigned to monitor and reeducate a Turkic Muslim family. Lu Yin had just witnessed this. She was also witnessing a larger transformation of Han attitudes toward Uyghurs and other Muslims who were native to Xinjiang.

The Han population of Xinjiang can be roughly divided into two groups: the “old Xinjiang people” who came before the 1990s, and those who came after. The first group was primarily sent to the region as part of a government program to develop the Bingtuan farming colonies. The second group was mostly economic migrants who came to develop oil, coal and natural gas industries, and the pipelines, roads, and railroads that connected them to the Chinese marketplace. Over time this new infrastructure allowed the Bingtuan to become a for-profit corporation that centered on industrial agriculture. But the primary driver of the economy became natural resource extraction and the service economy that fed off it. New housing developments for wealthy Han business people replaced urban Uyghur neighborhoods across the region. Much of the economy excluded Uyghurs, forcing them into the margins even in places where they were the majority population. Many became tenant farmers and low-wage maintenance workers. They were pushed into government-subsidized housing. Urban zoning regulations and passcards changed their way of life.

Thinking back to this process of exclusion, Lu Yin said that, in the past, her relatives had often expressed sympathy for Uyghurs since they could see that Uyghurs were being pushed out of their homes and could not find jobs. She recalled her aunt responding back in 2012 to the sight of a Uyghur woman sweeping the street, dressed all in orange, wearing a facemask against the dust and the shame of unclean labor. Her aunt had said it was a shame that even Uyghurs who had good educations were not able to find any jobs besides selling kabobs and sweeping the streets.

“Right after July 5, we Han and Uyghurs really feared each other. Now it’s not like that, but we just lead separate lives. There are very few friendships.”

The sympathy that “old Xinjiang people” like Lu Yin’s family had for Uyghurs was deeply tested by the violence of July 5, 2009. As a Han artist from a Bingtuan family named Wang Jian told me in 2014, “Right after July 5, we Han and Uyghurs really feared each other. Now it’s not like that, but we just lead separate lives. There are very few friendships.” He said that though he lived in a Uyghur-majority area in Ürümchi, during his daily life he rarely had conversations with Uyghurs other than those he knew from before 2009, and even those had become more superficial than the moments of shared camaraderie they had before. He felt that what it means to be a Xinjiang person was changing.

Because of the way the state controls public discourse in China, most political discussions take place around dinner tables. This is certainly the case in Xinjiang, where the heightened political atmosphere means that people can be detained for saying the wrong thing in public. After Uyghurs and old Xinjiang people started living separate lives, shared moments of commiseration around dinner tables began to completely vanish. This did not mean that Han people stopped talking about Uyghurs, they just stopped talking with Uyghurs. Dinner table politics began to shift.

Over the years  I lived in Ürümchi, I became close to a group of “old Xinjiang” Han intellectuals and artists. They met often in the house of an artist named Chen Ye, who was a fabulous cook. Because he had lived for a time in a Buddhist monastery and was committed to nonviolence, he was passionate about vegetarian food. He lived in a simple walkup apartment made of concrete with patched white and green tiles on the floor. The walls were packed with bookshelves crowded with the poetry of Bei Dao and Xi Chuan, translations of James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, John Steinbeck, and Gary Snyder. On a side table above labeled jugs of vinegar, he had a few Uyghur naan. As is the tradition for Uyghurs, who view bread as something that should never be wasted, the old naan was broken in pieces in preparation for a sky burial.

Chen Ye didn’t smoke or drink, but all of the others in the group did, and as the dinner party progressed, the space usually began to get hazy. Chen Ye had a delicate tea service which was universally loved. As we drank endless tiny cups of pu’er tea, conversation often revolved around art and philosophy, but inevitably it would also turn to politics. Sometimes they discussed Hong Kong or the endless war in Iraq, but more often they discussed the “Uyghur problem.”

Often, when one of the intellectuals started talking about how scared he felt in situations where he was the only Han, or complaining about how Uyghurs refuse to learn Mandarin, Chen Ye would at first remain silent. Eventually, though, he would create an eddy in the flow of conversation, reminding everyone to think about what they were saying from Uyghur perspectives.

On one occasion, after one of these ranting complaints, he told the dozen or so guests around the table that, “Uyghurs are a beautiful people. They are generous and kind. They care for each other.” The guest who had been complaining said, “If that is the case, why don’t they take care of their poor people then. Doesn’t Islam teach this?” But Chen Ye would not be sidetracked. He gave us examples of how Uyghurs had invited him into their homes over the years and how they had told him they would be angry if he did not eat with him. He said, “They told me, ‘If we don’t eat together, we can’t be friends.’”

“There is nothing wrong with Islam, the problem is the way some people are using Islam to increase their own power.”

Often Chen Ye and his “old Xinjiang” Han friends did try to understand. For instance, the artist, Wang Jian, said that it made sense that many Uyghurs looked to Turkey for inspiration in the same way that most Han artists look to America for cultural inspiration. He said, “There is nothing about ethnic separatism behind this.” In fact, many of the dinner party guests thought that the constant denouncement of the “three evil forces” of separatism, extremism, and terrorism was just a strategy of deflecting blame from the real problems of inequality which were endemic throughout Xinjiang. Wang said, “What (the government) says sounds reasonable, but it is almost all about ‘saving face.’ They are just protecting themselves.”

Yet for all the times Chen Ye and his friends were able to think in these ways, often it did not work. One of the intellectuals in the group worked for a neighborhood watch unit as a surveillance worker. He was visibly uncomfortable when others said things that contradicted the party line. He had very strong opinions regarding Islam. Over and over again, over the course of several different evenings, he brought up how he “just did not understand Muslims.” He said, “Any other group of people would be happy to just discuss their differences with others; many groups are actually willing to help people that are different than themselves. But Muslims just seem to be unwilling to do this. What is wrong with Islam?”

In response, Chen Ye said, “There is nothing wrong with Islam, the problem is the way some people are using Islam to increase their own power. Of course, the government makes this worse by increasing Uyghur poverty and powerlessness by allowing all the discrimination. It’s not a problem of religion, but that some Uyghurs haven’t developed a consciousness that allows them to see the value in accepting difference.”

At many of these dinner parties, the guests would ask my opinion about Xinjiang politics. Often my angle of response was to compare it to the racial and colonial history of the United States. I talked about how systemic racism produced forms of exclusion and inequality, and about the mass death and dispossession of Native Americans. During one of these discussions, Wang Jian interrupted me. “But your president is black, how can there still be racism in America?” This led to discussions of the way legal systems protect those with wealth, how job discrimination was institutionalized and difficult to reform. I said, “At the end of the day, if Americans disagree with government policy or the way the police act, we can speak openly about it. We protest on the streets, and try to demand change.”

Wang Jian laughed. “Yeah, here we can only talk in the privacy of our homes. Here it is like we are already living in a kind of prison.”

Over the past five years, since I last attended one of those dinner parties, the segregation of Uyghur and Han societies has been dramatically intensified and redirected. As a result, the safe space of the home, where people felt free to talk about politics around a dinner table, has been diminished. The everyday politics of the reeducation campaign has invaded every home. Since 2017, when hundreds of my contacts in Xinjiang deleted all foreigners from their WeChat contact list, I have stopped contacting Chen Ye and his friends. I do not know if they are still meeting to drink tea and talk politics. What is clear is that over 1 million civil servants, including some of the people that gathered around that table with me so many times, have been forced to “volunteer” as “older brothers and sisters” to Turkic Muslim families. This means that they were forced to gather around the dinner tables of terrified Muslims and impose a political agenda that echoed the slogans which had been quickly pasted on the walls.

This political struggle work has radically constricted the already limited space for criticism of state policies. As the New York Times has shown, in 2017, state authorities “opened more than 12,000 investigations into party members in Xinjiang for infractions in the ‘fight against separatism,’ more than 20 times the figure in the previous year, according to official statistics.” In 2017, state authorities began a major recruitment campaign for new Bingtuan members from other parts of China. Underemployed Han college graduates were promised high salaries, housing, official rank, and benefits in exchange for their work as “loyalty stabilizers.”

They told her Uyghurs were much “worse” than the African Americans they saw on TV during the Black Lives Matter protests, so this is why the camps and “reeducation” work were necessary.

During her visit to her hometown, Lu Yin observed the effects of this new campaign. By 2018, her relatives’ sympathy for underemployed Uyghurs was gone. Over the course of the weeks she was there, she felt as though “they were trying to justify what was happening.” She heard them say that the government had no choice but to intervene in the situation because “Uyghurs are so bad.” They told her Uyghurs were much “worse” than the African Americans they saw on TV during the Black Lives Matter protests, so this is why the camps and “reeducation” work were necessary.

In general, the primary complaint of Lu Yin’s relatives was not that Uyghurs were being harmed by the system, but that the reeducation campaign was harming economic growth. As a result, many people were leaving the region, there were few jobs outside of the security sector, and property values were falling. This line of discontent was similar to the concerns expressed by the demoted leader of Yarkand, Wang Yongzhi, who was publicly criticized by party leadership for allowing some detainees to be released from the camps. While some new recruits in the Bingtuan may have benefited from their new work in the reeducation system, for most “old Xinjiang” people it added new sources of moral and economic stress.

The reeducation system produced new sources of friction, new obligations, in daily life. Like other Han people inconvenienced by reeducation security, Lu Yin’s relatives also complained about the checkpoints. For instance, at first when the campaign began, everyone who was riding a public bus to the city had to wait while the Uyghurs were checked. After several months though, “it got better,” because the buses just started leaving the Uyghurs behind at the checkpoint while the bus continued on to the city.

The banality of the reeducation project wore on Lu Yin’s relatives. It made them change their attitudes toward Uyghurs. Since the reeducation system functioned as a state of exception, outside the rule of law, Uyghur protections depended on the goodwill of those who ran it. This is why the turn toward virulent forms of ethno-racial bias that Lu Yin saw in her relatives deeply troubled her. Her father told her that once all the Uyghurs were reeducated the economy would be amazing. The only way to move forward was by supporting the reeducation effort.

“What was most striking to me was the way (my relatives) had become so expressively racist,” she told me. “Around 75 percent of the time, the topic of their conversation was denigrating Uyghurs.” Continuing, Lu Yin said this was particularly alarming because, “When I visited in 2016, these (casual acts of racialization) only came up two or three times per day. Now it was something people brought up 20 or 30 times per day.” Whenever there was a lull in conversation, her relatives and their neighbors would exclaim, “Uyghurs are so bad!” And then begin to talk about how backward, ungrateful, and violent they were.

Dinner table politics in Xinjiang now revolves around the language and values of the reeducation campaign. Looking back at what was said during the meal with the Uyghur “relatives,” Lu Yin surmised that the Uyghur hosts “wanted to distance themselves from those ‘other Uyghurs.’ They wanted to show us that they understood what could happen to them if they didn’t show that they were ‘trustworthy.’” She felt as though the Uyghurs understood that their role at the table was to affirm the consensus presented by the Han visitors. They had to pretend that the camps were justified, that they too were afraid of the “bad Muslims.”

It was the spring of 2019 when Lu Yin first started calling me to talk about what was happening to “old Xinjiang” Han people. She said she thought she might be able to give me some useful data, and said most of her friends did not understand what was happening, so she didn’t really have anyone to talk to about it. Back in the United States, Lu Yin is active in the struggle for immigrant rights. She has many black and brown friends who, like her, have experienced forms of racism and discrimination from a system that protects the rights and property of white Americans. This is why she was so deeply troubled by the Islamophobia and ethno-racial bias she saw her relatives enact with the support of a police state. When she first heard about the reeducation camp system, like many overseas Chinese, she assumed that the estimates of those that were affected by it were likely inflated by the non-Chinese press. But then she realized that things were much worse than even what the media reported.

Since her last visit, her relatives have stopped speaking with her about the political situation. Instead they talk to her only in generalities. This makes her even more concerned about the situation. The dinner table conversation of the “relative visit” echoes in her mind. At times, it is hard for her to sleep at night.

Thinking about these two dinner tables, one with Lu Yin’s “relatives” and the other with Chen Ye’s Han intellectual friends, reminds me of the way black and brown people in North America have fought for centuries for the right to sit around dining room tables. House slaves and domestic servants have often not been allowed to sit at the dining room tables of their masters and employers. Instead, they are relegated to the kitchen, the backstage. Like the Langston Hughes image that is likely on Chen Ye’s shelf in Chinese translation, they are the ones that get sent “to eat in the kitchen / When company comes,” and, as Irma McClaurin writes, “wait to get called on for their ‘anecdotal’ opinions.”

In the past, Uyghurs were allowed to decide who could sit at their own tables, though they were rarely permitted to sit in positions of real authority in their own autonomous region. Now, even their own dinner tables are no longer theirs. They are required to speak in slogans on command. Chen Ye’s table has likely been changed, too. Some of his dinner party guests have become “relatives” to Turkic Muslims and are now called on for their Islamophobic opinions. My Uyghur contacts have reminded me that some of their Han friends and neighbors have found ways to help them in small ways: letting them use their phones to get news out to relatives abroad or vouching for Uyghurs who have been detained. In general, though, there is no way to fully escape the reeducation dinner table.

Names of individuals have been changed to protect their identities.

This article first appeared in the journal SupChina on June 3, 2020.

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