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‘The atmosphere has become abnormal’: Han Chinese views from Xinjiang

In 2019, when Meng You, an international student from China who is currently in North America, went back to see her family in Xinjiang, one incident really stood out to her. While shopping with her mother in a town near a division of the Xinjiang People’s Production and Construction Corps, or “the Corps” (兵团 bīngtuán) — where her grandparents had settled after moving from central China decades before — they had an encounter with a Uyghur man and the police. They were looking for parking in a crowded part of the market area when suddenly she heard a scraping sound on the side of their car. What happened over the next few moments made her reconsider her position as a Han citizen.

A Uyghur fruit seller who was trying to avoid pedestrians had run into their car with his motorized cart. “Even though it was his fault, he was really angry,” Meng You recalled. “In Mandarin he said, ‘You hit my cart, pay me!’ He looked so ‘angered’ (激动 jīdòng). My mom said, ‘No, you hit my car.’”

The “extremism” of the Uyghur man’s reaction made Meng’s mom upset, too. To Meng, it seemed like her mom was more upset that he was trying to push her around. She wanted him to admit fault and accept responsibility. She whipped out her phone and dialed 110 to summon the police from the nearby People’s Convenience Police Station, one of more than 7,700 rapid-response surveillance stations that have been built across Xinjiang since 2017.

“The police came in less than a minute. The first thing they said was ‘Why are you arguing in public?’” This is a serious charge in Xinjiang, because it can be construed as “disturbing the social order,” which has resulted in many detentions for Uyghurs.

Meng said that the police presence produced an immediate response in the Uyghur man. “It was amazing. Just seconds before, you could see on his face that he looked like he wanted to punch someone. Then, suddenly, his attitude changed. He appeared completely calm. Now he just wanted to talk in a very reasonable way.”

In his halting Mandarin, he said, “OK, how much do you want?”

“My mom said, ‘50 yuan is enough,’” Meng recalled. “But he insisted on giving her 25 yuan. He probably only made 100 or 150 yuan in a day, so it was a lot of money for him.”

It is unclear why the man responded the way he did. Perhaps he thought he could intimidate two Han women, who were clearly wealthier than he, into paying him — or to let him go by yelling at them. But from Meng’s perspective, it was clear that her mom was not actually interested in compensation. She had insurance, and 25 or even 50 yuan was not nearly enough to replace the fender of her car. There was something patronizing in the way she treated him. She wanted him to learn a lesson. The money that was exchanged symbolized something much deeper about social order, moral instruction, and the function of the police in contemporary Xinjiang.

“It was his attitude that made my mom mad,” Meng said. “She didn’t want him to think he could get away with yelling and blaming others. And it was clear that he was really afraid of the police.”

For Meng You, this incident sticks out in her mind as an example of what Xinjiang has become since the March 1, 2014 Kunming suicide attack. “I can feel the tension when I go back to Xinjiang. People are just not really nice. They are always busy. It feels like no one wants to go to Xinjiang to travel anymore, so the economy in our town has suffered a lot. Lots of people wanted to go there to travel before. So now a lot of tour guides have lost their jobs.”

Her mother told her that for now, “stability (稳定 wěndìng) is No. 1, and then the economy.” The worst part of this is that there does not seem to be any end in sight. The mentality of maintaining social order, of living in a police state, has become normalized. Turning to the police, thinking from the perspective of sweeping counter-terrorism laws, is now the natural response to any conflict.

“There has been six years of this already,” Meng said. “So it feels like it might continue on for a long time, even though it is not sustainable to keep it this way. Everyone is unhappy. The police have to work long hours away from their family. And the Uyghurs are being sent for training. We don’t know who has actually been the cause of violence in the years before. Back then we feared ISIS was coming, but now that threat doesn’t seem real, either. I don’t think we can blame the Uyghurs, I can only assume that the government is responsible for what is happening in Xinjiang.”

Another Han Chinese citizen who left the southern Xinjiang city of Aksu in 2019 told me that he had seen a dramatic shift over the past five years as well. Kong Yuanfeng, a migrant originally from Henan, said that when grid policing was initiated in 2016, Uyghur movement was sharply curtailed. “The police treat the Uyghurs very differently than they do people like me — even though I have been arrested before,” Kong said. “They might just glance at my ID or not even that. But since 2016, Uyghurs can’t leave Xinjiang. They can’t even leave their own communities.

“I have a Uyghur friend whose friend was having a wedding in Aksu that he wanted to attend. He used to be able to go downtown easily, but now it is so difficult. There is a checkpoint at the boundary between the different jurisdictions. They would definitely check his ID and also check if he has approval to travel from his neighborhood watch unit (社区 shèqū). Even if he has this, they would still call the neighborhood committee to verify the information.

“He has to go through all this if he wants to go downtown. If anyone wanted to leave the city, there would be even more things to do. Then they have to get approval from both the Public Security Bureau and the neighborhood watch unit. This only applies to Uyghurs. Han can go wherever they want. I lived in Aksu for five, six years, and I know this for sure. Uyghurs can’t leave.”

The mentality of maintaining social order, of living in a police state, has become normalized.

Kong was sent to Xinjiang by the government. In the early 2000s, when he first set out from his village to find work as a migrant, he had gotten into a fight with another migrant worker in Guangzhou. After a criminal conviction resulting from the incident, he was transferred to a Xinjiang workhouse to begin a process of “reform through hard labor” by picking cotton for another division of the Corps in a county near Kashgar. After his release, he decided to stay in Xinjiang, working odd jobs as a construction worker. But eventually, in a moment of desperation in 2016, he stole an iPhone — something he thought he could sell to give himself enough to survive. Once again he was detained, this time for six months. What he saw during that period of detention — and a subsequent detention for criticizing the Xi administration on WeChat — pushed him to leave the region entirely.

During his last periods of detention, he met many Uyghurs who had been detained as part of the reeducation campaign. They were held with him in the detention center (看守所 kānshǒusuǒ) because there was not enough room for them in the new camps. He said, “Anyone who had a beard, prayed, studied the Quran, didn’t follow orders, argued with the cadres, had a knife in their homes — or if they just looked unstable — was detained during this time.”

Echoing the testimonies of other former detainees such as Erbaqyt Otarbai, Kong said that while they were in the detention center, awaiting transfer to the camp, they had to wear shackles. Because the shackles were heavy and rough, “Sometimes the skin of their ankles was rubbed to the point of having their bone exposed in places,” Kong remembered seeing. “Before their meals, detainees had to march for a while. While they were walking, they had to sing several songs or repeat, ‘One, two, three.’ Sometimes there was blood streaming down on their feet.”

Kong Yuanfeng at a prison and detention center complex near Kashgar

Kong Yuanfeng at a prison and detention center complex near Kashgar, where he lived and worked as a construction worker for several months in 2018. During his time there, he observed and participated in the radical expansion of the complex.

Through his conversation with cellmates, with other Han people after his release, and his observations as a construction worker in detention centers and camps, Kong pieced together how the camp and prison system was radically expanded, and how it took away significant portions of the Uyghur population in the locations where he lived for the past decade in Aksu and Kashgar.

Han people usually refer to them as “legal training schools” (司法学校 sīfǎ xuéxiào). People are supposed to study the law, sing the national anthem, and raise the national flag. But everyone knows that the food in the legal training schools are just as bad as in prison. They are actually more like detention centers, guarded by the razor wire on the walls and by police. The legal training schools and the detention centers use exactly the same kinds of controls. The only real difference I could see is that detainees in the legal training schools don’t have to wear shackles. But they have to squat with their hands behind their heads (抱头 bàotóu) while waiting to eat their food or while waiting in line.

From Kong’s perspective, as recently as 2019, most Han people who lived in Aksu did not truly understand the cruelty of the “schools.” Most of them saw them as a “benefit” for Uyghurs, or if they did have a sense of their carceral effect, they saw it as a justified punishment for “extremist” beliefs.

“Many Han people think that if a person is taken, the person must have done something wrong,” Kong said. “Some have a strong belief in the government. And those that don’t are simply scared. They are scared they could get into some trouble if they criticize this policy or refuse to help with it. Many Han Chinese think Uyghurs should be detained and that Uyghurs are terrorists. They think Uyghurs have different beliefs that make them this way. I think differently.”

Kong Yuanfeng with a coworker during one of his last jobs as a Xinjiang migrant worker

Kong Yuanfeng with a coworker during one of his last jobs as a Xinjiang migrant worker installing cameras and razor wire at the China-Kyrgyzstan border.

Because he had lived in Xinjiang for nearly two decades and shared the same room as Uyghurs detained for political or religious crimes, Kong said, “I have good friendships with Uyghur people. Uyghurs never hit me, even if we have arguments with each other. I have seen that Uyghurs are good people, and that they are loyal to their friends.”

“Many Han Chinese discriminate against Uyghurs,” he noted. “Those are the people influenced by the government’s ideology. If they see a Uyghur stranger, or if they see any strange signs, they will report that Uyghur. Even some Uyghurs do the same. Each household has the police contact who is responsible for them posted on their door.”

At the same time, Kong felt that some Han who had lived even longer in Xinjiang were more likely to hold a less supportive view of what was happening. “In the past, when [Han Chinese] came to Xinjiang, they had more freedom. They could go anywhere they wanted freely and no one would check their IDs. Uyghurs used to be so friendly toward them. But now that has changed. The government took too many people. The atmosphere has become abnormal. There are cameras all over the place, so people have started to feel the tension in all aspects of life.”

It was this tension that pushed Kong to leave. He felt that the police state had created an atmosphere of dehumanization that he could no longer live with, even though his friends and community in Aksu were all he had. “They don’t treat people as human beings. In Xinjiang, if you are not a government worker, your life will be more and more difficult going forward,” he said. It is this prospect that is pushing Xinjiang Han to either accept their role in the reeducation campaign or to leave.

Since her last trip back to Xinjiang in 2019, Meng You has come to similar conclusions. As she has read more about the camp system and the experiences of Uyghurs and Kazakhs, particularly those who were not educated in the Chinese language, she has come to understand that people live in different worlds in Xinjiang.

Because of the connections Meng’s mom has in the local government, in some instances she can simply call a friend to help her navigate the security system. Back in 2016, her mom was forced to give her passport to the local authorities, as all Xinjiang residents had to. “No one wants the government to keep their passport for them,” Meng said. “But it was so easy for my mom to get her passport last year when she wanted to travel abroad. Almost all my friends and relatives work for the government. Their jobs are really good so they can definitely work within the system. So they don’t complain about it with me.” At the same time it is nearly impossible for most Uyghurs to obtain passports in the first place, or, for those who did have the connections to obtain one in the past, for them to get their passports back from local authorities.

“If you hear things long enough and repeat them over and over, you do start to believe it.”

Meng first heard about the reeducation camps from her mom during her summer trip back to Xinjiang in 2018. “I was confused by them, because she told me that they have good food there, so they like to be there. She said that some of them said they wished their children could join them too, since the food was so good and it was free. She said that it is just like a kind of long ‘examination’ (检查 jiǎnchá), and that they learn job skills. So when they are done they can provide for themselves. I learned a lot about ‘ethnic solidarity’ (民族团结 mínzú tuánjié) in school. If you hear things long enough and repeat them over and over, you do start to believe it.”

When Meng went back this past year, she saw one of the camps for the first time when they were driving in the outskirts of their hometown. “I said, ‘Isn’t this new?’ Mom said, ‘Yes, it is one of those places where they are learning skills.’ It had walls and razor wire around it, but so do most schools, so it really looked almost like any other school. But my mom did say that the police monitor the students there. I actually went to the clinic associated with it later for a flu shot and the clinic looked really normal.”

Meng also learned that her mother had been assigned to be a “relative” (亲戚 qīnqī) to a Uyghur woman in a village near her hometown. “She didn’t complain about it to me, I think she thought they could just cook together and sleep on the platform. She didn’t think it was that big of a deal, but she would have rather stayed at home.” Meng’s closest friend, whom she refers to as her sister, was also assigned to a Uyghur woman. But she was farther out in the countryside, so it took more time to visit. “She had to visit them, bring them rice, and pay if she stayed overnight. She really didn’t want to go. She also complained that because of the situation of the family, she was supposed to help three or four of the people in the family to find jobs. It is really hard to help Uyghurs find (real) jobs, so I know this is difficult. She tried to do this, but I don’t know the result.”

Everyone who had “a serious job” such as a government job or a job for a company had a relative “randomly” (随机 suíjī) arranged for them. “People don’t reject this assignment,” Meng said. “If you do, you will have trouble. In Xinjiang, people are used to following the policy. My sister complained sometimes, but really resigned herself to it. She said, ‘I have to go, so I will go.’ She mostly just wanted to have time with her three-year-old, but instead her mom took care of her child.”

From both Kong Yuanfeng and Meng You’s perspective, the majority of Han people in Xinjiang have accepted the “reeducation” campaign as something that is necessary to protect their security — a necessity that they suspect has become even stronger since the arrival of COVID-19. Meng felt that Uyghurs have resigned themselves to this reality as well. “They know what the rules are now and they don’t want to go back to the camps, so they will abide.” She felt that, going forward, education would be really important for Uyghurs. “Not camps, but actual schools, so they can figure out what is ‘normal.’”

Yet the more Meng learns about the camps and the reasons people were sent there, the more unsettled this hopeful future becomes — and the types of privilege that Han people carry are made more plain and how “normal” is defined by those who are already succeeding in the system. She was particularly dismayed to read the account of a young secular Hui international student named Yueming “Vera” Zhou from the University of Washington who was sent to a camp because she used a VPN. “I used a VPN every day last year (when I was in Xinjiang),” she said. “No one asked me about this.”

Meng’s and Kong’s accounts speak to the ways people get pulled into forms of complicity. Explaining how social life in Xinjiang has turned toward state violence often involves implicating themselves, their loved ones, and a government that often benefits them. It is actually much easier to act as though the camps don’t exist and accept the government’s narrative.

There is a wide spectrum of paths that Xinjiang Han can take in accepting their role in the shattering of the Uyghur, Kazakh, and other indigenous societies in the vast region. They can tell the world what they have seen and acknowledge the disjunction between their experiences and those of their Muslim counterparts, or they can continue down an easier, denialist path. Between these two poles, as Primo Levi writes so beautifully, is a “gray zone” made up of every shade of light and dark, silence itself being one shade of the gradient of complicity. Bringing clarity to the situation will take more Xinjiang Han like Meng You and Kong Yuanfeng speaking out and coming to terms with their own small role in creating the “abnormal atmosphere” in Xinjiang. Meanwhile, the unhappiness that permeates the Uyghur and Kazakh homelands where their friends and families have settled continues.


Meng You’s name has been changed to protect her identity. This essay first appeared in SupChina on November 4, 2020.

Filed under: Social Analysis

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Dr. Darren Byler is a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Asian Studies, University of Colorado, Boulder where he writes about social theory, urban ethnography and the technopolitics of life in Chinese Central Asia. He also writes a regular column on the Uyghur human rights crisis for SupChina.

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