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‘Truth and reconciliation’: Excerpts from the Xinjiang Clubhouse

On Saturday, February 6, two days before it would be banned across China, the social media app Clubhouse had a defining moment. As numerous news outlets have reported, a room called “Is there a concentration camp in Xinjiang?” attracted a brief flourishing of speech and free discussion among Chinese people in the era of state censorship.

As noted in an episode of the Sinica Podcast with several of the room’s hosts, one of the features of the Mandarin-language conversation was unique: Uyghurs were placed in moderator positions and invited to share their stories of family separation and disappearance.

There was civility and respect in the room, which swelled to as many as 4,000 participants. Crucially, there was largely an absence of what one participant termed “Hansplaining”: Chinese-language discussions of Xinjiang which privilege Han perspectives. The room attempted to center discussions of the Xinjiang camps not on geopolitics or the security concerns of protected citizens, but from the standpoint of those who are most harmed by systems of state violence. The participant said that critiquing Hansplaining is important because it is so difficult for non-Uyghurs to imagine how much emotional labor it takes for Uyghurs to tell their most vulnerable and painful experiences. Often, Uyghurs have had multiple interactions with Chinese speakers who have reacted cruelly to them and not listened in good faith; they have responded to Uyghur pain by telling Uyghurs that they deserve to be treated as subhuman, or that Uyghurs were exaggerating the scale of their pain for some ideological purpose, as if it was just their opinion and could be debated. By placing Uyghurs in moderator positions in the Clubhouse, their lived experience was respected. Indeed, this is the reason why the Chinese state media organization Global Times regarded the discussion as “one-sided.”

Uyghurs and Kazakhs who were in the room felt this. A friend and colleague of mine, Dr. Guldana Salimjan, a gender studies researcher from Xinjiang who is now in Canada, told me that as a Kazakh woman, listening to Han people acknowledge the deep psychological and physical violence that her community has experienced made her emotional a number of times. “It was as if I was attending a Truth and Reconciliation event.” Continuing, she noted that while such events have been critiqued by Critical Indigenous Studies scholars such as Kim TallBear for letting states and settler societies off the hook, they are still important because they recognize and validate the pain of traumatized people. “And this was a grassroots event, organized spontaneously and semi-anonymously, not as a way of valorizing some government leader,” she added. In the past, she and numerous other Uyghurs and Kazakhs have told me that they often lose Han friends who are discomfited by the Xinjiang issue. Now it seems like perhaps there may be a shift in how at least some Han people perceive them.

Over the past few weeks, I have had access to a recording of several hours of the event. This recording is being preserved with the intention of making it publicly accessible for future generations perhaps years, even decades from now. In the future, when the camp system in Xinjiang can safely be discussed as an important moment in history, the recording will be an artifact that proves, as a Uyghur friend put it, that Han people were “still human,” were still willing to grapple with shameful issues that deeply harmed others.

In this column are excerpts from the deeply moving speeches that Han people contributed in response to moving speeches from their Uyghur “countrymen” (同胞 tóngbāo). Unfortunately, the format does not fully convey the pathos in their voices, the way they broke down in tears or faltered, not knowing how to put their feelings into words. All translations are my own (apologies for any mistakes!) and have been lightly edited for clarity and to omit personal identifiers.

In most speeches, the speaker clearly identified their ethnic background and current location. The excerpts are loosely grouped around these identifications and the themes touched on by the speakers. In a final powerful speech, a speaker outlines the three types of courage that Han allies should consider taking up within their communities.

Han Chinese from Xinjiang

“There is no real reason for the current concentration camps. It is just that every police station has a quota for how many need to be in the camps.”

Xinjiang Han 1: I want to say that Xinjiang itself is actually a giant concentration camp, it’s just that there are smaller concentration camps inside a larger concentration camp. In fact, we Han people are also afraid of these camps. The environment is airtight. Almost nothing gets in or out. On top of this, our (Xinjiang) media organizations do not have real reporters and so there is no real news. So it isn’t easy for the news inside the camps to get out, but it is even difficult for us to discuss the truth of what the evidence shows. And when we have evidence, those that have it are afraid to share it.

Xinjiang Han 2: Even if (the authorities) have no real evidence against (detainees), they will sentence them anyway. There weren’t laws or regulations restricting people from doing the things that are now criminalized; that is, it was not completely illegal in the past. They waited until the Xinjiang Uyghurs did these things, then passed the laws. This is the first point about how the system works. So the people who are in charge of course have no real evidence to prove that detainees are guilty. So what conditions do they use to determine who is who? Who should be detained and who should not be detained? They came up with pretexts, such as, Does a person or his wife wear a veil or does she not wear a veil, does he have any criminal record, or has he visited some sensitive countries? They’ve used many, many, many pretexts to decide.

Xinjiang Han 3: The story I want to tell is about a friend of mine in Xinjiang. He came from a small county in Xinjiang. He studied very well and then went to Beijing for university. After graduating, he found a job in Beijing. His parents had never been to Beijing, so he thought, Now that I have finally settled down in Beijing, I can invite my parents to Beijing. So they took the train to Beijing. But they were stopped because of their ethnic identity (on their ID cards). There was no way to get around the system. Apparently there were police on the train and they did not allow them to get off at Beijing Railway Station. They just wanted to see the gate at Tiananmen Square, but in the end they never did.

Xinjiang Han 4: I grew up in Xinjiang. Around the time that the pandemic spread from Wuhan last year, I made some comments on my WeChat Moments [similar to a Facebook News Feed] back in Xinjiang, because I had just read a BBC report about the camps. I was really stunned by what I saw, and I had a lot of feelings. So I said a few words in my Moments. Then that night, the police came knocking on my parents’ door in Xinjiang and told my mother to delete all these things. Then, maybe more than an hour later, it was 3 o’clock in the morning, my dad contacted me. He explained that the chief wanted my mother to go with them and he didn’t know where they were taking her. The next morning, I couldn’t contact my father or mother. He just disappeared for like a week. I just called day after day.

Xinjiang Han 5: During this time there were investigations of people who liked Nokia phones. Why? In Xinjiang, many people especially liked “dumb” phones or old phones. Some people said that it was that they were reliable. But really, it is because unlike Apple or Android phones, they do not access the internet. They can only call and send text messages. They are useless if the police want to investigate you or install software and tell you what to do. And there is another thing. I don’t know if others know this but Xinjiang is the only place that uses a fourth-generation ID card. What is the difference with the third generation? It uses data from our irises and fingerprints.

Xinjiang Han 6: The ID cards we are using now carry all kinds of data. It is all bilingual, in Chinese and Uyghur. Everything in Xinjiang has stopped. There is no economic development and no revenue from tourism.

Everyone hears things about Xinjiang. Xinjiang is equated with insurgents. This misfortune is really real. People in Xinjiang, including Han people from Xinjiang and ethnic minorities, are discriminated against. For example, at first they would set up checkpoints on the highway. They would make you get out of the car, whether it is on a small road or at a toll gate. They would manually check your ID. However, now they have developed an express lane for Han people. If you are an ethnic minority, especially our countrymen from southern Xinjiang, they will definitely stop them for inspection. Every time, they must think, what will happen if I am interrogated? Personally, I feel like all of this makes me very, very, very anxious. It is very emotional for all Xinjiang Han people. I did not expect that this would lead to (concentration camps). But many people’s mentality is that they would rather kill a thousand people by mistake than allow one terrorist to escape.”

Uyghur from Xinjiang: In China, terrorism is a political term. The description and definition of terrorism in China is different from that in the international world, or in the mainstream Western world. For example, some time ago, there was a person in Nanjing who took revenge against society and attacked a kindergarten, killing many children, parents and others, and then held a child hostage. Imagine how this would be reported in the news if this person was Uyghur? Was this Han man in Nanjing described as a terrorist? We have seen countless cases of this kind, including bus bombings and attacks on schools. But when the person who committed these things is not of Uyghur nationality, they are usually described as mentally ill or raging against society or something. In the past, Uyghurs sometimes clashed with the government because of civil disputes, and then sometimes there were violent incidents. Usually in such incidents there were casualties on both sides. But this kind of conflict will always be called terrorism. I am very opposed to saying “not all Uyghurs are terrorists.” The underlying meaning in this description is that Uyghurs tend to be terrorists and the good ones are the exception. It totally ignores the fact that no one from any other ethnic group is ever called a terrorist in China.

Xinjiang Han 7: This system has become a normal state of affairs. Which means people have become numb to this kind of thing. I think it’s all very confusing. It makes me want to use a Soviet saying: “I did not support lesbians and gays when they were taken away because I was not LGBT. When they took away the communists, I didn’t support them because I was not communist. Finally, when I was persecuted, I spoke up because no one else was left to speak for me.” [Editor’s note: He appears to be paraphrasing German pastor Martin Niemöllerirst’s poem “First They Came…”]

People say that every village has quotas. You are compelled to find a certain number of people who will “volunteer” to work in the system. So there is a certain number who will also be sent to work in the camps. Even some people from inner China are also forced to come back to work. There is no real reason for the current concentration camps. It is just that every police station has a quota for how many need to be in the camps. So many people (that have been taken) either made some small mistake or committed a small crime. They just make up the number and type it in. Some people with a religious background are just dragged away until none of them are left. Then the second wave starts with those who have “illegal culture.” Then there is a third wave if the numbers are still not enough and the quota hasn’t been filled. Then the fourth…

Xinjiang Han 8: My friends in Xinjiang all remember a time when the police searched their mobile phone on the street. The police have a tool in their hands that can be inserted into everyone’s mobile phone to see if you have watched sensitive overseas videos or shared sensitive words. This thing is so invasive. I was very depressed during this time. My family and relatives from the Public Security Bureau, including my parents and friends, all warned me about this since I had been abroad for so long. They thought it was possible that even if my thinking is good I might have accidentally done something. They said if they want to check you, you should take out a spare phone for them to check. All this made me really uneasy. A lot of people around me are disgusted because of this. Many Han people were disgusted and said why don’t they just check the ethnic minorities. This made me even more uneasy. I wanted to tell them, “If you can’t stand it as a Han person, how do you think ethnic minorities feel?”

On identity

“This has been one of the most moving things I’ve heard in my life…I’ve heard a lot of stories that I didn’t know and am very touched.”

Han Chinese 1: I hope no one will underestimate your identity. If you are a Han person who grew up in the mainland, you are very powerful, and there are a lot of things you can do that others can’t do.

Korean-Chinese: The children of North Koreans, like me, really are refugees. They are treated very badly because after they are caught, they can be sent back to North Korea. And then we will be sent to a concentration camp for reform. So the Xinjiang issue feels very close. In a few years, we may also be treated like people in Xinjiang. I am very worried about this problem. And I wanted to say something because I don’t know if there are other Koreans or other people like me in this group.

Hui Muslim: This has been one of the most moving things I’ve heard in my life. I woke up early to listen for the past two hours to what everyone has shared. I’ve heard a lot of stories that I didn’t know and am very touched.

What I want to say is that I was actually fortunate enough to have gone to southern Xinjiang in 2016. At that time, these sorts of activities (detentions, etc.) had not yet started on such a large scale. As a mainlander, the first thing I saw when I arrived there is that every street in places like Kashgar was strictly controlled. There were checkpoints on every street. I took some pictures of a mosque and old men walking nearby. To my surprise, there were very large armed vehicles that were patrolling the city 24 hours per day. So I took a video of the patrol. Then I was immediately surrounded. I don’t know if it was the police or some security personnel. They came to me and told me that I must delete the images that I just took. I’m just an ordinary person, and even I felt a real sense of fear. Of course, in contrast to what our Uyghur countrymen feel, the things I encountered were actually very trivial. We had a Han tour guide, and when we were coming up to a checkpoint he told them all the people in our car was Han. [Ed’s note: which was a lie, since the speaker is Hui.] And later, after we went through, he joked that it was good we didn’t say we were Uyghur. This made my heart ache.

Coming to terms

“When you don’t trust that the innocent will be protected, it will make you terrified. Now is the time when each of us should fight to make a statement for those who are oppressed by this entire tragic system.”

Han Chinese 2: A Jewish friend of mine compared the camps in Xinjiang to the Auschwitz Nazi concentration camp, sharing pictures of both online. I immediately felt like this was a personal attack because China is my homeland, after all. He compared my homeland with the land of the Nazis. I really couldn’t stand it at the time. This was a couple of years ago. I didn’t believe it. Not only did I not believe it, I thought it was an insult. I thought this was just something a foreigner in the United States would say. But like so many people, after listening to many, many, many reports, I gradually believed that I also should start paying attention to this matter.

While I was listening to others here today I was thinking that even with everyone sharing like this, it won’t be easy to change someone’s mind. Because I was just like that. And many people who live in Beijing have this kind of thinking, like, “My thinking will not change on this issue.”

But, just now, I realized that people’s thinking will gradually change. Mine did.

Han Chinese 3: I have no personal connection to Xinjiang, but I’ve found this room to be a very, very good experience; many, many countrymen who are here from the mainland have no space like this to discuss or share. I think the fact that everyone in this room can hear these kinds of stories and understand this kind of inside information is very good. It really is the main thing we can do to spread the word so that even stupid people like me can understand and know what the situation has come to be.

Han Chinese 4: They say here (in China, outside Xinjiang) that the control and reeducation happening in China’s concentration camps are in line with the measures taken by Western countries against terrorism. In fact, it’s on a completely different scale, because here there are totally different standards to determine who should be sent to the camps. So it isn’t true that our country does exactly the same thing as Western countries or that it must be necessary to do it.

So what if they call the concentration camps in Xinjiang “re-education camps”? You should ask yourself. Drawing on your own familiarity with our bureaucratic system, can we imagine what might result if we were targeted by such a process? It would definitely make you feel very anxious and terrified. When you don’t trust that the innocent will be protected, it will make you terrified. Now is the time when each of us should fight to make a statement for those who are oppressed by this entire tragic system.

I am a person who has never been oppressed, so I think I have this obligation. I have an obligation to stand with these people. We can be leaders in our society. We have an obligation to spread the truth.

Han person 5: In this group today, I heard from a witness of a concentration camp and our Uyghur and Kazakh countrymen share their experiences. Some of this I had heard before, but it was still very shocking. And I was a bit choked up a few times. As a Han person, I feel a lot of shame.

Han person 6: I have never been to Xinjiang. One of the reasons I wanted to speak was because I discovered that most people’s understanding of what is happening in Xinjiang comes from Western media. This is actually something that I found to be a bit surprising. Because while I’m not a Xinjiang native, I’ve heard about many of the things happening there before it was reported. I just didn’t have the language to describe it. For instance, I had heard that they started detaining people again. I had heard that Han cadres were forcibly paired with Muslim minorities three or six months before I heard it from Western media. I found out via some first-hand information and then following some Uyghur bloggers. It was from the very obscure language and internal documents on their Weibo that I first learned about this horrible news. So even people in China have some relatively low-risk ways of understanding the current situation in Xinjiang if they are willing to look.

Han person 7: My family works for the Public Security Bureau. I am a younger Han person, but I can remember how (authorities) have dealt with Xinjiang people. Their attitude is to treat them as foreigners.

(Back then,) when a Uyghur came to our city, the entire Public Security Bureau would enter a state of emergency. First, if a Uyghur wanted to find a hotel, the police would go question them as quickly as possible. Basically, most people would not be able to stay. They would be deported back to Xinjiang (around the time when the mass internments began). After they were sent to Xinjiang, all of their personal property would be seized by the Public Security Bureau.

How do I know this? Once, when I was hanging out in the police station, a colleague of a relative gave me lamb kebabs. When I asked why he had them, he said it was because he expelled a Xinjiang man today, so the lamb skewers they seized belonged to us now. He had so little empathy for the Uyghurs. So do most people, except for those of us chatting here.

I myself went abroad for about two years, and then I learned about the concentration camps in Xinjiang. I have been thinking about what I should do about the situation. So I’ve started to do some simple volunteer work. I will not disclose with which organization, but basically, I call the local Xinjiang government and ask if they can confirm this or that. I ask about specific people who are missing. Through this kind of action, you can help verify cases and raise international awareness of the situation in Xinjiang. I think its effect is very small, so I also want to know if any of you here can share with me your approach to helping Uyghurs in a practical way.

What should be done?

“Remember everything we heard today. Remember how we were touched by what we felt today. Feel this anger.”

Han person 8: There are a lot of verified reports about the government’s orders and many portraits of victims, along with the testimonies of former detainees and their relatives. If you share this kind of information among your circle of friends and they still want to say it’s all fake, then ask them to disprove the evidence. I think we really need to ask ourselves what kind of evidence we need to see to be convinced. At a certain point, you realize that no matter what kind of evidence you provide, some people will not be persuaded. This is precisely why discussions like this one are necessary. I think if you are willing to speak on social media or in private, for example, even at the dinner table, to talk to your family and friends in private, this is of course very good. All of us understand that in the current environment of speech, not everyone can speak publicly, but at least we can educate ourselves.

Don’t defend something so abhorrent. We all know how safe and commonplace it feels to defend it. I think this — not defending it — is the simplest thing we, as ordinary people, can do for our ethnic minority friends. There is absolutely no moral reason to try to justify the existence of such an abhorrent phenomenon. I just wanted to say thank you all for sharing, I have been really moved by being in this room.

Han person 9: I have always had a good impression of Xinjiang in my home city on the East Coast. I thought everything in Xinjiang is beautiful and good, and everything is getting better. We thought we were just sending groups of cadres to “aid Xinjiang” or to engage in economic construction there, and so on. We did not associate it with the violence we’ve heard in the news. I just found this out after listening to others speak today! I didn’t know that the factories and other buildings they were building were being used as concentration camps, I thought the construction must be good. It’s difficult to contemplate the political implications. It’s so hard to avoid becoming a tool in the hands of our government. I feel so uncomfortable now. What can I do? I don’t think there’s any way to do anything, and what makes me feel ridiculous is that today I thought of my roommate at the time and the way I smiled when he told us that he had a project to build those buildings. I don’t know what to say.

Han person 10: The United States has sanctioned the leaders from the region, including the People’s Production and Construction Corps. This is something that makes Uyghurs very happy because the Corps is a very sad organization responsible for much of the persecution of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. I think every government should sanction the entire Corps and the region’s leaders. This includes officials from the Party Committee of the Autonomous Region and even members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo. All trade related to forced labor should be stopped. It should really be impossible to do business with a country that is in the process of creating a genocide. Everyone must boycott the 2022 Olympics. We must make China lose face in front of the world. This will make it clear in their minds and they will discover the seriousness of what they have done in the eyes of the world.

Han person 11: I just listened for four hours. I am a northern Han Chinese who has nothing to do with Xinjiang. I feel as though I could have PTSD just from listening to this. Imagine if it is your own family, your own father, mother and younger brother! What if my sister was arrested by someone and forced to drink bitter medicine and say it’s good for you. If you feel such things are intolerable, then I think Uyghurs have the right to say it is intolerable.

The original intention of the concentration camps was not to physically eliminate people. The current definition of concentration camps is a kind of system that operates outside of normal legal procedures and illegally imprisons large numbers of people. Often they are just dissidents. Sometimes they are citizens of enemy countries and prisoners of war. In some cases, it is also the members of a specific race or a religious group. Extermination is not necessarily a prerequisite for a camp to be considered a concentration camp. What we see today in Xinjiang, the people held for “reeducation,” completely fits the definition of concentration camp.

After our conversation today, I feel very anxious and very helpless. I often ask myself what we can do. What can we do? Here I want to say that we can take on three different kinds of courage. Not everyone can do the first kind, which is the hardest when facing this kind of power. The first kind of courage is to stand up directly. This kind of resistance is fearless, it is the most remarkable bravery. But in addition, there is a second kind of courage that we can try. When you face this kind of injustice, don’t take the initiative to collaborate. Don’t facilitate the abuse, don’t profit from it; distinguish right from wrong so that you have steel in your heart and you leave a little shame, and leave a little guilt there. Let it motivate you.

Remember everything we heard today. Remember how we were touched by what we felt today. Feel this anger. Let’s not forget that doing this is already considered the second kind of courage.

However, in the face of some situations in which we are complicit, we can also choose a third kind of courage. All of us live with fear, that’s what happens when you grow up in a culture of fear, but there is one thing I can do when I am in China: Don’t spread this fear. Don’t bring this fear to your children. Don’t bring it to the next generation of young people. I think no matter what ethnicity you are or religion you practice, young people shouldn’t grow up in fear. People either become cowardly or bullies when they grow up in fear. Neither of these two kinds of people can become pillars. I hope not to let our children bear this fear again. That’s all I want to say.

This article first appeared in the new journal SupChina on March 3, 2021.

Filed under: Han Perspectives


Dr. Darren Byler is an Assistant Professor of International Studies at Simon Fraser University where he teaches and writes about social theory, urban ethnography and the technopolitics of life in Chinese Central Asia. He also writes a regular column on state violence and Uyghur decolonization for SupChina.

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