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An Interview on Xinjiang w. Yi Xiaocuo of the “Camp Album” Project

For victims of state violence or those witnessing its horror, knowing how to help and how to imagine a way forward may be the most urgent task. With that in mind, (Asian Art Tours) was joined by Yi Xiaocuo an art activist and creator of the Camp Album to discuss the current state violence and concentration camps built and managed by the Chinese government in the shared homeland of the Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tajiks and other Indigenous peoples (Xinjiang).

ASIA ART TOURS: What can you tell us about your background? Why did you decide to start your website?

YI XIAOCUO:  belong to one of the Turkic ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang. I was in grad school in North America when the situation in Xinjiang deteriorated after 2016-2017, since then I never returned home. Yi Xiaocuo is my pen name, meaning ‘a small contingent’ in Chinese, written as 一小撮. Communist Party of China often uses this term to denigrate dissidents as just a ‘minority’ that deserves to be violently crushed. I am now reclaiming this term to amplify the voices of those minorities.

Being self-exiled under these circumstances, I first dealt with the stress and anxiety through drawing and writing. Eventually I realized I was not alone, so I decided to document the community’s collective experience coping with the distress. It is also my hope that this project can reach more people and raise awareness on the human rights crisis and cultural genocide in Xinjiang.

Eid Mubarak: A Phone Call with Family by Yi Xiaocuo

This sketch is for the many of us who can’t return home to celebrate Eid with our dear families: For the many who are trapped behind the walls, for the many whose phone has become not a convenience, but a time bomb or a spy device, for the many who cannot hear what their families are really saying, for the many who have a smile on their faces, but cry on the inside.

AAT: What was your experience (either personally or through friends) of the racism and violence being directed against Uyghur People in Xinjiang? What does this violence and racism look like?

In Xinjiang, one’s ethnicity (minzu in China), gender, hukou (household registration), Chinese fluency all play a role in determining how he or she is treated. As recent decades saw Han culture and demography became more dominant in Xinjiang, ethnic minorities like Uyghurs and Kazakhs received increasing Chinese racism against them, for example, employment discrimination, unequal economic development, difficulties to apply for and renew passports, also cultural appropriation in the form of ethnic tourism and political performance of social harmony, and so on.

Personally, many of my friends and I have similar experiences such as being told not to apply for a job in Inner China with excuses given such as ‘we can’t provide halal food,’ Kafkaesque bureaucracy for passport related paperwork, and being Othered because of our appearances, ethnic identities, languages, and religion.

AAT: For Chinese (漢族)who live in Xinjiang, how have they reacted to the violence and repression? What consequences do they face for speaking out against China’s policy of violence and surveillance?

Han Chinese is also a very diverse group, so I won’t generalize. The Vice documentary interviewed a settler Han woman and her opinion is representative of average Han attitudes toward Muslim minorities’ incarceration. They are either indifferent and ignorant about the violence Uyghurs and many other minority groups are experiencing, or they believe it is a necessary solution to ‘counterterrorism’ (read more here). They believe in the government’s narratives because there is very little alternative source of information in China.

Before camps began to spread, many Han in Xinjiang already believe minorities are backward and need ‘education’ or to improve their quality (suzhi in Chinese). There are of course exceptions. There have been cases of Han news editorphotographer, and resident who were critical of the current Muslim crackdown. They were immediately punished with imprisonment. The recent leaked documents are also from an insider within the Communist Party of China in Xinjiang.

Xinjiang’s prison camps as drawn by dissident artist Badiucao. Listen to his interview w. Asia Art Tours.

AAT: Do Uyghurs you’ve spoken with see their fight as one against Chinese people (中國漢族)or against the Chinese Communist Party (共产党) ?

In the past decades as more development projects goes deeper into transforming the landscape and livelihood of Uyghurs and Kazakhs, the tension between state and people become an inter-ethnic one. The social differences such as cultural customs, dietary taboos, and religious practices became boundaries to reinforce their identities. In other words, Uyghurs and Kazakhs’ strong cultural and religious identities are to a certain extent a product of unequal social policies that cemented their differences.

AAT: Could you tell us a bit about traditional culture in Xinjiang and traditional Uyghur Arts and Crafts? What is some traditional arts or crafts that you find to be beautiful, moving, or important for understanding the Uyghur people and their history?

It is important to know that Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Tatar culture share Indigenous homogeny but also internal diversity in Xinjiang. Growing up there we were very accustomed to the Central Asian Islamic arts on architectures such as mosques (for example), material cultures such as carpets, wall hangings, or carvings. Before the crackdown began in 2016-17, for example in city bazaars, you could move through the soundscape of Turkic languages pop songs blasted from fashion boutique shops and restaurants with a wide variety of cuisines from different parts of Northwest China.

In smaller rural towns and counties, the regional characteristics would start to show in their specialty handicrafts, knives, carvings, and music instruments. There is a rich literary history as well. Many bookstores were filled with classic works by famous or local poets and authors. At homes or libraries, it is not hard to find anthologies and literature magazines published since the 1980s. What I find most fascinating in Xinjiang is its cultural resilience and diversity despite state control for decades.

Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar

AAT Prior to the violent repression and police surveillance what did modern Xinjiang and Uyghur culture look like? How did technology, globalization and modern art provide new influences?

Prior to 2016-2017, the violent repression and police surveillance also existed because the Chinese modern state has been repressing Indigenous resistances in the region since 1950. Cultural production of the region has gone through a variety of changes in genres and content under the political changes from Mao to the reform era. Many art and literature prospered in the reform period, but the state projects have also folklorized and rewritten the history and culture of the minorities, particularly minimizing the Islamic and nationalist components of them.

The state’s national intangible cultural heritage project, for example, also played a role in displacing some community-based traditional art genres from the people. Instead, they were deployed to serve political purposes such as propagandizing a façade of cultural diversity and soft power of China.

Technology has indeed brought convenience to people but with the price of privacy. For example, Han netizens heavily rely on WeChat for the convenience of some services, but they know little how effective it has been in sweeping many Uyghurs into the ‘re-education camp’ just because of their Islamic expressions online.

WeChat Monster By Yi Xiaocuo

WeChat, one of the only communication apps allowed in China, has become dangerous to use, as it can disclose user information in response to the Chinese government’s request. It is a highly monitored surveillance tool keeping track of people’s locations, conversations, and activities.

AAT: I’ve heard some experts call what the Chinese state is trying to execute “Cultural Genocide” – by absorbing the Uyghur People into the Han Majority and erase their independent culture (in art, faith and crafts). Do you think this is an accurate description of what you’ve seen? If so what should we understand about “Cultural Genocide”?

Article II of the Genocide Convention defines the crime of genocide including these two elements: A mental element which includes the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such;” a physical element which includes “killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part, imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

Many victims’ testimonies mention rape, torture, and compulsory sterilization in the Xinjiang camps. The leaked government documents suggest the existence of mass arrests and psychological harms to the children of detained parents. The state sponsored orphanages, mosque destruction, tomb desecration, disappearance of intellectuals, confiscation of Uyghur and Kazakh books from homes, and so on all constitute the state’s deliberate intent to wipe out Uyghur and Kazakh cultural institutions and their future. What is happening in Xinjiang would fit the narrow definition of genocide, which includes cultural genocide in the forms of forced assimilation.

Distinct from previous decades of gradual cultural assimilation and land appropriation in Xinjiang, the current regime is more heavy-handed in indoctrinating so-called national belonging and less tolerant to ethnic and religious differences. From a Uyghur and Kazakh perspective, they feel that their culture, language, and history are in danger, and the communities in Xinjiang as well as diaspora communities are experiencing psychological trauma.

By is an art collective who have generated iconic #MeTooUyghur images of dozens of Uyghur public figures and intellectuals who have been disappeared into China’s mass detention camps in Xinjiang. Some well-known cases include Xinjiang University Professor Rahile Dawut, Xinjiang University President Tashpolat Tayip, Xinjiang Medical University President Hamurat Ghopur, musicians such as Sanubar TursunAblajan Ayup…and so on

AAT: Turning to your website, why did you think it was important to showcase art and media that focused on the violence and oppression going on in Xinjiang? Why is this art important or meaningful in fighting the oppression and violence being endured by the Uyghur and Xinjiang people?

The keywords for this project are agency, empathy, and representation. For minority populations that have been deprived a voice and freedom for so long, art is a way for self-empowerment and self-representation. First and foremost, art is the medium to express subjective experience, something that is often not represented adequately in the scholarly writings of recent political history in Xinjiang.

Understandably, many people who are from Xinjiang censor themselves due to fear that speaking up publicly might cause punishment for their relatives and friends back home. Through creative artworks people can have a sense of participation and engagement in bringing positive social changes.

Several diaspora Uyghurs contributed to the site because they want their family stories to be heard (see here); others could voice their pain and survivors’ guilt through poems and artworks (see here). Art can also serve as public scholarship and community outreach, for example, several non-Uyghur people also contributed to this project on the side of their own professions such as academic, translator, filmmaker, and so on.

AAT: How are international artists relating to the violence and repression in Xinjiang? What are some works that you feel exhibit international solidarity?

Several international artists have effectively visualized the violence and repression in Xinjiang. For example, Shimizu Tomomi listened to Uyghur survivor Mihrigul Tursun’s testimony and rendered it in Japanese manga. Her work went viral online and reached more people than the initial testimony at the Congressional hearing.

Badiucao is a very prolific and critical cartoonist on politics in China, human rights, and democracy in Hong Kong. His work is often timely and accurate, for example, ‘Xinjiang Auschwitz’ was created on the 10th anniversary of the ‘7.5 incident’ happened in Xinjiang in 2009. This work is significant because it provides a context of what is going on in Xinjiang now. Another one “China’s Doctor of Death” is based on the leaked photo from the camp in Lop county in Xinjiang. It directly links the systematic political indoctrination to the dictatorship of Xi in China.

Quite a few Kazakhstan based artists engaged with works exploring the politics of border, diaspora identity, and anxiety for the nation’s future under surveillance technology, for example, YangisarShapalaque, and many others. Some of them are young generation of Uyghurs growing up in Kazakhstan, so the collective memory of their older generation’s exodus out of China in the 1960s is still fresh, now given a new meaning in the context of the Muslim crackdown in Xinjiang now.

These artists are young and cosmopolitan, immersed in the diverse cultural landscape of Kazakhstan, so they are very adept in using traditional symbols as well as promoting messages such as human rights and democratization.

by @Murat Dilmanov

This work features Kazakhstan president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev holding a vulture whose head resembles a surveillance camera. The artist is parodying a symbol of falconry that Kazakhs are well known for. Falconry is one of the most glorified national traditions of Kazakhs and Kyrgyz in Central Asia. In recent years, this tradition has also been listed on UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage and boosted cultural pride among nations with nomadic cultural histories. Is Kassym-Jomart Tokayev playing with a creature whose eyesight is even sharper than falcon’s? Is he borrowing this tool of power from China to rule Kazakhstan? Is he or Kazakhstan also being monitored by China?

Read the full post here

AAT: In a time of genocide (cultural, mortal or both) why is art important?

I have always liked works such as Maus by Art Spiegelman, and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. Through their work I get to understand what political turmoil can do on a personal, familial, or psychological level, but even in the harshest circumstances, art has a way to deride power and authority to help people cope. That makes art a perfect medium to document human experience and demonstrate their resilience and hope.

Genocides in history are often fiercely disputed by different sides over different versions of the events, which makes documentation a very essential and urgent task. Art is deeply situated in the constant shifting contexts of the political environment, therefore, throughout time they constitute an irreplaceable form of repository for certain historical truth.

Shapalaque’s work is a satire on the Chinese government orchestrated tour of the Xinjiang ‘re-education camps.’ See original post here.

AAT: Can you explain the links between “Human Qualities”(素質), social reproduction and neoliberal capitalism, as it relates to the systemic oppression and violence in Xinjiang?

‘Human quality’, in Chinese term suzhi, is a discourse in China’s modernization project targeting rural and ethnic minority populations. Under this political vision, every person’s value is measured under the ideology of civility (translated as ‘culture’文化, ‘civilization’ 文明in Chinese), which is often represented by urban Han. The discourse of suzhi also determines individual’s political representation and economic values, for example, rural and minority population are represented as having “low quality” (素质低) and connect their poverty to their culture.

This powerful discourse is deemed truth in China, and now dovetails with Xi Jinping’s goal of ‘Targeted Poverty Alleviation’ by 2020. Since 2019, many camp detainees were forced to sign contracts to work at the textile factories near re-education camps under minimum wages. The workers do not have freedom to quit the designated jobs, leave the camps and return to their families and communities. The state media claims that this is a form of poverty alleviation and can improve their suzhi. In this case, suzhi becomes a tool the state uses to subjugate people for economic development and ideological control.

AAT: Likewise, how are women specifically targeted by the Chinese State and how is Uyghur Women’s identity, reproduction and even marriage, now one that the state is trying to manage and control?

The popular representation of “Xinjiang women” in China usually means Muslim minorities, but seldom Han women who are also there. Han connotates modernity in contrast to minorities as ‘backward’ and needing ‘development.’ When it comes to Uyghur women, they are often portrayed as objects of desire and Orientalized in TV and tourism commercials. Meanwhile, the Chinese state also uses “save Muslim women” rhetoric in US ‘War on Terror’ playbook in their deIslamization work in Xinjiang. Recent years saw more official representation of Uyghur and Kazakh women as victims of Islamic cultural patriarchy. The state led campaigns urging them to unveil, wear shorter skirts, put on makeups, work in factories, have inter-ethnic marriages with Han men.

I wrote for SupChina about how state media made Uyghur women confess on TV about their past as ‘religious extremists,’ while in fact those practices were formed as cultural barriers against Han assimilation. As the Han-Uyghur tension rose in the recent decades, Uyghur women’s bodies indeed became a symbol of resistance and identity maintenance. However, now Chinese government is using this symbol to break the Uyghur community even further.

by @yangisar

In this work, the facial recognition camera locks its focus on the faces of two Uyghur dancers, sorting, archiving, and analyzing their faces through China’s vast database & AI system called Integrated joint Operations Platform (IJOP, 一体化联合作战平台), ready to diagnose their criminality. In Xinjiang, Uyghurness becomes a type of racial capitalism, not only their culture is exploitable through ethnic tourism but now it is also used to cover up forced education and labor in the Xinjiang camps, as depicted in the BBC documentary. See original post here.

AAT: what economic incentives are at play both in the region (countries like Kazakhstan and others included in the BRI) and globally to ignore or euphemize the events in Xinjiang?

Among the Central Asian BRI partner states, Kazakhstan is the biggest in oil industry and probably most at stake in securing that economic future promised by BRI. China has enormous investment in Kazakhstan’s gas, infrastructure construction, chemical industries, energy plants, and digital technologies. Kazakhstan also received billions of loans from China to secure its lead in economic power in Central Asia. Its Khorgos port is one of the biggest inland dry ports among the neighboring countries.

However, this is not to say that Kazakhstan is not wary of China’s increasing influence in its economy. Citizen discontent is increasing in Kazakhstan as the situation in Xinjiang evolves. They are making noise that the Kazakhstan government can no longer keep ignoring.

AAT: If we do live in a neoliberal world where capital has overtaken the nation state… what possible way is there to pressure policies like Trump’s or Xi Jinping’s? How do we fight for our humanity when all of human life is measured in dollars on spreadsheet

Well this is a big question! As an individual who is directly affected by Chinese State Violence, I first felt very powerless and overwhelmed by the big politics and economics I might never fully understand. But it is important to understand we are never alone in our efforts.

My small website will not really help close the camps, but it is an effort to make Uyghur and Kazakh voices matter. Although we might feel like we are just working on our individual projects, there are countless activists, academics, lawyers, journalists and filmmakers who are also working toward a common goal to end the atrocity.

In the past three years, even though we witnessed unprecedented suppression in Xinjiang, there have also been significant progress in raising awareness, documenting, truth finding, and passing various acts.

When China banned Western journalists from Xinjian, more headed over there to do reportin riskin their lives; when China censored and scrubbed the internet, more videos, testimonies and internal documents got leaked out; when more Uyhurs and Kazakhs were arrested and given long sentences, more family members abroad came out to testify than ever. To quote Rust Cohle in True Detective in the last episode when he looked up to the starry night, “Once there was ony dark; if you ask me, the light’s winning.”

AAT: Lastly, for those who want to help Xinjiang (or Xinjiang and Hong Kong and West Papua and so on) what can we do? What concrete suggestions would you offer? What resources can we use to learn more about the Uyghur people and their current suffering?

I want to direct readers to this page compiled by Uyghur Human Rights Project, there is specific instruction on how to help. Another list is compiled by Darren Byler, anthropologist who works on terror capitalism and Uyghur dispossession,

To learn more about recent developments, I recommend Darren Byler’s Xinjiang Column on SupChina, also his blog, Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia

To see victim testimonies, I recommend Xinjiang Victim Database, curated by Gene Bunin, as well as Uyghur Pulse:

I highly recommend Ben Mauk’s oral history interviews of the Kazakh survivors published on Believer Magazine,

Last but not the least, there is also source-based, open access Xinjiang Documentation Project curated by University of British Columbia faculty and researchers

This interview between Yi Xiaocuo and Matt Dagher-Margosian first appeared on the website Asian Art Tours. It is reprinted here with permission.

The Changing ‘Bright Future’ of Han Life in Xinjiang

Illustration for SupChina by John Oquist

In 2014, in the middle of a neighborhood at the southern edge of Ürümchi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, there was a restaurant with a big red sign. In Chinese, the six-foot-tall characters read “BIG MEAT” (大肉 dà ròu), as pork is commonly referred to across China. The sign was an anti-Islamic political statement; it told everyone in the neighborhood that Han migrants had arrived and that they would not respect the values of the Muslims who called it their home.

This Uyghur-majority neighborhood known as Dawan was one of the centers of violence during the July 5, 2009 protests. A large number of the Han migrants who were killed or injured during the violence came from this neighborhood. In the years that followed, many Han migrants moved from this neighborhood to majority Han districts to the north. Those who remained marked their space, signaling their defiance. The six-foot-tall sign was a statement regarding the type of “quality,” or sùzhì (素质), that was protected by the institutions of the city. Unlike many places in China, in Ürümchi, Han rural-to-urban migrants received a great deal of institutional support.

In this neighborhood, if Uyghurs entered Han shops they were often either ignored or ordered to leave. Han proprietors would hold out their right hands, palm down, fingers pointed to the ground, and flick their wrists upward while yelling “Out! Out!” (出! 出! chū! chū!) in a short staccato. Or they would simply look past Uyghur customers, ignoring their questions, refusing to take their money. One Uyghur inhabitant of the community recalled a dispute he had with a Han gas station technician in the neighborhood. While he was waiting to have his ID checked so he could drive his car into the gas station, a Han taxi driver cut in line in front of him. When he protested, the Han gas station worker threatened to call the nearby police contractors stationed nearby. He told the Uyghur customer, “I’m not afraid of you. You should be afraid of me. I could have you arrested whenever I want.” In the mind of this Uyghur rural-to-urban migrant, this encounter drove home the point that, in this city, Han people were valued and that his body could be taken at any time. The police, the schools, the hospitals, the banks, the stores centered around Han desires and needs.

At the same time, over the course of the “People’s War on Terror” that began in 2014, the same system prevented Uyghurs from advertising their products as halal. It used digital media surveillance and informants to prevent Uyghur children from studying their mother tongue. It enforced family planning rules for Uyghurs while encouraging growth in the Han population. As part of a strategy to stop “halalification” (清真泛化 qīngzhēn fǎn huà), it prevented Uyghurs from selling imported goods from Muslim-majority countries and instead emphasized Chinese domestic products. These institutions assured that pork could be consumed without reprisals; that low-income Han migrants could use their faces and social connections to pass through checkpoints at the entrances of gated communities and institutions while unauthorized Uyghurs could not. As a Han migrant to Xinjiang from Henan named Kong Yuanfeng told me in a 2020 interview, “For Uyghurs, Xinjiang is like a giant prison. They have to ask permission in order to travel anywhere. Han people can go anywhere they want by just swiping their ID; sometimes we don’t even have to do that.”

The “People’s War on Terror” became an euphemism for Han inclusion as “the people” conducting “the war” and Uyghur exclusion as the objects of terror. By participating in the social enclosure of Uyghurs who they saw as “low quality” (素质低 sùzhì dī) or “backward” (落后 luòhòu), Han migrants often positioned themselves as “high quality” (素质高 sùzhì gāo), valued members of society. Recent rural-to-urban migrants enjoyed a sense of prestige and distinction — often for the first time in their lives — relative to Uyghur inhabitants of the city.

Cultural capital or quality — a kind of cultivated taste or learned distinction — can be measured only relative to the positions of others within a social field. This is how appearing “classy” or being racialized works. For instance, suzhi within the social frame of a Chinese village is not the same thing as suzhi in an urban setting; neither is the experience of suzhi in rural Sichuan province the same as that of a person from Sichuan living in Tibet. Han migrants in Ürümchi likewise recognized the sophistication of people from Eastern Chinese cities, but they also recognized the relative ease with which they could find a good life in Ürümchi.

According to Chinese government data, as of 2015 there were officially close to 2.1 million people in Xinjiang living in places apart from where their household was registered. Out of this population of “floating migrants,” around 75 percent (1,461,238) were from places outside of Xinjiang according to a 2012 government study. Since 2015 and the introduction of a “People’s Convenience Card” passbook system that required all Xinjiang residents to return to their place of registration, fewer and fewer of this population of “floating migrants” came from the ethnic minority population inside Xinjiang. Yet, as Adrian Zenz notes in a recent report (see figure 4), the migrant population has nevertheless expanded. Looking at Xinjiang government statistics he shows that the gap between the permanent population (which includes migrants) and the population or registered residents of Xinjiang has grown dramatically since 2015, meaning that there are now more than 2 million migrants living outside of their place of registration in Xinjiang.  If these migrants are counted as Han (some small portion of them are likely Hui), this means that the population of Han people living in Xinjiang—which was close to 9.5 million in 2015—has now likely grown to at least 11 million. Another study published in 2018 by a group of geographers at Fujian University, notes that Xinjiang holds little attraction to highly educated and wealthy Han migrants. But, among low income migrants, more than 50 percent plan to change their household registration to Xinjiang and live there permanently.  At the same time, while migrants from outside of Xinjiang were encouraged to move to Xinjiang, ethnic minority migrants from inside Xinjiang were viewed by Xinjiang authorities as needing to be “transformed” through “legal education” and “training”—all euphemisms that eventually were used to describe the purposes of the “reeducation camps.”

Many of the low-income Han rural-to-urban migrants that I interviewed in Ürümchi in 2015 demonstrated a sense of the political and cultural leverage they possessed as patriotic Han citizens whose ID said they were from elsewhere. The ability to exploit this leverage — using a kind of location-specific Han privilege, Chinese language, and social connections to find economic opportunities — was often experienced as a kind of ease. By simply showing up they were able to participate in the economy of the city. As one Han migrant, Du Jie, who owned a small shop near the giant “PORK” sign in the Dawan neighborhood, told me in 2015:

I can definitely imagine living here for the rest of my life and just going back to my hometown now and then. It is so much easier to find jobs and they pay way better than in Anhui. It wasn’t a big adjustment at all when I moved here. I have several businesses that I am doing at the same time. It would be impossible to do that if I was back in Anhui.

Du Jie came to Ürümchi with her husband when he was hired to work on a construction project along with other people from her home village in Anhui. After that contract was completed, they used his earnings to open a shop that catered to Han migrant construction workers in nearby housing and security infrastructure projects. Once the shop was up and running, it was easy to hire other migrants to run it, and they soon opened another shop.

Because they were in a Uyghur-majority neighborhood, Du said the police and local neighborhood watch unit were supportive and made the process of leasing space seem simple. Du admitted that there were minor inconveniences that came from the security systems, such as having to register a new phone or ID and attending political education meetings. But she said, “All of that isn’t for us. It is for them (Uyghurs). The neighborhood unit asks us to report any suspicious activity so they can track it with the cameras. If they do anything to us, the police will respond right away. Most of the time (the police) don’t bother us and ask for ID cards or phones on the street like they do for the Uyghurs.”

“For Uyghurs, Xinjiang is like a giant prison. They have to ask permission in order to travel anywhere. Han people can go anywhere they want by just swiping their ID.”

Most of the dozens of Han migrants I spoke with retained affinities with their home provinces. Yet, despite their dislocation, they said that in some ways it was easier for them to perform the regional variations of Hanness in Ürümchi than in their home villages. In Ürümchi they had more wealth, and there were fewer class distinctions in groupings of migrants from other provinces. For example, according to Du and her co-workers, in Ürümchi, Anhui people were often inclined to help other Anhui people find jobs and resources even if they were strangers. Their shared place of origin was enough to link them in a common cause. According to them, this sort of camaraderie was quite rare in Anhui itself.

Of course, what was often unstated was the way they were unified in opposition to the threat of Uyghur resentment. As in the experience of settlers in other colonial experiments, Xinjiang was a space both of social mobility and in a shared nationalist cause.

Another woman from Henan, Lin Guangchang, exemplified the ease and contentment of Han migrant life in a city that supported Han migrants. In her experiences, when she and her husband came along with other people in her village in the early 2000s during the infrastructure construction boom that accompanied the “Open up the West” campaign, life in Xinjiang was already much better than life in Henan. She said:

I’m from Henan. I came here 15 years ago. Back in Henan we had less than 5 mu (2.5 acres). We raised wheat, but we barely made enough to eat. There are so many people in Henan. It is impossible to find any real opportunities there. That’s why we came here. But I’m still definitely a Henan person. Sometimes we go back to Henan over the Spring Festival, but sometimes we can’t. It’s too far and sometimes we can’t afford it.

With around 93 million people, Henan has one of the highest population densities in the world. With only 10 million Han people and nearly 10 times the landmass, Xinjiang had a great deal more land and opportunities. When I asked her to compare her life in Ürümchi to her life in Henan, Lin said:

One of the biggest differences I found between life in the countryside in Henan and life here in the city in Xinjiang is that food is so much more convenient. I don’t miss cultivating at all. It took so much time to prepare anything in Henan. Here everything is convenient. You can just buy what you need and make food right away. We can find everything we need to make Henan food. We had three kids after we came here; they all have jobs. My husband also works as a home repairman. Ürümchi is developing so fast that we can always find work. I’ve never had a job myself, but I always find a way to make money. For the past two years I’ve been selling small supplies of things in the market. Lately I’ve been making around 50 yuan per day. Our place is small and costs too much (500 yuan), but it is enough for us.

Lin also said that since her relatives in Henan had WeChat, she could stay in touch on a regular basis. Furthermore, unlike the challenges migrants face in other urban locations in China, she said her children had been accepted by good schools, which were subsidized by the government. This social reproductive support is even more remarkable because she and her husband had flouted the relevant family planning laws and had three children. She said, “They will have a much better life than we had, I never regret coming to Xinjiang for one minute.”

Another young man from Henan, Zhu Hongqi, who was working as a real estate agent for a commodity housing development in the Han-majority “New City” district of Ürümchi, told me something similar. For him and his wife, coming to Xinjiang was the best thing they had ever done. It allowed Zhu entry into a neighborhood that would have been impossible to enter in Henan, and it allowed him to imagine achieving a high-quality standard of living despite only having a high school degree. He said:

Everyone who lives here in this housing development works for state-owned enterprises (or large corporations). Their “quality” is really high. This place is built for convenience. It is only 15 minutes to the high-speed rail station. We have the largest Carrefour in Ürümchi. It is only five minutes away and we are connected to all of the major roads. In a year or two we will also be connected with the subway. Every housing district in the development has its own English-Chinese kindergarten. Also there are nearby parks for you to relax and exercise. You can go fishing. Everything is very convenient. It is a young community with access to all of the best schools.

He discussed the way the security system in the housing development was state-of the-art. Each resident could use a card to open the perimeter gate. Eventually, in 2017, all neighborhoods throughout the city would rely on face scans in order to enter housing complexes, fully segmenting unwanted migrants away from vast areas of the city. At this point though, Zhu already felt fully protected by the checkpoints and camera systems.

“Everyone in the city comes from somewhere else, so it is easy to be accepted.”

Because of the ease with which the Ürümchi economy supported Han social life regardless of their rural origin, he too felt that his son would receive a better education and life chances if he grew up as a Xinjiang person. “I came here in 2012 with my wife,” he said. “Both of us are just making money for our families. We have a one-year-old son who is at home with my parents, eventually we will bring him to live with us here. We have no land back in Henan so there is no work for us there.” Zhu felt that if his son grew up in this “atmosphere” he would understand that anything is possible if he just worked hard enough. “He may,” he added, “even have an opportunity to travel to the United States someday.”

Zhu said that because he was good at navigating the Chinese-language internet and using WeChat, it was easy for him to find work. He quickly built an online social network through other migrants from Henan and his experience as a real estate agent. Every day he collected contacts through online advertising. His ease at finding a job and a position as a formally recognized productive worker made the further work of cultivating his “achieved” quality a possibility. He bought new clothes and an iPhone to fit his new persona as a real estate agent.

Zhu said that succeeding as a knowledge worker was much easier than in the metropoles in Eastern China:

Xinjiang is better than Beijing and Shanghai because the income levels are high but the rent is still low. So in the end we can make more here than in the East. I’m also not willing to do construction, because it is such hard work. I’m good at using the internet and cell phones so I would rather work in that market selling things. I’ve only been doing this job for 2 months, but I really like it. They give us a base salary of 2,000, and then if we sell a house they will give us a commission of 0.5 percent. I know it is too low but this is China. So I can do this job and then do other jobs on the side as well. My wife also works in real estate, but as a waitress for a big real estate office. I like Ürümchi. The atmosphere really suits me. Everyone in the city comes from somewhere else, so it is easy to be accepted. If I had a chance I would definitely settle here; there are so many more opportunities for us here than in Henan. Of course I miss my family in Henan, but this is a place where I feel like I could really begin to live.

What is remarkable in Zhu’s words is his lack of awareness of how his success was only made possible by his ethnicity.

Although numerous low-income Han migrants I interviewed recognized that the type of life they could live in Ürümchi would be impossible in bigger cities such as Beijing or Shanghai, they often did not spend much time thinking about why this might be. In many ways, they saw their identities being detached from their native place of origin into a more general Chinese national future. They were pioneers at the frontier of the “Chinese national” (中华民族 zhōnghuá mínzú) project that has been fostered by the Xi administration. Many of them, especially those sent to Uyghur-majority areas, were explicitly recruited for this purpose, offered guaranteed work contracts, housing, land, and other incentives.

Han migrants to rural areas, particularly those who were privately contracted to work on farms or in construction in Southern Xinjiang without government incentives, typically have fewer opportunities and fewer economic protections than the urban migrants I interviewed. Several migrants in Southern Xinjiang have told me that since 2014, many Han migrants — perhaps as many as several hundred thousand — have left the region.

“Because they were detaining so many people, a lot of Han migrants who didn’t really know anything about Uyghurs thought that the terrorists must be everywhere,” said Kong Yuanfeng, the Han migrant from Henan I interviewed earlier this year. Others then began to leave because the security systems disrupted some forms of commerce and construction. In fact, some Han people now discuss the reeducation program as something that will cause them to “sacrifice a generation” of work in Xinjiang.

Yet Zhu, who lived in Han-majority areas in the city, said in 2015 that he thought the actual threat of Uyghur “terror” was wildly exaggerated. Many migrants in the city told me they felt safe because the state police and police contractor presence was so strong — near the level of policing in East Germany before 1989. Many of them also noted that the security apparatus also offered Han workers secure employment regardless of their educational background. Furthermore, they could live their lives without interacting with a single Uyghur. They felt the Uyghur “problem” had nothing to do with them.

In 2015, many migrants I interviewed saw the future of Xinjiang as “very bright.” A migrant from Hunan who worked as a cook in a Hunanese restaurant said:

All of my family is from a town near Changsha so I really do need to go back periodically. I don’t see the differences between Changsha and Ürümchi as purely “quality” issues. Changsha is a bit bigger, but it is also a bit more closed. Here, everyone is from somewhere else, and the government has put a lot of money into developing the area. The future is very bright here.

Although Han migrants in Xinjiang may be evaluated as having low suzhi from the perspective of middle class urbanites in the East, at the frontier of the nation these migrants often feel as if they have the power to control their own futures and, by extension, the futures of others. As the world pays more attention to mass detention and Uyghur forced labor in Xinjiang, and in light of the recent U.S. embargo on products produced by a primary driver of the Xinjiang economy, the People’s Production and Construction Corps, it remains to be seen if their future aspirations will be dampened.

The names Du Jie, Lin Guangchang, and Zhu Hongqi have been changed to protect the individuals’ identities. This article first appeared in SupChina’s Xinjiang Column on August 5, 2020.

The Imprisonment of the ‘Model Villagers’

For the family of sisters Nursiman and Nur’iman, a local work brigade placed a small red plaque with five stars on it to the front gate of their house. The stars stood for “patriotism, honesty, education, hygiene, and harmony.” But in the end, that didn’t stop the sisters’ parents and brother from being sent to jail for reasons that remain murky to this day.

The phone call from the Chinese Embassy in Ankara came on June 15, 2020. It was 4:31 in the afternoon, Istanbul time. After she picked up and realized who was calling, Nursiman caught her breath. She held a second phone up to the speaker on her smartphone and hit record.


Embassy: It is written clearly in the file we received. Our country is ruled by law so they must have a reason. It is written that she was sentenced to a 13-year prison term on December 13, 2017, for the crime of preparing to commit terrorist activities.


Nursiman: The one who was sentenced to 13 years is my mother?


Embassy: Yes.


Nursiman: December 13, 2017, how about my father?


Embassy: Your father was sentenced to 16 years, 11 months in prison for the crime of disturbing the social order and preparing to commit terrorist activities. Now he is in prison.


Nursiman: Is what? I am sorry, because I am feeling very sad, I couldn’t hear you, can you repeat that one more time?


Embassy: Yes, I can understand your feeling…I also feel for you. This is also clear for me. But we should face the reality.


Nursiman: Can you tell me again what happened to my father? And when this happened? How many years was he sentenced to?


Embassy: On December 13, 2017, he was sentenced to 16 years and 11 months in prison for disturbing social order and preparing to commit terrorist activities. Now he is in prison.


Nursiman: Then, how about my younger brother?


Embassy: Is your brother’s name Memetali?


Nursiman: Yes.

【大使馆工作人员】 他是2017年8月20号,因犯刑事罪并准备实施恐怖主义活动罪被判处15年11月。

Embassy: He was sentenced 15 years and 11 months in prison for the crime of preparing to commit terrorist activities.

Every autumn, before Nursiman and her older sister Nur’iman left for college, they went to their grandmother’s house to say goodbye. Each time it felt like their whole small village, a dozen kilometers outside of Kashgar, would show up to send them off. It became a kind of community ritual.

“All of my relatives were so supportive,” Nursiman said. “Our neighbors always supported us. They sent their children to our home to study math and English. Everyone looked up to us. My sister and I were the first people in our village who studied in big cities like Shanghai and Beijing.”

Each year at those tearful farewells, the two sisters felt the responsibility they carried as the pride of their village. “We always told our parents, Don’t tell them we are leaving, because we didn’t want them to sacrifice,” Nursiman said. “But we couldn’t leave without saying goodbye to our grandmother. And she always told everyone. So they always came. If they missed the farewell, (the other villagers) would call us and ask, ‘Why didn’t you tell us when you were leaving?’”

The sisters also understood that this event was as much for their parents as it was for them. In the days leading up to their departure, their mother, Tajigul, would often cry. The village and her children were her entire world. Having a big party, with the whole village, helped her feel less alone. “It was a really emotional time,” Nursiman said. “My mom would cry, so everyone really wanted to support her. It made her less sad. This is the love we received from our village.”

After a big meal, the neighbors and relatives would hug them and quietly stick money in their pockets. Often they would apologize as they did this. “I know it is not enough for you, but maybe it will help you with your studies.” Sometimes they would tuck it secretly under a bunch of grapes or in a bag of naan that they said the sisters should eat on the long three-day journey across the country. Sometimes they gave them nice clothes. It made them happy to know that someone from the village would wear nice clothes in the city. They would say, “Here is something special for you, please take it.”

There was one gift that Nursiman will never forget. When she thinks about it now, more than 10 years later, it still makes her cry. “As I was leaving, my cousin, my uncle’s 19-year-old son, gave me 20 yuan. He said, ‘I know it isn’t much, but maybe you can buy something to eat.’”

The image of this young man handing her the crumpled bill reminds Nursiman of all the sweetness and love that she felt growing up in a Uyghur village. “When people look at each other, you could feel that they cared for each other,” she said. “Now I don’t know what is happening to all those lovely people.”

She and her sister fear that they may never see their village again. First in 2016, their brother, Ametjan, was imprisoned. Then in 2017, their mother, father, and younger brother were taken to reeducation camps, along with many others from their village. Sometime later, they were given prison sentences of more than 10 years.

One of the less discussed aspects of the reeducation system in northwest China is the way that more than 300,000 inhabitants of Xinjiang have been given long prison sentences since 2017. In an effort to hide the extreme abuse of the camp system and cover it with a patina of legality, in 2018 and 2019 many former camp detainees (perhaps the majority of former detainees) were also given long prison sentences as well. Many of these convicts, such as the sisters’ parents and brother, were found guilty of “thought crimes” or “pre-crimes” as a system of immense cruelty descended on their villages.

Nursiman and her sister fear that the reason their family members were imprisoned is because they moved to Turkey in 2015. Maybe during long interrogations their relatives had been forced to confess that someday they would like to visit them. Simply desiring to travel to a Muslim-majority country could be construed as the pre-crime of intending to hijrat (伊吉拉特 yījílātè)the action of immigrating to a space where Islamic piety is permitted. This action is now defined by the Chinese state as an act of terrorism. Accepting money from a family member who lives in a Muslim-majority country or attempting to learn Turkish, Arabic, or Urdu is now viewed as a terrorism-related crime. It is likely for these reasons that the sisters’ relatives, the model family of their village, have had their lives taken away from them. The social fabric of the sisters’ village has been deeply damaged.

WhatsApp Image 2020 06 17 at 5.56.56 PM
Ametjan, Abdureshid, Tajigul, and Mohamedali with their children and grandchildren in the courtyard of their village house near Kashgar during Nursiman’s last visit in 2015.

The sisters’ uncle and father were well known in their village. Since their uncle owned the only taxi, everyone depended on him for trips to the bazaar in Kashgar city. Their father was famous because he had completed a two-year degree in agronomy at Kashgar College and become a Communist Party member. When he returned to the village he was given a job organizing agricultural work for the village work brigade. He taught the village children how to read in the elementary school — a role that trained a generation of future teachers. He designed and mobilized work teams to build many of the structures in the village. He arbitrated marriage proposals between village families. Perhaps most importantly, around 1993, he opened a flour mill which allowed villagers to grind their own wheat.

The village was small, and next to the flour mill was a small kebab stand where they showed movies on a grainy TV. During the day it was a place where their father would meet other men and drink tea; at night it became a place of bustling fun. Village life moved at the pace of bicycles and donkey carts. It was almost entirely a Uyghur world.

In the mid-2000s this began to change. The sisters’ father, Abdureshid, was at the center of this change. He pushed his children to dream big, to learn Chinese, to go out and explore the world, and make a better life for themselves. “My father always encouraged me to study Chinese,” Nursiman remembers. “But although I studied hard, I was the only one my age that spoke Chinese. So I didn’t learn that quickly.”

When she was 10 years old she was thrilled to speak to a Han person for the first time. She recalled:

“As a child, the only Han I saw in the village were people who would come to collect things they could recycle. I never saw Han people otherwise. I still remember the first time I spoke to one of them. I asked, ‘How are you? How do you feel about our village? How old are you?’ It was like talking to a foreigner. I knew only a little. But each time I did it I felt so thrilled, and they were so excited to meet someone who could speak Chinese. When they came to our houses they would use some basic Uyghur to ask if we had any plastic or if we had saved any hair to give them. They asked, ‘chachi bar mo?’ (Uy: do you have hair?). In exchange for these things they would give us porcelain bowls which we used to drink tea. We always just exchanged things, not money, back then.”

Recalling her first memories of Han people, Nur’iman said:

“We called them shopilay, a Uyghur version of shōupòlàn 收破烂 (literally, ‘garbage collector’). Or sometimes mángliú 盲流, a term that refers to the ‘floating population’ of migrants. They were poor and uneducated. They wandered the markets. But we welcomed them into our villages and homes. If we saw them in the Sunday bazaar in town, our parents and neighbors were nice to them. They didn’t look down on them. They said, they are poor, don’t bother them.”

Around the time the sisters started going to high school in the mid-2000s, they began to sense a change in the power differential. Suddenly it felt like they were the ones who could be looked down on. As they immersed themselves in a Chinese world, they began to understand that Uyghurs were treated differently than other people in China. Nursiman said:

“At first I thought it was just because we were not that well educated. My father told me, ‘The policies will not change, but if you are well educated they will give you a chance.’ I always encouraged other village kids to study because I believed this. If they could learn, then they could make a good life for themselves.”

Most of the villagers she knew had never gone beyond Kashgar, so it was hard for them to imagine all of the possibilities that were out there in the world. Nursiman tried to make an effort to convince them to imagine a better life.

“In the village, very few of them could dream about things beyond Kashgar. So I tried to tell them about the beauty of other places. I told them about Uyghurs I knew who had found jobs at the best hospitals, or had achieved great things in sports, or as famous scientists at universities. I told them about the wonderful people I met in Shanghai. I truly thought we could overcome everything with education. Most of the people in the village didn’t want to send their daughters to schools that are far away, they want to protect them. But my father always told me, I believe in you. Just believe in yourself and follow what you know is true.”

Her father impressed on her that it was important that she model a way for other villagers to build better lives for themselves.

“He told me, ‘You are now an important person (in the village). You need to come back here as the same person, so that they will have the idea that college is a nice place.’ So whenever I came back, I wore traditional dresses. I always talked to everyone. I tried very hard not to represent myself as better than them. I was the daughter of Abdureshid and Tajigul, so I had to live up to that. I was so proud of my family, and I needed to continue to earn respect from the neighbors. When I went back to the village, I did farm work with them and helped them clean the street. I never let myself think, I am educated, and you are not.

“When you work on the farm you have a guaranteed life, but you can’t be rich. You can’t have extra money to do what you like. But because there were so few jobs available, many villagers heard that high school would not help them find a job. I was shocked by this. When I was young, this never even occurred to me. When I heard these conversations from my friends, my father told me, ‘I am not sending you to the university to find a job. Even if you don’t find one, your value for life will be changed.’ He joked, ‘Actually, you have no other choice. There is no space for you on the farm.’”

Very soon after Nursiman returned to Kashgar with her bachelor’s degree, she realized that she had been a bit naïve about how easy it would be to succeed.

“When I came back I started a new job as a bank teller in Kashgar. I learned quickly that all of my Uyghur coworkers had four-year degrees like me from prestigious schools in eastern China, and that almost all of my Han colleagues had two-year degrees from technical schools that no one had ever heard of. Yet in less than a year, almost all of those Han coworkers were promoted to administrative positions while we remained in entry-level jobs as cashiers. I felt the inequality all the time. Yet even then, I still felt that if I worked really hard, and I spoke the truth, and did the right thing, I could still achieve something with my life.”

Nur’iman felt a similar change. In college, she studied the legal system. She saw very quickly that the ideals that were presented in her courses were not reflected in the reality she saw in Kashgar.

“I saw really quickly that Uyghurs were charged much more heavily than Han people for the same crime. In hospitals and in the court we often do not receive the same treatment as Han people. Often they cheated us, and made us pay more. So we always tried to avoid those places. Everyone knew this. The legal system and the health care system were not made for us. We just accept this.”

In order to maintain autonomy over their lives, some villagers tried to stay away from state institutions. Nur’iman continued:

“(The farmers understand) that this is our ancestors’ land, so they feel as though they are safe there. The land is yours, so you are not dependent. You don’t have to listen to anyone else’s orders. If you give it up, you lose your freedom. If you grow up in the village, people feel this kind of freedom. They have their own opinions, to some extent they live according to their own rules.”

The sisters were also buoyed by their brothers’ success in following their own path outside of state institutions. Back in 1997, their father Abdureshid was also the first villager to buy a motorcycle. Soon after he bought it, their eldest brother Ametjan began to drive it secretly. “He was only 10 years old,” Nursiman said. “He was so small he could hardly see where he was going. He had a love for these kinds of things from a young age.”

When he finished middle school, her brother decided to drop out of school and become a mechanic. Their uncle introduced him to a “master” (Uy: ustaz) mechanic who lived in a nearby town. For several summers he rode his bicycle one hour each morning and evening to serve as an unpaid apprentice. When he turned 18 he started his own auto repair shop. Seemingly overnight, his business took off.

Over the next few years he built up a business repairing cars and selling car parts in Kashgar city. Eventually, the sisters’ youngest brother joined him in the business and they opened a second branch in the Chinese part of the city, repairing and maintaining luxury cars. “Everyone was so impressed by him,” Nursiman remembers. “He had plans to make his own race car. He wanted to compete in the rally across the Taklamakan desert which is held every year. I told him that after I finished graduate school, I would help him do this.”

Soon after the sisters graduated from college, they started applying to colleges in Europe and North America, but though they were accepted into several graduate programs, they couldn’t afford the tuition and living expenses in those places. So they decided on the next best thing: Turkey. They knew from friends they met in college that tuition was affordable there, and that there was a Uyghur community which would make life there more comfortable. They could speak the language well enough to get by, and the food was similar to what they were used to. They thought it would be the perfect stopping-off point before they moved on to their “dream” destinations in Europe or the United States.

Initially, everything seemed fine. After all, in the political study sessions that local authorities started conducting in their village in 2014, they were always described as a “5-Star Model Civilized Family” (五星级文明户 wǔxīngjí wénmíng hù). The local work brigade placed a small red plaque with five stars on it to the front gate of their house. The stars stood for “patriotism, honesty, education, hygiene, and harmony.” This also meant that the family was “trustworthy” (放心 fàngxīn) and had nothing to worry about.

Then, all of the sudden, it seemed like they had done something wrong. Nursiman recalls:

“Up until 2016 we didn’t have any trouble with the government. We were not too religious. My mom hadn’t even gone to school beyond middle school. My father is a Party member. We didn’t know that much about our traditions. My father went to college in Kashgar. He did agricultural work. I didn’t even know Uyghurs used to have a country called East Turkestan until I came to Turkey. My father didn’t tell me about it, either, because he didn’t know or he didn’t want me to know. My parents couldn’t read the Quran. We practiced Islam just like everyone else did. We just did what the older generations passed on to us.

“Then all of the sudden, in March 2016, my elder brother was arrested. On the phone, my father told me there were so many things he couldn’t tell us about it. He said, ‘Please don’t ask any questions on the phone.’ He was sentenced to seven years. Eventually we learned that he told our father that he was ‘forced to sign papers admitting to a crime because he wanted to protect my sisters abroad.’ Our father told us, ‘Please study well. They threatened him because of you.’ That was when I realized that the Chinese government didn’t want us to stay in Turkey. I realized that (the authorities) were sure we were some kind of threat. We still don’t know why exactly he was sentenced. His new shop was in a Chinese area. He actually had lots Chinese friends, because he repaired luxury cars. He wasn’t religious. In fact, sometimes my father told him that he should pray more often, because he had three kids.”

Although Nursiman and Nur’iman realized that their presence in Turkey was becoming a problem for their family, they also knew they couldn’t go back. They had started to hear reports of students who had studied in Turkey being detained when they arrived at the airport. Nursiman said:

“In April 2017, we started to hear it might be a problem if we called our relatives. I asked my father if I should stop calling. Up to that point my sister had called them every day and I called them two or three times per week. My father said that he didn’t think it was a problem. June 18, 2017, was our last call. After five days of calls without an answer we asked a friend to call our family. Then we learned that our dad and younger brother had been taken to the village center to study. Our friend told us not to call. We started to panic. We were hearing that lots of people were being detained. We thought maybe the village center asked them to just study during the day. Back in 2014 they had started having political study sessions once a week. We thought maybe it was something like this. But after that time, no one was at home. I kept waiting, hoping for some information. Eventually we learned that they were taken to the camps.”

For years, the sisters stayed silent, hoping that their family members would be released. They thought that speaking publicly might make things worse for them. Then in 2019 they started to hear of other Uyghurs whose parents were being released. They hoped that the same might happen to their parents and brothers. Nursiman said that now she feels like she was naive to hope for something like this.

“I feel like I am a bit stupid. I thought I would hear some good news. I used warm words, pleading with the Chinese government to give me some information. They commented on one of my video testimonies. I wrote a tweet and asked Turkish friends to write an email to the Chinese embassy. Then on Monday, June 15, they called me and told me they had been sentenced in December 2017. My mother was given a 13-year prison sentence, my father given 16 years and 11 months, my younger brother 15 years and 11 months.

When she received the phone call she felt:

“I have a Chinese passport, it is the country where I grew up. This is the end point of that relationship. I feel so angry. I have the feeling that I should go out to the street and scream, Why have you done this, China? (The embassy workers) live in another country. They can read the real news. How can they be so evil? How can they pretend to be nice when they are killing us behind their backs. A normal person could not act this way. I was expecting good news. I thought they would release them. I had such hope. For three years I didn’t know if I was living or not. Now I can’t speak. I can’t sleep. I am really afraid to sleep. I don’t like the night. I don’t like it. I don’t want to sleep. Now I think my family and neighbors hate me, because I have caused so much trouble for them. I can’t live with this in this world. This is too much of a burden. I can’t think about this. I think they are starting to blame me.”

Nur’iman often thinks about how they encouraged their family to visit them in Turkey back in 2015. She said:

“I sent them money to apply for passports. I told them they should try for it. So my dad and young brother applied, but were rejected. I told them to keep trying, the government bureaus asked for so much stuff as proof of their intentions. Eventually they gave up. Later, one of my father’s friends told him it is really good you never went (since travel to Turkey later became a sign of extremism). I tried to teach my younger brother Turkish on WeChat. I sent him an e-book of how to learn Turkish. Maybe this is why he has suffered so much. This is not a sin, everyone should be able to learn Turkish. They just wanted to see the ocean and see another county. They would have just visited us and then gone back to the village.”

Nur’iman says she imagines the day their parents were sentenced. She thinks it is exactly the reverse image of the type of care the village used to show them when they left for college each year.

“I imagine the day in court when my mom was being sentenced. No children, no one she knows, by her side. Totally alone. Her husband sentenced to 16 years and 11 months. She only cared about us. This makes me crazy. Her whole world was just her family and the village. That day must have been the hardest day of her life. She had never even left our village except to visit me two times in Ürümchi, and once she had traveled to Turpan. She would always say if I go somewhere who will take care of your dad. I’m sure she is being ordered to do things she doesn’t want to do in the camp. She is so shy. All of this is so cruel.

The sisters are mourning the loss of their way of life, their parents, and the dozens of people who have been taken from their village. They hope that people will say their names — Abdurshid, Tajigul, Ametjan, and Mohamedali — and see them as people, not just numbers in camps.

Nur’iman says:

“Every person in the village knows the traditions. They know how to care for each other. They have all been taught how to support each other. Actually, the villagers seem to have more moral quality than urban people who care more about their jobs and themselves than others. I used to love taking public transportation from my village and watching how the villagers shared their food with each other and talked about their lives as they went to the bazaar. Over that 30-minute ride everything would be shared. I loved that feeling. That kindness and their love for life and each other. Now they can’t do this. This is the ultimate heartbreak. How many people have been destroyed? I hope our story can help to stop this inhumanity. What has happened to our village is a crime against humanity.”

This article first appeared in the journal SupChina on July 1, 2020.

‘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.