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‘Heaviness In The Stomach’: A Uyghur Daughter Alone In America On Her Birthday During A Pandemic

When my Chinese friends see her as a human, as a mother, if they start there, then it makes me feel as though there is hope. But to be honest, among my Chinese friends, this is really rare, just one or two or three.

Last month, Akida Pulat celebrated her birthday alone. It was her third birthday since her mother, Uyghur anthropologist Rahile Dawut, had disappeared in Northwest China. Thinking about this in a café in Seattle two weeks before the city began to shut down due to COVID-19, Akida said, “When I was little my mom would ask me what I would want for my birthday. She would make my favorite food, hand-pulled noodles or Hui-style lamb fried with garlic (蒜苔炒羊肉 suàntái chǎo yángròu), and served with rice. She would invite her friends to bring their kids to my party. They always showed me that they really loved me and showered me with attention.

“She would always tell me, ‘I love you my daughter, I hope you have a wonderful year.’ She would always be the first person to give me a birthday wish. So no matter where she is now, whether in a camp or in prison, I know that today she is thinking, ‘This is my daughter’s birthday.’”

Akida worried that during the pandemic, her birthday would be especially hard for her mother. She said:

“In China, the spread of the coronavirus in the U.S. is in the news all the time. All of my Chinese friends’ parents are calling them every day making sure they are OK. My grandmother is so worried about me. She is always telling me ‘don’t go out.’ So that makes me think that my mom must also be really worried about me, too. She must be losing sleep, afraid that I will get coronavirus. I’m also worried about her because I can’t get any information about how it might spread where she is at. I don’t even know if she is being protected from it or not. I’m afraid that my grandma doesn’t know either. She always just tells me, ‘Don’t worry, she is well.’ She has been telling me the same thing for almost three years. When you don’t have real information about the people you love, anything feels possible.”

Akida, speaking to the New York Times, along with two other young Uyghurs who have a parent who has been disappeared.

As I have written elsewhere, the news of Rahile’s disappearance began circulating around the world on December 12, 2017. Administrators had told her to pack her bags for an urgent conference in Beijing. She has not been seen in public since that time. Akida said that when she didn’t hear from her mom for a few days, her first thought was that maybe there had been a plane crash.

But then she had a video chat with her relatives not long after. “My father’s expression seemed to indicate that it was not that serious,” she said. “They were reassuring. They just told me it was complicated. Her work ‘in Beijing’ was being extended.” Akida felt as though they were trying to protect her, since she was all alone in the United States, finishing her degree at the University of Washington.

“When you told me during the summer of 2017 that something had happened to Yalqun Rozi and that some professors were missing from Xinjiang University, I began to worry about her safety,” Akida told me. “Now other people here were telling me she was under investigation. I was devastated, but other people were telling me that other people had been arrested and then they were released after just  three months. So I was just waiting for February. Then I would wait for one more month. Then I thought, maybe after six months they would let her out.”

She said that over this period, the expressions on her relatives’ faces did not really change during their regular WeChat video calls. She said, “They didn’t look as devastated as I thought they should be. But then I started to see a sadness in their eyes. They had become sad. They didn’t know what to do, so they just accepted it.”

During the summer of 2018, Akida said that she began to hear more and more about what was happening to other Uyghurs. For her, and many other Uyghurs, a story about life inside the reeducation camps by Gerry Shih, a Washington Post reporter who was recently expelled from China along with other American journalists, made her feel a sense of desperation. “I started to think about how this was connected to her. What if she was being treated like that?”

When Akida thinks about her mom it is hard for her not to idolize her. “To be honest, she is nearly perfect,” she said. “Some professors are workaholics, but she did everything. She is an expert in her field, but she also did the housework, cooked food for us, and supported us in every way.”

The way she poured herself into their family made them always want to please her, Akida said.

“She looks happy most of the time. But when she is angry, she looks like she is mad. When I was a teenager and I would lie about something to her, she would look so mad. Or if I was impolite to elders, if I wasn’t warm and hospitable. If I wasn’t polite to my cousins from the countryside when they came to visit, she would get really mad. In this way she is a bit like my grandmother, who is also very energetic and could handle a job and three kids. But they are also different. My grandmother was really good at her job, but my mother was really strong and driven. My mom would let me know when she was upset with me right away. My grandmother also gets angry, but it builds more slowly with her.”

It isn’t her anger that Akida remembers most, though; it’s the way her mother cared for her. The emotional labor that made her life path possible came from her.

One of Akida’s earliest memories was of when her mom left for Beijing to study for her Ph.D. in Uyghur folklore. She was only two or three at the time, but she said she still remembers it.

“I felt so sad. I missed her so much. I could feel how attached I was to her already at that time. The happiest memory from my childhood was when I went to attend her graduation ceremony. I stayed with her for two months. It was one of the closest times we had together. We could talk to each other. When she left I was just two, so I could only say ‘mom.’ She taught me to respond to the question ‘Can you speak English?’ with the answer, in English, ‘Yes, I can.’”

“She always said, ‘Why don’t you enjoy life? Chocolate is the best thing in the world.’ In Seattle, she especially fell in love with the snacks from the Fred Meyers grocery store. She thought they had the best chicken wings.”

At first, Akida didn’t realize how significant her mother’s accomplishments were, as one of the first Uyghur women to earn a Ph.D., or how those early language lessons would shape her life course. Back in Ürümchi, she started to realize some of this because suddenly it seemed like everyone was saying, “Rahile is a doctor, Rahile is a doctor.” Akida remembers repeating this in school to her classmates. “They were like, what?”

When Akida started school, like many Uyghur parents who wanted the best for their children, her mother insisted on sending her to a Chinese kindergarten. Akida remembers this as being really hard.

“I could not understand a single word, because up to that point I had never spoken Chinese or heard Chinese. I never finished my homework. At first my mother blamed me for not doing my homework. She told me, ‘Do your homework.’ As if I was just lazy. But I didn’t know what this was.”

Akida soon began to understand her Chinese lessons, and when she started to study English, she realized that she might have a gift for languages. “I was the smallest person in the class at the English training center. My mom was so proud of me. She told me, ‘If you study hard you can go abroad, go to Harvard, be a doctor and see the world.’”

Rahile wanted Akida to know everything and do everything, but she especially wanted her to understand her Uyghur heritage. As Akida remembers it,

“Unlike other parents, she encouraged me to travel. She always pushed me to explore life. She would tell me, ‘Go live with your relatives for the summer.’ She would give me 30 yuan ($4.20), pack some clothes, and a tin of biscuits. She made it seem like it wasn’t hard. Like it was fun. We had been living a cozy life in the city. But on the farm in the countryside, the toilet was outside, there were no showers. Someone had to hold a hollowed-out gourd filled with water and pour it over you. In the countryside there were no supermarkets and the kids had a different kind of life. In the city, girls and boys were treated more equally, but in the countryside, the women were treated differently. For instance, young women would be married to young men without meeting each other. Girls had to get up early and clean the house. The girls were super, super good at cleaning. There were also some cultural traditions. The children should not talk freely with elders. We should avoid being impolite. I learned by watching the other children, but I made a lot of mistakes. They were very patient with me. They would tell me over and over again, ‘Akida, you are a girl.’ In the countryside, even a 10-year-old girl could make hand-pulled noodles and all kinds of food. I couldn’t do any of those things.”

One of Akida’s fondest memories of her mom came from the intense periods of time when Akida was studying for the middle school and college entrance exams. Rahile incorporated Akida’s work into her own approach to academic work. Her habit was to work for one hour and then take a five-minute break to listen to some Uyghur folk music and to dance. Akida said, “She would always invite me to dance with her, so I always had a five-minute break, too. Our favorite song to sing and dance to was a song by the Uyghur singer Mominjan called “There is Beauty in You” (Uy: Güzelik Sende).

Akida was in high school when the violence of July 5, 2009 happened. Looking out from their 10th-floor apartment at Xinjiang University, she saw fires burning in the streets.

“My mom and I took a walk to the front gates to look out. We didn’t know what was happening. Our education was all from the state-run media. I felt terrified. No one wants chaos. I didn’t know what would happen next. One of the things I remember is that people were saying that their daughter or their son was  missing. In high school they told us that all of the ethnicities were in solidarity with each other. But everyone saw that students were missing.”

Her mom encouraged her to go to Beijing for college, since it would give her better chances to find a good job. Akida remembers this as one of the difficult times in her life.

“It was really hard. When I was in college and feeling upset, she would always give me encouragement. She would say, ‘As long as you are making progress you are doing better.’ I never got any awards in college. She would have been happy if I did, but she just encouraged me anyway. She said, ‘The other students are native Chinese speakers.’ Usually I would call her in the evening after class. I would tell her all the gossip about my roommates and my friends. I would tell her what I ate for dinner. She would try to call me in the morning on the weekends so that I would get up and study. I would always pretend that I was already awake. I would say, ‘I’ve been up for an hour already.’ Whenever I went to Beijing she would pack my bag with snacks and bedding. She would pack some dried meat for me in a jar. She would tell me to eat in class in school when I am hungry. I would think of her for several weeks as I ate what she sent.”

When the stress of college life drove Akida close to developing an eating disorder, Rahile intervened as gently as she could. Akida said, “She always did it in a humorous way. When I didn’t eat enough before I left for school, she used to say, ‘You will faint if you don’t eat.’ During video chats after I came to the U.S., she used to repeat the Uyghur proverb: ‘If you don’t eat well, the wind will take you away’” (Uy: Tamakni yaxshi yemisigiz, shamal uqurtiwitidu).

After she came to visit Akida in Seattle as a Chinese state-sponsored visiting scholar at the University of Washington in 2016, Rahile always tried to ply Akida with snacks like chocolate. Akida said, “I would never eat it because I was dieting. She always said, ‘Why don’t you enjoy life? Chocolate is the best thing in the world.’ In Seattle, she especially fell in love with the snacks from the Fred Meyers grocery store. She thought they had the best chicken wings.”

For Akida, Seattle is haunted by the memory of her mother. She said, “When she came to visit me here, I had no idea that this would be the last time we would stay together for a long time. I didn’t know the meaning of her visit. I thought it seemed so familiar, like when she had visited me in Beijing. I didn’t know the meaning of having her here.”

As she goes about her daily routine, little things Akida encounters makes her think about her mother.

“My exercise clothes always remind me of her. She has a lot of tennis shoes and sports outfits. She had a gray hoodie that she wore for 10 years, I often imagine her in that. Not many Uyghur women her age would wear this sort of thing in public, so they always reminded me of how different she is, how confident she is as a woman. I used to always borrow her clothes or steal them from her. She would always complain, ‘Why did you take my clothes again?’ But secretly I could tell that she was pleased. We used to walk together around the Red Lake in the center of Xinjiang University. She would tell me, ‘You will ruin your eyes, if you just look at your computer.’ When she was a visiting scholar here in Seattle we walked down by the lake near our apartment. I think of her when I go back to where we used to walk. When I see the apartment where we used to live, I remember that she lived there with me. This always brings tears to my eyes.

“There is a Value Village thrift store near that apartment. Once when I was passing it, I went in to have a look. She used to go there almost every day. She liked saving money, but she also liked nice clothes. She liked to go there to see if she could find some nice clothes or good shoes. Then she would brag to me about what she found. This is one of the things that really made her happy.”

“Most Chinese people cannot comprehend it when I say that my mother is missing. When I say she is missing, their first response is why? Did she commit some sort of crime?”

Mostly, Akida says she misses having someone to talk to.

“I miss her so much. I used to stay in the same room with her, so now I miss her scent. I could just talk to her for hours every day. I told her about all of the small things. Even after she left, we kept talking like this, right until the day she disappeared. She had just bought a new TV and a dishwasher so she could do less housework and watch more movies. She told me that her future plan was to move to a house in the mountains outside of Ürümchi. After she retired she wanted to live in the countryside and write and read. She wanted to smell the fresh air and write about the countryside. She told me to get married and give her grandchildren. She told me that if I lived and worked in the U.S. she would take care of my children. This is what makes me so sad. This life no longer seems possible. She wanted to enjoy her life. Knowing this is what makes her disappearance so hard.”

Akida said that much of the past three years have felt like a waking dream, a nightmare that never ends.

“I have dreams about her returning home and that I am in the same room with her. Or I am talking with her over the phone. But then when I wake up, I know it is just a dream. I often have nightmares that something happened to her. When this happens it takes me days for me to recover. In the dream she just looks weak. Her hair has turned white. She has a hard time walking. I say, ‘Mom!’ to her but she cannot respond. It’s like she doesn’t recognize me. She just stares at me blankly. It is like a really weird, horrible movie. I often wake up at 4 or 5 a.m. and can’t go back to sleep. I go to work feeling heavy inside. It is hard to pretend that things are normal. Lots of people have trauma, but it is not like this. This never ends. I don’t have the energy to even scream or cry. I can’t scream at work. I wash my face, make breakfast, and commute to work. I just feel this heaviness all the time. It is a physical feeling inside me, like a monster is inside me weighing me down. I feel it in my stomach. At the same time, my head doesn’t stop thinking about it and these two things combine together. Sometimes I feel so tired that I might end up not doing anything. I crawl into bed and try to sleep to forget these things, but it is hard to sleep sometimes. Sometimes I just think about what has happened to my mom for hours at a time. It is so contradictory. It is hard to sleep, but it is also hard to get out of bed. Sometimes I spend days in bed.

What makes her memory of dancing with her mother to the song “There is Beauty in You” more painful is that, in her nightmares, her mom can barely walk. “I’m afraid that it is impossible for her to dance now, that I’ll never relive this again.”

“The saddest time was reading that the president of Xinjiang University, Tashpolat Tiyip, had been allegedly sentenced to death (with a two-year reprieve). I saw him all the time on campus. He was a family friend. I thought about it for weeks. The only time I feel a little bit better is when I see that another Uyghur has testified for their family member and the government has released them as a result. For example, when I heard Halmurat Harri had gotten his mother out. At that time, I hadn’t even started speaking. But then I thought, ‘Now I have no choice but to speak.’ You know the Chinese government lies are being unveiled through leaked documents. There is clear proof. This, and the ability to tell our stories, gives me energy. Together we can show that this is happening.”

It is often hard for Akida to remain optimistic. As someone who has spent decades of her life in the Chinese education system, she knows how powerful the Chinese state is in revising history. She fears that most of her Chinese friends will simply act as though what is happening to the Uyghurs is not true and wait for the story to go away.

“Sometimes I tell my Chinese friends that my mother is missing and it feels like they don’t believe me. When I post testimony videos or interviews many Han people tell me that I am telling lies. They say, ‘Your mom must be a terrorist.’ I believe that many people have humanity at their core. They just don’t know what is actually happening in Northwest China. I don’t think most Chinese people know that it is happening. You can’t hear anything about it from the media they are used to. If they hear it is happening from the Western media, they think it is just them trying to humiliate China. If they knew, they would say this is wrong. I hope that this is true. First they have to understand that this is happening. They are detaining innocent Uyghurs. I tell my Han friends they don’t need to say something for my mother. But it is true that innocent people are being detained. I would stand up for anyone who is innocent. This is what I believe in.”

Over time, Akida says she has stopped talking directly to her Chinese friends, since they often just shut down when she brings  up her mother’s situation. It makes them uncomfortable, so she has started to develop more non-Chinese friendships.

“Most Chinese people cannot comprehend it when I say that my mother is missing. When I say she is missing, their first response is why? Did she commit some sort of crime? They cannot digest it. So most of the time I don’t mention it.”

But it still means a lot if one of her Chinese friends sees her and her mother as fellow humans and relates to them on that level.

“One of my Chinese friends, when I began to post about this, sent me a message saying she was so sorry and said, ‘I hope you can see your mother soon.’ She told me to keep staying strong. Her first response was to feel sorry for me. She identified with me as a daughter. I will remember this forever. It means so much if someone from her background has empathy like this. If they say something like this, I feel a little bit lighter. That heaviness in my stomach goes away just for a little bit. When my Chinese friends see her as a human, as a mother, if they start there, then it makes me feel as though there is hope. But to be honest, among my Chinese friends, this is really rare, just one or two or three.

Akida buried her head in her hands. She shook her head sadly and tried to smile.

For ways to can support Akida’s efforts to help her mom, visit This article first appeared in the journal SupChina on April 1, 2020.

17 years and 10 months. A Uyghur Son Learns of his Mother’s Prison Sentence 

It is likely that Aliyem Urayim was detained the moment she landed in China after visiting Eli in Turkey.

“Your mother went to ´study.´” When Eli Yarmemet first received these words, he was convinced that it was a mistake and that she would soon be released from the reeducation camps. But three years on, the nightmare has just gotten worse, Eli recently learned that his mother has been sentenced to 17 years and 10 months in prison.

The last time Eli Yarmemet saw his mother was in December 2016. Eli – an ethnic Uyghur from northwest of China currently living in Norway — traveled with his family to Turkey, where they met up with his mother and spent two weeks together. At that time the mass detentions in Xinjiang had affected the entire Uyghur population. It was not until April 2017 that Chinese authorities intensified a brutal crackdown on the Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities who make up more than half of the region’s population.

“Had I known anything about it I would never have let my mother go back to China,”  Eli said.

Eli Yarmemet describes what happened to his mother since 2017.

Facing mounting international criticism, government officials claim that the purpose of the camps is to promote Islamic de-radicalization and poverty alleviation by offering vocational training. 

Based on the evidence Eli has seen and who he knows his mother to be these claims are clearly untrue. He said, “That is absolute nonsense. Before her detention, my mother was a successful businesswoman. She has never held any radical ideas or involved herself in politics at all.”

It is likely that Aliyem Urayim was detained the moment she landed in China after visiting Eli in Turkey. 

“After she got back her phone was turned off and we couldn´t get in touch with her. After some time I got ahold of our relatives who told me that my mother ‘went to school to study’ — a euphemism for being sent to the camps.”

Eli´s mother, Aliyem Urayim, 48, was born and raised in Ghulja, a city in the north of the Xinjiang region. She had three sons. When her children were still very young, she and Eli’s father divorced. After that she started doing business, first as a street vendor selling perfume and makeup, and later by opening a small store. She developed her business step by step, and started to travel back and forth from China to Kazakhstan, trading goods. As a result Aliyem Urayim became a well-known person in her hometown. 

“A lot of people there know my mother’s name, since she is a very helpful person. She used to help those who wanted to apply for passports and visas to travel abroad — something that has always been difficult for ethnic minorities like Uyghurs without the right connections in the bureaucracy,” said Eli Yarmemet.

Besides being a busy businesswoman, Aliyem Urayim also cared for two of her grandchildren, now 3 and 5 years old, after her youngest son also divorced. The fate of his brother’s children is another thing that worries Eli Yarmemet.

“I have no idea what happened to them after my mother’s detention. I am worried that they might have been placed in an orphanage, but I don´t know. I heard that their father, my younger brother, has also been detained in a camp.”

For almost three years, Eli Yarmemet has not been able to get any information at all about his mother´s whereabouts. It was only recently that he learned that she has been sentenced to 17 years and 10 months in prison. 

The harsh punishment follows a recent pattern in the Xinjiang region, in which detainees in re-education camps, have been transferred to actual prisons and received extremely long sentences based on unknown or vague, sweeping charges. 

The little information that has trickled out is extremely troubling. 

“From what I heard indirectly, a relative has visited my mom in prison. Her health has deteriorated there. She asked for money, since she needs to see a doctor. I wish that at least I could send her money, but who could I possibly send it to?”

Like many Uyghurs in exile, Eli has been cut off from all family and friends in China. Either their phone numbers are not working or they deleted him as a contact on WeChat, the main social media platform in China. Having contacts abroad can be a reason for detention, and people are afraid.

“For example, the last time I spoke with my father was five years ago,” says Eli. “Ending the conversation he told me, ‘Please take care of yourself, and don’t call us again.’ I don’t know anything about his situation since that last phone call.”

Eli Yarmemet was initially reluctant to speak out publicly about the dire situation in Xinjiang, in fear of retaliation against loved ones still living there. He said:

“When I first heard of my mother’s detention I was confident that she would soon be released, since she is a completely innocent law abiding citizen. So I stayed silent and waited. I was afraid that I would cause her trouble by speaking out. But as months turned into years I realized that the authorities were not going to let her out. About a year ago I decided to make a video testimony for my mother, and I posted several testimonies since. I tried my best, but so far nothing has helped. My mother is still in this terrible situation, and we don´t know how it will end. My own mental health is severely affected, and I see a psychologist often. I just wish so much that I could bring my mother here to Norway with me.”

Sealed Doors And ‘Positive Energy’: COVID-19 In Xinjiang

Recently a young Han man from Xinjiang who I will call Wu Yi told me a joke his friends in Ürümchi have been repeating since the end of January: “When will people in Xinjiang be allowed to go outside? When the last patient in Wuhan is cured.” Wu Yi and his friends have been grumbling about the way they’re losing money. The addition of checkpoints in 2017 already made it difficult to do business: Wu Yi, who grew up in an affluent family in the city, said his father had to meet business partners from Kazakhstan in places like Shanghai or Beijing. Now even that was impossible.

Since January 27, five days before Huanggang, Hubei Province was locked down, Wu Yi’s family has been permitted to leave their apartments only twice per week. Everything is controlled by the auxiliary police (协警 xiéjǐng) and the neighborhood watch office. “Since there was already such a huge police force in Xinjiang for the ‘terrorism’ problem, it was easy for them to lock all of us up,” he said.

As people around the world face the acute respiratory illness COVID-19, many Uyghurs and Kazakhs in the diaspora have been expressing a deeper concern about their friends and family in Xinjiang, where information has a difficult time getting in and out. Chinese state media in Xinjiang has consistently misrepresented and concealed the violence that Turkic minorities face, giving people no reason to believe they would tell the truth about the presence and effect of COVID-19 in their communities. As one woman from Xinjiang told me: “I don’t trust the government at all. It is really like the Great Leap Forward, when the government introduced food quotas. This means that poor people in the villages will get resources last.”

“Xinjiang is already on fire,” she said. “All of the police control, ethnic discrimination, and poor infrastructure make Xinjiang more vulnerable. The problem is we are already so vulnerable.”

There are historical precedents for the way minoritized native groups are confronted with disproportionate levels of vulnerability in the face of epidemics. In North America, the Spanish influenza of 1918 devastated Native American communities. Rural poverty, lack of access to medical care, poor nutrition, isolation, and overcrowding were all factors in why mortality rates among the Navajo were up to four times higher than other communities. Those who were held in government-run boarding schools were particularly vulnerable.

Over the past decade, the Chinese state has shown Uyghurs and Kazakhs over and over again that their lives matter the least. It only makes sense that, outside of Hubei, Uyghurs and Kazakhs would be disproportionately affected during this epidemic. Observers are deeply worried that those in detention camps will become easy victims. Total dependency on the state terrifies them. For many I spoke to, in the previous few weeks, the specter of mass death has begun filling their dreams.

According to a directive issued by state authorities in Kashgar on January 26, Xinjiang has mobilized the “million police enter ten million homes” (百万警进千万家 bǎiwàn jǐng jìn qiānwàn jiā) campaign that was used as part of the “becoming family” program. That program used home visits to monitor, assess, and reeducate Uyghurs and Kazakhs throughout the region. In response to COVID-19, local neighborhood watch units were to “organize the auxiliary police to visit each household to ensure its safety, carefully implement grid management and blanket survey measures, and conduct comprehensive investigations of personnel with exposure history in Wuhan” throughout the region.

Human surveillance would be used to establish a database of who has connections to Wuhan. As with the reporting of “ideological viruses” (意识形态病毒 yìshí xíngtài bìngdú) over the past three years, the directive said “it was strictly forbidden to conceal reports” of exposure to COVID-19. Anyone who did so would be dealt with harshly. The internet supervision team would strengthen its online inspections in order to “prevent the spread of unofficial channels of information related to the outbreak.” Under no circumstances were the auxiliary police permitted to share “rumors.” Police officers and other state employees were to work around the clock. According to the directive, they are not permitted to leave their posts except with special permission. Anyone who did not follow the procedures would be detained. As with the “People’s War on Terror,” the new threat of the epidemic required re-emphasis of “strict wartime measures.” Military discipline was to be inspected on a daily basis, meting out both praise and punishment of security workers. At the same time, “ideological work teams” (政工队 zhènggōng duì) would be on the lookout for exceptionally good “volunteers” (志愿军 zhìyuànjūn) and good deeds. As has been their mission since Xi Jinping’s 2015 speech on the role of the arts in promoting “positive energy” (正能量 zhèng néngliàng), the Kashgar COVID-19 directive said these teams were to “vigorously promote ‘positive energy.’”

In fact, the positive energy that is promoted on a daily basis throughout Xinjiang society is precisely the reason why many people rely on “rumors” for a better sense of the truth. Over the years that I lived in Xinjiang, Uyghurs told me over and over again that state media would always report the opposite of what was happening. One friend, a man named Ablikim, told me, “If the government says something positive happened, you know that they are actually trying to cover up something negative.” The overwhelming presence of the police, and the frequency of police brutality, made anything seem possible. What Uyghurs were certain of was that the “positive energy” that state media promoted was often a red herring.

When it comes to COVID-19, Xinjiang ideology work looks different in different places. In some cases, the media highlights Kazakh and Uyghur medical workers who have “volunteered” to go to Wuhan to fight the epidemic. They show how they not only contribute medical care, but also, at the request of political leaders, how they lead quarantined people in Xinjiang-style dances.

Kazakh “volunteers” dance for quarantined COVID-19 patients in Hubei.

More typical reports have highlighted how Uyghurs were forced to show that they cared for the people of Wuhan by sending “donations,” and the dedication and diligence of Han “volunteers.” For instance, one report from the 70th regiment of the People’s Production and Construction Corps near Ghulja, Xinjiang described the way a state worker named Jiang Wanhu committed himself to being on duty full-time. The story of Jiang Wanhu also showed that lockdowns were more severe in certain areas. Unlike Wu Yi’s friends and relatives who were allowed to go out of their housing complex to buy supplies twice per week, Jiang’s story indicates that some residents were not permitted to leave their homes at all. Instead, state workers like Jiang brought them food on a regular basis and took away their garbage.

Jiang Wanhu (right) and another Party member volunteer deliver supplies to neighborhood residents.

As a new report from the Uyghur Human Rights Project has shown, this form of total lockdown seems more prevalent in Uyghur-majority areas. In one such area, the political work department posted a video of state workers walking down the street telling people not to come outside:

As a young Han high school student who returned to Xinjiang from Shenzhen as part of the Spring Festival holiday wrote in a blog post: “When the new coronavirus raged, I was still in my hometown. Karamay’s neighborhood watch offices were very strict. The volunteers came to deliver food and take away our garbage. A note was posted on the door of each house that said, ‘Have a rest at home, wish you good health.’ Even my friends back in Shenzhen can go downstairs and throw out their trash, I can’t even go out the door here in the Northwest. It was okay at first, after all, it’s chilly outside. But like a dog tied to the house, I started looking for things to do.”

Screenshot 373
Papers that say “Have a rest at home, wish you good health” in Xinjiang, sealing people inside their homes.

In a number of documented cases, it appears as though these papers were used to seal Uyghurs inside their homes. Opening their door would constitute a violation of the state directive to stay indoors. Allegedly, like many people in Wuhan, many Uyghurs were not able to prepare for the quarantine or to buy supplies, and were thus dependent on the state for food deliveries. In some cases, it appears as though there were long delays in the delivery of food. Two videos from the region show people in states of extreme distress.

In the first of these videos, an older Uyghur man is confronted by a security worker because he is walking outside. He asks the state worker, “Should I take a bite out of a building?” In another video that circulated widely in the Uyghur diaspora, a young Uyghur man screams over and over, “I’M STARVING, I’M STARVING. WHEN WILL THE FOOD COME? MY FAMILY IS STARVING.”

A video of public shaming of Uyghurs who violated directives to stay indoors despite their hunger.

Other political work departments posted videos shaming Uyghurs who left their homes to look for food, making them say things like, “I went out to try to find food, I didn’t find any, I will not do it again.” In a separate video, Uyghurs were forced to hold up signs that said, “I was like a donkey and went outside.” Radio Free Asia reported that, in some cases, Uyghurs were threatened with internment if they ventured outside their homes. They also foundfurther evidence that some Uyghurs were suffering from hunger and were being denied medical treatment during the lockdown. Although only several dozen people in Xinjiang have been infected with COVID-19, with three reported deaths in the region, the lockdown appears to have created widespread forms of stress and panic. It is unclear what the long-term effects will be, for people both in and outside of the camp system.

Over the past two weeks, conditions in Xinjiang have begun to shift. Although many people from the area doubt the accuracy of official numbers, the numbers at least show coronavirus infections decreasing across the country. At the highest point, on February 20, the number of people under official medical observation was 6,279. By February 29, only 3,618 were being held in medical isolation, according to state-reported data.

The state publicity departments throughout the Uyghur region began to post reports of more Uyghur laborers returning to forms of coercive work in factories making masks and producing food — aiding the rest of the country. In some areas, people gave donations as a way of performing their political loyalty and showing their sympathy with people in Wuhan. Then new reports emerged of groups of Uyghur factory workers being assigned to Hubei, the epicenter of the epidemic, to help bring factories back online in the absence of local Han workers. The coercive forms of labor that have sent more than 80,000 Uyghur workers to other parts of China now have a new valence. Not only are they being reeducated through industrial labor for brands like Nike and Gap, it appears they are also filling a key role as workers when Han workers are not willing to work.

Watching all of this unfold has caused a great deal of concern in the global Uyghur and Kazakh communities. It confirms their fears that their friends and family members are being forced to sacrifice their bodies and labor for the nation. Rather than caring for the wellbeing of Uyghurs and Kazakhs themselves, they see their relatives being instrumentalized as a tool to care for Han communities elsewhere and the “positive energy” of the nation as a whole. Although there has not been evidence of the mass deaths they feared, their survival still does not feel fully assured. Many remain unconvinced that the world will ever find out if Uyghurs and Kazakhs did die in significant numbers. COVID-19 makes them worry because they fear that state authorities do not really care if they live or die.

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

How racist nationalists hijacked Hong Kong’s solidarity rally with Uyghurs

Solidarity with Uyghurs must not be weaponized by Hong Kong’s pro-independence, right-wing localists.

The author would like to thank Sophia Chan, Darren Byler, Musafir, Wilfred Chan, JN Chien, JP, Yukiko Kobayashi Lui, Listen Chen, JS, and Vincent Wong for their generative feedback and assistance with the publishing process.

Last December, I attended the “Human Rights Rally of Solidarity With Uyghurs” in Hong Kong’s Central District, organized by Students of Power (學生歷量), a group of high school students. This was a significant acknowledgement by Hongkongers of the oppression of Uyghurs and other Muslims such as the Hui, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz communities by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in its northwest territory of Xinjiang.[1]

As I would discover, however, what should have been a rally to build much-needed solidarity was instead hijacked by racist nationalists who used it to proselytize their hateful ideology, one which both endangers oppressed communities and poisons Hong Kong’s movement with a destructive politics of division.

The movement’s insistence on unity has often sheltered the far-right from challenges as it marshalled nativist sentiments for its reactionary project. 

Decades of PRC-led expropriation, displacement, exploitation, and ethnic cleansing of Muslim communities in Xinjiang — including, in recent years, their mass detention in concentration camps under the direction of President Xi Jinping — has come under increasing international scrutiny. Recently, a leak of over 400 internal government documents exposed shocking details of how Xi’s directive to “show absolutely no mercy” in a “people’s war” against the “virus” of Islamic extremism in the region is being brutally implemented through these concentration camps, along with unprecedented controls and surveillance on those who remain outside. Western powers have responded with feeble and opportunistic condemnations. 

Hong Kong’s solidarity rally came as bottlenecks have increasingly frustrated Hong Kong’s uprising. With over 7,000 protesters arrested, direct actions and clashes with police have mostly abated. Meanwhile, the massive campaigns to lobby Western governments have not turned the tide as many protesters had hoped. Recognizing this moment of crisis and possibility, some on the Hong Kong left have urged a reorientation of the movement toward a more broad-based revolution linked with the struggles of marginalized groups, while the localist far right has refortified its conception of an insular and exclusionary Hong Kong. In this battle over the movement’s ideological trajectory, the stakes are dire. See Also

Against this context, it seemed that the student organizers of the rally sought to avoid both the appearance and act of promoting any particular political agenda by inviting speakers from across Hong Kong’s political spectrum, from Lee Cheuk-yan (李卓人) of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) to Hong Kong independence personality Paladin Cheng (鄭俠). Yet the movement’s insistence on unity has often sheltered the far-right from challenges as it marshalled nativist sentiments for its reactionary project. 

In this case, the organizers’ attempt to give equal platform to a broad range of political positions enabled a vocal minority of racist nationalists to hijack the rally. The audience was primed for their propaganda by other speakers who, despite their differences in politics and rhetoric, invariably drew facile comparisons between the struggles of Uyghurs and Hongkongers to deliver an alarmist message that reduces Uyghurs to a political scarecrow, summed up by the slogan emblazoned on the backdrop of the rally stage: “Xinjiang today, Hong Kong tomorrow.” 

A student speaker fallaciously compared the settler-colonial practice of state-sponsored Han Chinese migration into Xinjiang with Hong Kong’s policy allowing up to 150 mainland relatives of Hongkongers to gain Hong Kong residency per day, warning that current Hongkongers could become a minority as a result. But unlike Han Chinese settlers in Xinjiang, newer migrants from the mainland in Hong Kong are predominantly rural women married to Hong Kong men, and among Hong Kong’s most economically marginalized — not to mention the obvious fact that most Hongkongers today are themselves mainland migrants or their descendants. 

Before we can join our revolution to the struggles of others, we must first undertake “a revolution of ourselves.”

The far-right’s hijacking of the rally culminated with the speech of Andy Chan Ho-tin (陳浩天), founder of the outlawed pro-independence Hong Kong National Party. Chan denounced the Chinese nation as a contradictory concept enabling the violent assimilation of non-Han “nations” like the Uyghurs. In the same breath, Chan advanced the equally contradictory concept of a Hong Kong nation, armed with the same fabricated hierarchies of genetic and racial difference routinely deployed by the PRC government to oppress and assimilate Muslim communities. 

Chan asserted that just like Uyghurs, Hongkongers constitute a nation separate from China because of supposedly essential differences in language, culture, lifestyle, values, and even genetics. “To put it in more racist terms,” he said with brazen conviction, “we even look different from them,” adding that Hongkongers, unlike Mainlanders, have “freedom” in their genes because they are descendants of refugees who fled from mainland China.

Having presented these artificial parallels between Hongkongers and Uyghurs as evidence that both groups constitute distinct nations on racial terms, Chan urged Hongkongers to rebrand their struggle as an “anti-colonial” movement for independence from Chinese rule—an extreme perversion of the history of anti-colonialism as a movement against racial, religious, ethnic, and other social divisions that facilitate colonial domination.

Chan’s speech ended with the most enthusiastic applause received by any speaker. As chants of “Hong Kong independence—the only way out!” started to drown out chants of “stand with Uyghurs,” I realized with horror that a rally ostensibly in solidarity with oppressed Uyghurs had been hijacked into becoming a propaganda event to promote a Hong Kong nation built on racial exclusion—possible first steps toward fascism.

Despite their links, the presumption that Hongkongers and Uyghurs share identical stakes in their struggles is misguided and harmful to those we are supposedly in solidarity with. It is, of course, important for us to help each other — for example, in resisting technologies of repression employed by the PRC in both regions. However, these experiences can only be effectively shared and utilized through relationships of genuine solidarity built on a mutual respect for the differences that divide us and, indeed, are produced by us.See Also

As descendants of Han migrants from the mainland, Hongkongers play an indirect role in upholding the Han chauvinism that threatens Muslim communities in Xinjiang. Hongkongers must also not overlook the context of global Islamophobia, which is very much alive in Hong Kong. South Asian and Muslim Hongkongers have long endured racism and Islamophobia from their Han counterparts, including protesters. Before we can join our revolution to the struggles of others, we must first undertake “a revolution of ourselves.”

But as with too much in this movement, any chance to think critically about the Uyghur solidarity rally and its ideological content was quickly overshadowed by chaotic scenes of police violence that brought the event to an abrupt and premature end. This only makes our reflection more necessary. 

Hong Kong’s movement must overcome its instrumentalist and insular tendencies to clearly articulate the future it is fighting for—and what it is not. It must ask: who is our movement excluding when it always insists on unity, even with racist nationalists? How can we fight Chinese nationalism without resorting to a far-right Hong Kong nationalism? 

A more powerful alternative is to recognize the hegemony of state and capital as the real enemy, and the basis for our allyship with oppressed people everywhere—including people in mainland China. We can stand with oppressed minorities in Xinjiang by learning about their politics and history, sharing resources, and challenging Islamophobic and racist institutions in Hong Kong — instead of making these reductive and ultimately opportunistic shows of solidarity. To paraphrase a common admonition between Hong Kong protesters: we must not treat as condoms those we recognize as our comrades.[2]


[1] Xin Jiang (新疆) literally translates to “new frontier” in Chinese, though many people of the region prefer the name East Turkistan or Occupied Dzungarstan-Altishahr.

[2] This Cantonese catchphrase generally refers to the treatment of others as disposable, like condoms. The metaphor gained popularity among Hong Kong protesters as a warning not to treat fellow protesters (especially frontliners) as disposable, emphasizing the indispensability of each individual to the whole movement.

This article was first published by the collective Lausan on March 12, 2020. Lausan shares thinking on decolonial left perspective from Hong Kong. This article is reprinted here with permission.