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Xinjiang Action List

Image by Badiucao

People often ask me what they can do to engage the issues confronting the Uyghurs, Kazakhs and Hui in Northwest China. Here is a list of action items for people who want to get evolved in the United States.

Contact Your Congress Members 

The Human Rights Policy Act is currently awaiting ratification by the Senate. This bill will leverage sanctions on companies and key leaders who have been implicated in the camp system, and mandate a detailed congressional report on the global supply chain that supports these atrocities.

Join Grassroots Movements

Boycott and divest from companies and investment funds that profit from Turkic Muslim suffering. As much as 84 percent of the cotton used in Chinese made garments is sourced in the Uyghur region of China.

  • For a report on the Fortune 500 companies that are connected to the Uyghur homeland follow this link.
  • For a report on the investment funds that profit from the security industrial complex that targets Uyghurs follow this link.
  • Retailers who have directly profited through the sale of cotton garments produced by Uyghur and Turkic Muslim coerced labor (including Adidas, Espirit, Gap, H&M, Kohls, Target among others). Here is an important report on this.

In 2018 the U.S. retailer Badger Sports agreed to pay $300,000 in reparations to the Uyghur community because of their complicity in camp-associated labor. See the report here.

Provide Financial Support 

Donate to support Turkic Muslim advocacy.

  • There are thousands of Uyghur women and children who have been separated from other members of their families as undocumented refugees in Turkey. Help support their material well-being and legal defense: https://www.shukrfoundation.org.au
  • The Uyghur Human Rights Project is the premier North America-based advocacy organization. Supporting them helps to build institutional support for Uyghurs around the world: http://www.uhrp.org
  • The Xinjiang Victims Database collects and archives the testimonies of camp survivors and the testimonies of the family and friends of the disappeared. So far over 5000 unique accounts have been collected. Supporting this work is vital to grassroots advocacy and conveying the deep trauma of mass detention and separation: https://shahit.biz/eng/
  • On the West Coast, another organization called the Uyghur Projects Foundation works to promote the strengthening of Uyghur Indigenous arts and traditions: https://uyghursfoundation.org/

Stay Up-to-Date

For more in-depth reading visit an ever-expanding archive of scholarly and journalistic reports from the region. Follow this link.

A Police State Going into Hiding

Uyghur music played in the center of the Grand Bazaar in 2019

Over the past two years, multiple news reports, academic research, and eyewitness accounts have pieced together a picture of the tight surveillance in the police state the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region has become.

I experienced some of this surveillance myself during a trip to Urumqi and Xinjiang’s south in the spring of 2018. One year later, in 2019, I was prepared to encounter even more restrictions during a second trip to Ürümchi and two southern cities, where surveillance has been reported to be most severe.

To my surprise, I noticed soon after my arrival that much of the visible surveillance measures had been reduced noticeably compared to 2018. This created an illusion of a more relaxed atmosphere, at least on the surface. However, as I was to discover during my travel, surveillance had not decreased but emerged in more discrete ways.

Despite still being many, the overall number of surveillance cameras seemed to have declined, at least it didn’t look like that there were more cameras than in Beijing or Shanghai. Police in the streets rarely checked the ID cards and mobile phones of the region’s non-Han population, whereas this had been routine last year at every large intersection, especially in southern Xinjiang. The sometimes-hourly patrolling police convoys consisting of about ten huge black armored police cars driving at walking speed with their sirens turned on, reminding everyone that police were watching, had also completely disappeared during my visit in 2019.

A kind of normality had returned to Ürümchi, the capital of the region. In 2018, the once crowded and lively area in and around the streets of the Grand Bazaar where many Uyghurs operate their restaurants and shops had looked like a ghost city. Someone seemed to have turn off the volume. Walking around had felt like being in a silent film.

In 2019, the same area had become more animated with more people in the streets – noticeably more young and elder Uyghur men than last year – and the sound had returned as well. In the afternoon, Uyghur music was played in the center of the Grand Bazaar where Han, most probably tourists, and Uyghurs were dancing together (see video at top). Still, this “happy” get-together was overseen by armed SWAT police, standing just two meters behind the crowd which had gathered around the dancers.

In 2018, big black police vehicles had been stationed around the Grand Bazaar area. This year, not a single police car was visible. Instead, white minivans decorated with ornate lettering saying “Grand Bazaar Pedestrian Mall” with bored-looking, middle-aged, mostly Han men sitting inside were parking outside the tourist attraction. That these were not cars belonging to staff of the Disneyland-style reworked Grand Bazaar became clear when three SWAT policemen climbed out of one of these minivans. Moments like this reminded me that, despite suggesting normality, things were not back to normal at all.

The most striking example of hidden surveillance I encountered was at the Idkah Mosque in Kashgar. Whereas mosques in Ürümchi looked more like high-security prisons rather than places of worship, the Idkah Mosque does not even a metal detector at the entrance, which is now standard for mosques in Xinjiang and even some outside Xinjiang.

None of the surveillance cameras in the mosque portico were there during my visit in 2019.

In April 2019, the New York Times published several short videos taken in October 2018 reflecting the heavy securitization of Xinjiang. The videos showed two police stations outside Idkah and two policemen at the entrance of the mosque. This had all disappeared during my visit in 2019. None of the surveillance cameras in the mosque portico were there anymore during my visit. There were also no other visible cameras either inside the courtyard, except those at the entrance or inside the prayer hall of the mosque (see below).

Two visitors, who had visited the mosque in the second half of 2018, explained to me that they had not been allowed to film or take pictures or take their belongings inside. In spring 2019, the mosque had been cleared of most of its surveillance cameras and police. Tourists were allowed to take photos and videos as the friendly Uyghur lady at the entrance explained. She also pointed out that I would need to purchase a ticket since the mosque was a “national tourist attraction”. In Hotan, another town in southern Xinjiang, I was loudly refused to take pictures from the outside of a mosque let alone enter it, possibly because it was not officially labeled a “national tourist attraction”.

When I exited the Idkah Mosque which until then had appeared to be the least securitized and the only almost camera-free place in Xinjiang, I noticed that I had been followed by two Chinese men who stayed nearby until they saw me leaving the area. Later, up to four persons in plainclothes followed, filmed and photographed me at all four tourist sites I visited in Kashgar, however never following me outside the tourist spots. Human surveillance seems to have partially replaced the otherwise omnipresent cameras, at least in tourist areas.

The Grand Bazaar now looks more like an amusement park with newly opened “Uyghur-style” shops and a large pedestrian shopping street.

Besides reducing visible surveillance, designated tourist areas are also undergoing a make-over to become more attractive to the increasing number of Chinese tourists visiting Xinjiang. The famous Old Town of Kashgar had been rebuilt years ago and Ürümchi’s tourist attraction, the Grand Bazaar, has now followed suit. According to a shop assistant, the renovations had been completed by August 2018. The Grand Bazaar now looks more like an amusement park with newly opened “Uyghur-style” shops and a large pedestrian shopping street (see above). The street located behind the Grand Bazaar used to be busy with traffic but now features a nan (a traditional Uyghur type of flatbread) museum (see below). Although nan is a Uyghur specialty, the presentation of the history of nan is only available to Chinese- and English-speakers, who are the main tourist targets.

The street located behind the Grand Bazaar now features a nan museum.

Night markets which had previously been closed are now re-opening or newly built in Ürümchi, Kashgar, Hotan, and Ghulja, catering mostly to Han tourists. A new “Uyghur-style” decorated shopping area, including an “ethnic unity” supermarket, was still under construction in Hotan in May 2019 (see below).

A new “Uyghur-style” decorated shopping area, including an “ethnic unity” supermarket, was still under construction in Hotan in May 2019.

Not having found the same extent of surveillance as in 2018, I intentionally touched on potentially sensitive topics during brief conversations with Uyghurs, probing how this perceived decrease in surveillance had affected them. It quickly became evident that fear was still omnipresent, impacting Uyghurs’ everyday life: A young Uyghur shop owner was watching a tv series in Turkish in her small supermarket in southern Xinjiang. When I asked her if she spoke Turkish, she became very nervous and hissed at me “I don’t know what you are talking about.”

Another day, I accidentally gave a coin from a Muslim-majority country to a taxi driver in Kashgar. He looked at it curiously and so I offered it to him as a gift. He refused, explaining that he would be “in really big trouble” if he kept it.

Internalized fear functions as an invisible surveillance measure. Instilled with great intensity over the past two years in the non-Han population by state terror, it has now penetrated people’s minds so deeply that it works as a means of control even with less visible means of surveillance.

Police checkpoints had fewer and less attentive staff this year, making it possible for me to avoid an obligatory security check at a certain point. Last year, humans, fences, and bars blocked the traveler’s way at each of these checkpoints staffed with armed police who made sure everyone scanned their bags, ID cards, and faces correctly before passing the gates. This year, at one particular checkpoint in southern Xinjiang, even though no police were present at the entrance, everyone, except me, passed through the left lane – without police supervision, undergoing all the habitual security checks automatically, almost robot-like. My fellow Uyghur travelers, in theory, could have passed through the right lane, as I did. In this “green lane,” the gate was open and no security check required. They did not choose this lane, of course, knowing that any misbehavior would have severe consequences.

Slogans about fighting terrorism had been replaced by: 有黑扫黑,有恶除恶,有乱治乱 which roughly translates as “eliminate crime, eradicate evil and control chaos”.

The message of propaganda slogans which permeate literally every corner of Xinjiang had changed as well. Last year’s red banners announced that the “three evils” (terrorism, extremism, and separatism) needed to be defeated. This year, these three words had vanished and had been replaced by slogans such as: 有黑扫黑,有恶除恶,有乱治乱 which roughly translates as “eliminate crime, eradicate evil and control chaos” (see above).  The elimination of crime and corruption is a nation-wide campaign introduced in January 2018 aiming to create long-term stability. The change in propaganda may indicate a shift away from Xinjiang being a specific case in need of the eradication of “terrorists”, “separatists” and “extremists”. Setting up the same propaganda messages as in Shanghai and Beijing (see below) removes Xinjiang’s special status by integrating it into the nation-wide anti-crime and corruption campaign.

The same propaganda messages as in Shanghai and Beijing.

The recent changes in the decrease of visible surveillance, possibly brought about in anticipation of the visits of foreign delegations in combination with the increase in the construction of artificial “minority-style” tourist attractions are most likely to have three goals: 1. appeasing critical foreign governments and disproving their criticism, 2. giving non-critical foreign governments “a way out” by providing visual “proof” supporting the Chinese government line, 3. attracting more Han tourists.

Since the police state is hiding itself, attempting to convey a feeling of normalcy, it is very unlikely for visitors now to experience surveillance as reported by media throughout 2017 and 2018, especially at popular tourist destinations. In this play directed by China, Xinjiang has been transformed into a prettier stage set. As the play continues, the world keeps on watching and some are even applauding.

Reeducation Time: A Decade Of Stories Of Loss In Xinjiang

The author and Ablikim the last time they met in 2015.

All names in this story have been changed to protect the identities of the interviewees.


I met Ablikim for the first time in late 2014 at a Uyghur house party in a neighborhood in Southern Ürümchi. He was a thin man with a closely-trimmed moustache. He sat hunched over, his shoulders drawn in. We told each other our names, but I wasn’t really sure how to place him. Over the course of the evening, he sat in the corner quietly, his eyes darting around the room. It wasn’t until much later, when we were walking to our homes side-by-side, that he began to speak. He said he didn’t like speaking in groups because he didn’t like talking openly with strangers. Like many of the young Uyghurs I interviewed over the course of the past decade, Ablikim had been deeply affected by his encounters with police and Han society.

In the months that followed, Ablikim and I became close friends. We met nearly every day to drink tea, read novels, and talk about his job search and the future of Uyghur society. Slowly, he told me the story of his life. What came up most often was the story of his detention near the beginning of the 2010s. It happened when he was on a public bus traveling from his school, which was in a predominantly Han neighborhood in the northern part of Ürümchi. As they were going through a checkpoint he realized that he was the only Uyghur on the bus. Not only that, but he had a mustache, which marked him not as an urban Uyghur with a high level of Chinese language education, but as a migrant from the countryside. He knew that, in the minds of many Han people he met, he looked like a suicide bomber. The police took one look at him and forced him off the bus. He said, “At that time I didn’t even know what I said. I was just so terrified. I didn’t know what they would do to me.” Ablikim said that he felt completely exposed and vulnerable. After that, he realized that being a Uyghur in the 2010s meant that his body could be taken at any time.

Ablikim’s story inspired me to ask other Uyghurs what the past decade has felt like to them. I asked them to think about the memories that most stuck out — the moments that changed their lives. Most of the people I spoke with for this story are now living in unplanned exile outside of China in places around the world. Ablikim is still in Xinjiang.

The Uyghurs and Kazakhs I have spoken with recently told me that the 2010s have been punctuated by moments of extreme fear and loss. In between these moments of trauma, people have tried to recover their sense of security, to protect their family and friends. They have told each other their stories of police brutality, stories of ethnoracism that made them question their humanity. They have tried to remain the authors of their own lives and the lives of their societies. But the 2010s have been a time of historical shifts. As many as 1.8 million Muslims have been “disappeared” into a vast internment camp system, and millions more have been separated from their families by labor and education systems.

Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims have been forced into an experience of what the China historian Gail Hershatter refers to as “campaign time.” For Hershatter, these were the times in the recent Chinese past when political violence invaded nearly all aspects of daily life: the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. In the 2010s, Turkic Muslims have entered a similar moment: Reeducation Time. It is a time in which their way of life has been targeted for replacement. As in those earlier moments of intense turmoil, the space they have to recover from violence and ethnoracism has become smaller and smaller. They can feel history happening to them. Their world is out of their control. There is no time for the “post-trauma” of PTSD. Over the course of the decade, all of life has begun to feel like it is disordered by an unending trauma.

 

 

Back in 2015, Ablikim told me that the traumatic stress of his life stemmed not only from his experience with policing, but also from the apathy and discrimination he received from his Han coworkers who refered to him as the “mustache teacher” (胡子老师 húzi lǎoshī) behind his back. He said that the experience of being harassed and isolated turned him into a “crazy person” (Uy: sarang).

“After I was put in the interrogation room for a couple of hours, it took me years to feel normal again. Actually, I still don’t feel normal. That was the whole reason why I started hating that school and my job and why I eventually quit. It is so hard to get over things like that. For the next year I acted like a crazy person. I think I gave all of my coworkers a very bad impression of me. They thought I was some strange guy who was always nervous, always shy, never willing to talk or act in normal ways.”

Another Uyghur young man I interviewed, Memtimin, told me that he had numerous similar experiences in 2013 and 2014. He said that when he traveled he was refused service at a number of hotels. “Sometimes (they) refused me (when they saw me). Or they told me that they did not have a room available when they saw my birthplace was Xinjiang on my ID.” He said these experiences made him feel helpless and angry. The legal system itself had denied him equal civil rights.

But what was even more troubling to him was the way other citizens accepted this. “A couple of times (when he was in the city), Han people greeted me in a very friendly and polite manner in English. They asked me, ‘Where are you from?’” Assuming they were speaking to him in English because they thought he was a foreigner, he would answer back in in Mandarin: “I am Uyghur (我是维吾尔人 wǒ shì wéiwú’ěr rén).”

“Without fail, they would roll their eyes and say, ‘Oh, a Xinjiang person?!’” Memtimin said. “Then they would give me a look of disgust — their lips would be pulled up like they had just seen a rat or a mangy dog.”

The institutions Memtimin and Ablikim found outside of the Uyghur-majority areas were oriented around Hanness. As the Pakistani-British social critic Sara Ahmed points out, racialized institutions “take the shape of ‘what’ resides within them.” They make non-majority bodies feel “‘out of place,’ like strangers.” When Ablikim entered these institutions, he felt his body being stopped and searched over and over again both by security guards at the entrance to the institutions and by all of the bureaucrats he encountered. He told me he felt as though every conversation, every encounter was filled with questions: Who are you? What are you doing here?

Underlying and supporting this systemic ethnoracism is the police. Over the past decade, police harassment and discrimination has transformed the lives of millions of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims. Another story Ablikim told me over and over again was how he and another of his friends, Tursun, were stopped when walking in a market area near the train station. A Han policeman confronted them and asked to check their ID cards.

“I told him, ‘Why do you want to check our ID cards? We’re not doing anything. Why don’t you check some Han people’s ID cards?’” Ablikim said. “He immediately made us go with him to the police station. I wasn’t scared at all. Tursun was scared. But I wasn’t scared at all. I didn’t do anything wrong, so why should I be scared of them? If they don’t respect me, why should I respect them?”

After threatening them, eventually the police let them go. Every time Ablikim told this story, his voice quivered. Beneath his shyness and his trembling hand he carried a deep anger. Despite his fear, he was still the narrator of his own story.

 

 

The anger of Ablikim and other migrants I interviewed was always mingled with the fear of being taken by the police at any moment. Near the beginning of 2017, this fear dramatically intensified when hundreds of thousands of Turkic Muslim parents, sisters, and brothers had contact cut off with their loved ones, and then one by one disappeared. Gulnar, a Kazakh woman who is now stranded in North America, told me that the pivotal moment of the decade for her was when she said goodbye to her parents at the Ürümchi airport near the end of 2016.

“The flight was delayed from Ürümchi to Beijing. Xinjiang was covered with Xi Jinping propaganda. Red banners with the big characters of ‘socialist core values’ were everywhere. Even my parents, who seldom make political comments, said, ‘This looks just like the Cultural Revolution.’ They came to see me off at the airport. The flight was delayed, but both of them stayed with me until it was really late. When I had to go, they both cried even though I said I would come back again many times. It was as if they felt that it was going to be our last goodbye or something. I didn’t cry because I had a life waiting for me back in North America.

“Actually, this was a narrow escape. I learned later that the situation in Xinjiang worsened suddenly in early 2017. After our farewell, when crossing through Chinese customs, the officer asked what ‘ethnicity’ (民族 mínzú) I was. I was nervous every time when I went through customs, but I usually pretended to be calm and nonchalant. I said ‘Kazakh.’ They studied my passport for a long time and even discussed with their supervisor about whether to let me go. Eventually they said I could go, but I remember sitting on the plane feeling like, ‘Fuck! What was that all about?’ Many times I have reflected on this, after reading all the news about Xinjiang. I feel so scared, thankful, guilty, and mad at the same time.

“Now it’s been three years and I haven’t seen and been together with my family. They are getting older and older and I have no idea whether I’ll see them again. I remember their tearful eyes clearly and I feel horrible for not being a caring daughter who stays close by. Or a capable daughter who could predict the future and get them out of there before things got so bad. What drives me crazy is not knowing whether or not this was our final farewell.”

A young Uyghur woman, Musafir, told me that her deepest points of trauma over the past decade also began in 2017 when Uyghur public figures began to disappear. As an international student, they were her lifeline back to the Uyghur institutions where she felt she had a sense of belonging and purpose. She said:

“After that, I realized that the Chinese Communist Party’s attitude toward us had fully changed. Any semblance of trust we had before in our rights as citizens was completely broken. Ever since then, I have felt powerless and intimidated. I did not imagine that such injustice was possible. My belief in humanity was shattered.”

But state violence did not stop with the replacement of Uyghur institutions; it also began to sever Musafir’s ties to her family and friends. She told me:

“In the summer of 2018, my closest friends deleted me on WeChat one after another. Then my mom called me. Through her tears, she told me something that broke my heart. Her exact words were, ‘If you care about us, please don’t call us again.’ At that very moment, I was deprived of my basic human right to contact my loved ones.”

As the decade draws to a close, Musafir fears that she may never hear from or see her family again. She has been exiled. She said, “This decade has changed my life forever.”

 

 

As the decade wound to an end in 2019, the fear and trauma that many Turkic Muslims experienced often turned to despair and hopelessness.

For Musafir, one of the most moving moments of the year was when she watched a Vice documentary called, “They come for us at night.” She said, “It brought tears to my eyes to see my beloved home, the streets I used to walk. But it just broke my heart to see that it had become such an unimaginable police state, full of surveillance. It had been so emptied out, nothing like what I remembered. It has haunted me ever since.”

The thing that filled her with the most despair in 2019 was when an elderly Han woman on the train told the reporter Isobel Yeung, “Uyghurs should be the same as Han people, I don’t feel sorry for them.” Musafir said, “That was the moment that made me realize the majority of the Han Chinese actually believe the government’s narrative and are actively contributing to this human rights atrocity. I know it is almost impossible to change the state’s discourse without public support, and this means we have neither government support nor public support. The darkness only deepens. It made me feel more desperate about the future of humanity than I have ever felt in my life.”

 

 

In 2015, Ablikim taught me a Uyghur saying that describes the sort of obligations that friendships with Uyghurs entail: “A friend’s friendship is revealed the day tragedy befalls you” (Uy: dostning dostluqi bashqa kün chüshkende biliner). Friendship requires a friend to share in the tragedy of another. This is why friendship can be empowering. It can also mean that violence hurts most when you are not able to protect your friends from it.

On June 29, 2017, I received a final message from Ablikim: “It’s been a long time that we did not talk, I am sorry to say I had to delete all foreigners from my WeChat friends list for security reasons.” He said he had returned to his village near Kashgar because his parents had arranged for him to marry a woman from his neighborhood. Several months later, Ablikim’s friends lost touch with him. They have not heard from him since. He has simply disappeared. They are certain that Ablikim has been taken to one of the newly built reeducation camps. It is likely that he had been deemed a “pre-terrorist” because he had used a VPN to download movies, listen to music, and read unfiltered news.

In 2019, Memtimin received a similar cryptic message from an acquaintance in China. “The message said ‘your brother has passed away.’ I was like, ‘Are you sure that you are talking about my brother? He is only in his 40s.’ He replied, ‘Yes.’” As he absorbed the news, Memtimin felt lightheaded. “I found myself on the floor in my room because I had passed out. I looked at his photos again and again and I also looked at our last WeChat conversation from June 2017. I could not stop crying. I wish so badly that I could have talked to him one more time before his death.”

This decade, Ablikim and my other Turkic Muslim friends have taught me that sharing the pain of others means listening to their stories and finding ways to help them tell their stories. As the anthropologist Michael D. Jackson has argued, storytelling is a way of giving order and consistency to events, whether they are tragedies or triumphs. In personal stories, people become the main characters rather than bit players on the sidelines of social change. It is not just that stories give meaning to human lives in general, but rather, Jackson argues, they change how people “experience the events that have befallen [them] by symbolically restructuring them.” In doing this, stories give people a way of overcoming even the bleakest of circumstances and remaining the authors of their own lives. This is why Memtimin, Gulnar, and Musafir are telling their own stories, and the stories of those they love, as loudly as they can—despite the emotional toll each retelling takes.

One of Ablikim’s favorite songs is “Say Goodbye” by Norah Jones. It is a song about not pretending to still be in love, being honest, and moving on with your life. When I went to Ürümchi for the last time in 2018, I went to our table at the Turkish tea place. The song mix had changed a bit, but it was close enough to bring back the memories of our conversations about that song and evoke the horror of what has happened to him since then. His deepest fear has come true, he is no longer in control of his life. His story has been suspended by Reeducation Time. In order not to be the weird foreigner crying in the corner, I went outside and smoked two Hong He cigarettes, one for him and one for me.

For most of the past decade I have thought about the stories Ablikim told me. My friendship with him, more than anything else, is what motivates me to keep telling difficult Xinjiang stories. It is what he would do for me if our positions were reversed. I do not know if Ablikim is alive or dead, but his stories will live on.

This essay first appeared in the journal SupChina on January 1, 2020.

“You have a health problem, but the ‘Chinese medicine’ won’t help you now – only ‘Kazakh medicine’ can.”

In May 2018, Qaisha Aqan – an ethnic Kazakh businesswoman from Xinjiang – fled the region and escaped to Kazakhstan, where she would remain illegally until finally going public in the September of this year. At the time of writing, she stands trial for illegally crossing the border and is simultaneously applying for asylum in Kazakhstan, a country that is yet to formally grant this status to any refugees from Xinjiang. What follows is her testimony from the first court session, held on November 12, 2019, in which she describes the circumstances that forced her to flee.

I, Qaisha Aqan, was born on June 1, 1976 in Wusu City in China. My residential address is in Gongliu County, Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture. The reason why I crossed the border illegally is that I had previously bought tickets in Qorgas City for the bus to Kazakhstan three times, but each time would be among the 5-6 or 7-8 people who were not allowed to cross…

[At this point, her lawyer asks her to start over, indicating that she has jumped to the end.]

In 1984, we moved from Wusu to Gongliu (County) because of my father’s job. There, I went to the No. 3 elementary school and the No. 1 middle school. Afterwards, I completed a 4-year university degree in international trade at the Ili Economics and Finance Institute. I also completed a 2-year program in the same major at the Xinjiang Economics Institute. After finishing my studies in 1998, I went back to Gongliu County and would be unemployed for a year, before starting to work as an accountant at a medical company in 1999. In 2000, the government gave me a job at the Organization Department [likely, 组织部].

I got my passport in 2007. My son was 3 years old then. In August 2007, I first came to Kazakhstan – around August 3 or 4, if I remember correctly. I spent about 15 days in Almaty and then went back to China, after which I started working at the Qorgas border, doing trade and exporting daily commodities to Kazakhstan. In 2013, I divorced [my then-husband] Nurshat Sadyruly. I would continue to work in trade from 2007 to 2018, and would work as an accountant for a number of companies. My colleagues and I co-founded the “Kokzhal” company in 2018.

In November [2017], the Gongliu county police summoned me to the police station. When I got there, they asked me why I had obtained a passport, who issued it to me, how much I had paid, whom I’d meet when I visited Kazakhstan, the content of our conversations while I was there, whether or not I used YouTube, Facebook, WhatsApp, and other social network sites, what my faith was, if I was religious, if I prayed, if I fasted… They also asked me to give them the copies of my bank cards, and asked how many different phone numbers I was using. The interrogation lasted about 3-4 hours.

On December 29, 2017, I went to the bus station and bought a ticket to Almaty. Around five people would be stopped at the border that time, myself included. The other passengers waited three hours for us, but in the end the border staff gave me back my passport and told me that I had to go back to my hometown to get a stamped piece of paper saying that I could cross the border, with my permission to exit also being reflected in the computer system.

So I went to the police station and explained to them that I was visiting Kazakhstan for business. They asked me to sign a paper saying that I would abide by Chinese law, that I would not go to mosques, that I would not say anything about the current policies. It was a letter of assurance [保证书]. They then gave me permission to go, and I’d come to Kazakhstan in January 2018, stay for six days, and go back.

When granting me that permission, they had told me to let them know once I was back. It was on January 6 that I returned to China. On the 7th, I did some things for the company and only went to the police station on the 9th – to meet an officer named Lü – because I had only gotten back to my hometown late at night on the 8th. I reported to him about my visit to Kazakhstan. It took about an hour.

On February 11, 2018, I went to the bus station in Qorgas and again bought a ticket for Kazakhstan. This time, the border staff held me for more than two hours and told me that I should go back to the police station where I got registered and again get permission. However, the police would tell me that they could no longer grant permission. My ticket was wasted.

On March 20, 2018, I went to the bus station again and bought a ticket for 4000 tenge. That time too I wasn’t allowed to cross the border.

I had to go back to Gongliu at the beginning of April because I got sick, and you were only allowed to receive treatment at a hospital in the same locality as your household registration. I spent about a month in the hospital and was transferred to a second one because my waist hurt and I couldn’t walk.

On May 4, 2018, my mother told me that the police were calling me about my household registration. It was because we used to live in a house in the county-seat town center, next to the No. 2 middle school, which was later transformed into a political camp, forcing us to move – buying a new apartment on the first floor of a building on the edge of town. The old house was in the No. 1 district, while the new one was in the No. 2.

When I had previously gone to change my household registration, they told me to change it to Qorgas City, as that’s where I was living. But Qorgas doesn’t grant household registration unless you’ve lived there for a long time. So I had explained the situation and registered with my mother’s address.

It was again Lü who questioned me this time. Taking some document from the shelf, he started checking my phone while looking at the paper. He typed some codes into the computer and checked my phone, plugging it into the computer. He didn’t find any illegal content, anything related to religion, or any sermons. The first topic [of the interrogation] was the registration, the second was the check of my phone, and then the third he started by saying that I had joined a certain group in the Changji region [Qaisha insists that this is Changji City not far from Urumqi, although the more logical variant would be Shonzhy in Kazakhstan, not far from Zharkent and the XJ-KZ border, as some Chinese officials have reportedly stated that these regions harbor “terrorists”].

I asked him to tell me which group it was and to show me what exactly was illegal. He couldn’t show or prove it, and instead just said that I had recently been there, maybe sometime in the last month or two. I then remembered that on February 12-13, 2018 I had gone from Qorgas to Urumqi by bus, going to the Kazakh consulate to get a visa. That might have been around February 15. The visa application only took me two hours, and at 4:30 pm on the same day I took the bus to Gongliu to see my mother. I had taken a video of an overpass as we were driving past it, and so would tell Lü that I could prove that I hadn’t gone to Changji that day – I had gone to Urumqi. I asked them to return my phone. There was also a policeman named Juret there, and he was also looking at my phone while I tried to find the video to prove that I hadn’t gone to Changji.

Then they stopped talking about this and moved on to the fourth topic – the “toqal” [lit. “(younger) second wife”]. After an hour, Lü asked Juret to get a tiger chair. Even though it was hot that day, I was wearing thick clothes since I was sick. As they brought in the chair, they changed their attitude and ordered me to get in. I didn’t fit into the chair and was ordered to take my coat off. I took off my coat, after which I was handcuffed and shackled. They told me that they wouldn’t lock me up in a camp if I confessed nicely, but that the outcome would be different if I were stubborn.

I didn’t get what Lü meant when he first said the word “toqal”, and I asked him about it. So he folded a page of the document that he had taken off the shelf and showed me the word without showing the rest of the document. It was the word “toqal” written in Cyrillic [тоқал]. Then he explained it in Chinese. He said that Kazakhs joined that group and advocated for getting a second wife, so as to increase the number of children they had. The members were paid, he said. I told him that it would be great if someone gave money for joining the group, and that everyone should join such groups then. I also asked if they found me sending anything illegal or something that promoted religion in that group, in which case they should just show it to me and in which case I was ready to be punished according to the law. Lü couldn’t, saying instead that I would be shown mercy if I confessed.

Then he asked me if I knew “Zharqyn”. I knew several people with that name and asked which one he meant. Again, he folded the paper and showed me the name “Zharqyn 7” [Serikzhan Bilash], saying: you Kazakhs join this group and try to unite in your country. He asked if I knew about such a group and about the lectures given in the group. I told him that I was just a trader, and said that I was not interested in politics. All I wanted was to do business and earn money.

Then we moved on to the sixth topic: “How many times have you visited Kazakhstan? How many times have you had a passport issued? How many stamps do you have in your passport? Who issued you the passport? How much did you pay?” We can only have our passports issued in the region where our household registration is, and I got mine at the external affairs department of the public security bureau in Gongliu County. I paid 255 RMB. 30 RMB for the photos. I got the visa at the Kazakhstan consulate. He also asked if I had ever gotten a visa in Almaty. I had, in 2009. It was difficult to get a visa in Urumqi back then, so I had it done in Kazakhstan and got a multiple-entry visa for a year. It was legal and I paid the required fee. I told him this. Then he asked about whom I’d meet, what I talked about, if I prayed or fasted, and what we said about China whenever I was in Kazakhstan. I explained to him that I just did trade.

He then started the seventh and eighth topics, saying that I had visited Kazakhstan many times during the past ten years. He asked if I knew that Kazakhstan was one of the most dangerous countries in the world. I answered by saying that Kazakhstan and China were good neighbors and that this was all I knew. He said that I had visited this dangerous country many times and that it was very unlikely that I had never used any of the social media, such as WhatsApp, Facebook, or YouTube.

The written record of the interrogation was seven and a half pages. At the end of it, they indicated my crime as “visiting Kazakhstan too many times”, “living in a border area for a long period of time”, and “being in a close relationship with foreigners”. I was ordered to leave my fingerprints on each page. Then he said that I would need to come the following day to have my voice recorded, have my irises scanned, and to leave my fingerprints. He also asked me to hand in my passport to them by noon of the following day. However, he also mentioned that I wouldn’t be allowed to leave Gongliu County, and so would need to ask someone to bring my passport over from Qorgas. But nobody could do that as my colleagues were all unavailable – some of them were in Russia and Kazakhstan, and another one was in the hospital. He told me to keep silent about my interrogation and being put into the chair.

The interrogation ended at 6:30 pm and I left to go home. As we were leaving the police station, Lü told his colleague that he was taking the envelope with the seven-and-a-half-page interrogation record to the public security bureau. I called a taxi at midnight – at 4 in the morning it arrived. By the way, they also took my ID card when I was leaving the police station.

At 8:30 am, I arrived in Qorgas City and entered my apartment. While I was washing my face, a Kazakh man – Toleu or Tilek, I think – phoned me and told me that he was with the internet police. He said that the materials submitted the day before were insufficient, and told me that I needed to go to the main police division in Gongliu County. I told him that I was in Qorgas to get my passport. However, when I actually went to the Qorgas police to get the passport, they said that they were in a meeting, and told me to come at 5:30 pm. I ended up getting my passport in the evening.

Up until the moment that I got it, the police had already phoned me at least 20-30 times, asking when I was coming back. I told the police that I had gotten my passport only in the evening, and so would bring it the next day.

That night, I phoned my friend to find out what was going on. I couldn’t ask them directly and explained the situation in less overt terms. Then I asked another friend – the third one I asked. All of them told me the same thing, and I became certain that I had been put on a list. What they told me was: you have a health problem, but the “Chinese medicine” won’t help you now – only “Kazakh medicine” can.

In the district where I lived, you’d have several male guards patrol and visit every household to ask all sorts of stupid questions: “Is the apartment yours? How long have you been living here?” And so on. So I’d try to switch the light off in the evenings. I was afraid of being put into a camp. I heard about them. My neighbor was put in one – she was 23-24 years old and had to be taken out to have an abortion done, before being taken back in.

I was scared, so I decided to flee to Kazakhstan on May 5, 2018. I thought I would be able to get Kazakhstan citizenship. I went to the boundary cooperation center and asked for help. I was standing next to the Samuryq [mall] on the Kazakh side. The [Xinjiang] police kept calling me the whole time. I told them I was ill and was waiting for the result in a hospital.

[Qaisha’s account of how she then snuck past Kazakh border control has not been recorded – most likely because observers are generally not allowed to record and distribute this portion of the trial.]

Transcribed and translated from the original Kazakh by Kaster Bakyt. Edited and annotated by Gene A. Bunin.