Surviving the Crackdown in Xinjiang

The following day, during class, whispers of her impending release spread through the room. Some of the women begged her for her Mandarin notebook. “I was, like, Why?” she recalled. “They were, like, We know you are leaving! And I was, like, It’s not certain!” A guard winked at her and said that soon her name would be called on a loudspeaker, and she would be free. When the speaker blared, Sabit stood and waited for the door to be unlocked, as the other women wished her well. Then she returned to her room for her clothing. “I finally took off the disgusting uniform,” she recalled.

Sabit was brought to the camp’s Party secretary, who was waiting for her in a room with a chair, a small table, and a bed. She sat on the bed, and he lectured her, telling her that she needed to be more patriotic: “Your life style was too individualistic—completely fighting for yourself!” Sabit was silently outraged. With the prospect of release before her, the doubts instilled by the camp’s propaganda dissipated. She thought, Can only dying for China make me good enough for you? But she nodded and said, “Yes, yes. You’re right.”

The secretary told her that a local Party official and his aide were waiting to take her to her uncle’s home. As she walked from the camp toward their car, she thought about something that the other women had told her: “Don’t look back. It’s a bad sign.” She decided to heed their advice. But, glancing to the side, she saw a looming façade across the road: a detention center. Breaking into a run, she raced to the waiting car.


In the year that Sabit had been confined, Chen Quanguo was transforming Xinjiang. Cherished symbols of Muslim heritage—shrines, mosques, cemeteries—were systematically targeted for destruction. Experts estimate that, since 2017, some sixteen thousand mosques have been razed or damaged, with minarets pulled down and decorative features scrubbed away or painted over. An official in Kashgar told Radio Free Asia, “We demolished nearly seventy per cent of the mosques in the city, because there were more than enough.” In some cases, officials pursued an odd tactic: miniaturization. In 2018, the grand gatehouse of a mosque in the town of Kargilik was covered with a banner proclaiming, “Love the Party, love the country.” Then the structure was dismantled and rebuilt as an ersatz version of itself, at a quarter the size.

The Uyghur and Kazakh languages were increasingly scarce in public, and so were their speakers. Within the first two years of Chen’s crackdown, nearly four hundred thousand children were transferred into state-run boarding schools, designed to block the “thinking and ideas” that they might encounter at home. New infrastructure had to be quickly built to house the children, many of whom had “double-detained” parents. One orphanage worker told Radio Free Asia, “Because there are so many children, they are locked up like farm animals.” Sabit recalled that mothers held in her facility were very pliant: “In order to see their children, they were willing to do everything.”

These children may mark a demographic milestone. Even as regulations on family planning had been eased across China, they were enforced ferociously in Xinjiang, with violations often punished by detention. Adrian Zenz, the academic, uncovered government records from 2018 which indicate that eighty per cent of China’s increase in IUD use occurred in Xinjiang. Amid the myriad stresses imposed by the crackdown, the region’s birth rate fell by a third that year. In areas where Uyghurs represent a larger share of the population, the declines were even sharper. “You see this incredible crash,” Rian Thum, a historian at the University of Manchester who has studied the issue, said. The government doesn’t dispute these figures, but it argues that they are a consequence of gender emancipation. This January, the Chinese Embassy in Washington went on Twitter to celebrate that Uyghur women were “no longer baby-making machines.”

Kuytun, like all Chinese cities, is divided into neighborhood units, each overseen by a Party organization called a residential committee. Although Sabit had not lived there in more than a decade, she was still registered with the committee that oversaw her old home. The Party official who had come to the camp to pick her up was the committee’s secretary, Zhang Hongchao. He was middle-aged but boyish, with the affect of an ambitious petty bureaucrat, skilled in pleasing people above him and bullying people below. He often wore Army-issue camouflage, and he kept the neighborhood under close watch.

To assure Zhang that she had been reëducated, Sabit spoke of her gratitude to the Party—words that poured out automatically, after countless repetitions. He seemed pleased. “We see you don’t have so many problems,” he said. “You’ve been abroad, that’s your problem.” Then he advised her, “Just stay and do something for your country. Don’t think of going abroad for the next ten years.”

Sabit understood that this was not a suggestion. With little more than a nod, Zhang could return her to the camp. She reassessed her future. O.K., she thought, I won’t die if I can never leave. “Can I go to Shanghai?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said. “After a time.”

At her uncle’s home, Zhang and his aide stayed for tea, along with “relatives”—members of a cadre. Sabit’s uncle later told her that, during her internment, he and his family had been designated “focus personnel.” Every week, they had to attend reëducation classes and a flag-raising ceremony at their residential-committee center. Cadre members also visited, staying for meals and urging the family to serve drinks—an indication that they did not obey Muslim strictures on alcohol. Initially, they spent the night, until they realized that they could photograph themselves in different clothes and fake an overnight stay.

As the officials sat on floor cushions and sipped tea, Zhang and the head of the cadre explained that Sabit was confined to Kuytun. “We’ll monitor you for some time to see how you’ve transformed,” one of the officials said. Sabit asked if she could shop or see friends, and was told, “You need to be cautious about whom you contact, but you’re allowed to have friends.”

The sun set, and the officials stayed for dinner. After they left, Sabit’s aunt recorded a voice message for Sabit’s mother and texted it to her in Kazakhstan; a direct call seemed too risky. Then Sabit settled into a guest room decorated in a traditional Central Asian way, with a carpet on the wall and flat cushions for sitting or sleeping. Turning out the lights, she felt the warmth of family, the security of reclaimed comforts. For more than a year, she had never been alone, never slept with the lights off. The darkness and solitude felt both welcoming and strange. She wanted to rush to her sleeping relatives to explain, but decided that she was getting carried away. To calm herself, she used a trick that she had developed in the camp. She imagined herself listening compassionately to her inner monologue, as a parent would listen to a child. Soon, she was fast asleep.

Kuytun had become an open-air prison. The city was ringed with checkpoints, where Uyghurs and Kazakhs were forced through scanners, even as Han residents passed freely. “We will implement comprehensive, round-the-clock, three-dimensional prevention and control,” Chen Quanguo had proclaimed while Sabit was in captivity. “We will resolutely achieve no blind spots, no gaps, no blank spots.” The technology was deployed to create a digital-age apartheid.

In Xinjiang, the Sharp Eyes surveillance program had been wired into a large computing center, but sifting through the vast amount of image data had been time-consuming and, according to state media, “required a lot of manual work.” As capabilities increased, so did the need for processing: at first, the surveillance systems could track only the movement of crowds, according to a former Chinese official; later, the technology could assess a person’s gait, even her facial expressions. In the summer of 2017, the authorities unveiled the Ürümqi Cloud Computing Center, a supercomputer that ranked among the fastest in the world. With the new machine, they announced, image data that once took a month to process could be evaluated in less than a second. Its thousands of servers would integrate many forms of personal data. State media called the new machine “the most powerful brain.”

Lower-level Party officials struggled to keep up with the technological advances. Sabit asked Zhang Hongchao if she could walk around unimpeded. Unsure, he suggested that she and a Party official test her I.D. at a hospital. The next morning, when they swiped her card, it triggered an ear-piercing alarm. Police swarmed Sabit within minutes.

After the experiment, she went to a mall to buy clothes. Almost immediately, police surrounded her again. An officer explained that facial-recognition software had identified her as a “focus person.” Learning that she had already been reëducated, the officers let her go. But it soon became clear that there was nowhere Sabit could walk without being detained. Eventually, police began to recognize her, and, annoyed by the repeated encounters, urged her to stop going out at all. Instead, Sabit laboriously identified convenience stations that she might pass and gave the police notice, so that they could ignore the IJOP alerts.

A few times a week, Sabit had to report to the residential-committee center, for a flag-raising ceremony and additional reëducation classes. She hated these visits, but they were her only escape from solitude. Except for her uncle’s family, just about everyone she knew—neighbors, friends, relatives—stayed away from her, fearing that any association would land them in the camps, too.

The only people she could safely mix with were other former detainees, who were similarly isolated. The Party propagandist in Sabit’s cell had been fired from her job. The woman who had run a grocery store could no longer operate her business, so she turned to menial labor; she also discovered that the man she wanted to marry had found another woman. Shunned and vulnerable, they found safety in one another.

Two weeks after Sabit’s release, several officers from her internment camp turned up on her uncle’s doorstep and explained that they had used her file to find her. It was not an official visit. They emphasized that they, in their own way, were also prisoners: resigning from the camp was impossible. Two of the officers were Kazakh, and they said that they lived in fear that any misstep would send them to the camps as detainees. One of them confessed that he had been drinking to ease his guilt and his nightmares.

Because the men had been kind, Sabit and the other women decided to take them out to dinner, as thanks. The group started meeting regularly, and the officers soon began insisting that the women join them for drinks and give them loans. Sabit usually handed over the money, not expecting it back. But the officers became more demanding. One asked her to buy him a car, and, when she gently declined, his kindness gave way to threats. He called Sabit and, using the IJOP data, itemized where she had been the previous day. She decided that isolation was better than such company.

Members of Sabit’s residential committee constantly interfered with her life—trying to mold her into the state’s idea of a good citizen. They urged her to take a Han husband. There was money in it for her, they said; in an attempt to alter the ethnic balance of Xinjiang, the state had launched an aggressive campaign to encourage indigenous women to marry Han men. (Darren Byler, an anthropologist at Simon Fraser University who studies repression in Xinjiang, recently uncovered evidence that some Han “relatives” in Uyghur homes had coerced women into such marriages.) When Sabit demurred, the officials told her that Muslim men were chauvinists—adding, with a laugh, “Han husbands dote on their wives!”

The residential committee urged her to work, and then made it impossible. Sabit found a job teaching English, but on her first day the committee called her in for an unscheduled meeting with officials from her camp. She could not tell the school why she had to leave, fearing that she would be fired if her employer knew that she was a “focus person.” At the meeting, she asked if she could speak first, so that she could return to her job. One of the officials responded with a threat: “I can send you back to the camp with one phrase. Stay!” She lost the job, and decided that it wasn’t worth looking for a new one.

By January, 2019, Sabit understood that this kind of attention was causing her uncle’s community anxiety. Fearing that she was endangering her relatives, she moved into a hotel. One night, she returned to her family’s home for a meal, and posed with them for a photo. She shared it on social media. Immediately, Zhang texted her about an embroidered portrait that was on the wall. “Who’s in the picture?” he wrote.

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