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Since October 2018, a number of news outlets have reported on the “re-education program” (or “internment camps”) that the Chinese government is subjecting its Muslim citizens to, as an allegedly preemptive measure to curb extremism. According to The Guardian, “Chinese authorities deny that the internment camps exist but say petty criminals are sent to vocational ‘training centres.’ Former detainees say they were forced to denounce Islam and profess loyalty to the Communist party in what they describe as political indoctrination camps.” Other, unconfirmed yet alarming reports have claimed that Uighur Muslims “may be having their organs harvested for profit by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), a former medical surgeon who was forced to carry out the procedure in 1995 told The Epoch Times.”

ChinaFile, an online magazine published by the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations, recently published a detailed account of the ways in which the Chinese government is treating Muslims who live in the country’s northwestern Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. ChinaFile states that these programs confine Muslims “in a growing network of razor-wire-ringed camps that China’s government at times has dubbed ‘transformation through education centers’ and at others ‘counter-extremism training centers’ and, recently, amid international criticism, ‘vocational training centers.’”

While most reports have “focused on the unprecedented scale and penetration of the surveillance technology deployed to carry out this campaign,” far fewer (if any) have discussed “the mobilization of more than a million Chinese civilians (most members of the Han ethnic majority) to aid the military and police in their campaign by occupying the homes of the region’s Uighurs and other Muslim minorities.” As ChinaFile reports, these Chinese civilians position themselves as “big brothers” and “big sisters” of the Muslim individuals and families they ultimately surveil:

This spring, as an anthropologist returning to a province where I had spent two years researching Han and Uighur social life, I met and interviewed Han civilian state workers in predominantly Uighur urban districts and towns across Southern Xinjiang. Over my time there and in conversations online, both before and after my visit, I spoke to around a dozen people about the experiences of “big sisters and brothers” in Uighur and Kazakh homes. They ranged from civilian surveillance workers who performed these visits themselves, to friends and family members of these surveillance workers.

Some of these people were Han friends that I first built relationships with in 2011 when I began my fieldwork in Urumchi. Others, primarily friends and family members of those directly involved in the program, were acquaintances I made outside of China. Still others were people I met in Urumchi and Kashgar in 2018.

I wanted to understand how different groups of Han civilians viewed their roles in the human engineering project and why they assented to take part in it. I assured them that I would not share their names in any future publications and asked them to describe how they viewed their work and its purpose. I also observed how they interacted with minorities and with one another. I was curious as to whether they would be able to empathize with the Uighurs and Kazakhs they were involved in “transforming.”

Mapping out a schedule for the little brothers and sisters was first order of business. In the mornings, they would sing together at daily flag-raising ceremonies outside the village Party office, at night they would attend classes on Xi Jinping’s vision for a “New China.” The teaching of “culture” would suffuse all the time in between. They would converse in Mandarin and watch approved TV, practice Chinese calligraphy, and sing patriotic songs. And all the while the “relatives” would be watching the villagers and taking notes, assessing the Uighurs’ level of loyalty to their country, noting how well they spoke Chinese, staying alert for signs that their attachment to Islam might be “extreme.”

Had a Uighur host just greeted a neighbor in Arabic with the words “Assalamu Alaykum”? That would need to go in the notebook. Was that a copy of the Quran in the home? Was anyone praying on Friday or fasting during Ramadan? Was a little sister’s dress too long or a little brother’s beard irregular? And why was no one playing cards or watching movies?

Read the full report here.

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