Anxious, depressed, terrified, helpless, and abused: these are some of the ways Uighurs have described their lives in China’s Xinjiang region, also known as East Turkestan. Having long complained about their mistreatment at the hands of the Chinese government—which has a history of policing “Muslim behavior” like fasting during Ramadan—the Uighurs only recently caught more of the world’s attention, when stories about their torture, internment, disappearance, and death began to emerge in mainstream news outlets.
Over the last two years in particular, the Chinese government has ramped up the construction of concentration camps in the Xinjiang region, where “several hundred thousand to perhaps a million” Uighur prisoners are estimated to be, according to The New York Times. The number of Uighur exiles, who are unable to return for fear of being sent to the camps, is said to be even higher. Inside the Xinjiang region, government surveillance is purportedly higher than ever before, and Uighurs in the diaspora are reportedly being contacted and threatened by the Chinese government.
One of the arguably most dystopian tactics the Chinese government has taken in its crackdown has been the deployment of Han Chinese spies in Xinjiang to watch over Uighur families and report on any suspicious activity that might justify imprisonment. Some of what is deemed suspicious includes praying, having a beard, and communicating in Arabic. A recent report published by Bloomberg discusses the role of the reportedly one million Han Chinese who are in Xinjiang to surveil the Uighur population:
The two women in the photograph were smiling, but Halmurat Idris knew something was terribly wrong.
One was his 39-year-old sister; standing at her side was an elderly woman Idris did not know. Their grins were tight-lipped, mirthless. Her sister had posted the picture on a social media account along with a caption punctuated by a smiley-face.
“Look, I have a Han Chinese mother now!” his sister wrote.
Idris knew instantly: The old woman was a spy, sent by the Chinese government to infiltrate his family.
There are many like her. According to the ruling Communist Party’s official newspaper, as of the end of September, 1.1 million local government workers have been deployed to ethnic minorities’ living rooms, dining areas and Muslim prayer spaces, not to mention at weddings, funerals and other occasions once considered intimate and private.
All this is taking place in China’s far west region of Xinjiang, home to the predominantly Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uighurs, who have long reported discrimination at the hands of the country’s majority Han Chinese.
While government notices about the “Pair Up and Become Family” program portray it as an affectionate cultural exchange, Uighurs living in exile in Turkey said their loved ones saw the campaign as a chilling intrusion into the only place that they once felt safe.
They believe the program is aimed at coercing China’s 10 million Uighurs into living secular lives like the Han majority. Anything diverging from the party’s prescribed lifestyle can be viewed by authorities as a sign of potential extremism — from suddenly giving up smoking or alcohol, to having an “abnormal” beard or an overly religious name.
Under Chinese President Xi Jinping, the Uighur homeland has been blanketed with stifling surveillance, from armed checkpoints on street corners to facial-recognition-equipped CCTV cameras steadily surveying passers-by. Now, Uighurs say, they must live under the watchful eye of the ruling Communist Party even inside their own homes.
“The government is trying to destroy that last protected space in which Uighurs have been able to maintain their identity,” said Joanne Smith Finley, an ethnographer at England’s Newcastle University.
Read the full report here.