‘We’re a people destroyed’: why Uighur Muslims across China are living in fear

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Gene A Bunin has spent the past 18 months talking to Uighur restaurant workers all over China. These conversations reveal how this Muslim minority feel the daily threat of arrest, detention and ‘re-education’.

t was about a year ago that I first walked into Karim’s restaurant, intending to write about it as part of the food guide I was putting together about ethnic Uighur restaurants in the traditionally Chinese “inner China” of the country’s east and south. Having already spent a decade researching the Uighurs – a largely Muslim ethnic minority group based mainly in the westernmost Xinjiang region, outside inner China – this food-guide project was intended as a fun spin-off from my usual linguistic studies. Or even a “treasure hunt”, you might say, given the rarity of Uighur restaurants in such major inner-China cities as Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou, where the Uighurs are migrants and where the Han Chinese, the dominant ethnic group that account for more than 90% of China’s population, are the great majority.

While my travels for the guide would involve visiting almost 200 restaurants in more than 50 cities, Karim’s was particularly memorable. I found the usual pilau rice and hand-pulled laghmen noodles – central-Asian dishes that are staples of Uighur cuisine, and which Karim’s kitchen did very well. More important, though, were the sense of warmth and feeling of community, which made sitting there for an additional hour or two a real pleasure. Karim was a great host, and his diners would often chat with each other across the tables, touching upon serious issues while maintaining a certain levity and humour.

During one of my visits, the conversation turned to the discrimination that Uighurs faced in this large, Han-majority city. Several diners mentioned the difficulty of finding accommodation, as local hotels frequently rejected Uighur visitors by claiming there were no rooms available. Even a Uighur policeman had been denied a room, someone pointed out with a laugh. Karim, a worldly polyglot who could have easily passed for a Middle Easterner, mentioned how he would sometimes go to a hotel and speak to the front-desk staff in English. Mistaking him for a foreigner, they would tell him that there were rooms available, and then backtrack after asking him for his documents and seeing the word Uighur on his Chinese identification card.

As would soon become clear, however, such “mild” discrimination was to be the least of the Uighurs’ problems. While the regulars at Karim’s were having this discussion in the spring of 2017, their home region of Xinjiang – home to more than 10 million ethnic Uighurs – was already being subjected to what the Chinese state described as an “all-out offensive” against religious extremism and terrorism. The hard-line policies started shortly after the appointment of Chen Quanguo as Xinjiang’s party secretary, a strongman who had previously pursued similar policies in Tibet. While the government has justified its use of force as a response to a number of violent incidents, critics have claimed the measures are aimed at destroying Uighur identity.

Things would worsen considerably over the coming year, as Xinjiang was turned into an Orwellian police state and hundreds of thousands of Uighurs were gradually locked away in concentration camps for what the state calls “transformation through education”. Others have been thrown in prison or “disappeared”. Witness reports of life inside the camps and detention centres have told not only of unhealthy living conditions, but also of regular violence, torture and brainwashing. Writing in the New York Times in February, James A Millward, a scholar who has researched Xinjiang for three decades, argued that the “state repression in Xinjiang has never been as severe as it has become since early 2017”.

For many, last spring would mark the start of a period of great loss – the loss of rights, livelihoods and identities. Some would also lose their lives. Karim was particularly vulnerable, as Uighurs like him, who have lived abroad in Muslim-majority countries, have been especially targeted in the government crackdown. When I returned to the neighbourhood earlier this year, I was told that Karim had been handcuffed, taken away and jailed – and that he had “died after prolonged heavy labour”.

At least, that’s the politically proper way of putting it. You could also say that he was murdered by the state.

The state, for its part, has shut down all criticism of its actions in Xinjiang. Earlier this year, the foreign ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, declared that concerns about the mistreatment of the Uighurs were “unjustified” and criticism amounted to “interference in China’s internal affairs”. In a memorable statement last summer, Xinjiang’s deputy foreign publicity director, Ailiti Saliyev, went so far as to suggest that “the happiest Muslims in the world live in Xinjiang”.

While it is probably best to let the Uighurs speak for themselves regarding their happiness, hearing their voices has been difficult, given the state’s determined efforts to turn Xinjiang into an information vacuum. Journalists, in particular, have been under very heavy scrutiny, with anyone they have managed to interview often too scared to speak honestly. The risks and retributions have been significantly higher for Uighur journalists abroad. In February, four Uighurs working for Radio Free Asia in the US learned that some of their close relatives in Xinjiang had been detained. It was, wrote the Washington Post, “an apparent attempt to intimidate or punish them for their coverage”.

Many foreign tourists I have spoken to in Xinjiang this year have reported being interrogated on the train into the region, as well as at checkpoints between cities. Two academic scholars told me stories of being denied entry or transportation to towns that have traditionally been accessible, without being provided with any real reason. While residing in Xinjiang’s westernmost city of Kashgar, an oasis town not far from the borders with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Pakistan, I was effectively chased out: the hostel where I was staying was suddenly closed for “fire safety” reasons, and I found myself blacklisted at every other place that could have offered me accommodation. After leaving Xinjiang, I spent a month in Yiwu, an international trade hub about 5,000km to the east, not far from Shanghai, but even here, my daily contact with the city’s Uighur population attracted special attention. On two occasions, the local police warned me to “obey Chinese law” and to “not go hanging out with any bad Xinjiang people” – a euphemism for Uighurs.

But nevertheless, between my linguistic research and the food guide, I spent the best part of 18 months precisely among those “bad Xinjiang people”, both in Xinjiang itself, and in inner China. During that time, I spoke to hundreds of Uighurs, the majority of them male restaurant workers, businessmen, small-time traders and street-food cooks, as well as their families. In the vast majority of cases, we did not talk about politics. Even so, almost everyone I talked to was affected by the repression in Xinjiang, and sometimes the only alternative to talking about it would have been not talking at all – and so we talked.

In synthesising what I have observed, I realise that I ultimately cannot speak for the Uighurs – that task should of course be left to the Uighurs themselves, in an environment that is free of fear. Still, I hope the image I present will allow the reader a glimpse of how the Uighurs in Xinjiang and the rest of China are reacting to the present situation.

On a certain alley in Xinjiang stands a diner I particularly like, popular for its pigeon shish kebab and milk tea. I would always try to stop there when I was in the neighbourhood. The last time I did, I came with apologies, having not visited for a long time. But, far from being angry, the owner was just surprised that I was still in the region. “I was sure that you had gone back to your country,” he told me.

Almost a year had passed since our previous meeting, and a lot had changed. Most of his staff, about 10 of them in all, had been forced to return to their hometowns in southern Xinjiang, either for “re-education” or for “hometown arrest”. Gone were the shish kebabs and the tea, together with most of the clientele. Uighur kitchen staff were extremely scarce now, the owner said, and it was almost impossible to find substitutes.

I asked him about his nephew – another old friend – but was told that he was in jail for having previously spent a year in a Middle Eastern country. “Our mood is shattered,” the owner admitted to me.

This sense of gloom was also evident in the frank negativity I started to notice in many Uighur business-owners. While Uighurs generally consider it bad etiquette to complain when asked how they are doing, more and more often in recent times, I heard people telling me that things were “not that great” because “business was horrible”. When I ran into a tour guide acquaintance last year, I remarked to him that he had got really thin since I had last seen him. “We’ve all got really thin this past year,” he told me.

Equally pervasive was the constant sense of fear. On one evening in Kashgar, I watched five or six police snatch a drunken man off the streets just for waving his arms, without asking any questions, and even though he was with his wife and son. In inner China, young restaurant workers could seem relaxed one day and then visibly worried the next: it would emerge that the police had given them orders to go back to their hometowns in Xinjiang immediately – a three- or four-day train journey for most.

There was also the fear of always being watched. Once I sat down with a manager of a restaurant in eastern China and, unable to avoid the topic, spoke to him about how oppressive things had become in Xinjiang, telling him about a friend who had been sentenced to a decade in jail for owning the “wrong” books. No sooner did I say the word “jail” than the manager’s head began to twitch in the direction of the table behind ours. “There’s a policeman here!” he whispered, before standing up and walking away.

Concerned for their safety, many Uighurs have deleted all foreign contacts on China’s (highly monitored) WeChat app. At one point last year, I made an effort to see a friend in Xinjiang who had deleted me, by first getting in touch through a proxy, and then meeting in person. In retrospect, I almost wish I hadn’t. Our lunch together was silent and awkward. There was so much to say, but everything felt taboo, and there were whole minutes when we just sat there in silence. It didn’t seem like anyone was monitoring us, but my friend looked worried all the same. When I passed him samples of a book I was working on, he cast them a glance but didn’t flip through the pages. When I asked him if a mutual acquaintance of ours was still around, he told me that he “didn’t know” that person anymore, before adding: “Right now, I don’t even know you.”

When talking about the situation in Xinjiang, it is standard to use euphemisms. The most common by far is the word yoq, which means “gone” or “not around”. “Do you get what I’m saying?” a friend asked me once, as I tried to figure out what had happened to a person he was telling me about. “That guy is yoq. He’s got another home now.”

The phrase adem yoq (“everybody’s gone”) is the one I’ve heard the most this past year. It has been used to describe the absence of staff, clients and people in general. When referring to people who have been forced to return to their hometowns (for hometown arrest, camp or worse), it is typical to say that they “went back home”.

The concentration camps are not referred to as “concentration camps”, naturally. Instead, the people there are said to be occupied with “studying” (oqushta/öginishte) or “education” (terbiyileshte), or sometimes may be said to be “at school” (mektepte).

Likewise, people do not use words like “oppression” when talking about the overall situation in Xinjiang. Rather, they tend to say “weziyet yaxshi emes” (“the situation isn’t good”), or describe Xinjiang as being very “ching”(“strict”, “tight”).

Despite the euphemisms, there is no getting away from what is actually happening. It hit me just how unavoidable the topic was when, while chatting with an old friend in inner China, I made a genuine effort to avoid politics and talk about more normal or even mundane things. It proved impossible. When I asked him what he had done earlier that day, he brought up a political meeting that all the Uighurs in that city had to attend. When I asked him if he still tried to read books in his spare time, he told me that the police had cracked down on that, too, and that reading any book would invite unwanted attention. When I asked him about his aspirations for the future, he told me that, ideally, he would love to become a chef of Turkish food and open up his own restaurant, but, unfortunately, that act alone would get him jailed in Xinjiang, as the state continues to discourage and destroy all contact between the Uighurs and other Turkic and Muslim peoples abroad.

A paramilitary guard in Xinjiang capital Urumqi.
 A paramilitary guard in Xinjiang capital Urumqi. Photograph: AP

On a few occasions, I encountered people who seemed to have reached a degree of desperation, and just wanted to let everything out. The first such time was in Kashgar, in autumn last year, when a uniformed public-security worker – the mostly Uighur, lowest-rank uniformed authority in southern Xinjiang – invited me to sit across from him at a table in a teahouse. He was off duty that afternoon, having just returned from a medical checkup.

The conversation that followed was tense. He asked me what I knew of Uighur history, and then asked me what I thought of the Uighurs as a people. The latter question is one I have been asked several times during my years in Xinjiang, and has often struck me as a way of searching for some sort of outside verification of Uighurs’ identity. Unsure of how to reply, I tried to be noncommittal: “The Uighurs are a people like any other, with their good and bad.”

“You’re hiding what you really think,” he confronted me. “Just look all around you. You’ve seen it yourself [here in Kashgar]. We’re a people destroyed.”

Given my general distrust of uniformed people in China, I wasn’t ready to share any political views at the time, but have since come to see our conversation as a true moment of desperation. His words, I believe, were genuine. His post was close to Kashgar’s night market, but as of a few days after our meeting, I never saw him there, or anywhere else, ever again.

The other conversation that will always stay with me took place in inner China, while visiting a restaurant I had been to a few times before. With the exception of a single waiter, all of the old staff were gone. As soon as that waiter saw me, he dropped everything to sit down and chat. My telling him that I had been kicked out of Kashgar seemed to trigger him, and he would go on to say many things about the situation there, virtually all of them taboo.

“Millions of Uighurs” were being held in camps, he told me, where they were being fed 15-year-old leftover rice and subjected to beatings. (Precise numbers are hard to verify, but witness testimonies have confirmed both poor nutrition and violence in the camps.) He said that the Uighurs in this inner-China city now had to attend political meetings, and that they might soon have to take a test on political subjects such as the 19th party congress. Those who didn’t pass would be sent back to Xinjiang.

“When the police talk to us,” he said, “they are suspicious about everything: ‘Do you smoke? Do you drink?’ If you don’t, they’ll ask you why not. They’ll ask you if you pray. They’ll ask you if you want to go abroad, or if you’ve previously applied for or had a passport. If you look at the policeman, he’ll ask you what you’re looking at him for; if you look down at the floor, he’ll ask you why you’re looking down at the floor. Whenever we take a train, there’s always a separate room that we have to go through before we’re allowed to leave the station, where they check our documents and question us.”

I worried about him talking to me so openly, but it seemed he understood the risks, or perhaps had already concluded that he was going to be taken soon anyway. When another crackdown came a week later, sweeping a good chunk of the city’s Uighur youth with it, he would be among those forced to leave. “Back to his hometown.”

Occasionally, I did encounter people who had more positive things to say about the situation. At the risk of passing off my subjectivity as fact, the vast majority of these comments struck me as marked by a mix of cognitive dissonance, Stockholm syndrome and self-delusion – often evidenced by self-contradiction and an apparent lack of conviction behind the words.

At a time when I was still absorbing Xinjiang’s new reality, one of the hardest “rude awakening” moments came while catching up with a Uighur friend who worked in Xinjiang’s tourism industry. After chatting for a bit, I remarked on the city’s increasingly intense security procedures, in a manner that suggested that I found it all over the top. He, too, had his complaints about the new system, saying how he would be forced to stop and have his ID checked seven times while travelling just 2-3km on his electric scooter. Still, he was quick to add: “But the people all feel really safe now. Before, I used to worry about letting my daughter go to school alone, but now I don’t have to worry.”

Those words – which almost sounded prepared – stunned me, given that we were just speaking one-on-one. He then went on to say that this was all to protect the people from terrorism, and that as soon as Russia and the US hurried up and defeated Isis, all of this would be over. However, when I said that I didn’t think that terrorism could be defeated with force like this, he was quick to agree with that as well.

Another friend in another city complained to me about the arbitrary inspections that the local police carried out with regard to the Uighurs. I still remember how angry he got as he talked – saying that the individual policemen acted like they were the law – but nevertheless added that the upper layers of the government were good.

Uighur bakers in Kashgar, under a poster of Chinese leaders including Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping.
 Uighur bakers in Kashgar, under a poster of Chinese leaders including Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping. Photograph: Kevin Frayer/Getty

A curious phenomenon took place online at the time of the 19th party congress last October, when Uighur friends who hardly spoke any Mandarin suddenly started posting long messages in fluent Mandarin praising Xi Jinping and the congress. A few months later, I heard about a WeChat app that allowed users to “fasheng liangjian” (“to clearly demonstrate one’s stance” or, literally, “to speak forth and flash one’s sword”), by plugging their name into a prepared Mandarin- or Uighur-language statement. The statement pledged their loyalty to the Communist party and its leaders, and expressed, among other things, their determination in upholding “ethnic harmony” and standing opposed to terrorism. The generated image file could then be readily posted on their social network of choice as a show of loyalty.

In many of the inner-China restaurants I visited, this loyalty was much more visual than verbal. As a rule, Uighur restaurants would be the only ones on their street covered with Chinese flags and, occasionally, red banners proclaiming a determined struggle against terrorism. Sometimes, the interiors too would have little flags, as well as photos of Xi or plates bearing his image, or “ethnic harmony” slogans such as those calling for all of China’s ethnic groups to be “as tight as seeds in a pomegranate”. Some restaurants even had Uighur-language books about Xi and the party at the front counter. I never asked if such demonstrations were voluntary or mandated by the law, but suspect that, like China’s censorship in general, they were a mix of the two – some being anticipatory, some being forced.

Obedience and appeasement appear to have saved some people from the camps and prisons. Other factors – money, connections, Han-Chinese spouses and a formal Chinese education – although never an ironclad guarantee, appear to help also. Beyond that, bribing police or officials to avoid having one’s passport confiscated or being sent back to one’s hometown is an option that several people I spoke to had taken – a crack in a system that often feels hopelessly inescapable.

For the majority, however, the detentions and the fear of detention have become an unavoidable fact of daily life. Most, I would say, cope by simply enduring and “plodding along”. Despite the missing relatives, the financial losses and the fear that one day soon it could be their turn to go, many of my friends and acquaintances have done their best to focus on how they earn their livelihood, and to continue doing just that. For many, what seems most important now is their children’s future. Those without children are focusing on simpler and more concrete goals, such as graduating from university, finding a job or buying an apartment.

One friend manages a small shop in inner China where local police have recently confiscated entire shelves of import products for “not having Chinese labels”. He was able to stop them from confiscating more, he says, by telling them that he wasn’t feeling well and had to close the shop. With half the shelves empty and business having seen a sharp decline, he believes that it won’t be long now before the store is closed.

But, even as he describes how the state has started to target young Uighur men indiscriminately, he says he is not afraid. “I’ve already experienced a lot in life. So if they come and arrest me – fine. Whatever happens, happens.”

When talking of the situation in general, he takes a broader, grander view. “This is a trial for the Muslim world right now,” he says. “If you look at what’s happening in Syria, or in other places, the Muslim world as a whole is undergoing a test. But Allah knows everything that’s happening. We just have to get through this.” With praying all but forbidden for the Uighurs, he has found ways that the authorities won’t notice, such as praying covertly while sitting in a chair, or praying under one of the trees that line the sidewalk.

For others, hope exists simply by necessity, and many Uighurs have told me that “things will get better soon” without offering any reason for believing this. Some seem to think that a friend or relative will be released in the near future “because they’ve been held for so many months already”. Others seem to think that the situation will revert to normal “once terrorism is defeated”. In some of the conversations I have had in inner China’s Uighur restaurants – which, again, have lost huge portions of their staff – I have been told that the staff would “come back soon after finishing their education”.

But time has been cruel to these optimistic voices. As the months have turned into a year, and more, the people interned are still interned, the restaurants are losing ever more staff and clients, and the situation only continues to worsen.

The Guardian

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