Often, the big brothers and sisters arrived dressed in hiking gear. They appeared in the villages in groups, their backpacks bulging, their luggage crammed with electric water kettles, rice cookers, and other useful gifts for their hosts. They were far from home and plainly a bit uncomfortable, reluctant to rough it such a long way from the comforts of the city. But these “relatives,” as they had been told to call themselves, were on a mission, so they held their heads up high when they entered the Uighur houses and announced they had come to stay.
The village children spotted the outsiders quickly. They heard their attempted greetings in the local language, saw the gleaming Chinese flags and round face of Mao Zedong pinned to their chests, and knew just how to respond. “I love China,” the children shouted urgently. “I love Xi Jinping.”
Over the past year, reports have found their way out of China’s autonomous region of Xinjiang of a campaign of religious and cultural repression of the region’s Muslims and of their detention and confinement in a growing network of razor wire-ringed camps that China’s government at times has dubbed “transformation through education centers” and at others “counterextremism training centers” and recently, amid international criticism, “vocational training centers.” The government describes such efforts as a response to terrorism. Indeed, these camps can be seen as a logical, if grotesque, extension of the government’s decades-long endeavor to eradicate the perceived “terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism” of its ethnic minority Muslim population in Xinjiang. The region, and the country, has certainly experienced spasms of unplanned mass violence, as well as cases of premeditated violence stemming from the Uighurs’ desperation after decades of discrimination and persecution; the government’s current set of policies to avoid future strife, however, appears to rest on the assumption that most Uighurs are extremists-in-waiting.
Much reporting has focused on the unprecedented scale and penetration of the surveillance technology deployed to carry out this campaign and on the ways China’s government has pressured other countries to assist in the work of forcibly repatriating Uighurs living abroad. But less attention has been paid to 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, and undertaking programs of indoctrination and surveillance, while presenting themselves as older siblings of the men and women they might then decide to consign to the camps.
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 with whom I first built relationships in 2011 when I began my fieldwork in Urumqi. 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 Urumqi 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 the first order of business. In the mornings, they would sing together at daily flag-raising ceremonies outside the village Chinese Communist Party office, and at night they would attend classes on Xi’s vision for a “New China.” The teaching of Chinese 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?
Of course, it was possible they were doing their home visit in a healthy secular family. Perhaps there were posters of Xi or Chinese flags on their walls. Maybe the children spoke Mandarin even when they hadn’t been prompted.
Not all the most important evidence would be immediately visible. So the visitors were instructed to ask questions. Did their hosts have any relatives living in sensitive regions? Did anyone they knew live abroad? Did they have any knowledge of Arabic or Turkish? Had they attended a mosque outside of their village? If the adult little brothers and sisters’ answers felt incomplete, or if they seemed to be hiding anything, the children should be questioned next.
At times, the big brothers and sisters feared the Uighurs might be slippery, that however cheerfully they might open their houses or declare their loyalty to the Chinese nation, beneath their smiles and gestures of wholesome secularism there might lurk darker allegiances, uncured attachments to their diseased religious ways. But there were simple ways to test for this kind of thing. One could offer a host a cigarette or a sip of beer; a hand could be extended in greeting to a little sibling of the opposite gender, staying alert for signs of flinching. Or one could go out to the market for some freshly ground meat and propose that the family make dumplings. And then wait and watch to see if the Uighurs would ask what kind of meat was in the bag.
All of this was valuable evidence. Everything that could be detected would be recorded, go into notebooks and onto the online forms. Everything would be factored into the recommendations the big sisters and brothers would make about which of their hosts would be allowed to remain at home in their villages, with their children, and which ones should be sent away to have their defects repaired by the state.
The relatives have been essentially conscripted into service in three separate waves. The first campaign started in 2014, dispatching some 200,000 party members, including minority party members, to “Visit the People, Benefit the People, and Bring Together the Hearts of the People” (fang minqing, hui minsheng, ju minxin)—through long-term stays in Uighur villages. In 2016, a second wave of 110,000 civil servants were sent into Uighur villages as part of a “United as One Family” (jie dui renqin) campaign, which focused on placing relatives in the homes of Uighurs whose family members had been imprisoned or killed by the police.
In 2017, the third wave of visits began as part of an extension of the 2016 campaign. This third phase of the campaign assigned more than 1 million civilians to Muslim relatives in villages for a series of weeklong homestays—often focusing on the extended family of those who had been detained in the drastically expanded “transformation through education” program.
Taken as a whole, these three waves of the village-based cadre team program that paired civilian workers with adopted Uighur and Kazakh families bore a resemblance to other programs that sent down state workers and students to learn from the common people during the Maoist period of the 1960s and 1970s. What differentiates this state intervention from these similar forced visits is that, in this case, power is flowing urban civilians as representatives of the state and Han values to rural Uighur and Kazakh “masses,” as training manuals put it. In the past, urbanites were sent to the countryside to “learn from the masses.”
The relatives were given written guidelines on how to conduct themselves. Based on reports from Uighur contacts in Urumqi and Khotan, such manuals provided guidelines and forms that needed to be filled out and then digitized for security databases. In a manual that was used in Kashgar prefecture, relatives were given specific instructions on how to get their little brothers and sisters to “let down their guard.” The manual, which was posted on the internet but taken down just as this story was going to press, advises relatives to show “warmth.” “Don’t lecture right away,” it suggests, and show concern regarding their families and bring candy for the children. It provides a checklist that included questions such as: “When entering the household, do family members appear flustered and use evasive language?” “Do they not watch TV programs at home and instead only watch VCD discs?” “Are there any religious items still hanging on the walls of the house?”
The manual instructs the relatives to tell their little brothers and sisters that they have been monitoring all internet and cell-phone communication that is coming from the family, so they should not even think about lying when it comes to their knowledge of Islam and religious extremism.
The manual also instructs them to help the villagers alleviate their poverty by giving them business advice and helping out around the household. They were told to report any resistance to “poverty alleviation activities.”
The civil servants and their relatives whom I interviewed came from two distinct groups.Four of them saw themselves as locals in Xinjiang—Old Xinjiang people—and six had moved to the region over the past two decades—New Xinjiang people. In many cases, the duration of their relationship to the region seemed to shape how they viewed their role in transforming Uighur society.
The New Xinjiang people evinced pride in serving as relatives and bringing Han civilization to Uighur society. Some spoke with fervor about the future of the Chinese nation. Some said China was finally becoming an equal of other great nations. Some talked about the nationalistic action film Wolf Warrior II and said it made them proud to be Chinese. Without a hint of irony, some of them called each other “comrades.”
New Xinjiang people sounded like true believers. Some said they wanted to play a role in a flourishing of Chinese nationalism that would subsume Uighur society in Chineseness. It was their duty to educate Uighurs, they told me. A young man from Guangdong who had been in Xinjiang only for several years told me: “These Uighurs are just uneducated. It is not their fault they began to practice these extremist forms of Islam. They’ve been misled by hardened extremists. They don’t know any better.” The visits from state workers, he told me, had improved security. He said, “Now I’m not even afraid when I enter a Uighur village. Things are much better now.”
Several of the New Xinjiang people I spoke with told me they had heard rumors of Han civilians being killed by local Uighurs when they had first arrived in 2014. The same young man from Guangdong, a fan of anime and Western movies who worked for a tourism bureau, told me that the threat was no longer imminent. He said, “I heard that initially a number of Han workers were killed when they went to sensitive Uighur villages. When women went for a walk after dinner, Uighur men grabbed them and slit their throats.” He made a slashing motion with his finger across his throat. “There is a lot we, ordinary people, don’t know about the seriousness of the terrorism problem,” he said. “What we do know is something had to be done.”
Now, he felt that the immediate threat of terrorism was no longer an issue. Since 2017, conditions were very safe for Han civilians in Uighur villages. Still he said relatives were not permitted to walk outside alone when they were in the villages. Instead, they traveled in groups of three, with at least one male civil servant, just as a precaution.
Two civil servant relatives and two friends and family members of relatives—the four of whom identified as locals (bendi ren), or “Old Xinjiang people,” who had grown up in the province—expressed reservations about their participation in the United as One Family project. They complained about having to adjust to conditions in Uighur and Kazakh villages and that the work was boring and they missed the excitement of city life. They repeatedly mentioned that it was inconvenient to be apart from their families. One of the relatives who was sent in the first wave, and was tasked with living full time in Muslim villages for a year or more, said he was only permitted a 10-day leave every 90 days.
They told me, repeatedly, that they felt they were being asked to sacrifice significant portions of their lives to this effort. They wanted to get back to their work as bureaucrats in state-owned enterprises and government bureaus or their work as doctors and editors in state-run institutions. Two of those I interviewed told me that they, or their friends who had been asked to go down to the villages, would have lost their jobs if they had refused to participate in the monitoring program, but they also said that by participating they had been guaranteed promotions upon the completion of their tour of duty.
Beginning in September 2017, I exchanged online messages with the daughter of a mid-level manager of a state-owned enterprise in Urumqi who was one of the 110,000 civilians sent to live in sensitive villages on a long-term basis in 2016. She had recently visited him and observed the work he was doing in the villages. She was eager to describe what she had seen and what she thought of the process. She said that as an Old Xinjiang person, her father had no long-standing grievances with Uighurs, though they did have friends who had been injured during the Uighur rights protests and violence of 2009. His daughter said he had slept on average no longer than six hours each night during his 90-day stays in a Uighur village with a team of eight to 10 people made up of both Han and Uighur civilians.
The daughter, a woman in her late 20s who loves cats and Lady Gaga and now lives in the United States, explained that her father had been “forced into this assignment” and that while the government had pushed all the teams of relatives really hard to be harsh, her father had “fought back” and had tried to make the rules a bit more flexible so as to not hurt the feelings of the local Uighurs. That, she told me, was all he could do at the moment.
She said she had heard that some workers had received death threats from Uighurs in the villages but said this was “before they got to know them.” She explained that the reason for this was “because Uighurs had lost trust in the government or anyone sent by the government.” To her thinking, it was not because of anything the relatives had done. It was simply because Uighurs misunderstood their mission.
Several days after that exchange, I told her I had shared what she told me with Uighur contacts. They had laughed at the idea that her father could protect Uighur feelings while simultaneously monitoring what they said. To them, people like her father were government spies who only pretended to be friendly. They said they’d never trust such a person, but they would act friendly toward him because they were terrified that if they didn’t, he might report what they said and they’d be taken away.
In response to this, the young woman wrote: “It is very easy to laugh and be suspicious of [their] efforts and not to appreciate that maybe there still are people trying to fight back and find a solution.”
She argued that her father was trying to make a difference within his role as a relative by not purposely insulting the Uighurs he was sent to monitor and allowing them to maintain some of their dignity.
“My dad is not a spy, and he is trying his best. He’d lost 10 pounds last time I saw him, and every day he told me how hard he finds his place to be. And yet he has to complete his daily job and try to comfort the families in a personal way.”
Still, as I continued to interview her, she undermined that defense. She told me her father was tasked with visiting “each household in the village in teams of two or three” every day for 90 days at a time to infer “whether the families had some ties with the ‘terrorist groups.’”
She said she believed that Xinjiang had been a “terrorism target” in the past and that poorer villages were where “terrorist ideology” had been allowed to grow. It made sense that her father and the other long-term relatives were sent to these villages; not only was her father making Xinjiang safer, but he was also helping villagers to understand the value of being secular.
In fact, she said, since most Uighurs in these villages were illiterate, he also had to consider their “education level” when it came to determining which Uighurs should be sent to the “re-education centers.” Those who had a difficult time “blending in to ‘mainstream culture’” were either sent to the re-education centers or required to attend political education classes at night or on the weekend.
The main focus of all of this training, she told me, was to introduce secular values into Uighur society. To her mind, this was an unquestioned good. She said the main problem in Xinjiang was that people did not communicate effectively. Education in both Chinese language and Han secular values would change this. She told me: “Xinjiang could be another Yunnan, where people from outside the province are attracted to the province and those from the province are assimilated.”
In general, five Uighurs who spoke to me about the arrival of the relatives described them with a mixture of contempt and fear. They described themselves as feeling infantilized and stripped of their dignity. Many of them told me that every aspect of their lives felt like a political test. None of them seemed to have any hope that the relatives would notice the sadness and difficulty of their lives and therefore refuse to carry out their orders to re-engineer Uighur society.
As one Uighur middle-aged man, whose family members were government workers in Khotan, wrote me, “These Han state workers may have more sympathy for the farmers after seeing the abject poverty they live in or their contempt for Uighurs might increase as a result of their visits. Their perception of the ‘backwardness’ of Uighurs and their own superiority as Han might be reinforced through this process.”
Many Uighurs told me that perhaps the most painful part of the United as One Family program was the way it undermined the authority of Uighur parents and destroyed families. They described the relatives as trying to take away their future. Families and their faith, many explained, were the last space of refuge and security in Uighur society. The same middle-aged Uighur man said, “Now they are taking our families and our faith. We have nothing left.”
During their visits, the civil servants spent a great deal of time ensuring that the education of Uighur children was conducted in Chinese and that it contained patriotic elements about New China and de-emphasized their difference as minorities. The manual that was posted online specifically encouraged the targeting of Uighur children as a way of getting to the truth of the situation.
In many of the ongoing human engineering projects in the Uighur homeland, it appears that the state is attempting to separate Uighur children from their parents and from Uighur-language education by radically increasing the number of Chinese-speaking teachers and using the system of penal centers to reduce the influence of Uighur cultural values and norms in the lives of children.
One Uighur young man I’ll call Alim, whose older brother was taken in January, was terrified of what would happen to his nieces and nephew if his sister-in-law were also taken. The young man, a fluent Chinese speaker who wore skinny jeans and an Apple watch, said his older brother had visited Turkey as a tourist. He thought it likely that this was the reason he had been taken away. He said his sister-in-law “still acts a little bit defiant when the state workers come to her home, so I worry that they will decide she needs to be re-educated, too. If that happens, her children will become wards of the state.” Indeed, news reports and government construction tenders posted online suggest a surge in orphanage construction in Xinjiang. Alim told me of course he and his parents would be happy to care for his nieces and nephew, but he said he had heard many reports of extended family being prevented from caring for the children of those who were detained.
His voice shaking, he said: “They want to take our children away from us. My nephew is 8 years old. He already is being affected by this. He is quiet all the time now.”
He said the last time he saw a real smile on his nephew’s face was when he opened a gift “from his father” on his birthday. “We told him that his father had sent him Legos from Beijing. We told him his father is in Beijing on business. He was so happy.”
Many of the sent-down relatives, both Old Xinjiang locals and more recent Han settlers, whom I spoke to did not have a clear sense of what life in the “transformation through re-education” centers was like. Both groups described the places where Muslims were sent as “schools” where Muslims were educated in modern Chinese life.
When I pressed further, one of the New Xinjiang settlers, the young man from Guangdong, told me that the schools were like rehabilitation centers for drug users. He said they knew that it must be hard on people who were sent there and on their families but that the cost of not intervening was too high. Echoing a frequent trope in Chinese state media reports, he described extremist ideology as a disease. It had to be “cured.” The young man from Guangdong told me: “These Uighurs are being treated like drug addicts who are going through rehab.”
Sent-down workers who identified as Old Xinjiang locals had a less sanguine view of the camps. They said that when Uighurs were sent to a re-education center, it was probably because there was no one to protect them. This was how the system worked. And it was also why locals such as them had to participate. “There is nothing we can do to protect Uighurs,” a middle-aged Han woman who grew up with Uighur classmates in Urumqi told me, “so we have to try to protect ourselves.”
Several Han workers said politics in Xinjiang were polarized to a degree that recalled the Cultural Revolution. Everyone had to agree with the party line or be ostracized and face time in prison. Of course, they said the primary target of the current human engineering project was Uighurs and Kazakhs. If they, as Han, kept their heads down, they thought they would be fine.
They worried, however, about the future. One elderly Old Xinjiang woman said, “I don’t know what will happen if we ever let the Uighurs out.”
Regardless of whether they were new arrivals to Xinjiang or older residents, many Han relatives and their friends and family told me that in public they had to express complete support for the campaign. In online articles that their work units asked them to write, Han state workers framed the challenge of the weeks they spent in Uighur homes as a way of demonstrating their willingness to sacrifice for the nation and their concern for Uighurs. The stories and images they publish fall in line with the campaign’s slogans: “Visit the People, Benefit the People, and Bring Together the Hearts of the People!” and “United as One Family.”
Some posted images of themselves immersing Muslim minorities in Xi Jinping Thought by reading a text aloud. One posted an image of her and her relative bent over a video player watching political speeches. Even the state workers who grumbled about disruptions in their personal lives seemed to accept their role as self-valorized big brothers and sisters to their little Uighur siblings. Many of them seemed to view calling a Uighur man their father or younger brother was an act of endearment, a sign of openness on the part of a Han civil servant. As the daughter of the middle manager told me regarding her father’s work as a long-term relative in a sensitive village: “Now that he has spent 10 months living in the village, the locals treat him like family.”
One young female relative wrote about the experience of asking an elderly Uighur man to watch a video-recorded speech from a party leader with her: “I felt like I was just like his daughter!”
In their blog posts, they noted the way Uighur children embraced their teaching or Uighur mothers eagerly posed for pictures. They saw these actions as signs of hospitality and warmth. The United as One Family project seemed to be working.
And the relatives tried to respond in kind. A common practice was to give their Uighur and Kazakh relatives gifts to make up for the loss of income they had incurred as a result of the hosting activity and the presence of the police state in general. Some of these gifts of rice and oil were simply ways of supplementing the diets of their Muslim relatives, but others were symbolic gifts that helped solidify the status of Han visitors as the bearers of a civilizing mission.
For example, according to an online testimonial, one group of civilian state workers gave Uighur farmers tables and reading lamps so that they could study better late at night. They wrote that the tables would make the farmers more comfortable, when many Uighur farmers prefer not to use tables when they eat or drink tea. There is a long Uighur tradition of simply using a tablecloth (dastikhan) on top of a raised platform as the setting for a meal. In their reports, the Han visitors described this tradition as “inconvenient” and a sign of Uighur poverty.
The relatives I interviewed often failed to understand the way their hosts viewed their role. Perhaps because they had not observed Uighur life before their arrival, they did not realize how fear, anger, and sadness had gripped the villagers whom they were hoping to teach Han secular values.
In their stories about what they had done, visiting civil servants often did not note that the security institutions they supported were one of the primary causes of Uighur poverty.
One young Han woman I spoke with who grew up in Urumqi but had not been sent down herself noted that the team she was familiar with was puzzled by the way that Uighur families simply placed the gifts the relatives gave them in the corner of their house. They said that when they came back weeks later, it appeared as though the gifts had not been used. They did not understand why their gifts were rejected.
Two of the workers I interviewed said they hoped that their interactions with Uighurs and Kazakhs would foster genuine friendships. They said they were saddened by the lack of “openness” on the part of their Muslim counterparts.
The daughter of the middle manager told me that she got the feeling that I and my Uighur friends might think she was “arrogant and did not care about the lives of the minorities.” She felt misunderstood. She said, “Please do not question my feelings for the Uighurs or any of the other ethnic groups in China.” She felt that, although the methods that were being used by the relatives were not perfect, her intentions, and those of her father, were genuine acts of good faith.
Despite the deep ironies inherent in a series of weeks of forced visits by state workers, most relatives I spoke with held out hope that they could make connections with “uncivilized” Uighur villagers. In fact, being placed in close proximity with others can at times result in particular kinds of friendships that can foster openness to difference. It can allow people to share the same perspective. In fact, this is precisely something that the training manuals that the Han relatives use warn against in a list of “10 Don’ts”: “Don’t be swayed from your position, harbor sympathies, and wind up brainwashed.”
The tyranny that is being realized in northwestern China pits groups of Chinese citizens against each other in a totalitarian process that seeks to dominate every aspect of life. It calls Han relatives into coercive relations with their Uighur and Kazakh hosts, producing an epidemic of individualized isolation and loneliness as families, friends, and communities are pulled apart. As new levels of unfreedom are introduced, the project produces new standards of what counts as normal and banal. The relatives I spoke to, who did the state’s work of tearing families apart and sending them into the camp system, saw themselves as simply “doing their jobs.”
I believed them. For the most part, they simply did not seem to have thought about the horror they were enacting. No free press was available to them. The majority of the people I interviewed simply did not know or believe that the re-education camps functioned as a Chinese-specific form of concentration camps, where beatings and psychological torture are common, or that Uighurs and other minorities tended to view being sent to the camps as a form of punishment. Only one of the 10 Han people from Xinjiang I interviewed believed that the camps were functioning as prisons for people who were guilty of simply being in the wrong religious and ethnic categories. It is also important to remember when writing about Han civilian participation in the mass detention of Muslim minorities, as David Brophy and others have noted, that Han civilians who resist state policies toward Uighurs put themselves in serious danger. As one of my Han friends from Xinjiang told me, in this part of the world the phrase “where there is oppression” is met not with the phrase “there will be resistance” but rather “there will be submission.” Given the totalitarian politics of the Xinjiang police state, Han civilians in Xinjiang often appear to feel as though they have no choice but to participate in the state-directed oppression of Muslim minorities.
Citizens of totalitarian states are nearly always compelled to act in ways that deny their ethical obligations. In order for a grassroots politics of Han civilian refusal of Chinese state oppression of Muslims to even be imaginable, what is taking place in northwestern China needs first to be accurately described. As Hannah Arendt observed decades ago, systems like this one work in part because those who participate in them are not permitted to think about what they are doing. Because they are not permitted to think about it, they are not able to fully imagine what life is like from the position of those whose lives they are destroying.
By Darren Byler
This article was originally published in ChinaFile.