Imagine a world where two separate peoples live side-by-side, but in parallel universes. One sets its clock to Beijing time and the other to Central Asian, two hours behind. The majority population is largely oblivious of and disinterested in the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of the other. The cultural and social backgrounds of the two groups are governed by principles so diverse that it has become impossible to live together in peace and thus the government has decided that the only way to achieve its objectives is to clamp down and imprison anyone it deems a threat to the status quo.
This is Xinjiang, a Muslim, so-called autonomous region in the far west of China. The Turkic, largely Islamic people of Xinjiang – most notably the Uyghur minority group — have more in common with their Islamic neighbors in the five Central Asian countries to the west than with atheistic and quasi-Confucian Beijing, which has stepped up an across-the-board sinicization drive under President Xi Jinping. A vocal and sometimes militant Uyghur independence movement has also complicated relations with Beijing and estranged the majority Han, who see Xinjiang as an inalienable part of China.
After a proliferation of Uyghur-executed violent incidents, which have escalated over the past four years, Chen Quanguo — fresh from the success quelling the native people of Tibet with draconian policies — was brought in as Communist Party secretary of Xinjiang to stem the tide. His arrival in August 2016 has been heralded as a dramatic “success” by the government. Since his inauguration, “peace and stability” has been restored to the troubled province — by extrajudicially incarcerating more than 1 million Uyghurs within the past year and terrorizing those who remain. This has set Chen on a collision course with human rights activists and world opinion, but not enough to make a dent in his efforts to “eradicate the tumors and exterminate the viruses” of Islamic fundamentalism and “splittism,” which the government claims have plagued the province.
For those Uyghurs still at liberty, those who have managed to remain under the all-intrusive and all-pervasive radar, life has become a process of survival and dodging the surveillance bullets until they themselves fall foul of the Orwellian regime. No one, it seems, is exempt from the cull as university professors, road sweepers, surgeons, and shopkeepers alike are rounded up and heard of no more.
The most bizarre side to all this, however, is that while Uyghurs tremble at footsteps on the landing at night, cross the road to avoid the all pervasive phone checks, and speak in code to their friends, it is pretty much business as usual for their Han compatriots in Xinjiang.
Standing in a queue at a Kazakhstan airport, half a plane load of Han Chinese holiday-makers, clutching their Dubai airport duty-free bags, were waiting to board the flight home to Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang. This seemingly normal sight is shocking when considered in juxtaposition with the situation of their Uyghur compatriots. Not only have all Uyghurs been deprived of their passports these days, but should any of them dare to even utter the word “Dubai,” admit they have been or want to go there, or receive a text or phone call from a family member living there, within minutes there would be a knock on the door and they would disappear. Dubai is among 26 destinations “of interest” to the Chinese government; a visit to these places by a Uyghur, or simply having a relative living there, would result in an immediate trip to re-education camps – or worse. If any Uyghur, having escaped the initial passport confiscation drive, dared to return home on this very same flight from any country on “the list,” they would never make it out of Urumqi airport without being taken aside, interrogated in a special room, and being marched to re-education. There would be no court case, no legal representation, no call to their family, no chance to appeal or ask why.
The gulf between ordinary Uyghurs minding their own business and the Han Chinese is growing daily. What for the Han would be a seamless commute across town is a lengthy journey for a Uyghur in the south of the province. Being pulled off public buses, ID and phone checks, nerve-wracking moments wondering whether the arrest of a relative has also given them a black mark – these experiences are par for the course for a Uyghur on their journey to work. Uyghurs on motor scooters are hauled to one side, their IDs scrutinized and their luggage compartments examined. Even entry to their own homes necessitates facial recognition cameras and further ID analysis and bag checks. Meanwhile, the Han breeze through without a backward glance.
When questioned about the disparity, many Han express a sneaking feeling that there is no smoke without fire and that arrests made are usually justified. They swallow the government line that inconveniencing the few has brought calm to the region and that in the unlikely event of inadvertent wrongful arrests, these would soon be put right.
Greater prosperity among the young and the possibility of traveling for fun means that young Chinese are flexing their wings to see the world. Some even take solo trips to far-flung places and return with tales to make their friends envious; opportunities their parents would have barely dared dream of. But while young Han boast animatedly about their recent trips to Europe and Southeast Asia, their Uyghur compatriots sit and listen — unable to say a word, but filled with hopelessness as they hear about countries they will never see. Worse, if a young Uyghur so much as expresses a desire to visit such exotic locales, it could result in re-education or worse.
Before the mass roundups began, there had been a trend among many Uyghur parents to remove their children from atheistic state schooling altogether. Parents threw all their children’s eggs into the foreign language basket and hoped their offspring would eventually escape to the West. With the door to foreign education closed, these youngsters are now marooned in a no-man’s land of illiteracy in their second language — Mandarin Chinese — and no school diploma to fall back on. Others, despite running the gauntlet of an ideological education, hoped one day to escape overseas for a master’s or doctoral program. But all Uyghurs are effectively stranded following the confiscation of their passports and these days even expressing a desire to travel overseas or learn a foreign language has been enough to see thousands of aspiring youths in re-education.
Mixed gatherings of Han and Uyghur, where Chinese students enthusiastically peruse a smorgasbord of opportunities overseas, are a tantalizing specter for those who, but for the accident of birth, also could have been sharing in the feast.
The discrepancies between Chinese Han and Uyghur Muslims grow by the day. Uyghur Muslims alone have been trawled for their DNA, blood types, iris scans, and facial characteristics. Uyghurs alone are visited several times a week by armed police, their homes scoured for religious literature, Islamic script of any kind adorning trinkets or pictures, and the QR codes on the back of their doors scanned for irregularities. Only Uyghurs have to keep a notebook detailing visits by not only their friends and relatives, but those of neighbors in their street, the content of the conversations, and the time and date of arrival and departure. In Beijing, officials no longer claim that the opposition is composed of a small number of extremists. “It’s impossible to tear out weeds one by one,” said one party official in Kashgar. “We need chemicals that can deal with all of them at once.” No one is exempt.
Every Uyghur is under a microscope of surveillance. They are forced to install satellite navigation in their cars and to install the special Jingwang Weishi app on their phones, which sends the police an identification number for the device, its model, and the telephone number of its owner before monitoring all the information that passes through the telephone, warning the user when it finds content that the government deems dangerous. Failure to carry your phone, refusal to use a smartphone, turning it off completely for long periods, or even restoring your phone to its factory settings can be deemed suspicious.
Uyghur homes belonging to the “disappeared” are being repossessed and padlocked. Children who have had both parents taken away are being brought up in state orphanages hurriedly being built for the purpose. All Uyghurs are waiting in fear for the knock that might come to their doors.
The Han and the Uyghurs of China inhabit the same land but two very different universes. Whilst the majority of Han cope with the problems of life common to mankind, of waking up every day and making sense of their existence, their Uyghur countrymen and women are coping with an extraordinary assault on their humanity, their right to carve out a life for themselves and their children, and their very existence itself. The situation in Xinjiang is reminiscent of Europe in the late 1930s and we all know the outcome of that.
Ruth Ingram is a researcher who has written extensively for the Central Asia-Caucasus publication, Institute of War and Peace Reporting, the Guardian Weekly newspaper and other publications