Features | Society | East Asia

What Happens When the Uyghurs Come Home?

Social media is starting to convey some signs of life from Xinjiang’s disappeared.

By Ruth Ingram for
What Happens When the Uyghurs Come Home?

In this Sept. 20, 2018, photo, a Uyghur child plays alone in the courtyard of a home at the Unity New Village in Hotan, in western China’s Xinjiang region.

Credit: AP Photo/Andy Wong

The dystopian ordeal is beginning to run its Pinter-esque course for those Uyghurs lucky enough to have passed the Chinese language and “Xi Jinping Thought” recitation classes and been deemed re-educated enough for release back into quasi-normal life.

Two years after he was dragged with his father from their home in the early hours by machine gun wielding-thugs and rammed into a waiting truck, my friend found a way to tell me he is alive and coming home. A couple of months ago, he proclaimed on social media one Friday night how good it was to be back with his mother. Come Sunday night, though, another post let us know the weekend was over and he would “see” us all next weekend. “Oh no it’s time to go,” he would say. “I will miss you all so much. Won’t be long before we see each other again.”

Seems he is out of one frying pan, but into the fire — in the form of a private sweatshop that he has been contracted out to for a few years as part of his continuing “re-education.” A bittersweet homecoming, at best. But he has his phone back, I have seen his worn, older but smiling face, and he has survived.

You sign away your private life downloading WeChat, the government-approved social media app in China. With WeChat, every nook and cranny of your smartphone, past and present, can be exposed to the eagle eye of Beijing. But when kept on a separate device, WeChat has been a lifeline to friends in Xinjiang, one of the few ways of communicating with the outside world. After daily searching public posts for the past year for signs of life from those who had been taken, there were few clues that any of them had survived the mass detentions – until recently.

After the first few tentative messages, a few family photos started to appear. My friend’s mother, an illiterate village woman whose covered head had never seen the light of day, is now sporting a new short hairstyle and knee-length cropped skirt. There is still no sign of his father, but the rest of the family is putting on a brave face. There’s no room for dissent or frowns in Xi Jinping’s “New Era,” particularly online. After all, that was how they landed in “vocational training” in the first place. A careless photograph, a Michael Jackson song mentioning the word “Allah,” or a piece of Arabic calligraphy was enough to get friends seven years in jail, and more.

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A small trickle of other friends — some who had deleted me from their contacts once a foreign association became too dangerous — resumed contact and started writing in Chinese, a language we had never shared before. Google Translate came to the rescue as we sent quaint messages to each other in a strange language. We said nothing much; it was just enough to know we missed each other and they were still alive. Sharing the caustic satire of a “ni hao” greeting instead of “Salam Aleykum,” which is now banned, reinforces the camaraderie of the moment, but keeps everyone under the radar of suspicion. Flurries of patriotic videos, songs, and Communist Party slogans posted regularly and enthusiastically fool no one in the friendship circle, but cement the shared pathos and keep the censors at bay.

In the early days of the roundups, the first hint that a friend was in trouble was deletion from their contact list. A text would be met ominously with the telltale red exclamation mark and “message not sent” notice. Friends and family overseas were particularly vulnerable to being cut off as the ambiguous list of banned countries grew by the day, and self-censorship was in full swing against careless words. With other popular forms of social media banned in the homeland and Skype, WhatsApp, or worse still a VPN found during daily spot checks on your mobile a “re-educationable” offense, the options for keeping in touch were limited.

When passports were issued unexpectedly to Uyghurs in 2015 and many made a dash to Egypt or Saudi Arabia to study Islamic theology, WeChat was a gift, but it also meant Beijing could keep a close eye from a distance. The app, downloaded in the home country with a local number to avoid suspicion, carried photos and videos of loved ones, parents, and children. And as the doors closed to return in 2017, the priceless memories went with them to their countries of exile.

Many are the Uyghurs in exile with new phones who have forgotten the precious password that links them to their past. Forced to download a fresh app from outside China with a foreign number, they not only forfeit all their priceless digital keepsakes but bring more danger to relatives back home. Countless families torn from their children lose the only photos they have once their Xinjiang telephone number becomes obsolete through lack of use and is given to someone else. Locked out of their memories, they have to read between the lines of every family grouping. Who is there and who is suddenly not there? Who looks old and who has lost vast amounts of weight? A friend posted her photo the other day after being released early from her seven-year sentence, a good 20 kilograms lighter and an absolute shadow of her former self.

The last couple of years have unleashed a trove of imaginative ways of alerting families overseas as to how those trapped in the homeland are doing. Those who haven’t been erased from contact lists get cryptic messages about the “weather” being good, bad, stormy, or changeable, or someone becoming “sick” and going to “hospital” for a long time. Some are fortunate enough to receive the oblique tidings that the relative has been discharged, Other friends, rather than cause trouble with written messages, find emojis to express love, frustration, sadness, or longing. A familiar one is a fire in the shape of a heart to express deep sadness and longing, or a cartoon figure that captures a mood. Music is swapped back and forth to speak louder than them all; through songs a multitude of personal messages can be conveyed.

Even more inscrutable to the prying eyes of censors is the custom of weekly tweaking profile photos to prove someone is still “safe.” It proves a comfort to faraway loved ones, as are subtle poses in mutually recognized places, or a photo taken in certain clothes, or with a musical instrument or bunch of favorite flowers, in a particular room with a shared memory. These techniques have spoken volumes across the breach.

Likewise a social media photo that never changes screams across the divide. Rahile Dawut, the beloved Uyghur writer and folklore compiler who disappeared more than two years ago, is still staring up from the bottom of a spiral staircase in her online avatar, much as she did before she was taken. Other friends of mine likewise have not only disappeared from my life, but from the lives of all those who love them.

There are winners and losers in this first wave of releases. The leash is short and freedom tenuous. One wrong move means a return to join the hundreds of thousands whose graduation from the camps has merely meant transition to harsher climes.

A trickle of my Uyghur friends are “coming home,” but what this means in the long term for up to 3 million others in extrajudicial incarceration has yet to be determined.

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