| | Opinion

In China: ‘for everyone’s safety’

Gulnar Omirzakh, second right, and her husband, Baqytali Nur, third right, with friends and family at their home in Shonzhy, Kazakhstan on Saturday, June 13, 2020. Omirzakh, an ethnic Kazakh, says she was forced to get an intrauterine contraceptive device when living in China, and that authorities threatened to detain her if she didn't pay a large fine for having a third child. (Keystone/AP Photo/Mukhit Toktassyn)

For Uyghur, Kazakh and other people in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of northwest China, Orwell's fiction and ultra-security has become a reality, writes academic Hanna Burdorf. A PHD student at the University of Newcastle in the UK, she is also a contributor to the Shahit database, which, since 2018, has been gathering testimonies from persecution victims in Xinjiang.

Imagine… Late December, you exit your office in the town hall and head home after a day of work. Your boss’ words are still echoing in your head: “Those infected by the virus must be transformed immediately.”

It takes you a good hour to get home. Not because of the snow, but rather, because of the numerous checkpoints set up by the police everywhere in town to check for identification and, sometimes, the contents of your mobile phone. “It’s for everyone’s safety”, claims the officer whilst scanning your handbag and your face, waiting for the electric fence to let you through.

Whilst walking up the stairs at home, you feel a malaise, but you tell yourself that this latest governmental state of emergency is nothing more than another caprice by the government which will surely end soon. Once arriving on your floor your neighbour, in tears, tells you that her husband never came home last night. “Everything will explain itself eventually, there must have been a mistake”, you mutter. “They only arrest criminals, not officials such as your husband”, you try to reassure her.

You find your husband, icy-faced, setting up the Christmas tree you're planning to take apart soon. “They took your brother”, he tells you. “What?” You were mentally prepared for this day, but the shock still soars through your arms and legs. “The cops went over to his place early this morning. They put a bag over his head and cuffed his hands… in front of his wife and daughters! And then, they took him away”. “Where to ?” “To school”. You collapse onto the sofa. “But why ?”, you mutter. “They took down the cross on top of the door, the big wooden one, … they replaced it with a camera. They said your brother is an ‘extremist’, they said he has to ‘study’.”

You stay silent next to each other. Then, like a robot, you take a saw and start cutting the Christmas tree with your husband. You throw the pieces into the chimney.

What looks like Orwellian science-fiction has become reality for 15 million Uyghurs, Kazakh or other in the autonomous Uyghur region of Xinjiang in north-west China. In contrast with the Hans, the majority ethnicity in China, this people is culturally and linguistically close to the Central Asians established on the other side of the border.

In 2017, members of these Turcophone and mostly Muslim communities started secretly burning their Korans, taking off their veils, no longer saying “Essalamu Eleykum”, cutting contact with all their families abroad from fear of being the next brought to one of the new “centers” that the chinese Newspeak has named of “education and information”.

In these places of incarceration, there is no trial, no pursuit, no judgement, no lawyer, no release date. Former inmates remember malnutrition, violence, squalid sanitary conditions, overcrowding, rare family visits - none of them talk about death or rape.

In order to “cure them of the ideological virus”, the inmates are forced to obey the Chinese Communist party through repeated indoctrination: studying the Chinese language, law, patriotic chants and writing self-criticisms in order to “rectify” their thoughts.

In 2014 after a series of violent assaults in Xinjiang and in the rest of China, the government declared “the people’s war against terrorism” in Xinjiang in order to eradicate what it qualified as “ideological viruses”, which is to say all “terrorist, extremist and separatists” acts or thoughts by criminalising any non-Han culture, religion and identity. In order to achieve “Safety for everyone”, the new security State collects enormous quantities of information which allows the police to identify those considered as “not trustworthy”.

Installing WhatsApp can lead to incarceration in one of these “schools”. A call or wiring money to family abroad can be interpreted as “financing terrorism” and lead to deprivation of liberty.

In parallel to the construction of a large number of “centres”, prisons have had an increase in occupation. Between 2016 and 2017, the number of people sentenced to five or more years in prison has multiplied by a factor of ten in the region. We estimate that between four per cent and five per cent of the non-Han population is currently in prison.

Visiting a family member in the United States can result in up to 20 years of prison for “supporting terrorism” ; “using superstition in order to hinder the application of the law” and “assembling a crowd in order to trouble the social order”, in other words praying, teaching prayer and studying with an imam can also result in 20 years of prison.

Unlike detention centres, prisons are part of the official judicial system that operates “in accordance with the law”. However, the inherent lack of transparency in the system does not allow the families of convicts to be informed about the fate of their loved ones. Many of the few verdicts published on the internet have been deleted.

While the prisons remain full, several indicators suggest that the camps have started to close since mid-2019. Those who are released are sometimes transferred directly to prison. Others are sent to work in factories against their will, for meagre pay. Still others return home but remain under house arrest. Many suffer health problems after their release.

With a detention rate of around 10 per cent to 15 per cent in some predominantly non-Han areas, almost every family has or has had a family member in detention. Often it is the father or husband, the main breadwinner. If both parents are abducted, the minor children are taken in by relatives or the state places them in boarding schools where they grow up far from their families and culture.

Families, sometimes with their relatives away, have to host officials (often Han) who move into their homes for a few days. These “new family members” collect information - who lives in the home, who visits, whether the family is religious, whether the family's thinking is “stable”. Every detail can be entered into the large database of the surveillance device and alert the police to the need for an arrest.

Non-Han people hardly escape abroad due to passport withholding since 2016, while Han people can leave China. Ethnic majority tourists from other Chinese provinces have recently discovered Xinjiang. While some mosques, relics or Uyghur cemeteries have been destroyed, other places have been turned into artificial attractions that attract Han tourists, as Xinjiang has been declared a “safe region without terrorist incidents”.

For decades, a settlement policy has been aimed at changing the predominantly Uyghur demographic structure. From six per cent of the province's population in 1949, the Han now account for 42 per cent. The policy of “family planning” giving way to contraception and forced sterilisation has intensified in recent years for non-Han peoples. Conversely, for the Han in Xinjiang and the rest of China, the one-child policy is gradually being relaxed and the birth of a second or even third child encouraged. Areas with a large Uyghur population are seen as an obstacle to “stability”. Uyghurs are also being transferred as “surplus labour” to remote areas in order to rebalance the demographic situation.

It is the “new family members” or other state agents who sometimes try to convince young people to work in factories in the region or elsewhere in China. However, refusal can lead to arrest for “incitement to ethnic hatred and discrimination" or “provocation and disturbance of public order”.

The only choice left is to obey, because obeying is safe. Maybe.


This article was first published in French in Le Temps as part of a series of opinion pieces gathered by Alain Werner, a Geneva lawyer and director of Civitas Maxima, a Swiss NGO fighting for international justice. The authors of the opinion pieces speak on their own behalf and do not represent Geneva Solutions’ position in any way.

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