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 Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other people in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwest China, Orwell's fiction and ultra-securitisation have become a reality, writes Hanna Burdorf, a PhD student at Newcastle University in the UK. She is also a contributor to the Xinjiang Victims Database, which, since 2018, has been gathering testimonies about victims in Xinjiang.

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

It takes you just over an hour to get home. Not because of the snow, but because of all the police checkpoints set up everywhere across town checking for identification and, sometimes, the contents of your mobile phone. “It’s for everyone’s safety”, says the officer whilst scanning your handbag and your face, waiting for the electric gate to open and let you through.

While walking up the stairs to your home, you feel slightly uncomfortable. You tell yourself that the current state of emergency is nothing more than another of the government’s whims, which will surely end soon.

When you arrive at your floor, your neighbour tells you through her tears that her husband didn’t come home last night. “Everything will explain itself eventually, there must have been a mistake”, you mutter. “They only arrest criminals, not government officials like your husband”, you try to reassure her.

In your living room, you find your husband, motionless, staring at the Christmas tree, which you had wanted to throw away already. “They took your brother”, he tells you. “What?” You were mentally prepared for this day, but the shock still runs through your body.

“The cops went over to his place early this morning. They pulled a bag over his head and cuffed his hands together, … in front of his wife and daughters! And then, they took him away”. “Where to?” “To ‘school’”. You sink onto the sofa. “But why?”, you whisper. “They also took down the big wooden cross … the one over the front door … and replaced it with a camera! They said your brother is an ‘extremist’, they said he has to ‘study’.”

You sit in stunned silence. Then, like a robot, you get up, take a saw and together with your husband start cutting the Christmas tree into pieces, throwing them into the fire to burn.

What resembles an Orwellian novel has become reality for 15 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and others in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwest China. Different from the Hans, the largest ethnic group in China, these peoples are culturally and linguistically closer to the Central Asians living across the border.

In 2017, members of these Turkic and mostly Muslim communities started secretly burning their Qurans, took off their veils, stopped saying “Essalamu Eleykum”, and cut contact with their families abroad for fear of being the next person to be taken to one of the new “schools”, which Chinese Newspeak calls “vocational education and training centres”.

In these detention facilities, there is no trial, no judgement, no lawyer, no release date. Former inmates speak of malnutrition, violence, poor sanitary conditions, overcrowding, rare family visits - some 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 by undergoing repeated indoctrination: studying the Chinese language and law, singing patriotic songs and writing self-criticisms in order to “rectify” their thoughts.

In 2014, after a series of violent attacks in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China, the government declared the “People’s War on Terror” in Xinjiang. This ongoing campaign aims to eradicate “terrorist, extremist, and separatist” thoughts and acts, which the government conceives of as “an ideological virus”, by criminalising non-Han culture, religion and identity.  “For everyone’s safety”, the new security State collects large amounts of information enabling the police to identify and isolate those considered “not trustworthy”.

Installing WhatsApp, for instance, can lead to incarceration in one of these “schools”. A phone call or transferring money to family abroad can be interpreted as “financing terrorism” and can lead to incarceration.

Parallel to the construction of a large number of “centres”, prison occupation has been on the rise. Between 2016 and 2017, the number of persons sentenced to 5 or more years in prison has multiplied by ten in the region. It is estimated that between four to five per cent of the male non-Han population are currently in prison.

Visiting a family member in the United States can result in up to 20 years of imprisonment for “supporting terrorism”. Similarly, “using superstition to undermine law enforcement” and “gathering a crowd to disturb social order”, meaning praying, teaching prayer and studying with an imam, can also result in a 20-year prison sentence.

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 often hinders the families of convicts from being informed about the fate of their relatives. Many of the few verdicts which were 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 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, their underage children are taken in by relatives or the state places them in boarding schools where they grow up without their families and culture.

Families, sometimes with their relatives gone, must host officials (often Han) who regularly move into their homes for a few days. These “new family members” collect information: who lives in the home, who visits, is the family religious, are the family's thoughts “stable”. Every tiny detail may end up in the surveillance state’s large database and can alert the police to follow-up with an arrest

Non-Han people hardly escape abroad due to their passports being confiscated since 2016, while Hans can leave China. Han people from other Chinese provinces have recently discovered tourism in Xinjiang. While some Uyghur mosques, shrines or cemeteries have been destroyed, others have been turned into artificial tourist attractions for Han tourists, as Xinjiang has been declared a “safe region without terrorist incidents”.

For decades, a settlement policy has been aiming to change the predominantly Uyghur demographic structure of the region. Having made up six per cent of the region's population in 1949, the Han now account for 42 per cent. “Family planning” policies, including forced contraception and sterilisation, have intensified in recent years for non-Han peoples. At the same time, for 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. As areas with a large Uyghur population are seen as an obstacle to “stability”, Uyghurs are also being transferred as “surplus labour” to areas with low Uyghur population density in order to “rebalance” the demographic situation.

It is also these “new family members” or other state agents who sometimes try to convince young people to work in factories in Xinjiang or elsewhere in China. However, refusal can lead to arrest for “inciting ethnic hatred and discrimination” or “disturbing public order”.

The only choice left to you is to obey. Because obeying is being 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.