Thu, Dec 06, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Xinjiang’s Uighurs assigned ‘relatives’ who report to the state

Billed as an affectionate cultural exchange, China’s ‘Pair Up and Become Family’ program is a chilling intrusion into the lives and homes of Uighurs by Beijing

AP, ISTANBUL, Turkey

Illustration: Mountain People

The two women in the photograph were smiling, but Halmurat Idris knew something was terribly wrong.

One was his 39-year-old sister; standing at her side was an elderly woman Idris did not know. Their grins were tight-lipped, mirthless. Her sister had posted the picture on a social media account along with a caption punctuated by a smiley-face.

“Look, I have a Han Chinese mother now!” his sister wrote.

Idris knew instantly: The old woman was a spy, sent by the Chinese government to infiltrate his family.

There are many like her.

According to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) official newspaper, as of the end of September, 1.1 million local government workers have been deployed to ethnic minorities’ living rooms, dining areas and Muslim prayer spaces, not to mention at weddings, funerals and other occasions once considered intimate and private.

All this is taking place in China’s far west region of Xinjiang, home to the predominantly Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uighurs, who have long reported discrimination at the hands of the nation’s majority Han Chinese.

While government notices about the “Pair Up and Become Family” program portray it as an affectionate cultural exchange, Uighurs living in exile in Turkey said their loved ones saw the campaign as a chilling intrusion into the only place that they once felt safe.

They believe the program is aimed at coercing Uighurs into living secular lives like the Han majority. Anything diverging from the party’s prescribed lifestyle can be viewed by authorities as a sign of potential extremism — from suddenly giving up smoking or alcohol, to having an “abnormal” beard or an overly religious name.

Under Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), the Uighur homeland has been blanketed with stifling surveillance, from armed checkpoints on street corners to facial-recognition-equipped CCTV cameras steadily surveying passers-by.

Now, Uighurs say, they must live under the watchful eye of the CCP even inside their own homes.

“The government is trying to destroy that last protected space in which Uighurs have been able to maintain their identity,” said Joanne Smith Finley, an ethnographer at Newcastle University in England.

The Associated Press spoke to five Uighurs living in Istanbul who shared the experiences of their family members in Xinjiang who have had to host Han Chinese civil servants. These accounts are based on prior communications with their family members, the majority of whom have since cut off contact because Uighurs can be punished for speaking to people abroad.

The Uighurs abroad said their loved ones were constantly on edge in their own homes, knowing that any misstep — a misplaced Koran, a carelessly spoken word — could lead to detention or worse. In the presence of these faux relatives, their family members could not pray or wear religious garbs, and the cadres were privy to their every move.

The thought of it — and the sight of his sister, the old woman and their false smiles — made Idris queasy.

“I wanted to throw up,” the 49-year-old petroleum engineer said, shaking his head in disgust.

“The moment I saw the old woman, I thought: ‘Ugh, this person is our enemy.’ If your enemy became your mother, think about it — how would you feel?” he said.

Tensions between Muslim minorities and Han Chinese have bubbled over in recent years, resulting in violent attacks pegged to Uighur separatists and a fierce government crackdown on broadly defined “extremism” that has placed as many as 1 million Muslims in internment camps, according to estimates by experts and a human rights group.

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