More than a million Uyghurs are languishing in transformation through education camps, but millions are still at large in the no-mans-land of uncertainty where a careless word or administrative whim could put them behind bars.
Those still enjoying their liberty might not yet be in captivity, but the relentless gauntlet of checkpoints, metal detectors, I.D. and phone checks continues unabated and every day dawns with another roll of razor wire or layer of security to navigate. There are no rules or certainties in this Orwellian game of cat and mouse, and few are winners.
Students, in particular, have to tread a fine line. On the surface, they appear to be more immune than others from random round-ups and incarcerations, but they realize they are a hair’s breadth away from attracting the unwelcome attention of the authorities. The tension they live under is palpable.
“From the moment we wake until the second our heads touch the pillow, we are monitored,” said Mehmud, a second-year Muslim Uyghur student at Xinjiang University in Urumqi. “It is impossible to escape. We are told that our religion is a virus that needs curing and the only way for this to happen is to be locked up and ‘treated.'”
Entrance to the campus through an airport security-style cabin, complete with metal detection, X-ray machinery, ID and facial scanning software, is for students and staff only. Visitors must be registered and collected by their hosts with no exceptions. The overworked security staff’s freedom is also at stake were they to let a potential “terrorist” through the net. “We work 12-hour shifts seven days a week, and wages are docked 400 yuan ($60) if we take a day off,” complained Nafisa, a camouflage, bullet-proof vest-clad housewife and mother of three. She has sent her children to live with a relative during the “emergency” which is how she describes this present climate. “Every day we are told we are on high alert,” she said. “This week we have been told to be especially vigilant. We have no idea what the emergency is, but every week there seems to be something to be on the lookout for,” she said. She cannot risk letting the wrong person through her post. “So many friends have gone. I have a family. What would happen to my children if I was taken?”
Not only is every inch of the university campus strewn with facial recognition and scanning devices of every description, but all students are told to be on the lookout for comrades who might be straying from the Party line. Compulsory Wednesday afternoon political meetings where security and loyalty to the government is drummed into every listening ear see to that. Informing on a fellow student not only earns you political points but could nip dissent in the bud and save your friend from wandering off the straight and narrow into dreaded fundamentalism, splittism or worse. You could be saving their lives, they are told, by staff whose necks are also on the block. “Two-faced loyalty” to the Party is an especially serious crime.
Religious leanings and anti-Party sentiment are clamped down on ferociously, but so too are more subtle forms of murmuring such as negativity and complaining, simply being unhappy or learning the language from one of 26 “forbidden” countries. Even putting a world map on your wall or planning an academic future abroad are behaviors students are told to be on the lookout for in each other.
“We cannot relax for a minute,” said Turnisa, a third-year Biology major. “Were we to miss something and one of our roommates get caught, we could be sent away too for not being vigilant enough.”
Transformation through education camps as the government’s current punishment of choice is the most feared outcome of putting a foot wrong. Countless Uyghur students have already had relatives extra-judicially sentenced for upwards of 18 years to life, and many have parents or siblings who have disappeared completely. This alone is enough to blot their own copybook and flag them up for special surveillance. They balance on a knife-edge daily not knowing when their own time might come.
Living and studying at a university where Uyghur professors and academics have been disappearing by the score is nerve-wracking particularly for students in those departments. Qutluq Almas, a former lecturer at Xinjiang University, now living in exile in the U.S, has told RFA’s (Radio Free Asia) Uyghur Service that at least 56 Uyghur lecturers and researchers from Xinjiang University are currently held in transformation through education camps. When a former president of Xinjiang University, Tashpolatt Teyip suddenly went missing earlier this year being detained for “two-faced” tendencies by only paying lip service to Party policies, the student body was left with the terrible realization that no-one is immune.
Most of the “disappeared” academics have some connection with the culture and language of the Uyghur nation and people, which puts their students in a quandary; to persevere with their major or give up completely. “Already we study Uyghur language and literature through the medium of Mandarin, and through translations into Mandarin of their works,” said Asmanjan, a former student of literature professor Azat Sultan who has now disappeared. “But now it seems to be a crime to have his original works in our rooms, or even to admit to having had them.” Asmanjan had spent a sleepless night a few months ago tearing up the Uyghur books he had in his possession in case a random room check revealed his “disloyalty” to the Party. New lists of banned books are published weekly. He was even worried about disposing of the torn-up shreds since surveillance cameras monitored every refuse dump in town. “What if they see me getting rid of the pages and the rubbish collectors hand them to the authorities? And burning them would look even worse,” he said.
Sentiments vary among the students. Some feel they could be taken in at any moment and are just waiting for the knock on their dorm door, while others feel they are untouchable. Han Chinese students have very little to fear since the main target of the purges are the minority Uyghurs, and unless they are taking an unusual interest in Uyghur culture or language, the government has nothing to fear from them. Weekly inspections of all students’ rooms, belongings, phones, and computers ensure there are close accounts kept on their loyalty, but it is always the unexpected that catches them unawares.
Uyghur students can be flagged up for a variety of “misdemeanors” such as complaining about the current climate, not keeping up to date with President Xi Jinping’s latest policies, lackluster participation in the national anthem in Chinese or not knowing the words. Being late for the Monday morning flag-raising parade, having any book in the Uyghur language in the dorm, having any religious material at all on phones which are checked constantly are also some of the most obvious ways to fall foul of the rules of Xi’s “New Era” where “Sinicization” is the way forward.
All foreign influences are suspect, and contact with foreigners either in China or abroad is enough to sound warning bells with the authorities. The Mandarin language, once known as “Han Yu” ( the language of the Han) has this year been re-invented as “Guo Yu” ( The National language). Any student heard speaking their own “Yu” on campus, in the dorms and particularly in class is severely reprimanded and told to speak the language of their country. The tell-tale warnings of looming monolingualism to come can be seen around the college grounds where Uyghur script on previously bi-lingual signs has been crudely taped over, leaving only Mandarin. “We are even forbidden from talking to each other in our mother tongue,” said Gulnur, a first-year history major, for whom Mandarin does not come easily. Brought up in a remote southern Xinjiang village, she grew up speaking exclusively Uyghur and is struggling to catch up with the mountain of specialist vocabulary and characters vital for her major.
“One of my roommates was on the phone to a girlfriend in Uzbekistan. Two hours after he hung up, five armed police turned up to take him away. He hasn’t been heard from since,” said Polat, a postgraduate student who lives off-campus.
Life for students is lived on the edge of fear and continual self-censorship. “We monitor ourselves, our friendships, our words, and even our thoughts,” said Abdullah most of whose relatives are in some form of detention and whose mother is caring for 12 children of “disappeared” neighbors and relatives in the south of the region. “Sometimes I don’t know how one person can bear so much stress and emotional pain,” he said. “But we are all living through this nightmare, and no one knows when it will end.”
Night-time raids are the norm leaving no room to let your guard down in the evening. “We always have one ear on the stairs and one on the landing,” said Polat. “We listen to the kind of footsteps and whether they are accompanied by walkie-talkies,” he said. “We have learned to distinguish between friend and foe.”
“We breathe a sigh of relief when the knock on the door is for somebody else or the guy next door. But there is always tomorrow. We will never know”.