Database Entry: Gene A. Bunin: How the “Happiest Muslims in the World” are Coping with Their Happiness
Surveillance Religious Persecution Internment Restricting journalism Restricting communication Use of technology Restrictions on movement Forced Patriotic/Propoganda Displays

Gene A. Bunin: How the “Happiest Muslims in the World” are Coping with Their Happiness

July 31, 2018
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There have also been measures, direct and indirect, to make it difficult for foreigners in China to engage regular Uyghur people in any kind of conversation. Journalists, in particular, have been under very heavy scrutiny, with anyone they’ve managed to interview often too scared to speak normally and honestly.

Many Uyghurs have deleted most, if not all, of their foreign friends and contacts on China’s (highly monitored) WeChat app, with more secure foreign apps having long ago stopped being an option

Inviting me to take a seat at a table, he put down his QR-coded knife and came over to join me soon after.

Some eleven months had passed since our previous meeting, and a lot of things had changed. The great majority of his staff, about ten in all, had been forced to return to their hometowns in southern Xinjiang, either for “re-education” or for “hometown arrest”, which had left him shorthanded and dependent on the help of friends and relatives. Gone were the shish kebab and the tea, together with the clientele, as a place that had always brimmed with people was suddenly empty. Time and again I’d watch potential customers come in, ask what was available, and then leave because of the lack of options. Uyghur kitchen staff, as the owner put it, were extremely scarce now, and it was close to impossible to find substitutes.

“Our mood is shot,” he admitted to me.

Having already spent a few months in Kashgar, I knew precisely what he meant, just as I knew that the “our mood” referred to all the Uyghur people, and not just his family. After all, all that it took was a pair of human eyes to see the mass depression that Xinjiang’s legions of red mechanical ones failed to. You could see it in how the people stared into space, in their forlorn expressions, in their general languor. More abstractly, you could feel its crushing weight in the air, at times so disorienting that even I – a foreigner protected from the repressions – would hesitate to venture outside, for the fear of being overwhelmed by this invisible force. Police vans with sirens blaring trolled the streets incessantly. In the past, I would take to the Kashgar streets to almost always be approached by a mentally ill Kashgarian acquaintance, who would run up to me, shake my hand – his fly sometimes open – and ask me the same questions over and over, a big smile on his face. But somehow the situation warped even him, as last fall he suddenly stopped rushing over to me, remaining quiet and still on his bench when I passed by. Eventually, he would disappear from the streets completely.

The poor mood was also evident in the frank negativity that I noticed in many Uyghur business owners last year. While it is not considered good Uyghur etiquette to tell somebody of your complaints and troubles when they ask you how you’re doing – it is more proper, instead, to say that you’re doing well – more and more often I would put the “how are you doing?” question to people to be met with a “not that great, business is horrible”. Running into a tour guide acquaintance last year, I remarked to him that he had gotten really thin since I had last seen him a year earlier.

“We’ve all gotten really thin this past year!” he told me.

The hardest to forget, I think, is that one time I was walking home on a Kashgar evening. Walking in the opposite direction was an Uyghur family of three – a middle-aged husband and wife with their twenty-something son. The father was drunk, waving his arms around while his wife and son supported him. As a police minivan materialized at the end of the street, the wife told him to be still, but he wouldn’t. And so the van stopped, five or six police jumped out, grabbed the man without asking any questions or asking for ID, and then drove him off together with his wife, the son left alone on the street. The whole thing couldn’t have lasted more than two minutes.

A fear that would be funny if it weren’t so sad is the fear of religious names. In Xinjiang, one friend went so far as to change his because it had the word “Hajim” in it – a practice previously enforced by the government for children only. On another occasion, a shop owner took an Uyghur book that I was reading, flipped it to a random page, found the word “Hajim” there, and quietly told me that people got locked up for five or ten years now for having books with this word in it.

The mass WeChat deletions of foreign friends and contacts are the online manifestation of the fear. One friend claims to have deleted over 400. Another has gone back and forth between adding me and deleting me, before finally deleting me for good and leaving any groups that we were in together. Uyghurs living or studying abroad have also reported being deleted by their Uyghur friends and relatives back in Xinjiang, which – coupled with the danger of calling – has essentially made it impossible for people to support each other during very frightening times.

In southern Xinjiang, a friend pulled me into his shop to tell me very succinctly that it wasn’t safe for him to talk to foreigners anymore. In the weeks that followed, we would exchange greetings only through body language, then only through eye contact, and then would ultimately ignore each other completely.

At a time when I was still absorbing Xinjiang’s new reality and struggling to accept it for myself, one of the hardest “rude awakening” moments came while catching up with a friend who worked in Xinjiang’s tourism industry. After chatting for a bit, I remarked on the intense security apparatuses all around the city, in a manner that suggested that I found it all over the top. He, too, had his complaints about the new system, saying how he would be forced to stop and have his ID checked seven times while traveling some 2-3 kilometers on his electric scooter, with each check taking even longer for him especially, because his ID said that he was from out of town. Still, he was quick to add:
“But the people all feel really safe now. Before, I used to worry about letting my daughter go to school alone, but now I don’t have to worry.”

The words, which almost sounded prepared, stunned me. He then went on to say that this was all to protect the people from terrorism, and that as soon as Russia and the U.S. hurried up and defeated ISIS, all of this would be over. However, when I shared with him my opinion that terrorism could not be defeated with force like this, he was quick to agree with that as well.

A traveling businessman I talked to in Xinjiang last fall didn’t seem to understand why I asked him if it was safe for him to add me on WeChat. When I told him, quietly and euphemistically, that the “situation was not good right now” (weziyet yaxshi emes), he shook his head and said that he didn’t know much about any of that. It was a rare and puzzling thing to hear. When I saw him again this year, however, he was telling me that he would no longer travel to southern Xinjiang on business, as all the towns were empty (adem yoq) and there was no business to be done. He was going to try his luck in northern Xinjiang, he said.

More sad than comical were the displays that took place online at the time of the 19th Party Congress, when Uyghur friends who hardly spoke any Mandarin suddenly started posting long messages in fluent Mandarin praising Xi Jinping and the Congress. A few months later, I also heard of there being a WeChat applet that easily allowed someone to fasheng liangjian (“to clearly demonstrate one’s stance” or, literally, “to speak forth and flash one’s sword”), plugging their name into a prepared Mandarin- or Uyghur-language statement that pledged one’s loyalty to the Communist Party and its leaders, promised to uphold core socialist values, and expressed – among other things – one’s determination in upholding “ethnic harmony” while standing opposed to radicalism. The generated image file could then be readily posted on their social network of choice as a show of loyalty.