Surviving the Crackdown in XinjiangApril 05, 2021
Kuytun, like all Chinese cities, is divided into neighborhood units, each overseen by a Party organization called a residential committee. Although Sabit had not lived there in more than a decade, she was still registered with the committee that oversaw her old home. The Party official who had come to the camp to pick her up was the committee’s secretary, Zhang Hongchao. He was middle-aged but boyish, with the affect of an ambitious petty bureaucrat, skilled in pleasing people above him and bullying people below. He often wore Army-issue camouflage, and he kept the neighborhood under close watch.
To assure Zhang that she had been reëducated, Sabit spoke of her gratitude to the Party—words that poured out automatically, after countless repetitions. He seemed pleased. “We see you don’t have so many problems,” he said. “You’ve been abroad, that’s your problem.” Then he advised her, “Just stay and do something for your country. Don’t think of going abroad for the next ten years.”
Sabit understood that this was not a suggestion. With little more than a nod, Zhang could return her to the camp.
At her uncle’s home, Zhang and his aide stayed for tea, along with “relatives”—members of a cadre. Sabit’s uncle later told her that, during her internment, he and his family had been designated “focus personnel.” Every week, they had to attend reëducation classes and a flag-raising ceremony at their residential-committee center. Cadre members also visited, staying for meals and urging the family to serve drinks—an indication that they did not obey Muslim strictures on alcohol. Initially, they spent the night, until they realized that they could photograph themselves in different clothes and fake an overnight stay.
As the officials sat on floor cushions and sipped tea, Zhang and the head of the cadre explained that Sabit was confined to Kuytun. “We’ll monitor you for some time to see how you’ve transformed,” one of the officials said. Sabit asked if she could shop or see friends, and was told, “You need to be cautious about whom you contact, but you’re allowed to have friends.”
The sun set, and the officials stayed for dinner. After they left, Sabit’s aunt recorded a voice message for Sabit’s mother and texted it to her in Kazakhstan; a direct call seemed too risky.
Kuytun had become an open-air prison. The city was ringed with checkpoints, where Uyghurs and Kazakhs were forced through scanners, even as Han residents passed freely. “We will implement comprehensive, round-the-clock, three-dimensional prevention and control,” Chen Quanguo had proclaimed while Sabit was in captivity. “We will resolutely achieve no blind spots, no gaps, no blank spots.” The technology was deployed to create a digital-age apartheid.
[I[t soon became clear that there was nowhere Sabit could walk without being detained. Eventually, police began to recognize her, and, annoyed by the repeated encounters, urged her to stop going out at all. Instead, Sabit laboriously identified convenience stations that she might pass and gave the police notice, so that they could ignore the IJOP alerts.
A few times a week, Sabit had to report to the residential-committee center, for a flag-raising ceremony and additional reëducation classes. She hated these visits, but they were her only escape from solitude. Except for her uncle’s family, just about everyone she knew—neighbors, friends, relatives—stayed away from her, fearing that any association would land them in the camps, too.
The only people she could safely mix with were other former detainees, who were similarly isolated.
By January, 2019, Sabit understood that this kind of attention was causing her uncle’s community anxiety. Fearing that she was endangering her relatives, she moved into a hotel. One night, she returned to her family’s home for a meal, and posed with them for a photo. She shared it on social media. Immediately, Zhang texted her about an embroidered portrait that was on the wall. “Who’s in the picture?” he wrote.
The portrait showed a bearded man in traditional dress: the Kazakh poet Abai Qunanbaiuly. “I was afraid that this would bring me and my uncle’s family doom,” Sabit recalled. She deleted the photo and sent Zhang a Chinese encyclopedia entry on Qunanbaiuly.
“You were quick to delete,” he wrote.
“You scared me,” she said.
“Just asking,” he said. “Don’t be nervous.”
She told him that she was no longer living in her uncle’s home, and planned to move again. She had found an inexpensive rental apartment, owned by an elderly Kazakh woman, in an adjoining community.
The Spring Festival was again approaching, and Sabit and the other former detainees were compelled to rehearse for a performance at the residential-committee center. As the festival neared, Zhang told Sabit and the other women to hang chunlian—holiday greetings on red paper—outside their homes, a Han tradition that Sabit had never practiced before. Returning to her apartment, she hung the scrolls beside her front door. Fearful of being disobedient, she photographed them and texted Zhang the evidence. “I have put up the chunlian,” she wrote. “I wish you good luck and happiness.”
“Same to you,” he wrote.
That night, two men pounded on her door—a police officer and the secretary of the local residential committee. “When did you move?” one asked. “Why didn’t you tell us?” Stunned, Sabit told them that she had informed Zhang. But the men said that this didn’t matter, that she had to leave their community—“tonight.”
The men ushered her to a nearby police station, for further questioning. There, Sabit ran into her Kazakh landlady and her husband. As officers escorted them into an armored vehicle, the landlady glared at her with terror and contempt, and screamed, “Just look! Because of you, we’re going to school!”
Racked with guilt, Sabit asked an officer if they were really being sent to a camp. He told her that they were only being taken to another police station for questioning. Still, Sabit was aghast that she could provoke such fear, just by existing. “I cried a lot that day,” she recalled. “I was like a virus.”
Not knowing where to go, she called Zhang, who told her that his residential-committee center had a dormitory. She moved into it that night with a few of her possessions, and texted him, “Lucky to have you today.”
“You can live here,” he told her.
She shared a room with two other Kazakh women. Later, one of them told Sabit that Zhang had instructed them to monitor her: he wanted to know what she did, what she said, whom she met—“basically all the details.”