The Uyghur women fighting China's surveillance stateMay 01, 2019
In early 2016, police began making routine checks on Atawula’s home. Her husband was regularly called to the police station. The police informed him they were suspicious of his WeChat activity – he regularly spoke to friends in Turkey, which they viewed as potentially extremist behaviour. Atawula’s children began to cower in fear at the sight of a police officer.
The family decided to move to Turkey to escape the oppressive surveillance. Atawula’s husband, worried for her safety if she was also arrested, decided to send her ahead while he stayed in Xinjiang and waited for the children’s passports.
“The day I left, my husband was arrested,” Atawula said. When she arrived in Turkey in June 2016, her phone stopped working – and by the time she had it repaired, all her friends and relatives had deleted her from their WeChat accounts.
Unlike almost everyone in the global Uyghur diaspora, Nurjamal Atawula managed to find a way to contact her family after the WeChat blackout. She used one of the oldest means possible: writing a letter. In late 2016, she heard of a woman in Zeytinburnu who regularly traveled back and forth between Turkey and her parents’ village in Xinjiang. She asked the woman to take a letter to her family. The woman agreed. Atawula wrote to her brother and was careful not to include anything border inspection or police might be able to use against him.
“When I was writing the letter, I felt I was living in the dark ages,” Atawula said. She gave it to the woman, along with small presents for her children and money she had saved for her family.
A month later, she got a reply. The Uyghur woman, who she calls “sister”, smuggled a letter from her brother out of China, hidden in a packet of tissues.
Atawula sent a reply with her go-between – but after the third trip, the woman disappeared. Atawula doesn’t know what happened to her. She still writes to her family, but her letters are now kept in a diary, in the hope that one day her children will be able to read them.
It has now been more than two years since Atawula received her brother’s letter. She keeps it carefully folded, still in the tissue it came in. In that time, she has only read the words three times, as if by looking at them too much they will lose their power.
Most Uyghurs in Turkey have been deleted by their families on social media. And many wouldn’t dare try to make contact, for fear Chinese authorities would punish their relatives. It’s just one of the ways Xi Jinping’s government maintains a tightly controlled net of surveillance over the Uyghurs in China, and it has a ripple effect on Uyghurs living all over the world.
Others tried to use WeChat to contact their families, but the drip-feed of information became steadily slower. In 2016, findings by Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, a research center that monitors methods of information control, showed how the app was censoring its users by tracking their keyword usage. Among keywords that could flag an account are any words relating to Uyghur issues such as “2009 Urumqi riots,” “2012 Kashgar riots,” and anything to do with Islam.
In Zeytinburnu, seamstress Tursungul Yusuf, 42, remembers how phone calls and messages from relatives in Xinjiang became increasingly terse as 2017 went on. “When we spoke, they’d keep it brief. They’d say “we’re OK, safe.” They’d speak in code – if someone was jailed in the camps, they would say they’d been “admitted to hospital.” I’d say ‘“understood.” We could not talk freely. My older daughter wrote “I am helpless” on her WeChat status. She then sent me one message, “Assalam”, before deleting me.”
A kind of WeChat code had developed through emoji: a half-fallen rose meant someone had been arrested. A dark moon, they had gone to the camps. A sun emoji – “I am alive.” A flower – “I have been released.”
Messages were becoming more enigmatic by the day. Sometimes, a frantic series of messages parroting CPC propaganda would be followed by a blackout in communication. Washington DC-based Uyghur activist Aydin Anwar recalls that where Uyghurs used to write “inshallah” on social media, they now write “CPC.” On the few occasions she was able to speak with relatives, she said “it sounded like their soul had been taken out of them.” A string of pomegranate images were a common theme: the Party’s symbol of ethnic cohesion, the idea that all minorities and Han Chinese people should live harmoniously alongside one another, “like the seeds of a pomegranate.” By late 2017, most Uyghurs in Turkey had lost contact with their families completely.