War on the UyghursNovember 01, 2018
The little boy sat mute beside his father. Just three years old, he was completely still, not fidgeting, just staring straight ahead. His sister, four years old, sobs uncontrollably through the night, and refuses to eat. There is no comfort for these children. Though they are in Adelaide, Australia, their mother – an ethnic Uyghur – is in a re-education camp in Xinjiang. Their father’s voice breaks when he says, through a translator, “I had to tell them your Mum has to be kept by Chinese authorities. A little child – what can he understand?”
Their father, who asked for anonymity, is from a religious family in the city of Hotan, which Beijing characteriaes as a hotbed of religious extremism. He describes a decade of low-level harassment at the hands of the authorities, including not being permitted to register the official paperwork for one of his children. But individual scrutiny has been taken to extraordinary intrusive levels following the introduction of new surveillance technologies. In 2016, he was summoned to a police station. There his photo was taken from different angles, and he was asked to read a newspaper article out loud so his biometric samples could be recorded for facial and voice recognition databases. That year an app was installed on his phone which he believed was tracking his movements, both in the real world and in cyberspace. “Nothing is hidden,” he said. “They were chasing me 24/7.”
When the arrests began in 2017, he left China, hoping to test the waters before bringing his family out. As the situation worsened, he secured his children’s exit through a middleman, but his wife – whose passport had expired – was not able to leave with them. The last message he received was from her sister, telling him that his wife had “malaria” and was going to hospital – a euphemistic way of saying that she had been sent to re-education camp. Such cryptic, coded messages have become commonplace among Uyghurs, who have learned to police their own language, so omnipresent is the surveillance.
Scholars of the region fear the far-reaching social consequences of the hard-line policies, which Tom Cliff from the Australian National University describes as an attack on Uyghur identity: “You’re cracking up their social structures, as if fracking rock under the ground to break up and atomize these small family communities and the bigger communities. You’re bringing them into Han institutions to make them more like Han people.”