“Our Career Direction is to Monitor Uyghurs”

As evidence mounts of detention camps holding up to one million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in , personal accounts of Han Chinese living in the region are rare. Hong Kong-based Initium Media recently published an account from a Han Chinese student studying Uyghur in Urumqi, the regional capital, who notes that only non-Uyghur students are allowed to study the language, and some are recruited by police and national security agencies after graduation to aid in of . CDT has translated excerpts of the article:

Initium Media recently published a report detailing how ethnic Han students who study in Xinjiang are being assigned to monitor ethnic Uyghur students. The story is submitted by Jia Biming, a special contributor based in Japan.

Editor’s notes from the Initium:

In recent years, information on Xinjiang has been subject to multiple layers of censorship. However, there are always words that get through the blockade, trying to tell us what is happening. The Initium interviews an ethnic Han student who studied Uyghur language at a university in Xinjiang. According to him, one of the main career paths after graduating with this major is to help the government monitor Uyghur people and become a member of the pervasive surveillance system. During his studies, he received weekly political education and wrote thought reports; every month, he surrendered his cell phone and computer to be checked by the authorities. There were teachers who taught in class and disappeared the next day; even dorm conversations about the disappeared teachers could prompt a warning from one’s roommate: “I’ll report you guys if you keep talking.” …

He loved the beautiful landscape, the great food, and the kind-hearted classmates in Xinjiang. But he decided that there was no way for him to stay in Xinjiang after graduation. He instead chose to study abroad.

These are his own accounts of his experiences:

The Xinjiang I experienced when I first came to study was completely different from the current situation. I had heard that Xinjiang was very strict, but I was just a little worried. When I first arrived, I didn’t experience any inconvenience. But in 2016, things changed a lot and all kinds of security checks began. The security check in my school was abnormally strict. ID was required to enter the campus, the classroom buildings, and the dorm. Every night there was bed check. Han students were luckier in that if you forgot your ID, you could ask your roommate to send over a picture of it. But Uyghur students would not be able to do that for sure. The overall security in Urumqi was very strict as well. You’d see a police station every few hundred meters on the street. At the Erdaoqiao Grand Bazaar (editor’s note: a famous commercial district in Urumqi), the police may stop anyone to check their phones, Han and Uyghur people alike. We had to go through security checks at shopping malls, not to mention the airport and the train station. In places like commercial districts, there were armored vehicles at every crossroad and in front of every major shopping mall. The special force on duty with guns could be seen everywhere. I saw more armored vehicles and tanks when I was in Xinjiang than the rest of my life.

[…] I thought the scariest part was the weekly political education. Growing up, I never studied so much politics. Since my freshman year, there would be one afternoon every week when the whole school got together for political education. The study sessions covered the latest reports by the national leadership, the latest actions by the provincial and ministerial leadership, as well as stories by the official media. We would sit there and listen to the teachers lecturing to us about these materials.

[…] The “re-education camps” do exist in Xinjiang, although I didn’t know they were already widely reported overseas when I was in China. We normally referred to them as “training camps.” But such a “training camp” was something that we all avoided talking about. There was a Party member in my dorm. He was always very tightly wound. Sometimes, behind closed doors, we would complain about how the security system in Xinjiang made our lives inconvenient, or privately discuss the teachers who suddenly disappeared. He would get angry and stop us. He even told us to stop talking nonsense, otherwise he’d report us.

[…] In fact, as a Han student, I didn’t worry about being detained. I was mainly worried that my teachers would suddenly disappear. One of my teachers was teaching one day, but disappeared the next day. Students asked about that teacher’s whereabouts, but other teachers told us not to ask questions. Later, I heard that this teacher was brought to a camp for owning properties in a Middle Eastern country. If you got brought in to a camp for such reasons, basically you were ruined politically. It’s hard to say whether you’d be allowed to come back and teach. I knew another Uyghur person who was brought into a camp because their child was studying in a Middle Eastern country and they wired money there.

Not only are Uyghur people feeling troubled, we Han people are also troubled. Everyone in my department had to turn in his or her passport when matriculating, regardless of ethnicity. If you wanted to go abroad, you’d have to apply to get your passport back. I had a teacher whose child was studying abroad, but that teacher could not go abroad, nor could the child come back. There were so many restrictions.

I heard about it before matriculating. I had a passport but I didn’t bring it to the school. Because I was not from Xinjiang, the control placed on me was not as strict. It was alright for me to not turn in my passport. But for local Xinjiang students, they didn’t have such option. Of course, the school knows your entry and exit record anyways. A friend of mine also studied in Xinjiang. He went to the Port of Khorgas in Ili. There was a big duty-free shop there. You just had to get a permit to go there. His travel record was made known to the school, probably by the police. Then the school asked my friend: What did you do there?

[…] One of the important reasons I chose to study Uyghur language as my major was the job placement rate. Other people might not know, but we had a big advantage when it comes to job hunting. Major internet companies like Tencent and NetEase would come and recruit us. In China, people whose native language is Uyghur make the second largest group of WeChat users following Han people. Now WeChat can transcribe a Mandarin voice message into text. But it cannot do so with the Uyghur language yet. We could help with separating syllables to improve the transcription accuracy in WeChat. For the music app by NetEase, there aren’t many Uyghur songs at the moment. We could help build a bigger Uyghur music database. But only non-Uyghur students are allowed to choose Uyghur as their major. Our teachers were all Uyghur people, but we students were from other ethnic groups.

In addition to internet companies, the second largest job market is the police and national security agencies in different provinces. Your job would involve surveillance and monitoring. And your target is, of course, the Uyghur people. The police and national security agencies from other provinces as well as Xinjiang would come to recruit people. The Port of Khorgas in Ili and the four localities in Southern Xinjiang had the greatest demand. [Chinese]

Translation by Yakexi.

See also an essay posted on Weibo by a student from Inner Mongolia about her experiences living with and befriending her Uyghur and Tibetan classmates, translated by CDT.