Li Xin, the pen name of a former resident of China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), says ruling Chinese Communist Party policies in the region have been the main cause of violence and instability, and that Han Chinese who care about the situation daren't speak out in case their entire family is sent to a concentration camp, her description of "re-education" facilities that Beijing claims are for "vocational training." She spoke to RFA's Mandarin Service in a recent interview after managing to leave China. Her name has been changed for fear of reprisals against her family back home:
RFA：Why did you decide to go overseas?
Li Xin: I am escaping because I fear for my life. I have no way to remain in my hometown. The neighborhood committee has been harassing us constantly.
RFA: Why are they harassing you?
Li Xin: It's because of a family member who was locked up in a concentration camp for unknown reasons. They didn't tell us why they were arrested. Then they broke into our home with no search warrants or evidence, and started rudely rummaging through our stuff. They said 'something has happened,' and told us to cooperate with the investigation.
RFA: Are there other Han Chinese in the "re-education" camps?
Li Xin: Some of my friends back home have been detained, as well as the friends of some family members. They saw each other in the concentration camp. One of our relatives went in because they were forcibly evicted and their home demolished, and some of the others were sent in their for taking medications or drugs, but a long time ago, but they were being locked up for something that happened years ago.
When it comes to Han Chinese, the main group being persecuted is anyone who has a record of going overseas, and also anyone whose home has been demolished, or people whose land the government wants, but doesn't want to debate it with them. There has been a lot of public anger since the demolitions, and a lot of people wanted to argue with the government, but they got sent to concentration camp after they tried that.
RFA: So what made you decide to escape?
Li Xin: They have this program called the "five plus one working group," which basically means a bunch of people are monitoring us and limiting our freedom. They each have their specific task: one is in charge of monitoring; some make reports on what we say, and others are tasked with brainwashing us.
After our family member was arrested, they forced the elders to do stability maintenance work, and later forced me to join in as well. They made us buy various bits of equipment for stability maintenance, including a big long wooden staff: we also had to buy a whistle, and a red armband to wear on our sleeve to prove that you are doing stability maintenance. They also forced us to buy an alarm, which was clearly also a monitoring device.
RFA: Who would they monitor?
Li Xin: They'd monitor us. They told us to put it in our home. It had a red button on it, which had a microphone inside, and would contact the nearest police station if you clicked it. Then they would send in reinforcements. They also have a whistle drill, and each family has to gather in the square for drills on how to fight the enemy. We have to take our sticks and wave them around. They said they have to fight mobs, but we don't know who the mobs are. They tell us who the mobs are, and say that every family has to fight them.
RFA: So has there been any actual fighting?
Li Xin: I don't know of any so far, but they said that if we didn't go, we would be regarded as resisting their orders, and would be sent to a concentration camp.
RFA: And everyone is actually going along with this?
Li Xin: I know what you mean, because when it first happened to me, my first reaction was not to feel scared. I just thought the whole thing was ridiculous. But you should know that they're not employing normal thinking processes here. Something is happening in our hometown, but what can we do? We have no way to fight them.
RFA: What is life like in general for Han Chinese in Xinjiang?
Li Xin: In the cities, they have put up barbed wire fences around each residential compound, cutting off residential communities, and there are cameras at all the exits and entrances. This applies to everyone, regardless of ethnicity. It's a prison, with cameras everywhere. The police patrol the streets, and you often hear helicopters flying overhead.
We don't feel safe in Xinjiang. We just have to do what the Xinjiang authorities tell us. All we can do is follow orders, as if there's no tomorrow. My main feeling when I was in Xinjiang was a sense that ringtones were from hell. Someone could just call you up from an unknown number and order you to do something and you wouldn't have any choice. They don't call you at a prearranged time, but you have to take the call. If you don't, they will send you to a concentration camp. One family member got a call in the middle of the night telling them to go down to the police station, and they didn't come back for four hours.
It must be hard for you, if you're from Taiwan, to imagine what this is like. Taiwan and Hong Kong seem like heaven from where we're standing. At least you have freedom. I really don't want to see Taiwan turn into another Hong Kong, or become like mainland China. If Taiwan does get occupied by China, maybe it will wind up just like Xinjiang. That is entirely possible.
RFA: But in many media reports, Han Chinese seem to support the government's "stability maintenance" and "counterterrorism" efforts.
Li Xin: Well, the reality is that nobody dares to tell the truth if they're being interviewed by the media, least of all people who actually live there. Nobody would dare to say a word, and every single thing they say is scripted, as if they were actors. If you were to say anything at all that departed from the official script, your entire family could get sent to a concentration camp. That wouldn't be unusual at all. We did have someone in our neighborhood who spoke out against the persecution and treatment of Uyghurs. All he said was: Wherever there is oppression, there will be resistance. I don't know who informed on him, but his entire family was locked up in a concentration camp for so-called vocational training. They call it vocational training, but actually there's not much difference from a prison in appearance. But it is far more frightening than prison, because there is no legal process involved at all. These concentration camps are black jails. There is no record of detentions there, so everyone is terrified of them.
RFA: So why have no other victims come forward, if Han Chinese people are also victims?
Li Xin: There are two reasons: the first is family members. Everyone is worried that [if they say anything], then their whole family will be implicated. Also, the majority of people in Xinjiang aren't very well educated, and they don't know how to get online ... and they don't have the kind of mentality that wants to find out the truth. Either that, or they do find out the truth, and afterwards they daren't speak of it.
RFA: Mainly because of fear, then?
Li Xin: Exactly. There have been cases in the past where young people have gotten onto overseas websites like YouTube or used Google Search and websites like that where you can find news that you can't usually see from inside China. Maybe they used circumvention software to get around the Great Firewall, or a VPN or something. Then they have told people what they found out. A lot of peole have been detained for going over the Great Firewall.
It's not just a case of covering your tracks over there. They have actual hardware that can scan your cell phone, and they will use it. They have hired people to develop apps that will pick up certain keywords, and they can track and store records of all of the actions and searches you perform on your cell phone. If you do anything they think is illegal, then they will designate you as a threat to the Chinese Communist Party regime. There are various categories of threat, so if someone holds a position in a religious group, there would be a risk assessment which would affect the individual, because it would decide whether they should be allowed to leave Xinjiang, or whether they need to be placed under surveillance, or whether they would be allowed to buy a knife.
I once tried to talk about the reality of the situation with my family, but that kind of fear comes from deep down in the psyche. "Don't say another word! Stop talking!" they told me. Then they kept looking to see if there was anyone at the door. They were jumpy and fearful at the slightest thing. That's how badly frightened they are.
RFA: What do people who are the same age as you think?
Li Xin: I think the people who are the same age as me, who grew up with me, are pretty much still adolescents, the way they think. All they think about is what they are going to eat today, what game they are going to play. They don't worry about their future, because they don't even know what is going on right now. They enjoy Chinese Communist Party rule. They think that life is pretty peaceful now that they have detained all of the Uyghurs, and they never think about the sort of trouble that has brought down on their own heads. They think it's fine just to turn a blind eye to all of that. Don't talk about it. What's it to us if they are rounding up Uyghurs? I don't care about politics. That's how they think.
What could they do, even if they did express dissatisfaction with such things? They still have games to be played, TV shows to be watched. I think that this is all a fantasy, and that there are many dangers hidden in it, which can't be ignored.
These ideas are derived from our education, and what our parents have instilled in us. This has been going on, generation after generation. My parents told me not to try anything. "What can you do? Why would you do this when you know people are being arrested?" they said. I asked them if they didn't think the government was behaving unfairly, but they just said "That's what people are like!" That's a word they use all the time. "People. That's what people are like, so why would you want to be any better?"
When our family member was taken away, I couldn't even ask about them. If I tried, they'd say "Do you want to go a concentration camp?" They invented a code-word for it, the Guangming Academy, because nobody wanted to name it. But we all knew it meant a concentration camp.
RFA: Were you hoping to claim asylum and then bring your family out?
Li Xin: It would have to happen pretty soon, because things are so uncertain in China right now. I saw some reports online suggesting that China's controls in Xinjiang may one day lose their effectiveness ... and my family's lives may be at risk from ethnic minorities. Ever since the July 7, 2009 incident [in Urumqi], the Uyghurs have been killing Han Chinese and the Hans have been killing them back, and so it goes, on and on. This conflict was started by the Chinese Communist Party, not by local residents. A lot of our friends were from ethnic minorities, and we respected them a great deal, and they respected us. It was pretty simple, actually. Mutual respect. But then the Chinese Communist Party started these tensions by saying that the July 7 incident* was Uyghurs killing Hans at the instigation of overseas Islamist groups and various vague explanations like that. Then they told us that all Muslims are terrorists, so we should report them. They manipulated us so that we were on opposite sides.
Reported by Liu Chih-hsin for the online Taiwan news magazine The Reporter, and republished and rebroadcast under a collaborative project with RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.
* The July 2009 unrest was touched off by a clash between Uyghur and Han Chinese toy factory workers in China’s southern province of Guangdong in late June that year that left two Uyghurs dead. News of the deaths reached Uyghurs in Urumqi, sparking what started as peaceful protest but spiraled into clashes with Chinese, with deaths occurring on both sides. Exile Uyghur businesswoman Rebiya Kadeer has repeatedly blamed the police, saying that they attacked a peaceful demonstration of Uyghurs first. Chinese mobs later staged revenge attacks on Uyghurs in the city’s streets with sticks and metal bars.