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One Million Chinese Move Uninvited Into Uighur Homes

One Million Chinese Move Uninvited Into Uighur Homes

By Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- China's government sent more than one million majority ethnic Han Chinese to live uninvited in the homes of minority Uighur families in Xinjiang province and report if the Muslims display Islamic or unpatriotic beliefs which need to be forcibly reformed.

"Had a Uighur host just greeted a neighbor in Arabic with the words 'Assalamu Alaykum'? That would need to go in the notebook," and reported to China's authorities, said American anthropologist Darren Byler.

"Was that a copy of the Koran in the home? Was anyone praying on Friday or fasting during Ramadan? Was a little sister's dress too long or a little brother's beard irregular? And why was no one playing cards or watching movies?" Mr. Byler said, describing traditional Muslim behavior which China's civilian monitors added to the dossiers.

Mr. Byler's 5,500-word investigative research was published by New York-based Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations on October 25.

About two weeks after publication, the ruling Chinese Communist Party newspapers Global Times and People's Daily confirmed Mr. Byler's report.

"Northwest China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region has implemented the pairing and assistance program between officials and the ethnic minority citizens to promote communication and interaction among different ethnic groups in Xinjiang," Global Times reported on November 7.

According to statistics published by People's Daily, as of September 2018, "some 1.1 million civil servants have paired up with more than 1.69 million ethnic minority citizens, especially village residents," Global Times said.

The "pairing" program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Informants who lived uninvited in Uighurs' homes regarded themselves "as relatives" and included officials from "the central government and military departments, including the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps and Xinjiang Armed Police Corps [who] have made over 49 million visits to local residents," the People's Daily statistics revealed, according to Global Times.

Mr. Byler said in his report:

"This spring, as an anthropologist returning to a province where I had spent two years researching Han and Uighur social life, I met and interviewed Han civilian state workers in predominantly Uighur urban districts and towns across southern Xinjiang.

"Over my time there and in conversations online, both before and after my visit, I spoke to around a dozen people about the experiences of [government-appointed Chinese] 'big sisters and brothers' in Uighur and Kazakh homes. They ranged from civilian surveillance workers who performed these visits themselves, to friends and family members of these surveillance workers.

"Some of these people were Han friends that I first built relationships with in 2011 when I began my fieldwork in Urumchi," the capital of Xinjiang province, said Mr. Byler who received a Ph.D. from the University of Washington's anthropology department in 2018.

"Others, primarily friends and family members of those directly involved in the program, were acquaintances I made outside of China. Still others were people I met in Urumchi and Kashgar [Xinjiang’s second-largest city] in 2018."

More than one million monitors lived and ate with targeted Uighur families for one week.

An additional 110,000 monitors lived in Uighur homes for 90 days while other monitors stayed in "sensitive villages" for more than 10 months, he said.

"Visit the People, Benefit the People, and Bring Together the Hearts of the People!" is the program's official slogan.

Monitors tried to ingratiate themselves as "relatives" even though everyone knew the "indoctrination and surveillance" program was hunting for perceived "terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism."

Muslims deemed suspicious were reported to authorities who would usually force them into prison-like "counter-extremism training centers" and other facilities which Beijing insists are benevolent "vocational training centers."

Mr. Byler said "the mobilization of more than a million Chinese civilians -- most members of the Han ethnic majority -- [was] to aid the military and police in their campaign by occupying the homes of the region's Uighurs and other Muslim minorities, and undertaking programs of indoctrination and surveillance, while presenting themselves as older siblings of the men and women they might then decide to consign to the camps."

Adults and their children had to answer any questions the monitors asked about their personal life, religious beliefs, patriotism, and similar activities of their relatives, friends and neighbors.

To trick Uighurs into dropping their guard, a monitor would "offer a host a cigarette or a sip of beer," because devout Muslims avoid smoking and alcohol.

"A hand could be extended in greeting to a little sibling of the opposite gender, staying alert for signs of flinching," because Muslim females are often taught not to shake a male stranger's hand.

Chinese monitors "could go out to the market for some freshly ground meat, and propose that the family make dumplings. And then wait and watch to see if the Uighurs would ask what kind of meat was in the bag," because most Muslims shun pork.

More than 10 million Uighurs live in northwest China's resource-rich Xinjiang province, which is about five times the size of Germany, and many speak a Turkic language.

Smoldering demands for independence, and the appearance of a tiny number of China's Uighurs allegedly fighting as Islamist insurgents in the Middle East, have stoked fears in Beijing.

In 2014, about 200,000 Chinese Communist party members began arriving in Xinjiang for "long-term stays" in Uighur villages, Mr. Byler said.

Two years later, an additional 110,000 civil servants began "90-day stays" in the "homes of Uighurs whose family members had been imprisoned or killed by the police."

The newest escalation began in 2017 when more than one million civilians imposed themselves for week-long home stays, "often focusing on the extended family of those who had been detained in the drastically-expanded 'transformation through education' program."

Monitors are instructed to say "they have been monitoring all internet and cell phone communication that is coming from the family, so they should not even think about lying when it comes to their knowledge of Islam and religious extremism," Mr. Byler said.

During his research, the anthropologist discovered some monitors considered themselves altruistic servants helping impoverished, misinformed people realize the error of their ways so Xinjiang would become patriotic and prosperous.

Many Muslims who suffered the surveillance said they felt "infantilized and stripped of their dignity" because the program "undermined the authority of Uighur parents and destroyed families," he said.

Zhu Weiqun, former head of the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Committee of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in Beijing, told Global Times: "The pairing and assistance program has been implemented for two years, which is a successful practice for Xinjiang."


Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978 and winner of Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He co-authored three non-fiction books about Thailand, including "'Hello My Big Big Honey!' Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews," "60 Stories of Royal Lineage," and "Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946." Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the chapter "Ceremonies and Regalia" in a book published in English and Thai titled, "King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective." Mr. Ehrlich's newest book, "Sheila Carfenders, Doctor Mask & President Akimbo" portrays an American 22-year-old female mental patient who is abducted to Asia by her abusive San Francisco psychiatrist.

His online sites are:

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