Love and fear among rural Uyghur youth during the “People’s War”
A four-year old Uyghur kisses the image of her father from a DVD of family photographs taken during the previous decade.
By Darren Byler and Eleanor Moseman
This is the second of a two-part series by Darren Byler, who with photographers Nicola Zolin and Eleanor Moseman, powerfully document how the bodies of migrants are marked, just as their communities are erased, in the often unconsidered spaces of China’s “People’s War on Terror.”
Since the beginning of the “People’s War on Terror” in May 2014, the everyday life of Uyghurs has been transformed by the presence of intense security measures, regular home invasions, and the mass detention of thousands of young Uyghurs suspected of so-called religious extremism. Although many young Uyghurs are simply interested in practicing a form of pious religiosity, or what in other contexts might be referred to as a Hanafi form of Sunni Islam, the state has determined that this is a threat to the sovereignty of the Chinese nation. In order to exert its authority, the state has required that Uyghur Muslims practice their faith only as permitted by social workers and police monitors. As education policies and religious regulations demonstrate, the state would prefer that Uyghurs embrace Han cultural values and forget about their centuries-old practice of Islamic piety altogether.
In order to enforce this human re-engineering project, the Uyghur homeland has been turned into a police state. Most Uyghur rural-to-urban migrants have been forced to return to their home villages, and the state has instituted strict security regulations across the Uyghur homeland in Chinese Central Asia (Ch: Xinjiang). In their hometowns, public life has been filled with imagery reminding rural Uyghurs that their way of life is being transformed. The streets are filled with Chinese flags that each home and business owner is asked to raise to demonstrate their loyalty to the Chinese state and their hatred of “bad” forms of Islam and political ideology. Checkpoints stand at the entrance of every county border, the entrance of every town, every market, every housing development. Those without the proper legal documentation are not permitted to cross these checkpoints. This means that Uyghurs who live in one part of town are sometimes not permitted to travel to the other side of town to visit relatives or buy groceries. Han settlers and tourists, on the other hand, are permitted to move through checkpoints without any restrictions.
Below, a series of recent images taken in late-summer 2017 by the photojournalist Eleanor Moseman demonstrate the effects of the security state on family life in rural areas of the Uyghur homeland. This series represents the way love and fear are woven through the everyday lives of two young people, who we call Gulnar and Memetjan, and the community that surrounds them. Many Uyghur farming families, from Turpan to Khotan, have lost a husband, son, or father to the Chinese prison system. Thus, the responsibilities of providing for families now primarily falls on women (and the men who have managed to not yet be noticed). Young people who have not yet been taken by the state mourn those who have been detained or disappeared, and they fear that they will lose still more of their loved ones. The effects of the police state reach deep into the most intimate parts of their lives. The ongoing “war” on their way of life makes coping with the stress of trauma an unending struggle.
In every town in Southern Xinjiang, the red flag of China, bright red banners, and posters of Communist Party Leaders have come to dominate the aesthetic of the Uyghur public sphere. To enter a small-town bazaar, a Uyghur must show his or her state-issued ID and have all bags x-rayed by armed police dressed in riot gear. The new police presence is now a part of every facet of public life.
At the same time that this hard infrastructure of control and surveillance is being put in place, Uyghur interpersonal communication is also increasingly being filtered through the smartphone application WeChat, which provides authorities with records of what Uyghurs say to each other and post in private chat conversations. Thousands of young Uyghurs have been arrested for things they have said or written on the Internet or because they are not actively using their phones to communicate with other Uyghurs. Many of them are accused of being “two-faced” (Ch: liang mianzi) people who perform their patriotic duty during political struggle sessions, but then privately complain about government policies with their friends. Since March of 2017, thousands of young Uyghurs between the age of 15-55 have been detained and placed in reeducation camps. Many of these young Uyghurs, particularly young men, are subsequently given 5 to 10 year prison sentences for “subverting the public order” or being “two faced.” They are told that because they are suspected of listening to unapproved Islamic teachings on pious practice or advocating that Muslims should pray five times per day, they are “extremists” and must be reformed through hard labor.
During our fieldwork and visits between 2014 and 2017, many Uyghurs told us that they worry that the growing number of abandoned or neglected children will have a devastating effect on Uyghur society. After one of the parents of a child are taken by the police, government workers often come to the family and take the children of the family. This removal of children from the home is referred to as a “Rectification of Islam” policy that is justified by the existence of “extremist” ideology in the home. The child is thus separated from his or her family and raised as a ward of the state. In other cases, after a father is taken, children are immediately sent to live with relatives in order to keep them “safe” from the state. Often, conditions of poverty force the children to work in the cash economy in order to earn their keep as an extra mouth. Reports indicate that the state orphanage system is overrun with children who have been taken from their parents. Many Uyghurs talk about how these children are being housed like animals. The deepest fear of many of the Uyghur men and women we spoke with was that their children will be taken or left behind in the streets without family.
Time has slowed during the “People’s War.” In order to move across town or enter a local institution, ranging from gas stations to hospitals, Uyghurs must wait. On busy days, these security checks can add an hour to one’s commute or excursion to the park. Crossing a checkpoint requires that one’s ID be scanned, all bags be inspected, and that the person walk through an X-ray machine. Any sign of abnormality results in additional checks of the person’s phone, interrogations, and possible detention. These checkpoints remind people native to the region that they are always under suspicion of “extremist” beliefs and “terrorist” ideas. Often signs and slogans remind them that all of this is for their protection and well-being.
The effects of the “People’s War” has been strongly felt in family life. In many small towns in the Uyghur homeland, one out of every two families is now missing a family member, most of whom are young men. Many of the young men that remain are students or police officers, though increasingly even these affiliations do not provide enough protection.
Some women have been able to escape the poverty of subsistence farming by supplementing their income with skilled labor in the cash economy. Over the duration of “the War,” incomes of Uyghurs have dropped as restrictions of work and travel have intensified and people are detained. At the same time, the need to participate in dance festivals and political celebrations have increased, giving life to some industries while stifling others.
Like many young Uyghurs, Gulnar comes from a family of three siblings. In the past, rural ethnic minorities were permitted to have more than one child, so most Uyghur families had three. This policy has recently been changed to restrict Uyghur family size to two permitted children while Han families are now also permitted to have two children. Most Uyghur families in the countryside can only afford to allow one sibling to finish high school and go to college. Other siblings must remain at home, working to provide for the immediate family. Now with so many men gone, those who have not yet been taken behind “the black gate” (qara derwaza) have been forced to work even harder to simply get by, leaving school aspirations behind.
These days, as families live with the anxiety of that accompanies the detention of their sons, husbands, brothers, and fathers, there are many tear-filled conversations among women. Often they find solidarity in working together and sharing each other’s pain.
Even though the women who remain free try to comfort each other, they know there is nothing they can do for their loved ones who have been taken. Life goes on, even though people feel as though they are living in a state of emergency. In Gulnar’s case, this means she has to cope with the absence of her boyfriend. Gulnar’s mother has attempted to convince her not to love this young man, not because of his supposed “extremism,” but because he comes from a family that is even poorer than theirs. But the young man was Gulnar’s best friend. She feels that she can stay close to him by holding on to the blanket he made just for her.
This young child, a relative of Gulnar’s, has not seen her father for nearly 6 months. He was detained for worshipping at a local mosque. The family has no idea when, or if ever, he will be released. In many cases, the families of the detained or disappeared are not able to visit or contact their loved ones. Often, asking too much about the case can result in additional detentions, since questioning the authorities is seen as a sign of a lack of patriotism and a lack of submission.
Many Uyghur children are growing up with the absence of one or more parents or close relatives. If they are able to stay with their families, they are considered “lucky.” All students in the Uyghur homeland now attend schools that are taught in Mandarin. They are regularly asked to report on the activities of their parents by their school teachers. Many parents worry that the next generation of Uyghurs will not be able to speak Uyghur or appreciate Uyghur cultural and religious values. At the same time, the violence these children have experienced has made them deeply aware of the power of the state. Many of them, like their parents, are quite fearful.
Many young Uyghurs prefer to delay marriage and go to the city as students or as migrant workers. But given the restrictions on travel and the need for more young men to work on farms, many potential students and migrants are forced to redirect their life paths. In Memetjan’s case (pictured above), his parents insisted that he work on the family farm and marry a young woman from their local village. He was forced to break up with his long-term girlfriend, who moved away to pursue opportunities beyond the life of a farmer.
During the “People’s War,” the state began to monitor Uyghur weddings to make sure they were not too Islamic. Memetjan’s wedding was thus a lavish affair rather than a “simple” ceremony endorsed by more pious Islamic believers. Music and dancing is required by officials who attend and monitor weddings for any signs of “extremist” religiosity. Often, musicians are required to attend multiple weddings each weekend during the summer wedding season to make sure that each wedding meets the standard of the “People’s War.” As young people start their families, the stress of caring for loved ones and providing for one’s family is amplified. Young men like Memetjan must be very careful not to present themselves as suspicious in any way during the regular inspections of their new home by local security forces. They must always participate in the mandatory political education meetings and patriotic dance parties that are held by the local officials. Failure to do so means the loss of all that the two families have sacrificed to bring a young couple together.
Marriages between young Uyghurs in their early twenties are arranged by the two families. Once the terms have been reached between the two families, young couples are permitted to spend several weeks getting to know each other. Marriage is seen as gradual process of building alliances between families. If the marriage is successful, the two families will help each other through economic adversity and political trouble.
Because of “the War,” young people are married in particular ways and times in their lives that are at least in part beyond their choosing. These marriages are also part of Uyghur tradition and a way of reproducing Uyghur sociality in spite of the conditions of the police state.
Despite dominant feelings of fear and loss, Uyghurs still find way to live. Like people everywhere, Uyghurs are resilient. Over the past decades of gradually intensifying cultural dispossession and state domination, they have adapted and found ways to live. For now, those who are free still have their language, their songs, and each other. In their shared precariousness, they find love and comfort even as they lose their rights and their autonomy.
Darren Byler is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Washington. He studies emerging forms of art and politics among Uyghurs and Han in Chinese Central Asia. For more on his work, visit the digital companion to his dissertation project The Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia.
Eleanor Moseman is a Shanghai-based photographer and storyteller. Her work has been published internationally in PBS Newshour and The Atlantic, and has been featured on Nikon’s Learn & Explore website. For more on her work, visit her portfolio.