Witness to discrimination: Confessions of a Han Chinese from Xinjiang

By Cha Naiyu, former Xinjiang resident

Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities face systemic repression and discrimination in the Chinese region of Xinjiang, but what’s it like to live there as a Han Chinese person?

The two Uyghur boys were much stronger than me. They taught me to flip on parallel bars every day after school. We shared the same bag of snacks, drank from the same bottle of water. When I was growing up in Xinjiang, it didn’t matter that I was Han and they were not. But that Xinjiang has all but disappeared.

In other parts of China, Xinjiang is synonymous with trouble and stigma and with being remote and backward. But many people in Xinjiang tell me it’s the safest place in the country – they are proud of it.

I moved away several years ago. Every time I go back home, I feel the atmosphere has become heavier as the government’s control has increased. Enter any building – restaurant, shopping mall, cinema, hospital, supermarket – and it’s the same: security check, bag check, swipe ID card. Compared to the place I remember from my childhood, it feels like being in a science fiction film.

When I returned to Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, during the Spring Festival one year, police cars were lined up outside the train station. I discovered that ethnic minority people from outside Urumqi needed a letter of guarantee from their local relatives or employer just to leave the train station.

Meanwhile people arriving from southern Xinjiang, which until recently was predominantly Uyghur, were assigned jobs on arrival by official “work units” that would closely monitor their performance and behaviour. Those who did not smoke or drink for instance, or were perceived to have strong religious leanings, would face particular scrutiny. Muslims who performed poorly in their new jobs would be sent to a place to “learn”.

A friend told me that in 2017, around the time of the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th National Congress, an important political event in Beijing, many ethnic people (mainly Uyghurs) from their work unit disappeared suddenly. Even their friends and families didn’t know where they were until a few days later, when it emerged they had been arrested.

There were various reasons given: they did not cooperate with security inspections; they made inappropriate remarks; some were arrested simply for having a previous criminal record. Whatever the official line, it was clear the arrests were connected to the 19th National Party Congress.

Muslims who performed poorly in their new jobs would be sent to a place to “learn”.

I have no personal experience of these kinds of things, but I witness them all with my own eyes. The question is how we as Han Chinese respond.

Under the “visit-assist-unite” program, Han people are sent to live in the homes of people from minority ethnic groups. They eat with them, “cultivate national feelings” and “learn” together. Another friend of mine was assigned by his company to take part. In other words, he didn’t have a choice.

When I tell my family and friends that I do not understand these measures, they simply sigh: “This is Xinjiang.” In the time I’ve lived away, people have got used to this level of control and it disturbs me.

For many years, the Xinjiang people on state TV’s Spring Festival Gala were mainly Uyghurs who could sing and dance. Similarly, ethnic minority delegates will always wear their traditional costumes at the National People’s Congress in March every year.

My older Han relatives in Xinjiang like this traditional dance very much, but they never seem to associate the Uyghurs who dance with the Uyghurs who live around them. These stereotyped images prevent people from understanding the Uyghurs’ real living conditions and their true social status.

In the time I’ve lived away, people have got used to this level of control and it disturbs me.

I heard a relative of mine say the ethnic minorities at the factory where he works pick things up too slowly. He felt they were not as smart as the Han people. Another friend who worked in a state-owned enterprise said their unit had no ethnic minority members, and were not planning to recruit any. Another classmate mentioned that she hated “meeting Uyghurs” when taking the train because they were “noisy, smelly and dirty”.

On one train journey home, I got talking to a man who worked for the Xinjiang regional government. He told me the policy now being implemented is to “sacrifice a generation”, with social stability and counter-terrorism policies expected to cause Xinjiang’s economic development to stagnate. A generation of ethnic minorities and Han people will have to live through this ruthless transition, but tough measures now will supposedly build unity for the next generation.

One year, on a whim, I decided to go back to my school. The walls were all fenced with barbed wire. If you didn’t know it was a school, you might assume it was a prison. I wondered what today’s students will think when they grow up and see other places that aren’t surrounded by barbed wire. Would they feel unsafe, or free? 

I thought of my Uyghur friends, and I was reminded of the time one of my Han classmates told me he was studying the Uyghur language, and my reaction was: “What’s the use in that?” It occurs to me now that I was part of this prejudiced social structure, and always have been. I don’t know what those friends are doing now, but it’s increasingly clear that the boundaries between us were destined to override our connection.