The Great Fear

August 2017


Whenever I have met Uyghurs in recent times, they talk about fear.
They can hardly believe what is happening in their homeland. For many years now, the Uyghurs in Xinjiang have been discriminated, policed, suspected. No one would have thought it possible that the situation could get even worse, but now you hear the words "Just like in the Cultural Revolution" more and more frequently.

None of those who have told me about the current developments are politically active or extremely religious. None of them have ever thought of resistance, but today they do not know what to think or what to do. Because the mere fact of being a Uyghur is dangerous.

They dare not go home because their passports would be confiscated and they would not be able to continue their studies or return to work. They worry about their parents and relatives who are being harassed by the police. "What is your son doing abroad? Why did he go there or there? What was the purpose? Why did she not come back after graduation?" For the moment, it is only interrogation, but what will happen next? Anyone who applies for a passport or has been abroad seems to be considered as suspicious. Many passports have been confiscated so that even scholars have not been able to attend international congresses and represent their university.

Party Secretary Chen Quanguo has significantly tightened prohibitions and restrictions that have been discriminating the Uyghur population for years. Thanks to new anti-terrorism and anti-Islam laws, the police can arrest anyone. Spies among friends and relatives are rewarded with high money bonuses. Anyone can defame anyone, no one asks for proof. And anyone who is in prison does not know whether he will ever leave it. You regularly hear about people who have disappeared after detention, and the family never knows why.

The police stop Uyghurs on the street to search their smartphones for any sign of religious or political activities. They come to the house, hunting for books on Uyghur history or written by Uyghur authors, for an unregistered Koran, or a kitchen knife that does not have the owner’s ID number engraved on it - large knives such as are used in restaurants or butcher’s shops must be attached to the wall with a chain. And at the end of the house search everyone has to fill out a form stating his/her religion. Hardly anyone dares to tick Islam - a decision which is difficult for many, because it is a choice between reprisals or living with a guilty conscience.

Although the Constitution guarantees the protection of the Uyghur language and culture, Uyghur has now been nearly completely banished from the entire education system. Children must speak Chinese from the very beginning.

The endless checks and restrictions are beginning to make life difficult for the Han Chinese living in Xinjiang, too, because they affect their businesses: complex and expensive surveillance systems, Internet disruptions, tourists staying away. Besides all these inconveniences, for the Uyghur people there is constant fear. The fear of attracting attention, of being detained for nothing at all. Fear for their sons and daughters. Fear of every day and of the future. Students and graduates abroad, young, promising people dare not go back and must live with the fear of losing their home country and their families forever.

What is the sense of it all? Why does a country like China, which loves to show the world how big and mighty, rich and successful it is, a country that wants to "keep up appearances" at all costs, a country that needs friends and trading partners in the Western world - why does such a powerful country not utilize the potential of all its citizens? Why doesn’t it allow the Uyghurs their constitutional rights so that they too can participate in progress and prosperity?

Just because there are a few extremists. If, however, the government were to do its job well and involve the entire population, these few extremists would have no access. Then they would hardly present a danger to such a powerful state.

So what is the reason for this policy? It has not much to do with human reason or political and economic farsightedness. Maybe with fear?

 Ingrid Widiarto