Istanbul: The two women in the photograph were smiling, but Halmurat Idris knew something was terribly wrong.One was his 39-year-old sister; standing at her side was an elderly woman Idris did not know. Their grins were tight-lipped, mirthless. Her sister had posted the picture on a social media account along with a caption punctuated by a smiley-face. “Look, I have a Han Chinese mother now!” his sister wrote.
Idris knew instantly: The old woman was a spy, sent by the Chinese government to infiltrate his family. There are many like her. According to the ruling Communist Party’s official newspaper, as of the end of September, 1.1 million local government workers have been deployed to ethnic minorities’ living rooms, dining areas and Muslim prayer spaces, not to mention at weddings, funerals and other occasions once considered intimate and private.
All this is taking place in China’s far west region of Xinjiang, home to the predominantly Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uighurs, who have long reported discrimination at the hands of the country’s majority Han Chinese. While government notices about the “Pair Up and Become Family” program portray it as an affectionate cultural exchange, Uighurs living in exile in Turkey said their loved ones saw the campaign as a chilling intrusion into the only place that they once felt safe.
They believe the program is aimed at coercing Uighurs into living secular lives like the Han majority. Anything diverging from the party’s prescribed lifestyle can be viewed by authorities as a sign of potential extremism. Under Chinese President Xi Jinping, the Uighur homeland has been blanketed with stifling surveillance, from armed checkpoints on street corners to facial-recognition-equipped CCTV cameras steadily surveying passers-by.