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A Survivor's Story Of China's Crackdown On Ethnic Minorities In Xinjiang

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In the pages of The New Yorker this week, a haunting story of a life sucked into the quicksand of Chinese rule over Turkic minorities. Staff writer Raffi Khatchadourian introduces us to Anar Sabit. She is an ethnic Kazakh who was born in China's western Xinjiang province. She grew up speaking Mandarin and excelled in her studies. After high school, she made her way to Shanghai and then onto other parts of the world, like Russia, Hong Kong and Canada.

As her life changed, so did the lives of the Kazakhs and Uyghurs back home in Xinjiang province. Under the authoritarian leadership of Xi Jinping, China launched a brutal campaign on ethnic minorities, seeking to erase their culture, their language and their thoughts. The death of Anar Sabit's father took her back to China as this crackdown was ramping up, and Raffi Khatchadourian is here to tell us what happened.

Welcome.

RAFFI KHATCHADOURIAN: Thank you. I'm happy to be here.

CHANG: Well, let's talk about the story that is told in this piece. Anar Sabit was in her 20s, living in Vancouver, far from Xinjiang. Her parents were actually living in Kazakhstan. How did she end up back in China?

KHATCHADOURIAN: Yeah. So her father passed away in 2017, and she came back to Kazakhstan at the request of her mother at around that time. And as they were settling his affairs, the two decided to return to her hometown in Xinjiang, China, a city called Kuytun. And they spent two weeks there. And then as they were leaving at the Urumqi airport to fly back to Kazakhstan, Anar was stopped by border police, and she was issued a detention certificate. It was dated June of that year, and I was able to verify that that was a moment when a lot of people were being detained. And that was the beginning of her descent into this system.

CHANG: Take us into her detention experience now. Can you talk about what her day-to-day life was like in detention?

KHATCHADOURIAN: Yeah. So in the internment camp itself, people were basically funneled into a program of political reeducation. Classes focused primarily on learning Mandarin, Chinese Mandarin. That was six times a day. They had to sing communist anthems and learn Chinese calligraphy and effectively demonstrate that they were shedding their own cultural heritage, their Kazakh or Uyghur heritage. One of the things that really struck me was that women had to constantly, incessantly confess to mistakes, which meant that the state was demanding that they tear themselves down as a condition for their release. And I think that was a source of tremendous stress.

CHANG: And often, these were mistakes they didn't even know they committed. They were trying to figure out why they were even in there in the first place.

KHATCHADOURIAN: Yeah. We should put mistakes in scare quotes because the things they had to confess to were that a trip overseas - let's say a holiday trip to Turkey - you know, was an example of a manifestation of religious extremism or in some ways symbolized a lack of patriotism.

CHANG: Well, Sabit was in detention for about a year. And then even when she was released, it was very clear right away that she was not truly free. You describe that living in areas of Xinjiang back then and to this day is like living in an open-air prison. Explain what you mean by that.

KHATCHADOURIAN: Yeah. I think this is one of the most striking things about her story and the story of everyone who's going through this in Xinjiang. There's no clear differentiation on a real fundamental level between being in a camp and being in the region, just generally speaking. Video surveillance is absolutely pervasive everywhere.

CHANG: Yeah.

KHATCHADOURIAN: And that video surveillance is tied into facial recognition software, software that can analyze how you move, your gait, your facial expressions. Phones are continuously checked. And so in Anar's case, it was just really remarkable. After she came out of the camp, she found that she couldn't go anywhere without instantly being swarmed by police because her face was triggering these digital alarms, let's say.

At the same time, the Communist Party secretary in Xinjiang has deployed a million Communist Party cadres, sending them to homes to, in some cases, visit with those people on a frequent basis or even spend the night there. And so there was just a continuous interface with the state that just could never be avoided. I don't know that we can point to any other place on the planet where technology is quite being used in this way.

CHANG: And it cannot be said enough the volume of information the government has on so many of these individuals in Xinjiang down to who they hang out with, what door they leave from their home each day, their patterns of movement.

KHATCHADOURIAN: It is astounding. You cannot purchase a car without a GPS tracker that is controlled by the state as a feature of that car. You can't buy a kitchen knife without it being registered with a QR code. QR codes in some places are put on doors. People's biometric data is harvested to a near-complete degree when it comes to certain ethnic groups.

CHANG: Well, in the story of Anar Sabit, there is a happier ending, at least for now. She does eventually get her passport back. She escapes China in order to tell her story, even though it is still very clear that Chinese authorities have a long reach even into other countries. So, Raffi, why is she telling her story now? And could she still face consequences as well as her family members?

KHATCHADOURIAN: At first, she did not want to tell her story. She was reluctant to tell her story. And then when she saw the Chinese Communist Party's propaganda, how far it was from the reality she experienced, she decided that she wanted to start putting her thoughts down and to tell her story. And she recognized that doing this is not a trivial thing because the Chinese government has gone out of its way to pressure people who are overseas, just as they are doing so at home, against speaking out on what's happening there.

You know, last month, they even went so far as to attempt to sanction academics in the West for their scholarship on what was happening in Xinjiang. And I believe that the stated justification for this - or the explanation given by a foreign ministry spokesperson - was, your ignorance and arrogance will not go unpunished.

CHANG: Well, how do we even begin to assess the loss here - I mean, the personal loss that these individuals have suffered being detained and their family's loss, many of whom are still wondering what has happened to their loved ones? But also, there's a cultural cost to what's happened, right? Mosques have been torn down. Languages no longer are spoken openly. I mean, how do you even begin to assess all of this loss?

KHATCHADOURIAN: Look. This is what makes the current situation in Xinjiang so incredibly urgent. What we are seeing is a policy that appears to be geared toward the erasure of a people. And that is a tremendous loss that we all, as a global society, should take steps to prevent.

CHANG: Raffi Khatchadourian - his story "Ghost Walls" is in the latest issue of The New Yorker.

Thank you very much for your reporting.

KHATCHADOURIAN: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF CATCHING FLIES' "OPALS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.