ISTANBUL (AP) — 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. Now, Uighurs say, they must live under the watchful eye of the ruling Communist Party even inside their own homes.
“The government is trying to destroy that last protected space in which Uighurs have been able to maintain their identity,” said Joanne Smith Finley, an ethnographer at England’s Newcastle University.
The Associated Press spoke to five Uighurs living in Istanbul who shared the experiences of their family members in Xinjiang who have had to host Han Chinese civil servants. These accounts are based on prior communications with their family members, the majority of whom have since cut off contact because Uighurs can be punished for speaking to people abroad.
Uighurs abroad said their loved ones were constantly on edge in their own homes, knowing that any misstep — a misplaced Quran, a carelessly spoken word — could lead to detention or worse. In the presence of these faux relatives, their family members could not pray or wear religious garbs, and the cadres were privy to their every move.
The thought of it — and the sight of his sister, the old woman and their false smiles — made Idris queasy.
“I wanted to throw up,” said the 49-year-old petroleum engineer, shaking his head in disgust.
“The moment I saw the old woman, I thought, ‘Ugh, this person is our enemy.’ If your enemy became your mother, think about it — how would you feel?”
Tensions between Muslim minorities and Han Chinese have bubbled over in recent years, resulting in violent attacks pegged to Uighur separatists and a fierce government crackdown on broadly defined “extremism” that has placed as many as 1 million Muslims in internment camps, according to estimates by experts and a human rights group.
Uighurs say the omnipresent threat of being sent to one of these centers, which are described as political indoctrination camps by former detainees, looms large in their relatives’ minds when they are forced to welcome party members into their homes.
Last December, Xinjiang authorities organized a “Becoming Family Week” which placed more than 1 million cadres in minority households. Government reports on the program gushed about the warm “family reunions,” as public servants and Uighurs shared meals and even beds.
Becoming Family Week turned out to be a test run for a standardized homestay program. The Xinjiang United Front Work Department said in February that government workers should live with their assigned families every two months, for five days at a time.
Not all “Become Family” pairings involve Han Chinese visitors. A Uighur cadre named Gu Li said she regularly pays visits to a Uighur household, staying three to five days at a time.
“We’ve already started calling each other family,” she said in a telephone interview from Xinjiang. “China’s 56 ethnic groups are all one family.”
Gu said civil servants of many ethnicities — Uighur, Han and Kazakh — participate in the program.
All government employees in the region are required to conduct such visits in order to better understand villagers’ needs, according to Gu: “Because we’re always sitting in our offices, we don’t know what they really need. Only through penetrating the masses can we truly serve them.”