Often, the big brothers and sisters arrived dressed in hiking gear. They appeared in the villages in groups, their backpacks bulging, their luggage crammed with electric water-kettles, rice-cookers, and other useful gifts for their hosts. They were far from home and plainly a bit uncomfortable, reluctant to “rough it” such a long way from the comforts of the city. But these “relatives,” as they had been told to call themselves, were on a mission, so they held their heads up high when they entered the Uighur houses and announced they had come to stay.
The village children spotted the outsiders quickly. They heard their attempted greetings in the local language, saw the gleaming Chinese flags and round face of Mao Zedong pinned to their chests, and knew just how to respond. “I love China,” the children shouted urgently, “I love Xi Jinping.”
Over the past year, reports have found their way out of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in western China of a campaign of religious and cultural repression of the region’s Muslims, and of their detention and confinement in a growing network of razor-wire-ringed camps that China’s government at times has dubbed “transformation through education centers” and at others “counter-extremism training centers” and, recently, amid international criticism, “vocational training centers.” The government describes such efforts as a response to terrorism. Indeed, these camps can be seen as a logical, if grotesque, extension of the government’s decades-long endeavor to eradicate the perceived “terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism” of its ethnic minority Muslim population in Xinjiang. The region, and the country, have certainly experienced spasms of unplanned mass violence as well as cases of premeditated violence born of Uighur desperation over decades of discrimination and persecution; the government’s current set of policies to avoid future strife, however, appears to rest on the assumption that most Uighurs are extremists-in-waiting.