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” programme 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 programme 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” – from suddenly giving up smoking or alcohol, to having an “abnormal” beard or an overly religious name.
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.
The 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 centres, 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 organised a “Becoming Family Week” which placed more than 1 million cadres in minority households. Government reports on the programme gushed about the warm “family reunions,” as public servants and Uighurs shared meals and even beds.
Another notice showed photos of visitors helping Uighur children with their homework and cooking meals for their “families.” The caption beneath a photo of three women lying in bed, clad in pajamas, said the cadre was “sleeping with her relatives in their cozy room.”
A different photo showed two women “studying the 19th Party Congress and walking together into the new era” – a nod to when Xi’s name was enshrined in the party constitution alongside the likes of Deng Xiaoping and Mao Zedong.
Becoming Family Week turned out to be a test run for a standardised homestay programme. 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.
The United Front, a Communist Party agency, indicates in the notice that the programme is mandatory for cadres. Likewise, Idris and other interviewees said their families understood that they would be deemed “extremists” if they refused to take part.
Cadres, who are generally civilians working in the public sector, are directed to attend important family events such as the naming of newborns, circumcisions, weddings and funerals of close relatives. They must have a firm grasp of each family member’s ideological state, social activities, religion, income, their challenges and needs, as well as basic details on immediate relatives, the notice said.
Families were to be paid a daily rate of 20 to 50 yuan ($2.80 to $7.80) to cover the cost of meals shared with their newfound relatives. Some families might be paired with two or three cadres at a time, according to the notice, and the regularly mandated house calls could be supplanted with trips to the local party office.
A February piece on the Communist Party’s official news site said: “The vast majority of party cadres are not only living inside villagers’ homes, but also living inside the hearts of the masses.”
Overseas Uighurs said the “visits” to their relatives’ homes often lasted longer than five days, and they were closely monitored the whole time. The cadres would ask their family members where they were going and who they were meeting whenever they wanted to leave the house.
“They couldn’t pray,” said Abduzahir Yunus, a 23-year-old Uighur originally from Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital. “Praying or even having a Quran at home could endanger the whole family.”
Yunus, who now lives in Istanbul, said his father used to lament to him about being visited three to four times a week by the administrator of his neighborhood committee, a middle-aged Han Chinese man. The surprise house calls began in 2016, and it was “impossible to say no,” Yunus said. They often coincided with times traditionally designated for prayer.
“Their aim is to assimilate us,” Yunus said. “They want us to eat like them, sleep like them and dress like them.”
WATCH: China’s Uighurs – State defends internment camps (03:31)
After Yunus’s parents and older brother were detained, only Yunus’s sister-in-law and 5-year-old brother remained in the house. Around the beginning of 2018, the Han Chinese man started staying with them full-time.
Uighurs said they were particularly repulsed by the thought of male visitors living under the same roof as their female relatives and children – a practice contrary to their faith. Women and kids are sometimes the only ones left at home after male family members are sent to internment camps.
In recent years, the government has even encouraged Uighurs and Han Chinese to tie the knot.
Starting in 2014, Han-Uighur spouses in one county were eligible to receive 10,000 yuan ($1,442) annually for up to five years following the registration of their marriage license.
Such marriages are highly publicized. The party committee in Luopu county celebrated the marriage of a Uighur woman and a “young lad” from Henan in an official social media account in October 2017. The man, Wang Linkai, had been recruited through a programme that brought university graduates to work in the southern Xinjiang city of Hotan.
“They will let ethnic unity forever bloom in their hearts,” the party committee’s post said. “Let ethnic unity become one’s own flesh and blood.”
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 programme.
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.”
As with many of the government’s other initiatives in Xinjiang, the “Pair Up and Become Family” programme is presented as a way to rescue Muslim minorities from poverty. Public servants show up at homes bearing bags of rice and gallons of cooking oil, and their duties include helping with chores and farm work.
Xu Jing, an employee at Turpan city’s environmental bureau, recounted her shock after entering her assigned relative’s home. Xu said the only light in the residence came from a small window, and she realized that Xasiyet Hoshur wasn’t lying when she said she lived on 3,000 yuan ($433) a year.
“But it’s OK, everything is getting better,” Xu wrote in her reflection, published on Turpan’s government site. Hoshur’s daughter was attending university on a 5,000 yuan ($722) national scholarship.
On the one hand, China maintains that employment and living standards are key to warding off the temptations of religious “extremism”. On the other hand, official descriptions of the visitation and homestay programme are laden with suggestions that the ethnic minority families are uncivilized and that their way of life needs to be corrected.
One notice, first highlighted by University of Washington ethnographer Darren Byler, focused on a Uighur family’s use of a raised, cloth-covered platform for eating and working. In traditional Uighur culture, this setup is preferable to a table, but the testimonial published by the Xinjiang Communist Youth League said frequent use of the platform was “inconvenient” and “unhealthy.”
The post quoted a cadre saying: “Even though we already purchased a TV and rice oil for our relatives, after living with our relatives for a few days, we still insisted on using our own money to buy our relatives a table and lamp.”
In the People’s Daily, a Uighur baker in Kashgar named Ablimit Ablipiz was quoted praising the party for improving his habits. “Ever since these cadres started living in my home, we’ve picked up a lot of know-how about food safety and hygiene,” Ablipiz said.
Uighurs must also conform culturally. Over the Lunar New Year, an important Chinese holiday not traditionally celebrated by Uighurs, cadres encouraged households to hang lanterns and sing “red songs,” ballads honoring the party’s revolutionary history. Byler said families could not ask whether the meat was halal and acceptable to Muslims when they had to make or eat dumplings for the festival.
Stuck in China
Thousands of miles away, in Turkey, Uighur relatives in exile watch what is happening with dread.
Earlier this year, Ablikim Abliz studied a photo of his uncle’s family gathered around a table. Clad in thick winter jackets, his uncle and the smiling Han Chinese man beside him both held chubby-faced children in their laps.
His uncle had posted the photo to his WeChat page along with the caption “Han Chinese brother.”
The 58-year-old Abliz said his entire extended family in China has been sent to internment camps. When he saw his uncle’s photo, his first reaction was relief. If his uncle had been assigned a Han family member, Abliz thought, that meant he was safe.
WATCH: Exiled Uighurs call for action on China over crackdown (03:05)
But the consolation was short-lived. A friend who tried to visit his uncle in Turpan this summer told Abliz that his uncle’s front door was boarded up and sealed with police tape. Abliz has not been able to reach any of his family members since.
As for Idris, he fears that his sister is living under immense pressure with her Han Chinese “mother.” Shortly after her sister’s first post about her new relatives, a friend responded on WeChat: “I also have one! You guys better be careful!”
The same friend later posted photos of herself and a Han Chinese woman doing a Chinese fan dance, playing the drums and wearing traditional Han clothing.
His sister would never have volunteered for such a programme, Idris said. She and his younger sister had been trying to get passports to bring their children to Turkey and reunite with Idris, but their applications were not accepted.
Last summer, both of his sisters deleted him on WeChat. A few months later, his aunt deleted him, too. For more than a year, Idris has not been able to communicate with his relatives. He wonders, with growing unease, how they’re getting along with their new “family.”
WATCH: UpFront – Has China detained a million Uighur Muslims (11:19)