A woman raises a toast in a photo that appears to show four friends enjoying dinner together. The reality couldn’t be more different.
The woman in the white ruffled shirt is Zumrat Dawut, an ethnic Uyghur from Urumqi, who fled China in 2019 to escape the alleged repression of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.
Her four “guests” are Chinese government cadres who lived in her home for 10 days every month for two years before her family fled, she said.
“We must pretend that we are happy,” Dawut explained from Washington DC, where she lives in exile.
“If we do not then the government will conclude that we are against their ‘relatives’ policy.”
China introduced its relatives policy – part of the “ethnic unity campaign” – in 2016, ostensibly to promote national harmony. Since then, more than 1.1 million cadres have visited the homes of 1.6 million people of different ethnic groups in Xinjiang, according to a “fact check” published by Chinese state news agency Xinhua in February.
It is part of a broader crackdown on Uyghurs and ethnic minorities in Xinjiang that the US and other nations have called “genocide,” an accusation that China angrily rejects.
Rosy images of the home stay program heavily promoted in Chinese state media depict the policy as a blend of community service and education.
Videos and social media posts on official accounts show host families and cadres warmly greeting each other as “relatives,” cooking meals together, and even sharing beds at night.
But, according to several people who fled the Xinjiang region, when it comes to the home stay program, the hosts are actually hostages.
Under the home stay policy, cadres are sent to live, work and sleep with families in Xinjiang for several days at a time, every one or two months, former residents said.
Because each person in Dawut’s house was assigned an official “relative,” including children, she said she had to host four officials in her home each visit. “Because my husband is a foreign national, they did not force him to pair up with a relative, but me and three of our children we all had one relative each,” she said.
Dawut said her assigned cadre followed her around the house, asking questions, and taking notes that she feared could see her re-imprisoned in China’s vast network of detention centers.
She was so scared her children might inadvertently say something wrong that she coached them to give the “right” answers. “If they ask you, ‘does your mother pray?’ Say no. ‘Does your father pray? Say no. ‘Do you believe in Islam? Do you have Quran? Do you have a praying rug?’ Say no to them,” she said.
The Chinese government has called Dawut an actress and a liar, labels it has given to other Uyghurs living in exile, who have shared their stories of trauma in Xinjiang.
However, their claims are backed by mounting evidence from Xinjiang, where the US estimates up to two million Muslim minorities have passed through Chinese detention centers.
In January, the US State Department accused China of genocide, saying “exhaustive documentation” had confirmed that local authorities in Xinjiang had “dramatically escalated” their campaign against minorities since “at least March 2017”.
The Chinese government insists the camps are “vocational training centers” aimed at poverty alleviation and combating religious extremism.
Rian Thum, a senior research fellow at the University of Nottingham who specializes in Uyghur history, said the home stay program is an important part of China’s campaign in Xinjiang.
He said images posted to social media suggest the visits were happening as recently as this February, during Chinese New Year. “Hanging lanterns for the Chinese New Year is not something that most Uyghurs participate in. But then this entire town people had to decorate the inside of their houses along Han Chinese traditions,” he said. “So this is, this is very much ongoing.”
An uninvited guest
A former teacher in an internment camp, Qelbinur Sidik, said she was ordered to host her first cadre in May 2017.
The “relative” was her husband’s boss at a state-owned factory, she said. Initially, he came once every three months, but by the end of that year, he stayed at her house for one week each month.
“He wanted me to sit together with him, drink wine with him. I begged him not to force me,” she said from the Netherlands.
“When he was drunk, he wanted me to sleep with him.”
Human Rights Watch has previously documented cases of male cadres being sent to stay at homes occupied by women and children, an arrangement that makes them vulnerable to sexual violence.
Sidik says the man hugged her, but he didn’t push it any further.
She thinks that’s because her husband was there, though she added that many Uyghur men had been detained, leaving women at home alone to deal with the stranger in their house.
Sharing meals and beds
In December 2017, the initiative ramped up with “Becoming a relative week,” when cadres of all levels and departments were dispatched to Xinjiang to live, work and learn “with the masses,” according to state media.
It promoted the program with two numerical slogans: the “four togethers” – which are “eat together, live together, study together, work together,” and the “three sends,” under which cadres “send laws, send policies, send warmth.”
That month, cadres took selfies with smiling families which were later posted online. One image shows two women in bed with a female host. “Communist Youth league cadres from Tekes county live with relatives in the warm room, taking a selfie before sleep,” reads the caption.
In a report aired on state television in January 2018, a woman named Aymgul Hesan thanks her official guest saying: “I hope we can be ‘relatives’ for the rest of our lives.’”
Months later, in a separate TV report, an official named He Jingjing is filmed showing a little boy how to wash his hands.
“I taught the kids to wash their face and brush their teeth,” she explains. “I brought the concept of modern life here, so they can live a better and more civilized life.”
Timothy Grose, professor of China Studies and expert in ethnic policy at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, said official documents suggest cadres aren’t only there to teach the locals to be “more civilized.”
“When you go through official documents, it becomes ever so clear that these are actually programs for human intelligence gathering and surveillance,” he said.
Grose points to a work manual for the “ethnic unity campaign” that was published by the government of Kashgar Prefecture in 2018. The manual was originally discovered online by Darren Byler, an American academic who has done extensive field work in Xinjiang.
The manual instructs cadres to preach anti-terrorism and anti-extremism laws to their host families, and also tells them how to spot potential signs of extremist activity.
In a segment titled “How do discover problems?” officials are urged to look for strangers in the house and parked cars that do not belong to the family. “Do they hang religious objects at home?” the manual reads. “Ask question of the children when playing with them, because children will not lie.”
“There’s a kind of ethno-racial component as the Uyghur family is seen as backward,” said Byler, a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Asian Studies at the University of Colorado. “That’s how it’s described in Chinese state discourse and popular discourse.”
“From the perspective of the hosts of those relatives, it was very clear that these people sent into their homes were there to monitor them, that they were spying on them, that they were making sure that they followed the rules,” he added.
CNN sent written requests to the Chinese Foreign Ministry and the government of Xinjiang asking why the manual detailed instructions for surveillance of host families. CNN received no response.
Nyrola Elima, an ethnic Uyghur from Xinjiang’s Ghulja County, says she grew up proud of being a citizen of China. After all, she points out, her grandparents were members of the Chinese Communist Party.
But that changed in 2018, when she says her cousin disappeared into an internment camp.
Around that time, she said she was also shocked to learn her parents were hosting Chinese officials in her childhood home. “A stranger sleeping in your home. How can you feel safe about that?” Elima said from Sweden where she is a naturalized citizen.
Elima said she learned about the unwanted guests during a phone call to her mother in Xinjiang in 2018. “My mother just told me ‘we have relatives at home, it’s not convenient. I will contact you tomorrow,’” Elima recalled.
Elima later learned from contacts still in Xinjiang that these “relatives” were ethnic Han Chinese officials.
“I understand having Han Chinese people coming to our home as a friend, but that has to be when we invite them,” Elima said. “I don’t think anybody is happy with this. We don’t do this in Sweden. We never did this in China either.”
Thum, from the University of Nottingham, says the program is a “combined indoctrination and monitoring project.”
He argues the home stays remove the last shred of privacy left in the homes of Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang. “They live in fear, under the system in which they are subject to political judgment in every aspect of their own home,” Thum said.
Grose, from Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, said smiling selfies with families published in Chinese state media conceal a darker truth.
“These home stays are part of this broader and very violent effort to acculturate and assimilate Uyghurs and they go hand in hand with mass incarceration,” he said.
Dawut said if the Chinese government really wanted to promote friendship between ethnic groups, it has failed.
“All the Uyghurs are so fed up with their Chinese relatives,” she said. “Two completely different ethnicities are forced to live in the same house, whether it is big or small house.
“Forced to sleep together, eat together, and forced to think alike together. It is extremely insane.”