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Servitude, torture and rape in China's surveillance state

By Sayragul Sauytbay and Alexandra Cavelius - posted Thursday, 6 May 2021

If anyone had assumed things couldn't get any worse, they were wrong. In October 2017, the authorities instituted a program for Kazakhs and Chinese called "Becoming a Family", designed to teach us more about Chinese culture. Indigenous people had to live with a Chinese family for eight days once a month - or, alternatively, Chinese people could live with us. The Chinese were allowed to choose which option they preferred.

The authorities assigned one Muslim from our area to every Chinese household. As usual, they dressed it up in the Party's sweet, cloying jargon, pretending that the whole thing was being done out of consideration and for our protection. "You'll eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner together, just like a member of the family," they told us.

You had to eat whatever was put in front of you. If they shovelled pork onto their Muslim guest's plate, so be it. Hosts had to document all shared activities by snapping a photo on their phone and sending it to the authorities. "Aha, they've eaten dinner together," the officials would nod, ticking that off their lists.


If my teachers were on guard duty, they had to give the authorities plenty of advance warning: "I'm afraid I can't do my family duty that day. But I'll make it up later." The important thing was that you crossed off your eight days per month. And what did that look like in practice? Well, during your lunch break you'd rush off to your host family's home, cook, then head back to work. In the evening, you'd do the Chinese family's housework and spend the night. If it was a Saturday or a Sunday, you'd spend your free time with them. For us Muslims, that usually meant doing their chores - mucking out pigsties, cleaning, caring for the elderly. And at night we had to go to bed with the hosts.

The following month, the authorities would send us to the next Chinese family, or another Chinese person would be standing on our doorstep. Can you imagine what that was like for young girls, wives, or single mothers like me? The men were given the same rights of access to our bodies as to those of their wives. That was the final nail in their appalling plan: to take away our control over own bodies. We're talking about the rape of an entire ethnic group on a vast scale.

If a woman or a girl resisted, the Chinese host was supposed to complain to the authorities. "She's not fulfilling her duties!" Then the police would snatch the girl and take her to a camp, where they would teach her to be more obedient.

At night at the kitchen table, I chatted softly to my father. "If I work even harder, make myself indispensable, then they can't send me to a Chinese family for eight days - I'll get out of it … Father, what do you think?" But I couldn't hear his answer over the blaring sirens of the police cars outside, bathing me in blue light as they passed.

A campaign of "friendship" that sows hatred

Outwardly, the campaign was designed to promote friendly relationships with the indigenous community. In reality, it was sowing hatred. We lived in a constant state of panic. Every day, every minute, every second we were afraid. The photos and video recordings taken by Chinese families were intended solely for the authorities, to prove they were adhering to the program, so I've no idea how they found their way overseas. People must have shared them and passed them on.


You can find countless such images online, showing indigenous women in the arms of Chinese men. Sometimes they're lying next to each other in bed, the sheets just barely covering their naked bodies. There have been instances of women who killed themselves out of shame because the photos were seen by their relatives.

I saw some of them myself when I got to Kazakhstan. Video recordings, for example, showing two Chinese men getting drunk and tearing off a grandmother's headscarf, laughing, or constantly refilling the glass of an elderly Muslim man with a white beard and forcing him to drink. One shows a girl around fourteen or fifteen. By the end of the recording she's very drunk, and is made to dance for the Chinese. Her mother and father sit silent and motionless on the sofa, looking on as one of the men kisses their daughter. The authorities used these recordings as evidence that a Chinese person had adequately fulfilled their role in the Muslim family.

The region around the Altai Mountains was known for its rebellious population. News of two cases in the area, which is situated in the far north-west, made its way to Aksu. At one school, four hundred Muslim students refused to eat pork, and all of them were arrested.

On another occasion, a Chinese person was assigned to a Muslim family that included a grandfather and his sixteen-year-old granddaughter. After a while, the man wanted to have sex with the girl. The grandfather told him he had a right to do so, but that first he wanted to show him his best horse outside. Like all Kazakhs, this old man was a first-rate rider. Swinging onto the back of his horse, in a flash he lassoed the man around the neck, then dug his heels into the horse's flanks. Galloping away, he dragged the man behind him through the sand until he was dead. As punishment, the elderly grandfather and his entire family were taken to the camps.

And then, for the first time, the "friendship" campaign found its way to my doorstep.

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This is an edited extract from The Chief Witness: Escape from China’s Modern-Day Concentration Camps by Sayragul Sauytbayand Alexandra Cavelius (Scribe)


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About the Authors

Sayragul Sauythay was awarded the 2021 Nuremberg International Human Rights Award, and the US State Department's International Women of Courage Award in 2020. Her key witness accounts have already created a stir on the world stage, and have been reported by The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
Born in China's north-western province, Sayragul Sauythay trained as a doctor before being appointed a senior civil servant.Her life was upended when the Chinese authorities incarcerated her. Her crime: being Kazakh, one of China's ethnic minorities. In prison, Sauythay was put to work teaching Chinese language, culture, and politics, in the course of which she gained access to secret information that revealed Beijing's long-term plans to undermine not only its minorities, but democracies around the world. Upon her escape to Europe she was reunited with her family, but still lives under the constant threat of reprisal.

Alexandra Caveliusis a freelance author and journalist. She is published in renowned magazines, and is the author of several political nonfiction books. She was also the author of the bestseller Dragon Fighter, the autobiography of the Uighur political activist Rebiya Kadeer, who has been nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Photo of Sayragul SauytbaySayragul SauytbayPhoto of Alexandra CaveliusAlexandra Cavelius
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