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‘Terror Capitalism’: Ürümchi and a haunting nostalgia

April 5, 2023
4 mins read
Photo: Atoq Ramon

The first time I met Hasan he told me he was a“traveler.” He was walking down the street with a stack of fruit crates strapped to a small cart. He was peddling a special kind of nan made from chickpea flour that was said to improve your digestion. He told me he was originally from a small village outside of the town of Yaken—one of the poorest parts of Southern Xinjiang near the border of Pakistan nearly 1500 kilometers from Ürümchi. He had dropped out of middle school and begun traveling when his father died and his mother remarried in 2008. He said his step-father had beaten him and demanded that he earn money for the family, so he had just left with his best friend. He said that for a number of years he and his friends had dug for jade in the riverbeds of Hotan for several months and then came to the city to sell their stones. They had sold their supply, which was why he was now selling nan. With the new restrictions on travel that had been imposed during the “People’s War on Terror” in 2014, it was difficult to travel back and forth between Southern Xinjiang and the city. He said that as a Muslim it was now impossible to live in his hometown. There were just too many police.

“I used to have a lot of friends here (in the Uyghur migrant settlements), but since the new ‘green card’ policy and the destruction of the neighborhoods, many of them have left or gone to other places,” he commented. “So many of my friends don’t exist (Uy: yoq) anymore. I don’t know where they are. No one knows. They have (been) disappeared.” He said that over the seven years that he had traveled to the city much had changed, not only had many of his friends been subtracted, a marked absence in their families and friendship networks, but now there were many young people like him without fathers.

One day as Hasan and I walked through the Uyghur bazaar leading to the new gate in front of the Heijia Shan mosque, he said, “It really ‘puts your heart at ease’ (Uy: köngülge yaqidighan) here, right?” When I pressed him on what he meant by this he said, “Here around the mosque we feel free to talk and joke with each other, buy and trade things, eat good food; we’re not looking over our shoulder wondering if the police are watching like we always must in Yaken and in other parts of the city; here we are free.” For Hasan there was a comfort in being surrounded by fellow travelers in the middle of a demolition zone. Although he was on the verge of homelessness, he felt he still had a place there.

But as the level of threat began to heighten, Hasan said that, although there was the constant worry of surveillance and violence in the Uyghur migrant community in the city. In late 2014 it was nevertheless better than the current conditions in his hometown. He said:

In Ürümchi everything seems free, you can do business, you can pray, you can communicate, you can live freely. In Yaken none of this is possible. When you walk in the bazaar there, the police always stop you and ask for your ID. Everyone is always monitoring what you do; it is hard to make any money because no one has any money or any opportunity to make any. They try to control you. This year during Ramadan (three months before) they locked me up so that I couldn’t pray; they made me break the fast. Police are the enemy of Muslims; they will never help you—only make your life worse.

When he said this last line he spoke very quietly and pulled his hands up to his face. I asked if he felt scared to go back to Yaken. He said:

Actually I have to go back next week because I am being forced to go. The Yaken police have been calling me every day telling me that I must come back; they are making my parents call me and tell me the same thing. When I ask why, they won’t give me a reason. They just say that, if I come back, everything will be fine. They say that, if I stay here, they will alert the Ürümchi police and have me arrested. I don’t have any choice. If I go to another city, they will be able to track me because of my “green card” registration. I actually have all of the documents to live legally here, but now they are making me go back. So I am very afraid. Lots of my friends have gone back to Yaken because the police told them to come, and now they don’t exist. I don’t know where they are, no one knows, they have disappeared. My wife doesn’t say anything about this situation, but she is also scared. She doesn’t want to go back either. She knows that when we go back they will take away our green cards so that we can never travel again and that I might disappear.

Hasan buried his head in his hands. His eyes filled with tears, but he didn’t cry. In a whisper he said:

I think this issue is connected to what happened (back in Yaken) at the end of Ramadan this year; someone must have accused me of something or reported something I have done online. There is no freedom in this world. For Uyghurs life is very difficult and we have no freedom. I don’t even know what I am accused of but I must accept their judgment. I have no choice. Where there is no freedom there is tension (Uy: jiddiy weziyet); where there is tension there are incidents; where there are incidents there are police; where there are police there is no freedom.

Hasan said he dreamed of traveling abroad, of seeing the world, climbing mountains, sailing on ships, but he knew that none of these things would happen. He said that his phone was easily his most important piece of equipment for negotiating city life. It offered him the freedom to know, to move and live as he felt he should as a Muslim. It was what allowed him to teach others, which he felt was something that gave his life meaning. He said that it was what he would miss the most when he disappeared in Yaken.

This is a short excerpt from Chapter 6: ‘Subtraction’ in Terror Capitalism: Uyghur Dispossession and Masculinity in a Chinese City by Darren Byler (Duke University Press, 2022) 

Darren Byler

Dr. Darren Byler is an Assistant Professor of International Studies at Simon Fraser University. His research focuses on the technology and politics of urban life in Northwestern China and Southeast Asia.

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