The Police-Station Basement
ساقچىخانىنىڭ يەر ئاستى ئۆيى 派出所的地下室
On a Saturday morning in May 2017, my wife, my daughters, and I piled into the car and headed to Turpan, a nearby city, to relax for the weekend. The winter cold still hadn’t left Urumqi, and we were hoping a couple of days enjoying the warm spring weather in Turpan would be good for us.
On long car trips, we usually passed the time with conversation. But it was hard to talk about anything besides what was happening.
The Chinese government’s mass internment of Uyghurs was in full swing. This campaign had begun in Kashgar, Khotan, and other predominantly Uyghur parts of southern Xinjiang. Now it had reached Urumqi, the regional capital, where our acquaintances were regularly disappearing. Every day, hundreds of Uyghurs who had moved here over the decades—finding work, starting families, buying houses, coming to consider themselves locals—had been shipped out to concentration camps known as “study centers.” Nearly everyone I knew from the labor camp where I’d been imprisoned two decades earlier had already been rearrested. My turn would clearly come soon.
Human-rights groups, academics, and multiple governments contend that China has interned more than 1 million Uyghurs, along with thousands of individuals from other Muslim minority groups, and undertaken a campaign of forced sterilization against Uyghur women. The U.S., Canada, and the Netherlands have officially recognized the crisis as a genocide. Beijing rejects these charges, insisting that Uyghurs are voluntarily undergoing “reeducation” at the camps.
Surveillance technology, already ubiquitous in our city, had become even more sophisticated and invasive. Police were everywhere. I had spent hours cleaning my phone of pictures, videos, audio recordings, and even instant-message records—anything that authorities might seize on as “evidence.”
I wanted to leave the country, but my wife, Merhaba, was reluctant. In 16 years of marriage, we had confronted all manner of difficulties. We had bought an apartment, raised two kids, and started our own film-production company, small though it was. It hadn’t been all that long since we’d established ourselves, but we were finally doing well. Merhaba cherished our way of life and had no desire to leave her relatives and friends. “Things can’t get that bad,” she would say. “God help us. We haven’t done anything they could arrest us for.”
It is not an easy thing to leave your homeland in your 40s and start life anew. Although we had never spoken openly about it, we both knew that if we left, we might never be able to return.
Our two girls, who had long since tired of these endless discussions, had fallen asleep in the back seat. To our right, below the Heavenly Mountains, Salt Lake shone like a giant mirror tossed into the desert.
My cellphone rang through the car speakers. It was an unknown number. Everyone now feared unknown numbers.
“Hello. Is this Mr. Tahir Hamut?” It sounded like a young Uyghur woman.
“This is Güljan, from the neighborhood committee.”
In China’s cities, the neighborhood committee is the Chinese Communist Party’s lowest-level governing organ.
She was calling because the police station was collecting fingerprints from anyone who had been abroad, and that meant they wanted ours. I offered to come by on Monday morning.
“I’m sure it will be crowded in the morning. Why don’t you come at two in the afternoon?”
“All right. Seems like you’re working even over the weekend?”
“Yes, we’ve been working weekends for a while.”
Our weekend in Turpan passed under a cloud of anxiety. As hard as Merhaba and I tried to enjoy ourselves, we couldn’t put our appointment out of our minds.
“They don’t want anything else besides our fingerprints, right?” she asked. By “anything else,” she meant whether we would be sent to “study.”
The word from Kashgar was that the wave of arrests there had been so expansive that all existing detention facilities in the city—police-station lockups, prisons, holding centers, labor camps, drug-detox stations—were quickly overwhelmed. Schools and government offices had been repurposed as “study centers” and hastily outfitted with iron doors, window bars, and barbed wire. Rumors spread that outside the city, construction was proceeding rapidly on multiple new internment facilities, each meant to house tens of thousands. Fear reigned. Everyone could only hope that all this “study” would in fact last, as the government said, a matter of months.
On Monday, Merhaba and I made our way to the police station. From the window of a small guardhouse by the gate, a middle-aged Uyghur guard recorded our names, ethnicities, ID numbers, address, and purpose of visit. Then he waved us through.
We stepped inside the police station, and a young Han Chinese police officer stationed at a desk in the front hall sent us down to the basement, pointing us to a door at the top of a stairwell.
China is home to an array of ethnicities, but the Han make up the overwhelming majority of the country’s people, and its leadership. Even in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, most positions of responsibility are held by Han.
My heart skipped a beat. Three years earlier, I had come to this same police station to take care of some passport paperwork for my wife and daughters. After combing through our family’s digital files, an officer had prepared a statement in Chinese affirming that my wife and daughters had no criminal records, were not among the “seven kinds of people prohibited from traveling abroad,” had not participated in the 2009 violence in Urumqi, and were eligible for passports.
In June 2009, Uyghur employees at a factory in eastern China were lynched by Han co-workers after baseless rumors circulated that Uyghurs there had raped a Han woman. These events sparked protests in Urumqi, which began peacefully but turned violent following police suppression. The riots left at least 197 dead and marked a turning point in the Chinese state’s treatment of Uyghurs.
The application forms needed to be signed by the police station’s deputy chief for national security. Standing in this very hall, a Han police officer had told me to wait, as the deputy chief was questioning someone in the basement. I took a seat on an iron bench in the corridor. Soon, I heard a man’s voice crying out wretchedly. I shuddered. The officer on duty hurried over and shut the metal door leading down to the basement. Typically, stairwells didn’t have doors like this. It was clear that this police station had constructed an interrogation chamber.
Now my wife and I had to walk through that metal doorway, down the stairs to the basement. At the bottom was a corridor about 20 meters long. On the left were three cells, metal bars separating them from the corridor. The cells’ doors were open, and they were unoccupied. In the first stood a heavy iron chair. Along the walls, iron rings were affixed to the concrete floor; I figured these were for shackling people. In the middle were what could only be faded bloodstains.
On the right was a row of offices. When we entered the basement, two other couples were waiting their turn. Before long, about 20 other people, nearly all middle-aged Uyghurs, had lined up behind us. What I saw on their faces was worry and confusion.
When our turn came, we entered the second office. Güljan, from our neighborhood committee, was waiting for us. She had us sign a registry. In addition to our fingerprints, she now said that they would also be taking blood samples, voice samples, and facial images. My wife looked at me anxiously.
Nearly everyone I knew from the labor camp where I’d been imprisoned two decades earlier had already been rearrested. My turn would clearly come soon.
Clumsily preparing to take our blood samples were a young Uyghur woman, likely from the neighborhood committee, and a young Uyghur man, an assistant police officer. The woman rubbed alcohol on my index finger, then the man drew blood with a needle. She held out a white plastic container the size of a matchbox while he dripped the blood from my finger onto a sponge in the container. Then she sealed the container, wrote my name in Chinese characters on the label affixed to the lid, and wrote my ID number below my name.
In the next room, three computers had been set up on a big table. One was being used to take voice samples, one to take fingerprints, and the third to take facial images. In front of each computer was stationed a Uyghur woman, brought in temporarily from another government department.
On the table were two copies of the Urumqi Evening Gazette, one in Uyghur, one in Chinese. The technician responsible for voice samples pointed to the newspapers. “Read for two minutes without pause. I’ll give you a signal when two minutes are up.” I picked up the Uyghur paper, opened to the second page, and began reading a news item on relations between the United States and North Korea. The technician recorded my voice and saved the file.
I then placed my hands one at a time on a fingerprint scanner, fingers splayed. After that, one by one, I placed each finger of my right hand and then each finger of my left hand on the scanner. To ensure that all of the fingerprints were fully recorded, I was told to roll each fingertip slowly over the scanner. If a scan did not meet the computer’s requirements, the system would reject it, and the technician would instruct me to press my finger to the scanner again.
I had given fingerprints a number of times in my life. But I had never seen or heard of a fingerprinting process as exhaustive as the one I underwent in the police-station basement.
Now it was time for facial imaging. On the other side of the office stood a camera, with a chair facing it. A Han police assistant instructed me to take a seat. He walked over to the camera and adjusted the tripod so the lens was level with my face.
By then, I had been a film director for 18 years. I had seen and used cameras of all shapes and sizes. After the 2009 violence in Urumqi, surveillance equipment had been installed on every corner of the city. But this camera was unlike any I had seen: Running from one end to the other was a flat lens about three centimeters high and 20 centimeters long.
The woman operating the computer explained what I was to do. When she gave me a signal, I needed to look straight at the camera, then turn my head slowly and steadily to the right. I was then to turn at the same speed back to face the camera. Then I had to turn my head fully to the left, and back again to face the camera. At the same slow, steady speed, I was then to tilt my head back and look up, then to look straight at the camera. After that, I had to tilt my head down at the same speed and look toward the floor, and then to return to the original position. Finally, I was to slowly and completely open my mouth and hold that position. After I closed my mouth and looked steadily at the camera, my facial scan would be complete. All of these movements needed to be carried out in the assigned order in a single, uninterrupted sequence, two seconds per position. If any movement did not conform to the requirements, the computer would give a signal and stop running, after which I would have to start over from the beginning.
I successfully completed the sequence on my third try. I noticed my palms were sweaty.
My wife, who had been going through these procedures immediately after me, struggled when she came to the facial scan. The sequences for men and women differed in only one way: While men were required to open their mouths wide at the end, women had to close their mouths tightly and puff out their cheeks. I wondered what the reason was for this difference. As hard as she tried, Merhaba couldn’t maintain the steady speed required. Her movements would be too fast, then too slow. Her face reddened with frustration and resentment. I stood to the side, encouraging and prompting her. On her sixth attempt she finally succeeded. We couldn’t help but feel as happy as kids.
We reported to Güljan that we had finished all of the procedures, then made our way past the weary line of people waiting their turn and headed upstairs. It was past 5 o’clock by the time we exited the police station.
“We need to leave the country,” my wife said bitterly.