One Question Quiz
‘The Taklamakan’s etymology is debated – I think it was you who told me it means that something is lost and buried in there.’ Photo: 
Feng Wei Photography via Getty
‘The Taklamakan’s etymology is debated – I think it was you who told me it means that something is lost and buried in there.’ Photo: Feng Wei Photography via Getty

BooksJune 3, 2019

After a long silence: A letter to a lost friend in Xinjiang

‘The Taklamakan’s etymology is debated – I think it was you who told me it means that something is lost and buried in there.’ Photo: 
Feng Wei Photography via Getty
‘The Taklamakan’s etymology is debated – I think it was you who told me it means that something is lost and buried in there.’ Photo: Feng Wei Photography via Getty

On the eve of the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, New Zealand Chinese writer Tze Ming Mok writes a beautiful, bitter letter to an old friend in Xinjiang, grappling with matters of conscience, community survival, and Anne-Marie Brady’s ‘Magic Weapons’ paper. 

Originally published in the new collection Life on Volcanoes: Contemporary Essays

But where were we? You know, I met up with our mutual friend some years ago by one of those dinky European rivers and he told me about your fat baby. Did you ever get to travel, like you wanted?

Do you remember the swag I brought you that first time we met – a carton of Sanwu – the preferred cigarette of the aspiring upper-middleclass urban Chinese gentleman. And of course the bottle of Stolichnaya that our mutual friend was so pleased about locating for you. When I brought it out, your eyes flared up like two fresh matches (currently banned) and we toasted the legacy of a dead Communist empire.

I still have the notebook of those key phrases our friend wrote out for me that I used all through the oasis towns, after I hung out with you around Urumqi. Hello, how are you. You’re very good-looking. It’s a shame about the Ants.

Does anyone still dare call us the Ants, us Hanzu? To you, I wasn’t one of their number, swarming into the city from the central provinces, indistinguishable, industrious. Colonising. Short. I was tall. I wore that Palestine t-shirt, and my Mandarin was about as shitty as your Mandarin. I was foreign in the right way, with the English everyone craved. Weird vowels though, I know. “Why do you keep saying you’re Chinese” our mutual friend said to me once, visibly irritated, “You’re not Chinese.” We were speaking English at cross-purposes, in China. In an English-speaking country, if you tell the white people that you are Han or Huayi or Huaqiao, it means nothing to them.

You were both wrong; I am a settler too. White people think of us Hanzu in the same terms. Ants. Colonisers. Settlers. Takers. As if those white people are looking in a mirror, but do not like what they see. You and our mutual friend think of New Zealand (if you can still find it on a map) as “my” country, but it is one that white settlers and the British crown largely took by force, lies and coercion, from those with a much older history here. How many generations does it take to break a language, you might be wondering. (It takes one generation.) I live here now as a part of that system, a worker in the Queen’s colony.

We Hanzu have described ourselves in terms that are even less alive. Sun Yat-Sen complained that we were a heap of sand, drifting uncontrollably, blowing away. Specks, but not even specks with skittering legs or antennae, not even with a thorax or a Queen. Wouldn’t you rather be an ant? At least you would have a face. Still silent, but busy, so busy! You have to live with what you didn’t do, and didn’t say. That is a lifetime of work on its own. Sand can blow away, free to be forgotten. Sand doesn’t have to do shit.

I remember talking to another Han Chinese Ant, a fellow speck, around the time I met you, who was practising her English with me. The topic turned – almost accidentally – to the events of 1989. Her eyelids lowered slowly like windowslats holding back the sunset, and her precise syntax became halting, as she spoke about that hopeful, exhilarating time in her youth, and when the news came down the line from Beijing about the end of it. How the students in her far-flung province fell completely silent. And how no-one looked at one another. And finally she said, looking nowhere, “I have never felt. So small.” How large one must be, to see like a state and to make us so tiny in their eyes.

Another Han Ant friend had been there every day in the Square in 1989, supporting the students from the elite university where she worked as a fresh graduate tutor. She was well-liked by all on campus, a girl from the provinces respected for her humble rectitude. She would bring food every evening for those camped out in protest, and visit in the daytime. One warm night in early summer, there was a knock at her door in the staff dormitories. It was an old friend of her parents from her hometown, now a senior officer in the army. What was he doing here in Beijing, from so far away? He came in briefly to drink tea, and said: stay at home tomorrow, please. And then he left. And she was afraid, and stayed home the next day, into the evening. And said nothing. She said nothing, and the army cadres brought in from the provinces (so as not to be swayed by the cries of childhood friends and neighbours) cleared the Square and surrounding streets with tanks and gunfire, all night and into the morning, and she stayed home and said nothing and did not die. In the aftermath, state security raided the university library for the photographs that had been taken in the Square, to identify and sweep up the survivors. A librarian with a special fondness for her hid the one photograph that could finish her, and gave it to her later in a plain envelope.

She is elsewhere now and she keeps that photograph in the same envelope, in a storeroom full of disused exercise equipment. In a corner where she never looks, shrouded by brown paper, there she is with her students in black and white, as they deliver speeches and cheer, her hair long, loose and blowing away, and they are all young and free and alive.

An unlikely story! That is survivorship bias for you. You can be one of the truly beloved with an unbelievable story of escape through grace and favours, all your secrets kept. Or you can be, as the refugee jurisprudence calls it, a “particular personality” forced to either run, or to face violent elimination because no-one could stand your fucking loud mouth.

You can probably guess which kind of survivor I am descended from.

Did I tell you how my grandfather left China? He was out in the countryside in the revolutionary training camps during the Civil War. Communist Party HQ had sent him out as an auditor, a safe pair of hands. He was ex-Kuomintang military intelligence, a frontline veteran of the Sino-Japanese war, but a true Communist convert. I mean, you could never shut him up about it. A defector already, but no-one realised that it was about to become a pattern. I imagine him standing there tut-tutting with a clipboard, micromanaging the interrogators, shouting at the senior cadres abusing their powers – “you are doing the Revolution all wrong!” He and his clipboard and his loud mouth and his high standards got on the wrong side of the wrong cabal. He got a tip- off: You’ve made The List. Run while you can. You know how it is.

It was almost too late – he found himself under tightening house arrest within the camp. So he faked illness to coincide with one of the regular mass indoctrination rallies, so that when the cadre assigned to watch him joined the struggle session, my grandfather was left by himself. He snuck away – out the back of the tent, maybe. Security was low-tech in those days. Facial recognition: eyes. Gait recognition: also eyes. I picture the flysheet flapping, while the camp roared its percussive slogans. He used his old Nationalist army uniform (a handy thing for a Communist spy to hold onto) to fake his way through the border to Burma.

Once he got his family to Singapore, unlike the other Party defectors he refused to collaborate further with MI6 to spy on his old comrades. Partly out of patriotism, but also because he didn’t want to ever see them again.

Defect, defect, but never collaborate! The impossible drumbeat of my whakapapa, that ancestral line that traces our journeys through time.

As a punishment for holding out on them, MI6 made him run an anti-Communist bookstore until Singaporean independence. Yes, a Communist living in Communist Chinatown (as it was then), running an anti-Communist bookstore. He was not popular, but he was used to that.

It was in the 1980s that The Knock came. Tracked through 40 years and three countries, to his front door in Singapore. It can’t have been that hard, when I really think about it. And I do sit here and think about it. “That guy? Oh yes, he was the one who had to run the anti-Communist bookstore because he wouldn’t spy for the British. Bad-tempered. Still won’t shut up about ‘to each according to their needs’. He lives over there.”

The Knock. My grandfather peered out the windowslats and recognised the sunset. It was the son of one of the old comrades who had put him on the death list in the revolutionary training camps. The son was now a high-ranking government official of the People’s Republic, on a state visit. My grandfather hid at the back of the house and didn’t answer the door. Eventually, the son of the old comrade went away.

What did he want from us? I still sit here thinking about this. And I think about what could have gone through my grandfather’s ironclad mind, as he sat there breathing in the dark. I squint into the past, two generations down, to find that meeting-point: A man at a door, knocking. One at the back of the house, listening. The space between them.

What did he want from us? My grandfather was probably thinking this too. I’m told that I’m rather like my grandfather, and it’s never a compliment. Nearly 15 years ago, I published a haranguing love letter of sorts to ‘my community’, the wider one known as the ‘Asians’, although people may as well just say Ants because that is what they mean. ‘Asians’ here includes not just the Huaqiao, but people from Kabul to Tamil Nadu to Irian Jaya to Samarkand to Hiroshima. If you were here, it’d include you. I tried to talk to ‘my community’ such as we were being defined. I wrote that we had to decolonise our thinking if we wanted to claim our place in this country. I asked my community to stop swallowing their own tongues, and to form a united front with all minorities against racism, under the terms of the original contract signed here between the white invaders and the indigenous people. I did a lot of that sort of thing. Tut-tutting with clipboards. Waving papers. Telling people, loudly, that they were doing things wrong.

I rushed in “where angels dare not tread”, a Han community elder said to my actual face during a summit of the Ants all those years ago, a smile hidden behind her voice as though tasting a forbidden treat that someone else had stolen for her (I stole it; it was me). I said things that others wanted said, but were too nervous, or unsure, or vulnerable to say. I burned the bridges that they wanted burned, but still wished to cross. I can barely account for how many forgotten politicians I flamed in an era before either Twitter or Weibo, but I’m not a good Ant. I’ve been lucky to still have a voice, still even be listened to here, because those good Ants working within the system wanted to keep me around, as a secret weapon. We Han Ants seem to complain a lot in the West about the way we are described, particularly as ‘inscrutable’, as if we want to be read by others, even as we say so little.

Who really wants their motivations to be known so thoroughly, when we barely understand them ourselves? I only wanted you to read this, not anyone else.

But where were we. Troubling memories have crossed the seas to meet us here, on our little islands. Ying Zelandia, not Indonesia. A professor here, or as you might have put it, ‘a lady professor’, by the name of Anne-Marie Brady, got The Knock too. She was out, but they came in anyway, and took just enough to scare her and everyone around her. What do we do when the ghosts of those who tried to murder us appear? Are they our friends now? Do they come to thank us for not collaborating? Will they bring me a bag of oranges, a box of flat peaches, a bottle of Stolichnaya, and a carton of Zhongnanhai, the Chinese lower-middle-class lady’s aspirational mid-range cigarette named for the headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party, truly the Marlboro Light of the East?

The Professor had been writing about the new overseas influence policies of the PRC in the Xi Jinping era, in a conference paper she named Magic Weapons. Much of the paper is simply description of public evidence, showing that since Xi came to power at the start of the decade, the PRC government has rapidly recentred Chinese community organisations in New Zealand around itself. The ‘United Front’ of cultural groups, migrant support groups, student groups, language schools, the formerly independent Chinese language media – we are the magic weapons.

The Professor is an expert in statecraft, and sees ‘like a state’ as James C Scott might say. Her paper reminds me of the oppressiveness of Ma Jian’s extended metaphor throughout his novel The Noodle Maker, with the Chinese people mere strands of dough, pulled between giant hands, all agency gone. It’s not how those within the system see it or feel it to be, how they experience their daily lives and the richness of their choices, the masters of their own breakfasts. But I believe it is entirely correct that this web of influence and levers, this system of control that the Professor describes, is exactly how the Party sees us, how they plainly describe the Huaqiao in their own laws and policies. The Chinese government’s United Front Work Department, tasked with connecting all sectors of society, domestic and foreign, to the goals of the party-state, took over the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office last year and thus, now claims us all. This is not the ‘us’ I was looking for. This is not the community we were hoping for.

Silence within this system offers consent: saying nothing against it reinforces it. Being active also reinforces the system: those who play the game may think they can beat it, but they only reproduce it. When community groups or experts take what they can get for themselves – funding for travel, dinners at the embassy, connections with business leaders – they pay with their silence, which is taken as fealty.

Maybe once you are inside, only doing nothing – as opposed to saying nothing – can be a real escape. Comrade Lenin, who came up with the Communist Party tradition of United Front work in the first place and is quoted by the Professor, acknowledges the weaknesses within this system of alliances, which gets built and codified “even though this ally be temporary, vacillating, unstable, unreliable and conditional.” The good Ants can crumble suddenly into sand that fucks up your engine. These are the weapons of the weak, as James C Scott might also say.

After a decade away, I returned to New Zealand recently for a quiet life, but soon found myself doing the same thing I’ve always done. I pulled out the clipboard and began tut-tutting loudly. I spoke to the white media, and wrote public texts, calling on our white prime minister to protect her white professor, and by extension, me – by extension, us. By various of my Han brethren, my Ants, I’ve been called brave, and stupid, and an Uncle Tom, which is a reference to an American novel about a loyal slave who loves his white masters (the white masters would be pleased to know about my belated loyalty).

Being brave just means you decided to do something other people didn’t do; it doesn’t make you any less afraid, and it is often indistinguishable from being stupid. While sending emails and writing measured words, and having my face and voice very publicly broadcasted, I updated my cloud backups, and home and contents insurance, and checked my tyre valves. A typically apolitical Ant friend, the scion of a grocery store empire, joked to me, “If the Embassy takes you Tze Ming, I’ll march for you. I’ll hold a sign and everything.” I said, “And the sign will say, please let my dumb friend go.” How we laughed!

Some old allies fell silent. Or fretted that we would bring a racist storm onto our heads by implicating all Hanzu as CCP spies. Or did not want to take sides in the new cold war over the Pacific. I need not ask when we got so careful. We have always been this careful, talking and laughing only indoors, behind our hands, waiting for someone else to make the first sound.

The Hanzu here are not all like me, all the better for them. The oldest generation from Guangdong came out even before the first Republic, and among our swelling numbers are now as rare as the gold they panned from the river-discards of white people. They paved the way for the war refugee generation, also from the Guangdong villages, and then early arrivals from Hong Kong. Together they all kept their heads down, speaking Cantonese at home but not in public, growing vegetables, selling fried rice, keeping out of trouble, waiting for their children or grandchildren to grow into doctors. There were the 1970s professional immigrants like my parents, lured here en masse from Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, to replace the New Zealand doctors who had been lured en masse to Britain by the NHS. Middle class, westernised, English-speaking, some of them even let their children become writers and artists or other kinds of layabouts, if they did not become doctors, or after they had become doctors. In the ’90s came a so-called ‘Inv-Asian’ of pre-Handover Hong Kong business migrants and their children, and the thousands of Taiwanese who write in ‘Taiwanese’ in the Census rather than just tick the ‘Chinese’ box which would associate them with the PRC. On their heels was a whole generation of tertiary-educated Mainland Chinese who ended up stacking shelves, mopping floors, and running steamed bun stalls. While waiting for their children to become doctors, they also eventually built a new ethnic economy based around not only food, but real estate, finance, education, tourism, and of course, trade.

In the decade I spent elsewhere, the Mainlanders tipped the balance and became the majority of all the Hanzu here (together we come to about 4% of all New Zealanders). As the demography changed, it seemed as though we – the Han Ants, the dreaded Chinese – were miraculously winning the war over public expressions of racism from politicians. When the Labour Party used racial profiling and bad data to blame a housing crisis on non-resident PRC investors before the 2017 election, there was zero polling benefit, a massive backlash among members, and much soul-searching for the party. The National Party has close connections to organised blocs of Mainland Chinese voters and during its recent nine years in power defined the Chinese in the public discourse as model immigrants with much to ‘contribute’ (unlike browner immigrants who are worth less as donors to their party). Even Winston Peters, the leader of a party whose political reputation was built on barely veiled yellow-peril rhetoric in the 90s, is careful now to criticise racists when the subject of PRC influence arises.

I would like to say that our amazing advocacy and unity, our progressive voices and public outreach (in which I played such an important role with my clipboard and my telling people off loudly and everyone laughing behind their hands) was a major contribution to this increased political sensitivity to anti-Chinese racism. But actually, politicians have realised that there is little to be gained, and too much to lose by turning ‘Asians’ or the Chinese community itself into a punching bag.

Mainland Chinese community money speaks much more loudly now, or at least, it carries a big stick. It’s not Taiwanese, or Hong Kong, or Malaysian, or Cambodian or New Zealand-born Chinese money. Oh and those groups talk shit about the Mainlanders – the same kind of shit you used to talk about the Ants with our mutual friend, maybe even worse. The same kind of shit that white people say about all of us, in their homes and on the streets and in their cars – especially in their cars. But strangely, it’s PRC money and power that is now shielding us all from racist political criticism of PRC money and power.

Last year, questions were raised by what seemed like a cash-for-candidates discussion between senior National Party members, centring on a donation alleged to have been made by a China-born businessman with reported CCP and United Front connections. Both parties denied any wrongdoing. Our trusting, small country has low requirements of transparency in political donations and lobbying, and as the Professor has outlined, the links now go deep. The issue went away.

Not only the demands of money and power, but fears of seeming racist for criticising PRC influence have contributed to the paralysing public silence from this country’s leaders. However, it’s allowed some of us Bad Ants to set the terms of public debate without politicians and racists having got there first.

As a result, people keep wanting my opinion, but it’s not as easy as it was before. I used to rely on observable evidence to form opinions, but of late we are expected to come to conclusions about the invisible phenomenon of the human conscience. One such conscience belongs to Jian Yang, a lecturer from my old university department, who became a member of parliament despite old connections to PRC military intelligence. When his past resurfaced, Dr Yang denied ever being a spy for China, describing such accusations as smears. But many political observers thought the scandal was not survivable. At least for now he continues to live the strange life of an MP who, while refusing to resign, appears to avoid all media attention unless from friendly Chinese language media here who are ‘guided’ by the Chinese government, with whom he can act as if he lives in another reality entirely. I cannot tell if his career as an MP is over or not, and I feel a little sorry for him.

If you want to be generous, it’s not inconceivable that he spent many years thinking that his past was behind him, and that, like the rest of us pre-Xi, he got used to China being focused on its domestic agenda and leaving most of us alone. But once he entered political life, according to the Professor’s research, he began selectively emphasising his little-known background to Mainland Chinese and PRC government audiences – I imagine this was to summon their loyalty or to demonstrate his own, or both. In light of this, I personally find it hard to believe that certain expectations were not being laid out clearly for him out of public view.

My friend in the hidden photograph, the provincial girl in the Square, no longer lives in China but has a position in a high-level organisation where she is required to work closely and regularly with the PRC government. She does so with an ambivalent mix of patriotism and frustration that I have sometimes seen burst through as incoherent rage. She loves her country, but she told me “I will never join the Party”. So many others from her generation, other survivors, had done so, and she couldn’t blame them. Why deny someone a life? It just so happened that it was better in her particular job to appear neutral, she said. But her bosses had, maybe, different standards to those of the New Zealand government.

You play the hand you are dealt, but if you play at all, the house always wins.

Does it matter whether participation in a system is pragmatic or cynical, rather than ideological or genuine, if the outcome is the same, and the same interests are served? Or is intention the only thing that matters – does everything hinge on what lies between a heart and the abstract construct of The State? I honestly don’t know, my friend. The difficult truth is that no-one knows where anyone’s heart lies because hearts are not constant objects; yet everybody knows that we are all trying to survive.

“Are we … white?” another Ant friend asked me, a citizen here since young and a respected voice in our Han ‘community’ such as it is. Another who was expected to have all the answers, and yet still asked me a question like this. This is how much we have been unsettled of late with questions of survival. We had been talking about the Professor, and those who recount being harassed and spied on by the embassy for years but were more wary of talking publicly about it – the China-born dissidents with family back home, the refugee Uighurs and Tibetans, the Christians and Falungong communities in the same position. Even an editor said to have been recently sent back to China for ‘re-education’ for publishing the wrong news article here. My friend wondered if we should abandon the public defence of rights of Mainland Chinese-born PRC nationals living here, those who are not New Zealand citizens, because we can’t protect them from the Chinese government. Should we just draw a line around us, the white-adjacent citizens exercising liberal democratic freedoms, and expecting those freedoms, like white people do, to be maintained? To group ourselves with those who could never dream of a life of anonymous phone calls, mysterious visitors and re-education camps? How realistic are universal human rights on our little islands amid these violent currents? Do we really want to test the limits of our government’s power? He did not seem happy with where his thinking was going, but it went there.

I couldn’t accept it. Despite my long family tradition of defection, and my natural distrust of ‘community’ (even as everything I do is meant to be for ‘the community’), I still can’t let this idea of ‘us’ go. It would mean I’d have to let you go, and I won’t. What is community but guilt and obligation and silence for the greater good, under a yoke of common oppression that we subject each other to? “Tax is Love” some guy here keeps trying to convince us; and I agree because the Chinese seem to do this love thing differently from everyone else.

Yes, spoken like a true Han coloniser, “I won’t let you go!” You can laugh now. But no, no merdeka for you, I am not releasing you today – not from my memories. Not from my conscience.

Remember how I came out to Xinjiang to get away from the mounting SARS panic in Chengdu? Skipped town to escape the paranoia and quasi-militarisation, as if the virus could be shot on sight, or efficiently ‘disappeared’ by the Public Security Bureau.

How funny that I found relief back then in the relative relaxation of the Xinjiang streets, where now there is a police station every 100 metres, security checks throughout the markets, CCTV with facial recognition capturing whole towns and fixed over every mosque, and each mosque is locked and empty, because now you, your thoughts, your language, your clothes, your face, your God, every part of you that is not indistinguishable from the Han, is the virus.

I remember roaming all around the edge of the Taklamakan, leaving the Han circle with ease with the help of that Palestine t-shirt. Kids would run up to me exclaiming “Palestine! Palestine!”, guys on motorbikes buzzing past calling “Palestine!”, grins a mile wide. Automatic trust and joy. For the purposes of impressing the locals even more, our mutual friend was going to lend me a t-shirt that bore the Turkish flag – the red twin of your banned sky-blue version. But he loved it so much that he changed his mind because he didn’t want it to get dirty. Once we were getting dumplings, and he took it off and ate topless in the café so it wouldn’t get splashed. You get attached to simple items that take you places; this is also how I’d describe feeling about a passport that offers real protection – something you will have never truly owned.

People in Xinjiang talked openly to tourists back then, after a brief assessment. Are you from Palestine? No, Ying Zelandia. This was the correct Uighur translation, our mutual friend had insisted, but no-one had ever heard of it. I’d repeat myself, and they’d say “Indonesia? Muslim country!” Close enough, my family had been through there. Sometimes I’d say “my father’s from Malaysia”, also true. “Malaysia? Muslim country!” Confidences would flow from English-speaking, flat-capped kids who dressed like Russians from the 1980s but at the dawn of the new century. Sitting in tea shops they might adopt a theatrical touch while looking around, and say “walls have ears” before spinning tales of independence with a grin, dangerously relaxed. Remember being relaxed? Talking to foreigners was borderline but safe-ish, safe enough if you were careful. You’d had The Knock from the PSB for befriending too many foreigners already, but your English was good, so what did they expect? It didn’t stop you, then. People wanted to learn English, not Chinese. Learn English; see the world.

I remember the last time I saw your face, when you took me to the train station in a taxi like a gentleman, and the driver told us of the wild tales of secret SARS cases being reported in Urumqi, but that the government was repressing the facts! Fake news! His hands kept leaving the wheel in outrage. Your eyebrows shot up, danced around like your nervy shoulders. Trains were being cancelled, Xinjiang was getting cut off from the hinterland, the driver exclaimed. It was unfounded panic. We should have taken the bus. Xinjiang was still open, and my train back to the Han heartland was running on time. You told me to wait for you a few minutes, took off, then came back and handed me a bootleg and banned Abdurehim Heyit CD that you’d just bought from a market stall near the station. The album titled for that famous wordless song of his, the most banned one of all – ‘Hope’. Yes, they banned Hope! It was still a time when you could laugh out loud at heavy-handed metaphors, when you could buy your banned jokes from a guy at the station along with your box of matches.

Heyit disappeared into detention a few years ago, taken out like a virus.

I can see your face so clearly, but I don’t feel it’s safe to describe it. What if my writing is just so good, it would identify you in a crowd. Laugh some more, please! I want to see you laugh. I wonder what age has done to you. Time, that blind assassin, has given me one double-eyelid to go with one monolid, so now I always look like I’ve been punched in the face just like I’ve so often deserved. I could still pick you out from your walk if I needed to (gait recognition: eyes) with those tense shoulders inside your too-big blazer you would wear to look authoritative and older (it didn’t work). Head ducked slightly as if checking continually for trouble, but with that loose bandy-legged barrelwalk that tilted a little sideways, the vestiges of an invisible satchel with too many books; walking like a sailor in the desert. Careful but adventurous, curious, jumpy.

I remember telling you at the time, how if you needed to get out at some point, if you were having any trouble, that I knew the ins and outs of the New Zealand immigration and refugee system pretty well. You could always call me, and I was half-joking, half-serious, which means that ultimately, I had to be serious. I lost your contact with many others when my email account changed. Our mutual friend let me know a few years later, though, about how you’d settled down safely with a nice lady, back in your little hometown, and had your first chubby baby.

When I first read about the camps – your new camps that are visible from space, not my grandfather’s old camps hidden in the jungle – the reports seemed to keep reciting the name of the Taklamakan desert, that ocean of sand at the heart of Xinjiang. The Taklamakan’s etymology is debated – I think it was you who told me it means that something is lost and buried in there. The most common explanation on the tongue of every tour guide, is just as the camps are described – the place people enter, but which no-one leaves. I worried for a long time and did nothing, because I was too scared to play those odds and find out what had happened to you.

I am so sorry about this long silence.

Finally, I contacted our mutual friend to find out what I could. He was happy to hear from me, and to find out what I had been doing. We talked of how things had changed, and how we had never imagined it would get this bad in Xinjiang, or that we’d meet such old ghosts from the motherland out here. And how back then, we had hope that things would turn out differently for China.

I asked him about you, which was easier to type than to speak as the question would have burned my throat on the way out.

Those three dancing dots, fuck them.

Our friend wrote that he’d had trouble a while back and had been unable to return to China for some time. He’d cut off all contact with everyone he’d known in Xinjiang, including you, for everybody’s safety. Like me, he knew that even trying to find out could be immensely dangerous for those left behind. He didn’t know where you were, how you were, if you were.

So I’m writing this into the dark. I know the percentage of your town that is reported to be in the camps. I know that anyone in contact with foreigners is targeted for the camps. That anyone who travelled abroad is targeted for the camps. That everyone our age is targeted for the camps. That there are no loose flysheets in the camps, not enough laxity in the cadres to allow you to slip out between the bars. I can’t bear thinking about you in the camps, but sometimes I have to do it. And sometimes I have to think against these thoughts. I think of your love of cigarettes and vodka, your lack of interest in religion, your averagely shitty Mandarin, your naked chin like you couldn’t grow a beard if you tried. Your Romanized name practically pre-transliterated into Pinyin for everyone’s convenience. You didn’t cheer too loudly when Turkey beat China in the FIFA World Cup and get fired, that was the other guy. You cheered silently, in your head. When you told me that, you grinned that grin of yours I won’t describe. Hold those eyebrows down. Develop an ulcer and nurse it well. Weren’t you the one they were waiting for, after all? The civilised, secular City Uighur? The careful one who knows the system, plays and reproduces the game, keeps his joy from leaking out his eyes?

I’m sorry we never got you out when it was still possible. Please just survive. Don’t be like me, I would never have made it. Collaborate if you have to, to the extent that you must (and everyone must). Don’t be stupid or brave. Don’t stick out your neck. If you have to be an informant, just lie when you can. If you have to be a jailer, be the kind one. If you have to be a torturer, be the lazy one. The grain of sand that pretends to be an ant. If one of my Han brethren is sent to live in your house, writing down everything you say, scrutinising your face, your body, watching the reactions of your children, let them think themselves a hero, give them milky tea that they cannot digest, and quote the last statement of Ilham Tohti whenever you need to: “You are right, everything you say is right because you decide everything” then think quietly on Turkey beating China in the FIFA World Cup.

I couldn’t protect you. All I can do is lock you in my mind into your little house on the edge of the desert, with your happy wife, your chubby baby. Fixed in time under luminous vines, encircled by the protective sands. Whole cities drew the dunes over them like a blanket, away from the eyes of raiders in the past. Buried and lost. Your prophet Abdurehim Otkur wrote that what you leave will be found again, by your grandchildren, or your great-grandchildren, and he at least is not in the camps, because he died long before having to see this happen. My prophet Laozi, the old one, told us that people who work with power belong to power; and people who work with loss belong to what’s lost. The ocean will take my city in time too. Keep your secrets close. Maybe one day the sands will shift again, the seas retreat, and everything we did and thought and built and hid for each other will be revealed.

Life on Volcanoes: Contemporary Essays (ed Janet McAllister) is published Beatnik Publishing

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