When the 37-year-old Chinese woman stepped over China’s border into Kazakhstan last July, she felt free.
The woman — who doesn’t want NPR to use her name for fear of retaliation by Chinese authorities — says after her husband died in 2015, she was left with two children, a tiny house in the countryside of China’s Xinjiang region, and little else. She despaired of her future.
Then she met the man who changed her life. Like her, he was an ethnic Kazakh. Unlike her, he was a citizen of Kazakhstan, from across the border.
They married last summer, and she and her children left China. They moved to a small town outside Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, and the children enrolled in Kazakh schools.
The couple’s life together as husband and wife was established. The only thing left for the woman to do was to complete the paperwork to cancel Chinese citizenship for her and her children, so that they could become Kazakh citizens. For this, she had to return to her hometown in China.
When she crossed back alone into Xinjiang last year, the problems began.
“The police in my hometown told me that I needed to return to China with my two children in a month to complete the process,” she says. “I told them my children are at school, and that I’d return on my own. They said I needed to bring my children as well, or my brother would bear the consequences.”
She said she didn’t want to get her brother — a Chinese citizen and the leader of a local mosque — in trouble, so she did as she was told. She waited for a Kazakh holiday, when the kids had a break from school, and they all returned to China and stayed in their old family home while they took care of canceling their citizenship.
“When we returned, the police collected our passports, checked my phone and seized it because I had WhatsApp on my phone,” she says. “They told me the app was illegal.”
She got her phone back, but not the passports. As she waited, she says, village police invited her to the hospital for a health check. They visited her every two or three days, asking why she wanted to leave China, who she knew in Kazakhstan — interrogations that lasted hours.
“They’d call me nearly every night after midnight, asking me to come back to the station,” she recalls. “They told me my phone should always be on, because they could call me anytime.”
She says last Dec. 28, police showed up at her house at midnight.
“I thought they wanted to interrogate me again,” she says. “But they took me to the hospital instead. They administered another health check, and then they told me I was pregnant.”
She was six weeks along. Before she could share the news with her husband, local authorities returned to her house the next day. “They ordered me to get an abortion,” she says.
The authorities warned her a third child wasn’t permitted. “They told me I couldn’t have the baby because I’ve had two others, and that a third was not allowed,” she says. “I told them my husband is a Kazakh citizen and that I’m carrying a Kazakh citizen. But they insisted that I have an abortion.”
After that, she says, authorities called her every day, urging her to go to the hospital for an abortion before the fetus grew bigger.
“Finally I told them, ‘No,'” she says. “I’m not willing to do it.”
It didn’t matter.
“The police and local officials came and took me and my brother to a government building,” the woman says. “They made my brother sign a document saying that if I don’t get an abortion, he would suffer the consequences. I knew this meant he’d be detained in a camp. I’d do anything to protect my brother, so I agreed to the abortion.”
Two days after her pregnancy was terminated, she says, police took her brother to an internment camp anyway.
She spent 10 days in the hospital recuperating. “I was staying in the solitary ward,” she says. “There was a camera facing my door. They wouldn’t let me see my children. They gave me some newspaper articles about the 19th Party Congress, saying I should know China’s leaders by heart.”
After she was released, five local officials were assigned to stay with her inside her house, she says. They worked in shifts and were always with her over the next two months.
This sort of official homestay has become common in Xinjiang, where Han Chinese state workers are eligible for promotions if they volunteer to live with ethnic minority families to keep an eye on them and to educate them about the policies of China’s Communist Party. The woman says she wasn’t able to leave her house because authorities had seized her Chinese ID card, which, according to Xinjiang security rules, is necessary to ride public transportation or buy goods at a store.
She suspects her minders were assigned to monitor her because her husband had been writing letters to both the Chinese and Kazakh governments about what had happened to her, demanding compensation for their lost child.
“They probably wanted to send me to a re-education camp,” she speculates, “but because they knew that forcing me to abort my child was illegal, they didn’t want to make things worse, so they chose to detain me this way.”
While the woman’s story stands out, state surveillance has become common in Xinjiang, a region that Communist Party authorities have transformed into one of the world’s most tightly controlled police states.
Alim Seytoff, director of the Uighur service at Radio Free Asia, says his team has interviewed hundreds of people from ethnic minorities in Xinjiang who describe an environment of pervasive state-sponsored terror. People disappear into a system of internment camps, and if they’re not detained in a camp, they’re monitored at home.
“And all of these people suddenly began to disappear,” says Seytoff. “It’s like they had a plan. They had a goal. They had an objective to indoctrinate and intimidate them.”
Adrian Zenz, a researcher whose work focuses on Xinjiang, says the campaign to “re-educate” Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang is complicated for China’s government, because the Chinese Communist Party has historically used the nation’s ethnic minorities as “adding to the flavor and glory of a Han-centered empire.”
But he says the party expects ethnic minorities to “fully support and be behind the Communist Party and the Han Chinese culture as the lead culture, and the Chinese language as the main language. The Chinese find it difficult to trust ethnic minorities if they are too different.”
Zenz believes that in Xinjiang, China’s government is aiming to instill a strong sense of fear among Muslim ethnic minorities — “such a sense of fear and intimidation that nobody dares to do or say anything that may not be approved,” he says. “And from a Chinese perspective, if this leads to a strong behavioral confirmation and also a cultural or religious assimilation, that would be considered successful.”
Four months after her abortion, the woman says officials took her briefly to a re-education camp, escorted her to a room with a guard and asked her to face a television screen. On the screen, she saw a microphone on a table. A male voice spoke to her from off-screen.
“Do you want to stay in China or go back to Kazakhstan?” the voice asked.
“I wish to leave this country,” she said.
A week later, her wish was granted. Officers escorted her and her two children to the Kazakh border.
“At the border, they made me sign a pledge that I wouldn’t talk to journalists about what happened to me, what’s happening in Xinjiang, nor the fact that I had an abortion involuntarily,” she recalls. “Then they let me cross the border.”
A border, she says, she’ll never cross again.