Xinjiang’s Voiceless Protests Hit Social Media

Videos show Uighurs silently posing with photos of detained relatives.

Screenshots of videos on TikTok.
Screenshots of videos on TikTok.

For a fleeting moment, the video looks like the beginning of a makeup tutorial. 

A young woman in pink lipstick leans in to adjust the camera, but as she gives a nervous smile, a tear rolls down her cheek. Behind her is a photograph of two men, thought to be relatives who have disappeared into the vast system of internment camps in China’s Xinjiang region. While she doesn’t say a word in the 15-second video clip, it is a powerful statement of defiance in one of the most heavily surveilled places on Earth.

Dozens of videos of people standing solemnly and silently in front of photographs of loved ones who have disappeared have emerged on Douyin, the Chinese original of the popular social media app TikTok. In another subtle message, the videos all play the same mournful song called “Donmek,” which means “return” in Turkish.

Between 800,000 and 2 million Uighurs, Kazhaks, and other Muslim ethnic minorities have been detained in China’s northwest region of Xinjiang, according to U.S. State Department estimates citing media and human rights watchdogs. Xinjiang is totally locked down, with facial recognition technology, constant checkpoints, and cell-phone monitoring to track Uighurs’ every move. 

Uighurs living outside of China have not been spared surveillance and intimidation by the Chinese authorities, but an increasing number are speaking out. In February, a Uighur doctor living in Finland launched the #MeTooUygur social media campaign to demand proof from Beijing that their disappeared loved ones are still alive. The Xinjiang Victims Database collects testimonies from relatives.

While it is not possible to fully verify the origins of the videos, the fact that they emerged solely on one of the few social media apps available in the region, and the nature of the comments posted beneath them, suggests they came from within Xinjiang, making it the first act of resistance to the camps from the region to reach the outside world. 

“This is the first time we’ve seen a pattern of protest that has made it to the outside world, since the hard turn towards internment and the totalitarian administration of Xinjiang,” said Rian Thum, a historian who has conducted research in Xinjiang for almost two decades. 

Both Douyin and TikTok were created by the Beijing-based tech company ByteDance and allow users to create and share short, usually funny video clips. Last November, TikTok became the first Chinese-made app to reach the No. 1 spot on Apple’s App Store in the United States. 

Unlike other major social media platforms, TikTok, which is popular around the world, has largely remained apolitical, in part due to its limited space for text. As such, it is one of the few apps that remain available in Xinjiang, where communications are tightly controlled by the Chinese authorities. The lack of text or voice makes the videos harder for the authorities to monitor, unlike on other Chinese social media apps like the ubiquitous WeChat, where censors constantly add to the list of banned terms. 

The comments below the videos also offer a hint that they originate in Xinjiang itself. Despite the topic at hand, the comments are clipped and unemotional. In one video, a woman tries to caress the face of the man in the photograph behind her. A comment below asks, “Is your husband alive?” 

“Alive,” she replies. 

“I would say it’s pretty certain these are coming from inside [the region],” Thum said. 

The way in which the Uighur language is transliterated into Latin characters is also consistent with the way people in the region write, said Arslan Hidayat, a Uighur Australian human rights activist who collected almost three dozen of the videos into a thread on Twitter. 

Even though the people in the videos remain silent—another giveaway that they are likely still in China—that could still be enough for them to be at great risk, said Thum the historian. 

“Any kind of hint of dissatisfaction as to what’s happening is enough to raise the authorities suspicion. And any kind of suspicion is enough to get them sent to the camps,” he said. 

Hidayat first noticed his friends sharing the videos on Facebook and Twitter and decided to start gathering them up. At first he said he paused out of concern that in sharing them he could put the people in further jeopardy, but having seen their determination, he decided to help them get their message out. 

Speaking with Foreign Policy, Hidayat likened the videos to a message in a bottle and has tagged his collection of the videos with the hashtag #WeHearU.

“I’m basically saying, ‘Look, I’ve grabbed your bottle, and we’re going to spread your message,’” he said. 

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Tag: China

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