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Kyrgyz men hold portraits of relatives they fear are being held in notorious ‘re-education camps’ in China’s Xinjiang region. (VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty Images)

Snapshots of China

Uighurs on Twitter

Brewing anger over detention of a famous singer and other Uighur minorities sparks a new social media campaign

Most Muslim countries have remained silent since reports began circulating last year about the Chinese government’s detention of 1 million Muslim Uighur minorities in Xinjiang, China’s semi-autonomous region in the Northwest. Many of those same countries have close trade ties with China. 

Yet on Saturday, Turkey condemned China for holding hundreds of thousands of Uighurs in re-education camps, where they face “torture and political brainwashing.” The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the reintroduction of internment camps a “great shame for humanity.”

“We call on the international community and the Secretary General of the United Nations to take effective measures in order to bring to an end this human tragedy in Xinjiang,” spokesman Hami Aksoy said in a statement. 

Aksoy went on to claim that the agency had learned that famous Uighur singer Abdurehim Heyit, whom Chinese officials imprisoned over a controversial song, had died while serving his sentence. Heyit was well-known in China for his skill at playing the dutar, a two-stringed lute, and performed with national arts troupes. He was detained for a song he performed called “Fathers,” which took its lyrics from a Uighur poem about the sacrifices of ancestors, according to the BBC. The lyrics “martyrs of war” caused the Chinese government to view Heyit as a terrorist threat and sentence him to eight years in prison. 

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying responded Monday by calling Turkey’s accusations “vile.” China Radio International’s Turkish language service posted a 25-second video on Sunday that purportedly showed Heyit was still alive. In the video, Heyit is seen in front of a gray wall, speaking haltingly. “My name is Abdurehim Heyit. Today is February 10, 2019. I’m in the process of being investigated for allegedly violating the national laws. I’m now in good health and have never been abused.”

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Mark Schiefelbein/AP

Drummers perform during Chinese New Year celebrations in Beijing. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

Snapshots of China

Holiday in jail

While most residents of China celebrate Chinese New Year, 14 church members remain in state custody

The world’s largest annual migration is currently underway as Chinese people return home to celebrate Chinese New Year this week. Chinese citizens are expected to make a whopping 2.99 billion trips by train, plane, and automobile between Jan. 21 and March 1, according to Lian Weiliang, the deputy director of China’s National Development and Reform Commission. 

Tourist attractions around the world are also packed with Chinese tourists, as 7 million people plan to travel internationally over the Chinese New Year holiday, according to Chinese ticketing company Ctrip. Big cities like Shanghai and Beijing have cleared out, the normally congested roads eerily empty and nearly every shop and restaurant closed. It’s the one time of year that extended family can gather around the table for home-cooked feasts. Grandparents hand out red envelopes of money to gleeful grandchildren, and nosy aunts and uncles pepper single young people with questions about their marriage prospects. 

Yet for 14 church members of Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, there won’t be a joyful Chinese New Year reunion this year. Instead, they’re stuck in unknown prisons cells without access to their families or their lawyers. The 14 include Pastor Wang Yi and his wife, Jiang Rong, as well as the church’s four elders: Li Yingqiang, Qin Defu, Matthew Bingsen Su, and Li Zihu. Authorities have monitored and followed their family members and frozen their bank accounts. Last week, several church members took Wang’s 11-year-old son Shuya out for a haircut, an ordeal that required a three-officer escort. According to a church post, Shuya said he felt like he was locked up with his parents as officers monitor and guard his grandmother’s home where he now lives. 

No one knows how Wang and Jiang are faring or where authorities are holding them. Officials have charged the couple with “inciting subversion of the state,” the same charge leveled against Christian human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who went missing in 2017. Jiang’s official notice revealed that she was placed under “residential surveillance in a designated location” (RSDL), a Chinese legal term for solitary confinement in a secret location outside the judicial system. It is likely Wang is also in RSDL.

Gao, a former WORLD Daniel of the Year, in his 2016 book Unwavering Convictions described his horrific treatment in RSDL: Guards tortured him with electric shock batons and beat him until they lost their breath. Others who experienced RSDL detainment said that they were force-fed unknown medicines and that interrogators threatened to harm family members until they agreed to film scripted confessions. 

In my reporting on Early Rain Covenant Church, I’ve interviewed Wang in person three times, once at an eye clinic after a church member was beaten by police for passing out pro-life flyers, once in his church office, once at a Starbucks by his home. What struck me most about Wang was that each word he spoke—even with his erudite turns of phrases—resounded with conviction. He was a man who had counted the cost of his actions, of the way he led his church, and of the potential pain his family would face, and decided that Jesus was worth it. 

“Separate me from my wife and children, ruin my reputation, destroy my life and my family—the authorities are capable of doing all of these things,” Wang wrote in a letter before his arrest. “However, no one in this world can force me to renounce my faith; no one can make me change my life; and no one can raise me from the dead.”

Free at last: 

Huang Yan, a dissident whom I profiled last year, landed in Los Angeles on Jan. 25 as she finally received asylum in the United States, according to China Aid. Huang, a Christian, was tortured in prison for her human rights work in China. 

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Tripod Films

A scene from People’s Republic Of Desire (Tripod Films)

Snapshots of China

China’s young internet idols

New documentary People’s Republic of Desire looks at a fascinating but disturbing livestreaming trend in China

In her apartment in Chengdu, China, 21-year-old Shen Man sits in front of her computer screen, a webcam pointed at her dolled-up face as she croons a love ballad into a microphone. Tens of thousands of people watch her livestream on their smartphones or computers, sending virtual gifts of flowers or lollipops—each costing between 15 cents a few dollars—to show their support. Big spenders gain VIP titles by sending bigger gifts reaching into the thousands of dollars, and in response Shen cooingly thanks them by username. Each month, Shen earns $40,000 as a top YY.com livestream host.

The new documentary People’s Republic of Desire follows Shen and another top YY host, rotund and deep-voiced comedian Big Li, to explore the fascinating, disturbing, and ultimately tragic world of high-stakes livestreaming in China. Beyond interviews with hosts, die-hard fans, and crazy-rich patrons, the documentary uses clever animation to bring viewers into this brave new digital world. 

Many of the livestream viewers are low-class migrant workers looking for an escape from the drudgery of menial jobs and the loneliness of living far from home. Some spend their meager paychecks on virtual gifts for their “idols,” hoping for a shout-out that often never comes. Big Li especially attracts self-proclaimed “diaosi,” or losers, as he was also once a lowly migrant worker. He now makes $60,000 a month by livestreaming.  

Big-spending patrons come from China’s nouveau riche. Patrons give money to their favored hosts in order to attract the attention of the hosts as well as the army of fans who want to chat with someone rich. One patron, the corpulent Songge, who admits he works in “profiteering,” has spent $2 million on YY hosts. He notes that being a patron gives him a sense of control as the indebted hosts (many of whom are young, attractive women) feel obliged to do whatever the patron says. 

The documentary centers on an annual competition that pits top hosts against each other to see who can gain the most votes, which each vote costing viewers about 15 cents. Agencies sponsor certain promising hosts, purchasing large amounts of votes to build up momentum and taking a large cut of the total profits. The winning hosts gain fame and fortune as well as the coveted top spot on the YY website. One fan interviewed said she would spend about $800 on the competition, even though she makes about $600 a month. 

Even as the fans idolize their hosts, Shen Man and Big Li battle their own demons. Shen Man’s father and stepmother move in and mooch off of Shen’s earnings. She gets plastic surgery to better compete with younger, up-and-coming hosts. Patrons call asking for favors—at times sexual—in exchange for the money they’ve spent on her, and Shen’s scandals with married men damage her reputation. She admits that she’s tired and lonely, even as she sits in her new, princess-style apartment.

Big Li, whose rags-to-riches story inspires others, is himself facing a downward spiral. Fixated on winning the annual competition, he neglects his wife and young son and idly sleeps all day, lying on the couch staring at his phone. His marriage falls apart, he gets scammed by an anonymous sponsor, and he puts $850,000 of his own money into the competition, only to fail again. At one point he reminisces about how much easier his life was as a migrant worker, before YY fame and money entered the picture.

In the end, the real winner is the YY app: One news broadcaster said YY receives about 60 percent of the total profit, with the rest split between hosts and their agencies.

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