The two women in the photograph were smiling, but Halmurat Idris knew something was terribly wrong.
One was his 39-year-old sister; standing at her side was an elderly woman Idris did not know. Their grins were tight-lipped, mirthless. Her sister had posted the picture on a social media account along with a caption punctuated by a smiley-face.
“Look, I have a Han Chinese mother now!” his sister wrote.
Idris knew instantly: The old woman was a spy, sent by the Chinese government to infiltrate his family.
WATCH: China calls Human Rights Watch ‘full of prejudice’ after criticism of Xinjiang policy
There are many like her. According to the ruling Communist Party’s official newspaper, as of the end of September, 1.1 million local government workers have been deployed to ethnic minorities’ living rooms, dining areas and Muslim prayer spaces, not to mention at weddings, funerals and other occasions once considered intimate and private.
All this is taking place in China’s far west region of Xinjiang, home to the predominantly Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uighurs, who have long reported discrimination at the hands of the country’s majority Han Chinese.
While government notices about the “Pair Up and Become Family” program portray it as an affectionate cultural exchange, Uighurs living in exile in Turkey said their loved ones saw the campaign as a chilling intrusion into the only place that they once felt safe.
“The moment I saw the old woman, I thought, ‘Ugh, this person is our enemy.’ If your enemy became your mother, think about it — how would you feel?”Tensions between Muslim minorities and Han Chinese have bubbled over in recent years, resulting in violent attacks pegged to Uighur separatists and a fierce government crackdown on broadly defined “extremism” that has placed as many as 1 million Muslims in internment camps, according to estimates by experts and a human rights group.Uighurs say the omnipresent threat of being sent to one of these centers, which are described as political indoctrination camps by former detainees, looms large in their relatives’ minds when they are forced to welcome party members into their homes. Last December, Xinjiang authorities organized a “Becoming Family Week” which placed more than 1 million cadres in minority households. Government reports on the program gushed about the warm “family reunions,” as public servants and Uighurs shared meals and even beds.Another notice showed photos of visitors helping Uighur children with their homework and cooking meals for their “families.” The caption beneath a photo of three women lying in bed, clad in pajamas, said the cadre was “sleeping with her relatives in their cozy room.”A different photo showed two women “studying the 19th Party Congress and walking together into the new era” — a nod to when Xi’s name was enshrined in the party constitution alongside the likes of Deng Xiaoping and Mao Zedong.Becoming Family Week turned out to be a test run for a standardized homestay program. The Xinjiang United Front Work Department said in February that government workers should live with their assigned families every two months, for five days at a time.The United Front, a Communist Party agency, indicates in the notice that the program is mandatory for cadres. Likewise, Idris and other interviewees said their families understood that they would be deemed extremists if they refused to take part.WATCH: Coverage of China and human rights on Globalnews.ca: Cadres, who are generally civilians working in the public sector, are directed to attend important family events such as the naming of newborns, circumcisions, weddings and funerals of close relatives. They must have a firm grasp of each family member’s ideological state, social activities, religion, income, their challenges and needs, as well as basic details on immediate relatives, the notice said.Families were to be paid a daily rate of 20 to 50 yuan ($2.80 to $7.80) to cover the cost of meals shared with their newfound relatives. Some families might be paired with two or three cadres at a time, according to the notice, and the regularly mandated house calls could be supplanted with trips to the local party office.A February piece on the Communist Party’s official news site said: “The vast majority of party cadres are not only living inside villagers’ homes, but also living inside the hearts of the masses.”Overseas Uighurs said the “visits” to their relatives’ homes often lasted longer than five days, and they were closely monitored the whole time. The cadres would ask their family members where they were going and who they were meeting whenever they wanted to leave the house.“They couldn’t pray,” said Abduzahir Yunus, a 23-year-old Uighur originally from Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital. “Praying or even having a Quran at home could endanger the whole family.” Yunus, who now lives in Istanbul, said his father used to lament to him about being visited three to four times a week by the administrator of his neighborhood committee, a middle-aged Han Chinese man. The surprise house calls began in 2016, and it was “impossible to say no,” Yunus said. They often coincided with times traditionally designated for prayer.“Their aim is to assimilate us,” Yunus said. “They want us to eat like them, sleep like them and dress like them.”After Yunus’s parents and older brother were detained, only Yunus’s sister-in-law and 5-year-old brother remained in the house. Around the beginning of 2018, the Han Chinese man started staying with them full-time.Uighurs said they were particularly repulsed by the thought of male visitors living under the same roof as their female relatives and children — a practice contrary to their faith. Women and kids are sometimes the only ones left at home after male family members are sent to internment camps.In recent years, the government has even encouraged Uighurs and Han Chinese to tie the knot.Starting in 2014, Han-Uighur spouses in one county were eligible to receive 10,000 yuan ($1,442) annually for up to five years following the registration of their marriage license.Such marriages are highly publicized. The party committee in Luopu county celebrated the marriage of a Uighur woman and a “young lad” from Henan in an official social media account in October 2017. The man, Wang Linkai, had been recruited through a program that brought university graduates to work in the southern Xinjiang city of Hotan.“They will let ethnic unity forever bloom in their hearts,” the party committee’s post said. “Let ethnic unity become one’s own flesh and blood.”READ MORE: China temporarily censors the letter ‘N’ as Xi Jinping looks to extend his time in power (Feb. 2018)___Not all “Become Family” pairings involve Han Chinese visitors. A Uighur cadre named Gu Li said she regularly pays visits to a Uighur household, staying three to five days at a time.“We’ve already started calling each other family,” she said in a telephone interview from Xinjiang. “China’s 56 ethnic groups are all one family.”Gu said civil servants of many ethnicities — Uighur, Han and Kazakh — participate in the program.All government employees in the region are required to conduct such visits in order to better understand villagers’ needs, according to Gu: “Because we’re always sitting in our offices, we don’t know what they really need. Only through penetrating the masses can we truly serve them.”As with many of the government’s other initiatives in Xinjiang, the “Pair Up and Become Family” program is presented as a way to rescue Muslim minorities from poverty. Public servants show up at homes bearing bags of rice and gallons of cooking oil, and their duties include helping with chores and farm work.