I was born at the very end of the 1960s in a poor, unattractive little settlement on the northwestern edge of the Taklamakan Desert. This settlement was a production brigade in the Peyzawat Land Reclamation Sector, which belonged to the third division of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps. The production brigades in the sector were situated several kilometers from one another; traveling between brigades meant a trip down dirt roads through the desert. Residents lived in simple, identical mud-brick homes provided by the government. When there was tilling and harvesting to be done, members of the brigade worked collectively in the wide fields surrounding the settlement. These fields were newly reclaimed land. Carrying their mattocks on their shoulders, brigade members would walk together to the fields. Salaries were equal. Food—primarily corn flour—was provided according to quota. Meat, oil, rice, vegetables, fruit, and wheat flour were precious commodities. Sometimes we would go months without seeing sugar.
Where we lived, the most prized possessions were bicycles, wristwatches, and radios. A radio was the most important means of understanding the outside world and the leading source of entertainment. Each radio had chrome casing and a belt to hang around your neck. Men would strap on their wristwatches, seat their wives on the backs of their bicycles, and turn up the volume on the radios hanging around their necks as they rode to and from the bazaar. These were their happiest moments. My mother and father would ride like that to the bazaar, and in the evening would bring me back a round girde roll made from real wheat flour—not that coarse corn flour we always ate—and four or five candies. I would be the happiest kid in the world.
My father’s beloved radio usually hung from a post in our house. No one was allowed to touch it. We listened to the state’s propaganda news items, the weather reports that were always wrong, and the songs praising the party. My mom would hum along to the songs as she did housework.
The neighborhood kids would take apart old broken radios. We looked with fascination at the parts, unable to imagine how sound could emerge from them. It was the magnet behind the speaker that interested us most. We liked to remove the magnet and use it to find nails we buried under the sand. The magnet’s iron-pulling magic amazed us.
One morning, there was a big commotion in the broad courtyard in front of our house. When I ran outside, I saw a policeman in his black- brimmed white cap, white jacket, and blue pants alongside two People’s Militia members in civilian clothing with red armbands and guns. They were marching along a man with his hands tied behind his back and a tall paper hat on his head. From the looks of it, they had paraded this man on foot all the way from another production brigade. The policeman was saying something to the people gathered around them. My mom put down her laundry and joined me out in the courtyard. The two of us approached the crowd. I wasn’t able to push through, though, and couldn’t tell what was happening. After a little while the crowd began to disperse. We went home, too.
“What happened to that man?” I asked my mom.
“He listened to the Soviet revisionists’ radio station,” she replied sadly.
I grew still more interested. “How did he manage to listen to it?”
“During collective labor he excused himself to use the bathroom, hid behind a tamarisk bush, and took out the radio he had tucked away in his clothes. While he was listening to dirty songs from Tashkent, someone found him and told the brigade leader.” Her tone was solemn.
“What will they do with him now?” I asked.
My mom lowered her voice a little. “It’s been a month since they caught him. For the last five days they’ve been parading him around, brigade by brigade. Looks like they’ll sentence him soon.” She looked nervously toward the open door.
“What’s a dirty song?”
My mother continued washing the laundry. “A dirty song is a bad song.”
“What kind of bad song?” I asked, undeterred.
“You’re still little,” sighed my mom. “Don’t worry about it.”
After a little while, I stepped outside to take a look. It was noon on a summer day, and the weather was scorching. The courtyard was empty, aside from the poor man in the paper hat sitting in the center. The policeman and the two people’s soldiers must have left to eat lunch at the brigade leader’s house.
I suddenly realized how thirsty I was. Stepping back inside, I filled a mug with water from the bucket in the corner and drank it in one go. Then it occurred to me how thirsty that man must be. “Should I bring him some water?” I asked my mother. Without getting up from her laundry, my mom craned her head to glance outside. “OK.”
I took a full mug of water and walked up to the man. He was sitting with his head hanging down and didn’t even sense that I had approached him. I held the mug up, directly in front of his eyes; startled, he raised his head and looked at me. The man was older than my father. His pallid face was smeared with black. His beard was overgrown, his lips chapped. The tall pointy hat on his head, made from newspaper, would make anyone look ridiculous. His hands were tied behind him, so I held the mug to his lips. He drank the water just as I had, in a single gulp. He looked at me and smiled. I turned and ran back home.
For years I couldn’t stop wondering what a dirty song was. Later I learned that the “dirty songs” the man had listened to were in fact Uyghur folk songs broadcast on Tashkent radio. Many Uyghur folk songs center on romantic love, and in those years when humanity was denied and each person was a cog in the giant revolutionary machine, such songs were banned as “dirty songs.” Many other people in that period were punished for “listening to reactionary propaganda on enemy radio.” In the Uyghur region, “enemy radio” largely referred to radio stations in the Soviet Union’s Central Asian republics.
The situation improved considerably in the early 1980s. Listening to foreign radio ceased to be considered a crime, and Uyghur folk songs previously considered “dirty songs” were played freely on the Uyghur region’s radio stations. But the Chinese government’s information blockade did not slacken altogether. Even after film, television, and cassette recordings began to replace the radio in people’s lives, many still used shortwave radios to access otherwise restricted information from foreign radio programs.
Concerned by this, the Chinese government began taking measures to block the reception of foreign radio signals. In particular, following the 2009 Urumchi incident, the government increased funding for radio jamming equipment to prevent “the infiltration of enemy forces and ethnic splittist forces from abroad.” Many people, however, refused to give up listening to foreign radio. In early 2010, a friend of mine from Hotan told me proudly how his younger brother could calibrate a radio such that it would only receive Radio Free Asia’s Uyghur-language service, and with a very clear signal. His younger brother had studied electrical engineering in college. I heard that he adjusted the shortwave radios of quite a few people in this way.
Now, by prohibiting the sale of shortwave radios and confiscating them from Uyghurs who already owned them, the government was seeking to completely cut off access to information from abroad. Unable to visit foreign websites or listen to radio from other countries, we suddenly found ourselves living like frogs at the bottom of a well.
From Waiting to be Arrested at Night: A Uyghur Poet’s Memoir of China’s Genocide by Tahir Hamut Izgil, translated by Joshua L. Freeman. Copyright © 2023 by Tahir Hamut Izgil, 2023. Published by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Random House LLC. Translation copyright © 2023 by Joshua L. Freeman. All rights reserved.