Muslim women whose husbands have been detained in Chinese internment camps are reportedly being forced to share beds with male government officials assigned to monitor them in their homes.
Communist party workers regularly sleep alongside members of persecuted Uighur minority families during surveillance visits that last up to a week, party sources told Radio Free Asia (RFA).
The monitoring forms part of the systematic repression of Muslims in China’s western Xinjiang region, where experts and human rights groups believe more than a million Uighurs – most of them men – have been arbitrarily detained in secretive re-education camps.
Those who are not incarcerated face an increasingly strict security regime which includes armed checkpoints, ID cards, and streets lined with facial recognition cameras.
Since early last year, Uighur families in Xinjiang have been required to invite government officials into their homes, provide them information about their lives and political views, and comply with political indoctrination.
China has deployed more than a million spies – most of them male and part of the country’s Han ethnic majority – to stay in Uighur households every two months as part of what it calls the “Pair Up and Become Family” programme.
During their visits, the officials – who the government describes as “relatives” of the monitored families – work, eat, and often share a bed with their “hosts”, one Communist party officer told RFA.
“They stay with their paired relatives day and night,” said the officer, who oversees 70 to 80 families in Yengisar county and spoke on condition of anonymity.
“Normally one or two people sleep in one bed, and if the weather is cold, three people sleep together,” he added.
The officer described the spies as “helping” the Uighur families “with their ideology, bringing new ideas” and “talk to them about life, during which time they develop feelings for one another”.
He claimed he had “never heard” of any official attempting to take advantage or sexually abuse someone they were staying with, and suggested it was “now considered normal for females to sleep on the same platform with their paired male relatives”.
The government describes the programme as voluntary, but China’s Muslims are well aware that refusing any state initiative can lead to being branded a potential extremist. Social media images show the new “relatives” attending Uighur weddings, funerals and other occasions once considered intimate and private.
The head of a neighbourhood committee in Yengisar confirmed to RFA that male officials regularly slept alongside Uighur women during their stays. He suggested it was considered acceptable for officials to maintain a distance of one metre from their “hosts” at night, and claimed no one had complained about the arrangement.
Human Rights Watch has previously said Uighur families are given no option to refuse the visits, which it said were an an example of “deeply invasive forced assimilation practices” that “not only violate basic rights, but are also likely to foster and deepen resentment in the region”.
“Muslim families across Xinjiang are now literally eating and sleeping under the watchful eye of the state in their own homes,” said Maya Wang, a senior China researcher at the organisation.
Peter Irwin, spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress exile group, told The Independent the programme marked “a perverse step forward” in China’s repression of Muslims.
“What it represents is the complete destruction of the line between private and public life,” he added. “Having Chinese men or Chinese police officials basically staying in their homes is not a new thing, but it’s about keeping tabs on people as closely as possible.
“It’s a programme to eliminate the identity of Uighurs by ensuring that people cannot express themselves.”
Mr Irwin said he did not know if it was Chinese policy for officials to sleep in Uighur families’ beds during monitoring visits but “this has happened in the past, there have been reported cases of it”.
He added: “In any other country or any other place on Earth, we would think this is insane, but in China it just seems like par for the course in terms of what they’ve been doing in the past two or three years.
“Of course, monitoring people, that’s something, but having a policy of perhaps people sleeping in the same beds as people, that’s a perverse step forward that we haven’t seen before.”
China has said the home visits are aimed at “fostering ethnic harmony,” with officials tasked with teaching families Mandarin and Communist Party songs, participating in group activities, and helping out around the house.
The government depicts its wider crackdown on Xinjiang’s Muslims as a “war on terror” launched following a series of alleged extremist attacks in 2014. After initially denying the existence of internment camps, the government later began referring to them as voluntary “vocational training centres”.
But former detainees have alleged that inmates are subjected to torture, medical experiments and gang rape.
Last week the UK joined 22 other countries at the United Nations in condemning Beijing’s persecution of Muslims, calling on China to respect human rights and its citizens’ freedom of religion.