After the Urumqi riots, Humar decided the new security measures made a career as an investigative reporter impossible. It would be difficult for her to go undercover as Zhu had. Outside Xinjiang, as soon as Uighurs checked into a hotel, the police paid them a visit, checking their identification and asking questions. As she puzzled through what this meant for her future, she saw no famous Uighur journalists whom she could emulate.
In some ways, Humar knew she was lucky. Her features were “Han-passing”; people did not know she was Uighur until she told them, and many didn’t believe her when she did. But as soon as she showed her ID, she would be relegated to Uighur status and all the bigotry that came with it. On long rides between Hami and Beijing, Humar encountered passengers who, thinking she was also Han, complained about how dirty and uncivilized Uighurs were.
The web remained her solace. She spent a lot of time on Douban, a site dedicated to discussion of books, movies and music. At an in-person dinner for frequent commenters, she met Wang Tonghe, a Han from Yuanshi, in Hebei Province. Tonghe was curious about her immediately. He had gone to university in Inner Mongolia, where he cultivated a passion for languages, majoring in English and minoring in French, studying Mongolian and Korean; he had even taught himself Na’vi — the language in “Avatar” — for fun. Tonghe was intrigued by Uighur culture; he’d read a bit of Uighur literature in translation and admired the music. Like many liberal Han, he did not know what to make of the reports on the Urumqi riots, and he wanted badly to ask Humar what had really gone on there, but sensed it was inappropriate.
A year after the dinner, they started dating. When Humar explained to Tonghe that she could not tell her parents about their relationship, it didn’t bother him much. They were young, and any excuse for kicking adult questions down the line was welcome.
In her senior year, Humar started an internship at Tencent, an online messaging company that was branching out into curating news. She proved herself valuable enough to be offered a job upon graduation. Zohre told everyone — Tencent is one of the most famous companies in the country, and in 2017 would become the first Chinese tech firm to join companies like Apple and Facebook in being valued at over $500 billion. China was clamping down on print outlets, but there was still some freedom online — though that space, too, was contracting in more subtle ways. In addition to blocking websites, government censors were increasingly using filters to block keywords. Some were always banned: “Tiananmen incident,” “June 4” (the date of the Tiananmen Square massacre), “Dalai Lama” and “Taiwan independence.” Other dictates changed daily, which set off cat-and-mouse games involving coded terms or homonyms — “eye field” for freedom, “crotch central committee” for Communist Party Central Committee, “govern-rot” as a jab at corrupt government. The state deployed its own nationalist bloggers — nicknamed the “50-cent party,” because the job supposedly paid 50 cents per post — to steer conversations online and overwhelm the narrative.
In late 2012, Xi Jinping became the general secretary of the Communist Party. Average citizens were frustrated with the endemic corruption of party officials, and some welcomed his vision of tackling malfeasance. But Xi began amassing authority, flouting unspoken conventions on power sharing within the party. Humar watched as the nightly news from Xinhua, the country’s official news agency, which previously tended to feature multiple high-ranking figures — not just the premier but also the party chairman and others — now became about Xi alone. Xi continued reversing the political, social and economic openings of recent decades.
Humar, still a fervent believer in the power of free information, applied for a job at a website called Zhihu, similar to America’s Quora, where users curate questions and answers. At Zhihu, she found a niche in her Uighur identity, and she used it to act as a bridge between communities. After the riots, many Han were genuinely curious about Uighurs. Some had bought the government propaganda that Uighurs were villains, but on Zhihu, Humar could tell her personal story, explaining what it was like to be a Uighur in China, and many responded with sympathy. China had not blossomed into the country Humar had hoped it would become, but she reasoned that if she could change one person’s mind about Uighurs, that would be something.