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by Darren Byler
posted August 2, 2019
I first heard the term fangbian (方便 convenience) in use as a young undergraduate student who was traveling in China. In a village high up in the mountains of Jiuzhaigou, a beautiful national park in Sichuan Province, the only things that were available for hungry tourists to eat were spicy “convenience noodles” (fangbian mian 方便面). As a language student I appreciated the way the phrase tripped off the tongue, the bian rhyming with the mian. I also liked the image it made me conjure. Convenience noodles. They really were convenient, all you had to do was fill the cardboard bowl with “boiled water” (kaishui 开水), something that before the arrival of bottled water was necessary for hydration across rural China, and let the noodles steep.
I soon learned that convenience had more abstract meanings and uses in Chinese. It could be used in making a “win-win” (shuangying 双赢) deal with someone—a phrasing that moved from everyday speech to government policy. In that context one could say, “I’ll convenience you, if you will convenience me” (wo fangbian ni, ni fangbian wo 我方便你，你方便我). I also learned that it could be used as a euphemism for ideas or actions that were potentially embarrassing if said directly. For instance, perhaps the most common usage of the term was when one needed to use the bathroom. All one needed to say was “I am going to convenience myself a bit” (wo qu fangbian yixia 我去方便一下) and everyone in the room knew exactly what sort of easement or stress relief you intended to do.
It wasn’t until I started my ethnographic fieldwork in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region that I came to understand the way “convenience” (fangbian 方便) could be used to steer clear of politically “sensitive” (mingan敏感) topics. In my conversations with Han interlocutors and government workers, I often found conversations redirected. For instance, I was told that it was “not too convenient” (bu tai fangbian 不太方便) to talk about the history of the independent East Turkistan Republic or the way Turkic Muslims such as Uyghurs and Kazakhs were prevented from practicing aspects of their faith.
Other researchers have also told me how convenience was used to avoid sensitive topics in other locations across the Sinophone world. For instance, the anthropologist Stevan Harrell recalled the term being used by villagers in Taiwan in 1972. He said, “people used the idea of ‘convenience’ when they wanted to refuse a request. For example, if I wanted to interview someone and they didn’t want to do it they would say bu tai fangbian or, in Taiwanese, khat bo hong-pien, the adverb khat being somewhat equivalent to the Mandarin term bijiao (比较) or “relatively.”
Similarly, another American researcher recalled her puzzlement as she gradually came to realize the way that fangbian was used to euphemize political sensitivity. On a university campus in Beijing in 1982, several of her close friends and colleagues suddenly intimated to her that it was no longer fangbian for them to speak with her. Incredulous that what she had thought were solid relationships were now matters of “convenience,” she eventually gathered that there had been a crackdown after the detention of an American researcher that month, and consequently university personnel were being warned to avoid interacting with foreigners. Another researcher, recalled being told by local authorities in 1980s Guizhou that it was “not convenient” for him to stay in hotels that were not approved for foreigners. In multiple instances – from Taiwan to Guizhou – the invocation of convenience was followed by intimations that it was done out of “consideration for the safety” (kaolu dao anquan 考虑到安全) of the person who was in fact being inconvenienced. These instances seem to indicate that this euphemistic use of fangbian is a linguistic and cultural convention that extends across Sinophone space for at least the last 50 years.
In frontier zones such as Xinjiang, fangbian is more than simply a source of puzzlement and inconvenience for disoriented researchers. For my Muslim friends who were native to Xinjiang, the political use of the term was invoked when they were told by authority figures that their halal lifestyle itself was “inconvenient” (bu fangbian 不方便). For instance, a young Kazakh woman told me how the term was used when she applied for a job at a newspaper soon after she graduated from college in the late 2000s. She said, “At first they were welcoming and interested, but then they called and rejected me. When I asked why (the Han manager) provided a bunch of excuses, but the main reason was that ‘it will be ‘inconvenient’ (bu fangbian 不方便) for you due to your diet restrictions.’ I said that shouldn’t be a problem and I was still interested in the job. I pressed and pressed him, but he kept talking about ‘inconvenience’ (bu fangbian 不方便) over and over. Even when I said I was not that religious, he still said no.”
The young woman said that it “felt terrible” to be rejected like that simply because of her ethnicity. It would have been easier to accept if the manager would have admitted that it just was “not ‘convenient’ for them” (tamen bu fangbian 他们不方便) to hire her. It was the fact that “they made it about me, ‘it’s not convenient for you’ (zhe dui ni lai shuo bu fangbian 这对你来说不方便)” that made her most angry. She said that the paternalism in this language game of “fake politeness” (jia limao 假礼貌), where Han authority figures “pretend to take care of” (jiazhuang zhaogu 假装照顾) minorities, is a common feature of daily life for Uyghurs and Kazakhs.
In Xinjiang the politicized discourse of convenience has extended beyond discussions of senstive topics, it has also been a major part of Chinese techno-political “development” (fazhan 发展) more broadly. In the space of Xinjang, the infrastructure of convenience has produced a differential experience of this development. Since 2014, as Chinese authorities have begun a process of “reeducating” (zai jiaoyu 再教育) Turkic Muslims across Xinjiang, the “pretending to take care of” minorities that my Kazakh friend thought masked a kind of self-protection has moved to identification and surveillance systems. The way this first appeared was with an official passcard system that was referred to as a “People’s Convenience Card” (bianminka 便民卡). This “green card” (yeshil kart) as it was referred to in Uyghur, was required for all migrants, the “floating population” (liudong renkou 流动人口) within Xinjiang. The bluish-green plastic card had a scannable QR code and identifying information about each adult that allowed security workers easy access to the person’s social history. They simply had to scan the person’s card with their smart phone and a file of the person’s information would appear. For Turkic Muslims the card was a requirement to pass through the many counter-terrorism “security gates” (tongdao 通道, see post by Rippa) at the jurisdictional boundaries of their home counties. It was also necessary for them when registering for housing or finding a job. To obtain this “good citizen” (hao gongmin 好公民) card, Turkic Muslim migrants were required to return to their “registered places of origin” (hukou 户口) and ask the local police to perform a background check.
The types of people for whom this card was actually “convenient” (fangbian方便) became apparent quickly. The process of obtaining this card varied sharply depending on the ethnicity of the applicant. Han internal migrants in Xinjiang were able to obtain the card rather easily and were rarely asked to produce it at checkpoints or for other registrations. One Han friend in Ürümchi told me, “It was just ‘a little bit of trouble’ (you yidian’er mafan 有一点儿麻烦). I just asked a relative to go to the police station in my hometown and get it for me. It came in the mail.”
Most Uyghurs said they had “no method” (Uy: amal yok; mei banfa 没办法) to obtain the card. Less than 10 percent of the dozens I spoke with said they or other relatives in the city were able to obtain it. Nearly all found that the officer in charge of processing their applications was never available to meet them. The only possible way a Uyghur could get the card was if they “drew on connections” (la guanxi 拉关系) with authorities in their home village. The price and process involved in this was quite high and deeply inconvenient. First, they had to establish the local price for the card which ranged from 500-1500 dollars and meet secretly to give a small payment to the local leader of their village work team. Then they had to wait several weeks before a secret meeting was arranged by the local leader with the officer in charge of processing the card. At this meeting they gave the officer in charge a larger payment. Several weeks later they would find out if their application was approved. Most people never got this far in the process. The “People’s Convenience Card” (bianminka 便民卡) system produced what Uyghur migrants referred to as an “open air prison” (Uy: sirttiki türme). Because access to the city was contingent on possessing the card, the card resulted in hundreds of thousands of minority migrants being “relocated” (anzhi 安置, see Sugimoto post) from the city and held in rural immobility.
This passcard system was part of a larger “gridification” (wanggehua 网格化) policing strategy. As with other “logistical” (wuliao 无聊, see Yang post) systems, it attempted to increase the efficient flow of the things and people that were desired by local authorities, while decreasing the circulation of things and people that were unwanted. In official documents local authorities referred to this as an important aspect of “stability work” (weiwen gongzuo 维稳工作) in fighting the “three evils forces” (sangu xie’e shili 三股邪恶势力) of “religious extremism, ethnic separatism and violent terrorism” (zongjiao jiduan zhuyi, minzu fenlie zhuyi, baoli kongbu zhuyi 宗教极端主义，民族分裂主义, 暴力恐怖主义). The grid of checkpoints and surveillance was designed to provide feelings of security and convenience for card holders, most of whom were Han (see Byler 2018a).
In May 2016 the “People’s Convenience Card” (bianminka 便民卡) system was taken to a new level (The Economist 2016). At this time, even if Uyghurs had the card, those without urban household registration were not allowed to leave their home counties without official permission. A new system of more than 7,700 “People’s Convenience Police Stations” (bianmin jingwuzhan 便民警務站) was built across the region (Wong 2019). The stations which were built every 200-300 meters have come to function as technology hubs in the segmented “grid” (wangge 网格) of the policing logistics system that strove to achieve full knowledge of the lives of Turkic Muslims as they moved between checkpoints. According to an interview with a Han police officer in Ürümchi, the stations hosted teams who performed 24-hour “seamless” (wufeng 无缝) patrols through their square of the grid (Zhang, 2016). These patrols had five features: “fixed duty, video patrol, car patrol, foot patrol, and plainclothes patrol” in order to make “the people” (renmin 人民) feel “safe” (fangxin 放心). This term which refers to being put at ease, or being made to rest assured, is a corollary to the political usage of “convenience” (fangbian 方便) as a descriptor of remaining in “safe” non-sensitive political territory. One of the purposes of these stations was to support a shequ (社区, see Cartier post), a term that alludes to a state-directed neighborhood watch unit. In 2016 each shequ was tasked with assessing every adult resident in their neighborhood. Using a scoring system that examined the individual’s age, ethnicity, social network and employment and religious background, they determined which individuals were “safe, normal, unsafe” (fangxin, yiban, bufangxin 放心，一般，不放心). Hundreds of thousands of Turkic Muslims who they decided were “unsafe” were sent into a massive network of “transformation through education centers” (jiaoyu zhuanhua zhongxin 教育转化中心) that function as internment camps.
The Han police officer also told the reporter (Zhang 2016) that the “People’s Convenience Police Stations” provide “the people” (renmin人民) with the conveniences of public toilets, wireless WiFi, first aid kits, mobile phone charging station, escort services for the elderly and children and legal publicity work. In early 2017 a friend and mentor, Xinjiang University Professor Rahile Dawut, joked about this with a colleague. She told him “the officials say that if you are thirsty or need to charge a mobile phone, you can visit a People’s Convenience Police Station and they will help. I’ve always wanted to see if I could get a bottle of water if I ask’” (Timothy Grose in Byler 2018b). Rahile never had a chance to test the material convenience of the People’s Convenience Police Stations, in December 2017 she was found to be “unsafe” (bu fangxin 不放心) and was taken by the police. In the logic of political convenience, the police found her presence to be an “inconvenience” (bu fangbian 不方便).
Byler, Darren. 2018a. Violent Paternalism: On the Banality of Uyghur Unfreedom. Asia-Pacific Journal. V.16, I. 24, No. 4, https://apjjf.org/-Darren-Byler/5228/article.pdf.
Byler, Darren. 2018b. The Disappearance of Rahile Dawut. Los Angeles Review of Books (November 2nd). https://chinachannel.org/2018/11/02/dawut-dawut/.
The Economist. 2016. Xinjiang: The Race Card. https://www.economist.com/china/2016/09/03/the-race-card.
Zhang Xinde 張萬德. 2016. 乌鲁木齐市大街小巷将建949个便民警务站 [949 People’s Convenience Police Stations have been built in the streets of Ürümchi]. Yaxin Net. https://kknews.cc/society/2a4mrng.html.
Wong, Chun Han. 2019. China’s Hard Edge: The Leader of Beijing’s Muslim Crackdown Gains Influence. Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/chinas-hard-edge-the-leader-of-beijings-muslim-crackdown-gains-influence-11554655886.