Devastating Blows: Religious Repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang

By Human Rights Watch

This is a 114 page report from 2005 by the Human Rights Watch on religious freedom for Uyghurs. Link to PDF. It is “…based on previously undisclosed Communist Party and government documents, as well as local regulations, official newspaper accounts, and interviews conducted in Xinjiang. It unveils for the first time the complex architecture of law, regulation, and policy in Xinjiang that denies Uighurs religious freedom, and by extension freedom of association, assembly, and expression.” – HRW

I found this report through an excerpt on China’s policing of thought, which I found quite enlightening:

Literature becomes sabotage

Chinese authorities have not produced extensive evidence of specific activities carried out by what it has termed “terrorist forces” in Xinjiang over the past few years. Instead, Chinese authorities now argue that “separatist thought” is the new approach followed by dissident organizations that previously used violent tactics. This argument allows the authorities to accuse a dissenting writer or a non-violent group advocating minority rights of terrorist intentions and crimes.

The alleged link between terrorist organizations and the ideological content of publications surfaced immediately after September 11:

“Xinjiang independence elements have changed their combat tactics since the September 11 incident,” stated a high-ranking Xinjiang official. “They have focused on attacking China on the ideological front instead of using their former frequent practice of engaging in violent terrorist operations.”

The official charged that those using “literary means” and “arts and literature” to “distort
historical facts” were the same people responsible for “violent terrorist operations” in the past. He accused them of “taking advantage of art and literature to tout the products of opposition to the people and to the masses and of advocating ethnic splittist thinking.”

In February 2002, the Xinjiang Party Secretary instructed the local authorities to crack down on these “separatist techniques” and detailed the “forms of infiltration and sabotage carried out in the ideological sphere by ethnic separatist forces”:

  1. using all sorts of news media to propagate separatist thought;
  2. using periodicals, works of literature and art performances; presenting the subject in satires or allegories that give free reign to and disseminate dissatisfaction and propagate separatist thought;
  3. illegally printing reactionary books and periodicals; distributing or posting reactionary leaflets, letters and posters; spreading rumors to confuse the people; instilling the public with separatist sentiment;
  4. using audio and video recordings, such as audio tapes, CDs or VCDs, to incite religious fanaticism and promote “holy war”;
  5. forging alliances with outside separatist and enemy forces, making use of broadcasts, the Internet, and other means to intensify campaigns of reactionary propaganda and infiltration of ideas into public opinion;
  6. using popular cultural activities to make the masses receptive to reactionary propaganda encouraging opposition.”

From the wording of the document, published in the Party’s official newspaper, the Xinjiang Daily, it appears that Xinjiang authorities equate any expression of dissatisfaction (buman qingxu 不满情绪), even metaphorical or ironical, with separatist thought (fenlie sixiang 分裂思想). The term “spreading rumors” (zaoyao 造谣) used in the article is the same as that used in criminal law:

“incitement to subvert the political power of the state and overthrow the socialist system by means of spreading rumors, slander or other means” (Article 105), an offense for which the punishment can be life imprisonment. The document asserts that the “expression of dissatisfaction” in works of art is a form of criminal activity and is liable to criminal punishment.

Furthermore, the document uses the terms “sabotage” and “infiltration” to characterize such activities, thus reinforcing the idea that they are equivalent to violent action.
The fact that “popular cultural activities” (minjian wenhua huodong 民间文化活动) are denounced as forms of “separatist” activity appears to be aimed at deterring people from engaging in activities that promote their history, culture, or tradition. Ethnic minority individuals and Uighur organizations abroad had complained in the past about similar official attitudes toward legitimate cultural pursuits, but prior to this official pronouncement their allegations had only been supported by circumstantial evidence, not stated explicitly as high-level Party policy. Such comments indicate that the Chinese authorities are trying to erase the distinctions among cultural and minority rights activists, pro-independence activists, and those who use violence.

This suggests an historical shift: while before September 11, 2001, not all minority rights or cultural rights activists or those on the “ideological front” (which presumably covers all critics of CCP policy) were considered to be terrorists, after September 11 they are, or should be, assumed to be terrorists. In effect, China is claiming that terrorists have now become secret peaceful activists, presumably waiting for the right moment to revert to their former methods. This is a very dangerous set of assumptions that can be acted upon by the Chinese or Xinjiang security services at any time to justify arrests, heavy sentences, and the death penalty.

The case of Tursunjan Emet, a Uighur poet from Urumqi, illustrates this point. On January 1, 2002, Emet recited a poem in Uighur at the end of a concert at the Xinjiang People’s Hall in the capital Urumqi. The Party committee ruled that the poem had an “anti-government” message and labeled the case as an “ethnic separatist crime in the area of the ideological front.” The Chairman of the Xinjiang provincial government immediately called for an investigation, vowing to purge all who “openly advocate separatism using the name of art,” and urged cadres to use “politics” as the only standard in judging artistic and literary work. Emet went into hiding immediately after the incident. He was then detained, probably in late January 2002. Official Chinese sources have since denied that he was ever detained. Unofficial sources indicate that he was released, some weeks, or possibly months, later.

In a similar case, on February 2, 2005, the Kashgar Intermediate Court sentenced Uighur author Nurmemet Yasin to ten years imprisonment for publishing a story allegedly “inciting separatism.” In late 2004, Yasin published “The Blue Pigeon” in the Kashgar Literature Journal. A month later, he was arrested in Bachu County. His story told of a blue pigeon that traveled far from home. When it returned, different colored pigeons captured him and locked him in a birdcage. Although the other pigeons fed him, the blue pigeon opted to commit suicide rather than remain imprisoned in his hometown.

In part because pro-independence Uighurs use a blue flag, Chinese authorities read the story as referring to Uighur resentment of the government’s policies in Xinjiang. The court tried Yasin in closed hearings; RFA sources claimed he was denied access to a lawyer. It is therefore now official policy that criticism or minority expression in art and literature can be deemed a disguised form of secessionism, its author a criminal or even “terrorist.” 



I. Summary

  • A note on methodology

II. Background

  • The political identity of Xinjiang
  • Uighur Islam
  • A history of restiveness
  • The turning point––unrest in 1990, stricter controls from Beijing
  • Post 9/11: labeling Uighurs terrorists
  • Literature becomes sabotage
  • The international response––acquiescence and quid pro quos

III. National Law and Policy on Religion

IV. A Repressive Framework: Regulation of Religion in Xinjiang
Policies Hidden from the Public

  • Regulation in 1994-2001: “Keeping a handle on” the imams and party cadres
    The 2001 draft amendments to the 1994 Regulations: narrowing the scope of
    “normal” religious activities
  • A Manual for Urumqi Municipality Ethnic Religious Work

V. Implementation: Restrictions on Freedom of Religion in Practice

  • Registration of religious organizations: a no-win situation
  • The “reeducation” of imams in 2001 and 2002
  • Control and conformity: supervision of mosques in 2001
  • The persecution of clerics and the demolition of mosques
  • A Case of “Extremism”

VI. Controlling Religion in the Education System

  • Minors barred from “participating in religious activities” in Xinjiang
  • Purging the schools of religion
  • Enforcement through surveillance
  • Special campaigns

VII. Anti-Crime Campaigns and Religious Repression

  • Unrelenting crackdowns
  • Sweeps by law enforcement agencies

VIII. Religious “Offenders” in Detention

IX. Freedom of Religion and China’s Responsibility under International Law

X. Recommendations

  • To the government of the People’s Republic of China
  • To the international community
  • To international organizations and mechanisms
  • To international donors and aid groups working in Xinjiang, including the World
    Bank and the Asian Development Bank

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