Tension Between Uyghurs and Han Chinese
In July 2009, a large-scale ethnic riot broke out in Urumqi, which resulted in some 200 people killed. Thereafter, security increased in the area and many Uyghurs were arrested and detained as suspects.
What caused the tension between both ethnic groups to boil over?
Sean Roberts, director of the International Development Studies Programme at George Washington University, has been studying the Uyghurs for 20 years. He told Washington Post that the tension between the groups goes as far back as 250 years ago, when the Uyghurs attempted to “establish sovereign states in the region”.
“In general, I see this violence as an outgrowth of processes which have been ongoing in Xinjiang for the last decade,” Roberts said. “During that time, China has invested more in the development of this region than anytime previously. In doing so, however, they have largely excluded the Uyghurs from the decision-making process.
“Furthermore, this development has brought many Han Chinese to the region seeking their fortunes, which has served to displace many Uyghurs from their traditional communities and livelihoods.”
Roberts went on to explain how after September 11, 2001, the political repression has become “more pronounced” in Xinjiang.
“With the advent of the Global War on Terror, the Chinese state has increasingly justified more brutal crackdowns on Uyghur political dissent as part of its contribution to the Global War on Terror,” he said. “At the same time, Han Chinese coming to the region to seek their fortunes in China’s continued development boom do not understand the Uyghurs’ dissatisfaction or the violent response this dissatisfaction has elicited.”
After 2009, everything changed. Now theruleis,ifIgo to your house, read some Koran, pray together, and the government finds out, you go to jail.
In recent years, authorities have also blamed Uyghur militants aided by foreign terrorist groups for carrying out attacks in the region. However, some reports have said that the attacks were not related to terrorism, but a personal grievance: an Uyghur family that was punished for holding a Muslim prayer session in their home.
Moreover, there have been reports on the authorities restricting and controlling the Uyghurs from practising Islam such as banning Muslim civil servants from fasting during Ramadan.
“After 2009, everything changed. Now the rule is, if I go to your house, read some Koran, pray together, and the government finds out, you go to jail,” Barna, an Uyghur woman who now lives in the United States, told Freedom House in 2017.
Living Inside a Surveillance State
Due to the violence in recent years, authorities have stepped up security in the region. Four or five checkpoints can be found at every kilometre and the locals are often asked for their identification.
According to NPR, one Uyghur, who trades auto parts, said the new security measures has impacted the local economy.
“It’s nearly impossible for me to run my business now,” the man said. “I can no longer travel abroad because police have seized all of our passports. You have to ask permission to travel now, and once you return from a trip, they find you and ask what you did there, who you saw. It’s troublesome. Before, we could come and go as we pleased.”
“We can’t even visit our relatives anymore,” he added. “If we try, the local police will come to check on us to see what we’re doing there.”
Other security checks include having the Uyghurs hand over their phones for the police to do a check. They were also forced to download a government app.
“The app automatically checks to see if other apps on your phone are safe,” one Uyghur woman who spoke on anonymity said.
“If not, it’ll ask you to delete them. It’ll also detect videos about terrorism and things like that. Some apps, like the camera apps that girls like that make you prettier, aren’t allowed.”
In 2016, RFA also reported on similar checks on Uyghur smartphone users.
Abdumejit Akhon, an Uyghur businessman who owns a supermarket in Hotan, told the media that he received text and voice messages from China Telecom.
The messages state: “According to the guidance from the [Xinjiang] Uyghur Autonomous Regional Party Committee and government, Hotan prefecture has decided to consolidate its telecommunication system and internet [service]. Therefore, all smartphone service for 17 social media platforms has been temporarily stopped.”
“Whenever someone enters the territory of Hotan prefecture from neighbouring regions, WeChat and other social media platforms automatically do not work on smartphones,” Akhon said. “Speaking honestly, most Uyghur smartphone users have faced strict police controls during the last few years.”
Due to the suspension of the social media apps, Akhon had to travel to Urumqi and Kashgar to order goods for his supermarket, whereas in the past, he could do it via the Internet and WeChat Friends’ Circle service. This has led to another problem—long lines at bus stations, train stations, and the airport for security checks.
“People can see the police checkpoints everywhere in Hotan,” he said. “If the police find any kind of text message or videos with religious content which have been viewed or sent by someone’s smartphone, it causes big trouble [and] the smartphone owners are detained on the spot.”
An Uyghur businessman described to RFA in 2017 what happened at the checkpoints for the Uyghur drivers.
The Uyghur drivers have to exit their vehicles, place their IDs on a card reader, and pass a body scanner before being allowed to continue.
“Uyghur people must follow these procedures before being allowed to enter the city, whereas Han Chinese can enter the city via the green lane, without any checks,” he said.
He added that Hotan residents had been instructed to destroy religious objects in their homes. They are also subjected to police raids on their households.
“Any items with Arabic writing—whether written in simple Uyghur Arabic script or religious Arabic script—were ordered destroyed,” he said. “We actually witnessed people smashing such items.”
The businessman also recalled seeing security cameras in an upscale restaurant when attending a dinner organised by his university friends.
“My friends told me that the cameras were connected to the Public Security Bureau and regional committee office,” he said. “If any incident occurs which is deemed to cause discomfort to [Han] Chinese customers, the restaurant will be forced to close for 15 days, during which the owner and restaurant security personnel would be detained.”
In 2014, those travelling by long-distance buses also faced strict restrictions. Passengers buying the bus tickets have to present their official identification and they would be banned from carrying abroad water, yogurt, and cigarette lighters.
Apart from the restrictions, the residents are closely monitored with facial recognition systems.
In early 2018, Bloomberg reported that since 2017, the government was testing a facial-recognition system that will alert authorities if the target moves more than 300 metres from the designated “safe areas”.
And in July 2018, Financial Times reported that Hikvision, the world’s largest maker of security cameras, has been providing almost 1,000 facial recognition cameras to be installed at the entrance of mosques in Xinjiang. The cameras were said to be able to capture high quality footage.
Facing Several Bans
After the increase in security checks, several new restrictions have been imposed.
These measures include the banning of “abnormally” long beards from public buses and the wearing of headscarves and veils in public places. State-run media China Daily said that the banning of long beards was because “they are deemed to promote extremism”.
Some other prohibitions include not allowing children to attend government schools, not following family planning policies, refusing to watch state television, and marrying using religious and not legal procedures.
The authorities also banned the use of baby names with religious meanings. An official told RFA that names such as “Islam, Quran, Mecca, Jihad, Imam, Saddam, Hajj, and Medina” have been banned.
“You’re not allowed to give names with a strong religious flavour, such as Jihad or names like that,” the official said. “The most important thing here is the connotations of the name … [it mustn’t have] connotations of holy war or of splittism [Xinjiang independence].”
“Just stick to the party line, and you’ll be fine,” he added. “[People with banned names] won’t be able to get a household registration, so they will find out from the hukou office when the time comes.”
To be continued in the next issue.