Local Officials in Xinjiang Continue Curbs Over Religious Practice

December 16, 2011

Controls over religion in the Muslim-majority region of Xinjiang remain among the harshest in China, and local governments have reported continuing steps to tighten curbs over religious practice. In recent months, several local governments have reported carrying out measures to prevent women from veiling or wearing other apparel deemed to carry religious connotations and to prevent men from wearing large beards, practices authorities have associated with "backwardness," "extremism," and "illegal religious activities." Some local governments also reported increasing controls over women religious specialists known as büwi. Regionwide, authorities have described continuing steps to target "illegal" religious publications in censorship campaigns.

Several local governments in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) have reported carrying out steps to tighten controls over religion, singling out aspects of Islam in a number of cases. The recent measures continue similar efforts in recent years, as documented by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (1, 2, 3, 4). The ongoing campaigns indicate that religious practice remains a main target of government control in the region, at the same time that some local residents continue to find space to practice their religion or express their beliefs apart from state-dictated confines.

Continuing bans against veiling and beards. As detailed below, several local governments, as well as the regional state-controlled women's federation, have reported taking steps against religious dress and beards both in campaigns specifically targeting them or as part of broader efforts to curb "illegal religious activities." The recent measures, as well as previous campaigns documented by the Commission (1, 2, 3), often focus on "persuading" or ordering people to stop wearing such apparel or beards. In one past campaign documented by the Commission, however, authorities threatened "severe punishment in accordance with law," and two cases in the CECC's Political Prisoner Database (Nurtay Memet, Ghojaexmet Niyaz) have reported connections to beard-wearing. Based on CECC monitoring of reports on similar campaigns in recent years, the number of recent local efforts appears to represent an increase from earlier in the year. Reports from Fall 2011 include:

  • Authorities in the town of Tekes, Tekes County, Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture, carried out a 7-day campaign of lectures on "illegal" and permitted religious activities at venues including weddings within the town, according to a September 15 report on the Tekes Party Building Web site. Authorities reported promoting "healthy" religious outlooks and that townspeople responded to the call to curb "underground" scripture study, private religious students, "illegal" religious publications, women veiling their faces, and men wearing "abnormal" large beards.
  • In Hejing County, Bayangol Mongol Autonomous Prefecture, an official reported at a meeting of 550 households receiving a minimum level of guaranteed social welfare support (dibao jiating) that women wearing veils, young men with large beards, and guardians of minors who illegally enter mosques would not enjoy this social welfare support, according to a September 16 report from the Hejing government Web site. The official added that if such people were found to be receiving benefits, this support would be immediately cut off.
  • A report from the Ili Prefectural Agricultural Machinery Bureau described outstanding "problems" in a local community and residential district, including people with a "pronounced religious consciousness" and those who have been discovered to wear "Arab dress and adornment," according to a September 24 report from the bureau's Web site. The report called for dealing with such people through door-to-door lectures by cadres, people's police, and work groups on promoting a lifestyle of "positive healthy civilization." The report also called for scoping out beard wearers and people previously punished for participating in illegal religious activities and subjecting them—along with other groups—to "inspection and control." (See a December 15 Reuters report for information on a similar campaign elsewhere in Ili.)
  • In the town of Xinyuan (Künes) in Xinyuan county, Ili, authorities registered the names of women wearing veils or "abnormal" clothes and men with large beards, as part of campaigns in the town and county against "illegal religious activities," according to an October 20 report on the Xinyuan county government Web site. The report noted the numbers of people who refused to cooperate, as well as those who signed contracts with authorities agreeing to remove veils, shave, or stop wearing "abnormal" clothing.
  • The weather bureau in Yutian (Keriye) county, Hoten district, reported carrying out a campaign, in accordance with countywide measures to address face veiling, calling on bureau staff and their friends and family not to wear clothing with a "pronounced religious hue" and to "resolutely stop face veiling," according to an October 27 report on the XUAR Weather Bureau Web site.
  • See also a report from the XUAR Women's Federation (via Kunlun Net, September 3), noting continuing implementation of a regionwide campaign to "Let Beautiful Hair Flutter, Let Beautiful Faces Be Revealed" and a September 23 report on the Shule (Kashgar Yéngisheher) county, Kashgar district, government Web site, on local implementation of this campaign.

Continuing Controls Over Women Religious Specialists. Local governments also continued steps to bring women religious specialists known as büwi (Mandarin: buwei) under tighter government regulation, following an official proposal in 2008 to place these religious figures—who perform certain religious rites and provide religious instruction—under stricter state control.

  • In October, authorities in Kashgar municipality held a training class for büwi within one township, calling on them to contribute to state-led campaigns and political goals, and reported "going a step further in strengthening management" of the women, according to an October 24 report on the Kashgar Municipal Government Web site.
  • A September 8 report from the Yengisar County Government Web site, in Kashgar district, described strengthening "management" (guanli) of büwi, holding regular interviews with them, and increasing communication among measures to "bring into play" the role of büwi and prevent women from participating in "illegal religious activities."

Religious Publications Targeted

  • The XUAR Transportation Department reported in a November 14 posting on its Web site that at the end of October, transportation officials throughout the region had investigated and prosecuted 20 cases of "illegal publications," including cases involving 4,386 copies of "illegal religious publications." According to the report, transportation authorities in the region will increase their oversight of the transport of publications as part of the region's work to "Sweep Away Pornography and Strike Down Illegal Publications."
  • The Organization Department of the Urumqi Municipal Party Committee described one Urumqi neighborhood's work to "capture the ideological and moral battlefield" of minors in the community by continuing to ban "illegal religious activities" and by investigating and stopping the spread of publications that propagate such activities, along with ethnic separatism and other topics deemed forbidden, according to a November 7 report from the Committee, via Kunlun Net.

For more information on conditions in the XUAR and regulation of religion in the region, see Section IV—Xinjiang in the CECC 2011 Annual Report.