Xinjiang Authorities Target Beards, Veils in Campaigns To Tighten Control Over Religion

October 18, 2010

Authorities in the far western region of Xinjiang have carried out campaigns in 2010 and previous years targeting Muslim men who wear large beards and women who wear veils (singling out face veiling in a number of cases), tying the practices in the Muslim-majority region to "religious extremism" and "backwardness." The campaigns against beards and veils come as Xinjiang authorities continue to tighten controls over religion in the region. Amid these campaigns, newly available information indicates that authorities imposed prison sentences on two men in 2007 and 2008 in cases that reportedly have connections to the men wearing beards.

Authorities in the XUAR have carried out campaigns in 2010 and previous years to restrict wearing beards, veils, and clothing perceived to carry religious connotations, associating the practices with "religious extremism" and "backwardness." In some cases, authorities have focused their efforts on younger people, in an apparent effort to stem perceived "religious extremism" among segments of the population deemed more likely to challenge official authority. In at least one reported campaign, authorities described using legal punishments to address wearing beards and veils. As part of the work to implement Communist Party directives in Aksu district in 2009, local officials were instructed to discern the thinking, motives, and behavior of people with beards, veils, or "bizarre" clothes and then to deal with them according to these "different situations," through measures including "punishing severely in accordance with law" (yifa yancheng), "handling [matters] through coercion" (qiangzhi chuli), and "helping" to "liberate" (bangzhu jietuo). See a report posted December 11, 2009, on the Shayar county, Aksu, government Web site. In addition, authorities in Shayar county went to people's homes to carry out "face-to-face propaganda and education" and to have them sign pledges that they would no longer wear "bizarre" clothes or beards, according to the report. In Wensu (Onsu) county, Aksu, the propaganda bureau engaged in "propaganda and education activities" resulting in 569 women "voluntarily" removing face coverings, 606 women no longer wearing "bizarre" clothes, and 295 young men shaving their beards, according to the report.

The previous year, officials from the religious affairs bureau in Awat county, Aksu, noted in a summary of accomplishments from 2008 that it carried out work aimed at "big beards" worn by young men and face veiling by women, according to a November 11, 2008, report from the Awat county government Web site. (The document has been removed from the Awat county Web site. A partial excerpt is available from Fast Document Net.) Authorities provided "study and education" to young men with big beards and women with veiled faces, and "in accordance with the principle of channeling responsibility to the proper authorities, each relevant department carried out beard-shaving and unveilings directed at young men with big beards and young women covering their faces." Also in 2008, government and Communist Party officials in the town of Yengi Mehelle, Shayar county, Aksu, called for taking various "effective measures" during the month of Ramadan to have men with big beards shave them off and have women remove face veils, according to an August 28, 2008, report on the Shayar county government Web site (available via Open Source Center, subscription required, CPP20080905072001).

In Chabucha'er (Chapchal) Xibe Autonomous County in Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture, "abnormal" big beards, veiling one's face, and other forms of expression with a "religious hue" were among 16 situations to be "reported on" and "dealt with," according to the answer sheet for a knowledge contest on "promoting ethnic unity, opposing separatism, and upholding stability" (Item 64) posted August 31, 2009, on the Chapchal Xibe Autonomous County, Ili, government Web site. The answer sheet also connected wearing big beards to a religious organization--called the "faithfulness" organization, or zhongcheng zuzhi in Mandarin, based on the original Uyghur name, ita'et or "obedience"―described as having members with a "Wahhabi" outlook who disregard the laws of the state, refuse to pay taxes, advocate jihad, and prohibit eating food that has "MSG, butter, and seasonings made in factories in [China's] interior" (Item 161).

Authorities have continued campaigns targeting beards and veils in 2010. The XUAR Women's Federation carried out campaigns in the past year to persuade women to stop wearing veils, describing one pilot project as successful in making women "realize that wearing a veil is not a form of expression of ethnic dress but rather of extreme religion, an expression of a type of ignorant and backward way of thinking, and an expression not suited for the developments of the times." See a related CECC analysis for detailed information. In May 2010, authorities in Hanikatamu (Xaniqatam, Xaniqa atam, Hankhatam) township in Kucha, Aksu, assessed a campaign connected to "illegal religious activities" as an effective step in attacking "religious fanaticism" and changing "outmoded thinking" regarding "bizarre" apparel worn by some women in Hanikatamu and "big beards" worn by some young men. See a related CECC analysis for detailed information. A person from the township reported to Radio Free Asia in September that authorities strengthened controls over face coverings, beards, and "religious" clothing during Ramadan, according to September 21 and September 24, 2010, articles from Radio Free Asia. Sources cited in the articles also reported fines for people who didn't remove face veils or beards, as well as restrictions on beards and religious apparel in force elsewhere in the XUAR.

As authorities have politicized beard wearing, newly available information indicates that authorities levied prison sentences on two men in 2007 and 2008 in cases that have reported connections to the men wearing beards. Public security officers in Yining (Ghulja) municipality, Ili, detained a Uyghur laborer, Nurtay Memet, in 2007 on grounds related to "superstition" and to violating the region's social order regulation, according to an August 20, 2010, report from Radio Free Asia's Uyghur service. Nurtay Memet's wife connected the detention to her husband wearing a beard. The Yining (Ghulja) Municipal People's Court tried and sentenced Nurtay Memet in 2007 to five years' imprisonment on the "superstition"-related charge. Under Article 300 of China's Criminal Law (English, Chinese), "using superstition to undermine the implementation of the laws and administrative rules and regulations of the State" is punishable by prison sentences between three and seven years or sentences of no less than seven years in serious cases. Nurtay Memet is reportedly held in a prison in Wusu (Shixo) city in Tacheng (Tarbaghatay) district in Ili. His wife said that her husband, now 52 years old, is in poor health. She also reported that authorities forced her to stop covering her face.

In a separate case, the same court sentenced Uyghur trader Ghojaexmet Niyaz to six years in prison in 2008, which a source familiar with the case connected in part to Ghojaexmet Niyaz's refusal to shave his beard, according to a September 13, 2010, report from Radio Free Asia's Uyghur service. Public security officers in Weihai city, Shandong province, initially detained Ghojaexmet Niyaz in May 2008 during a security sweep in advance of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, on the grounds that he did not have an identification card, according to the report. Ghojaexmet Niyaz had just come to the city with his family for work, and authorities returned him to his home in the XUAR. The specific charges against him at trial are not known, but the source familiar with the case said he had committed no other misdeed than not having identification and connected the sentence to Ghojaexmet Niyaz's refusal in court to shave his beard and show remorse. Ghojaexmet Niyaz is currently held at a prison in the Yanqi Hui Autonomous County in the Bayangol Mongol Autonomous Prefecture within the XUAR, according to the report.

For more information on conditions in the XUAR, see Section IV―Xinjiang in the CECC 2010 Annual Report.