Draconian anti-Islam measures widen in China's far west

Uyghur men arrive at the Id Kah Mosque for the morning prayer on Eid al-Fitr in the old town of Kashgar in China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in this picture taken June 26. (Photo by Johannes Eisele/AFP)

ucanews.com reporter, Hong Kong 
October 2, 2017

Chinese authorities ramped up security measures against Muslim-minority ethnic Uyghurs, including the installation of so-called political education camps, in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region over the past several months. 

International rights groups have likewise confirmed that ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz are now being targeted by Chinese authorities amid increasingly draconian measures to prevent the practice of Islam in the restive western region.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), thousands of Uyghurs and Turkic Muslim minorities have been held at these political education camps in what are often poor conditions.

These camps are a new push in brazen security measures of Party Secretary Chen Quanguo, who installed similar indoctrination camps in Tibet in 2012. According to a recent report from the rights monitor, ethnic Kazakh and Kyrgyz have been allegedly detained for traveling abroad or speaking about Kazakhstan.

"There has been, generally, efforts to cut foreign ties of Uyghurs [under Chen]. I think they come from ideas that Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims are politically suspicious in their loyalty to China and to ethnic unity, because they identify more with other Muslims and other Turks outside China," Maya Wang, Senior Researcher, Asia Division at HRW, told ucanews.com.

Radio Free Asia (RFA) has reported on numerous ethnic Kazakhs allegedly being sentenced in secret, and the same sort of arbitrary detention facilities — political education camps — that are apparently being built elsewhere in the region. They are mostly targeted by Chinese authorities for either perceived contact with neighboring Kazakhstan or openly practicing the Islamic faith.

"The targeting of Kazakhs and Kyrgyz appears to be new — I think in the past they tended to be considered as less of a political threat as the Uyghurs were. But as authorities drive to 'maintain stability' heightens across China, I think Kazakhs and Kyrgyz are simply being caught in this expanding circle of repression in Xinjiang," Wang said.

According to RFA, upwards of 50 ethnic Kazakhs were detained in September for watching a boxing match of famous Kazakh fighter Kanat Islam, a former PRC citizen. Chinese authorities could be nervous that Islam, a famous Kazakh figure, emigrated to Kazakhstan — and thereby could encourage others to do so. The detentions occurred in Altay Prefecture, near Kazakhstan, and those detained are apparently in an unknown location.

Altay Prefecture is in the Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture, where most are Sunni Muslims. In 2015, the some three million resident in Ili were ordered to surrender their passports to Chinese authorities, amid suspicions of Jihadist ideology.

RFA also reported on the promulgation of a so-called localization policy that was passed in recent months across the region that prevents ethnic Kazakhs with green cards from visiting Kazakhstan for more than six months, but HRW could not confirm if this policy was passed.

In August, Islam's merchandise was banned from being sold in Altay Prefecture and the authorities also prohibited anyone from talking about the famous fighter there, according to RFA

RFA has also reported anti-Islam persecution has transpired in the Kizilsu Kirghiz Autonomous Prefecture, were there have been apparent arrests of men who grew beards, fasted, or prayed.

"What we've seen in the past few years is the implementation of severe restrictions on Tibetans and Uyghurs to leave the country and to jump over the Great Firewall. It could be that Beijing is now cloning these same draconian policies among other ethnic groups," William Nee, China Researcher at Amnesty International, told ucanews.com.

Since Chen has taken over the reins in Xinjiang in the summer of 2016, a new raft of restrictiveand discriminatory measures has come into force for those living in the region — far extending the political education camps — including required tracking devices on cars, installing mandatory apps to monitor mobile phones, and harsh travel restrictions.

NPR recently reported that even a Han citizen — the Chinese majority — living in the capital, Urumqi, has tired of the region-wide restrictions in the rising police state.

"The sudden clampdown on ethnic Kazakhs could be part of this new push to restrict Islam, and prevent so-called 'foreign infiltration' in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region," Nee said. "From this point of view, there is not a lot of logic or rationale behind the government moves, besides being the expression of a sort of Han-based ethno-nationalism and desire to suppress religious activity."

The Chinese authorities continue to justify these security crackdowns with allegations of hostile foreign influence on the region. However, the government's claims seem to lack any apparent evidence, especially due to stringent controls on the spread of information in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

"The authorities consider many 'bad' influences on Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims — e.g. nationalism, religious dogma — come from abroad," Wang said. "The government also accuses Uyghurs of terrorism in China and blames outside groups for such acts. It is very difficult to verify the government's claims on terrorism, however, for it tightly controls information in that region."

Chen's motivation — especially if there is no clear evidence of so-called foreign infiltration — to transform Xinjiang into a fully equipped police state could likely be personal.

"The drive appears to be Chen's brainchild as part of his political ambition to be promoted in the CCP hierarchy," Wang said. With the 19th Party Congress upcoming on Oct. 18 — where Chinese President Xi Jinping will carefully align his closest allies on the country's key, decision-making Politburo — all eyes will be on Chen's progress in Xinjiang. Chen, now 61, has already been tipped to become one of the Politburo's new members.

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