China orders Xinjiang residents to hand in passports

Uighur Muslims in Turpan County, Xinjiang. Authorities have clamped down on symbols of Islam such as beards and the veil

NOVEMBER 24, 2016
by: Lucy Hornby in Beijing

China has ordered all residents in its western frontier region of Xinjiang to hand in their passports, the latest in a series of draconian moves in the restive province home to an 11m Muslim minority.

Citizens of Xinjiang, an oil-rich but ethnically divided region more than six times the size of the UK, must hand their documents to police and apply to get them back if they want to travel, state-controlled newspaper Global Times reported on Thursday. The purpose was to “maintain social order”, the paper said. 

The region’s 11m Uighurs, a Muslim people with linguistic and cultural ties to Turkey who account for roughly half of Xinjiang’s 23m people, have in recent years faced growing restrictions on travel, religion and dress. Authorities have clamped down on symbols of Islam such as beards and the veil, while the province’s 800,000 civil servants are prohibited from taking part in religious activities.

The passport announcement was greeted with anger and dismay by Chinese internet users, who complained they would need to submit unusual amounts of personal information and travel documents to get their passports back. Some Xinjiang residents working in other parts of China have received phone calls telling them to travel home and hand in their passports.

“What’s going on in Xinjiang? Do people here have human rights or not? Can’t the government just let us live an easier life?” one poster wrote on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. “I am so angry.”

Many Xinjiang Uighurs oppose Chinese rule and what they see as colonialist policies in the native region. A violent insurgency has sporadically surfaced in recent years, while hundreds of Uighurs have turned up in human trafficking camps in Southeast Asia or with forged passports in Turkey.

Beijing blames the rising appeal of radical Islam among Uighurs for a series of fatal attacks in recent years, while Uighurs fault China’s repressive rule as well as problems such as uncompensated land grabs for the unrest.

Kyrgyzstan’s state security forces have said Syria-based Uighur militants were behind a suicide bombing of the Chinese embassy in Bishkek in September.

Outside Xinjiang, China’s anti-corruption campaign has extended to millions of ordinary citizens the limitations on travel often meted out to political dissidents and “troublemakers”. 

Many civil servants have had to hand in their passports over the past few years — overseas jaunts by officials or travel to move assets abroad have been one of the more common — and resented — forms of official corruption in China. While China issues both official and personal passports, in some cases civil servants have had to hand in both.

Designed to prevent official corruption, the requirement has ensnared unlikely groups. Schoolteachers in Chengdu, a southwestern city known for its educational institutions, were outraged at an order to hand in their passports in March this year. As state employees, some apparently fell under the category of “officials”.

Restrictions on overseas travel have had a chilling effect on academic exchanges, with Chinese scholars cancelling appearances at international conferences. In some cases the issue is not passports but the tight regulations around travel — for instance, limits on the number of overseas trips in one year. Other regulations state that an international trip must end within 24 hours of the end of the activity, preventing Chinese scientists from attending two overseas conferences held either side of a weekend.

Twitter: @HornbyLucy

Additional reporting by Archie Zhang

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