Forbidding Children from Participating in Religion is Nothing New in East Turkestan

Last week the government of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region announced a new education law that will come into force on November first in the region’s state media (for full Chinese text, see here). The most widely reported aspect of the new law was the provision that parents and guardians are forbidden to “encourage or force” their children to participate in religious activities and saying that any “person or group” has the right to put a stop to such activities and report the parents. Those who are reported can have their children taken away and sent to “specialist schools for rectification.”

This law does indeed have disturbing implications, encouraging citizens to spy upon one another and increasing intrusion of the state into familial relationships. The law encourages reporting of parents who push their children into “extremism, terrorism and underground scripture studies,” lumping legitimate religious expression together with extremism, thereby casting the widest possible net. This is in line with previous laws encouraging people to report one another, such as this one listing 53 different proscribed behaviors.

Unfortunately the education law is not a departure from policies that have existed for decades. In 1993 the “Implementing Measures of the Law on the Protection of Minors” outlawed parents and guardians from allowing children to engage in religious activities, and signs prohibiting the entrance of those under 18 years of age are posted outside every mosque in East Turkestan. The regulation was updated in 2009, restating that parents were not permitted to “lure or force” children to engage in religious activity. The national level Law for the Protection of Minors contains no such clause, suggesting that these regulations are aimed specifically at Uyghurs.

It should be noted that these laws seem to contradict the rights laid out in the Chinese Constitution, as well as Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which China as a member of the General Assembly is obliged to observe. Children elsewhere in China, including Muslims, are permitted to engage in legally sanctioned religious activity. There is some evidence that restrictions elsewhere are tightening, at least on an informal basis; take for instance the government of Gansu reiterating that religion was not permitted in schools after a video of a Hui girl reciting the Koran went viral and prompted an Islamophobic backlash online. For more on restrictions on freedom of religion please see our report “Sacred Right Defiled: China’s Iron-Fisted Repression of Uyghur Religious Freedom.”

Children at an anti-extremism class in Akto County. Photo from China Daily.

Children at an anti-extremism class in Akto County. Photo from China Daily.

Schools are an important site for indoctrination across China, and in XUAR this takes on anti-religion message that is pointedly related to national security. The dangers of religious activity are taught in XUAR schools beginning at the elementary school level, at least in schools with mostly minority students. On the 12th of October a meeting was held in Urumqi to discuss the morality and ideology curriculum, attended by leaders from the education departments not only of XUAR but also Inner Mongolia, Guangxi, Qinghai, Hainan and Guizhou- all provinces with significant minority populations, suggesting that the experience of the XUAR education department perhaps holds lessons for them.

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International Community, Please Do Not Let the Uyghurs Become Hopeless

By Ilshat Hassan, the Uyghur Human Rights Project Chinese Translator and Research Assistant,Translated from Chinese by N. Morgret

ilhamtohtibayraq

By chance I recently had the opportunity to meet with a Uyghur intellectual from East Turkestan who is worried about his country and people.

During our brief conversation I listened to his description of East Turkestan’s situation as hopeless and tragic; we were silent for a while, then I asked him whether or not he could answer a few questions. He quickly replied, “Ask me, brother, and then I will see if I can answer or not.”

I asked him whether in the hopeless, harsh and almost suffocating system of dictatorial colonial control he described, if there was any opportunity and the courage for ethnic issues to be freely discussed in private, and to explore the Uyghur people’s future path.

He looked at me and seemed to clearly answer: “Of course, in our private gatherings we still discuss ethnic issues. Remember, brother, it’s the same as when you still lived in your homeland; whenever Uyghurs gathered together in private they discussed ethnic issues, and their future direction.”

I again asked, “What do Uyghur intellectuals in East Turkestan think about East Turkestan and the Uyghur people’s future?”

He paused for a moment and said “After 7/5, most Uyghurs lost hope in the Chinese government, including those who previously believed that even if local Han officials were bad, the central government authorities were good; if only the central government authorities knew that there were problems with government policies in East Turkestan, there would be changes. Even those Uyghurs who had a bit of hope in the Communist authorities, who were called Communist lackeys by other Uyghurs, have completely lost hope.

He continued, “Therefore, no matter whether they are farmers, workers, students, intellectuals or even policemen, soldiers or civil servants, all Uyghurs are thinking about their people’s future. Most Uyghurs, when they see the changes in everyday life- every street and ally, school, and barracks filled with soldiers, aircraft and tanks; when they see thousands of Han settlers flowing out of every train station and airport and every government office at every level full of Han officials; when they see every intersection in the city, every corner, village and pasture having checkpoints and cameras, they seemingly give up hope. But there are a few Uyghur intellectuals who have a firm belief that there is hope for the future, that if only the international community supported us, the Uyghur people would have hope for attaining their freedom.”

I asked him “How do Uyghur people and intellectuals view the sentencing of Professor Tohti to life in prison? Surprise, disappointment, despair?”

He looked at me for a moment and said “They fell all that- surprise, disappointment, and despair, and also anger! It was extremely disappointing and seemingly hopeless, and also enraging. In my circle, there was not one person who believed that Professor Tohti would get life in prison.   A sentence of life imprisonment is beyond what most Uyghurs, including government officials, expected.”

He continued “You could say the 7/5 Urumqi massacre made the boundaries between Uyghur and Han sharply divided; Professor Tohti’s life sentence made those Uyghur officials and intellectuals who had a fantasy that Xi Jinping and Zhang Chunxian’s taking office meant a new government completely disillusioned.”

“As soon as we heard that Professor Tohti had been sentenced to life in prison the first thing a large group of Uyghur intellectuals, myself included, did was wipe our computers, delete all articles that had to do with Ilham Tohti or with ethnic issues. With Professor Tohti’s sentence the government gave Uyghurs, especially Uyghur intellectuals, a very clear message: no matter the circumstances or place, do not discuss the government’s ethnic policies.”

I asked him “What do Uyghurs inside the country understand and think about the Uyghur freedom movement outside the country?”

He said “ Uyghurs inside East Turkestan seem to have little understanding of the Uyghur freedom movement outside the country; they get little news and restrictions are very harsh. As you know, the first news they got of the Uyghur freedom movement was from Radio Free Asia’s broadcasts. The Chinese government has increased electromagnetic jamming, and radio signals are almost impossible to hear. Secondly in some areas there was confiscation of Uyghur families’ radios and therefore there is little chance to hear RFA’s news about the Uyghur freedom movement.”

“The other method of understanding the Uyghur freedom movement a few years ago was to go on the internet using software to get over the Great Firewall. Now the government controls it more tightly, there are internet police everywhere and as soon as they notice that a Uyghur is getting around the Great Firewall to read content on overseas Uyghur websites or listen to Radio Free Asia programs, they are quickly arrested, sentenced and everyone is made to feel insecure. Now, in order to avoid unnecessary bother, there are many Uyghurs who do not even use smart phones.”

In the past Uyghur intellectuals understood the Uyghur freedom movement outside of the country through a third channel, the essays written by so-called “anti-secession researchers and scholars” criticizing the overseas Uyghur freedom movement. Even though the critical essays’ news was a little lagging some was still useful, and people paid attention. Now they don’t even have that! Those essays written by “experts and scholars” are only circulated internally and not published or are circulated in a limited way.”

“You can now say that there is only one means of getting information on the overseas Uyghur freedom movement left: from those Uyghur friends who come from abroad or return from visits abroad.”

“How is the overseas Uyghur freedom movement viewed? Brother, Uyghurs inside the country place all their hopes in the outside, on the US-led free world! There only needs to be a little news about the outside Uyghur freedom movement to enter, about the convening of the World Uyghur Congress, a Uyghur American Association meeting, America publishing a report on human rights or freedom of religion, or a relatively large demonstration to make us excited for a while.”

“Since the beginning of this year, the news that Professor Tohti might win the Sakharov Prize was quietly spreading; Uyghurs, especially intellectuals and some government officials were excited. They hoped the news was true and that Professor Tohti would win the Sakharov prize, and hoped he might even win the Nobel Peace Prize. That kind of major international prize might not immediately change the Uyghur’s situation, but everyone knows that it would at least show that the international community hasn’t forgotten about the Uyghurs and that there is still justice in the world! Uyghurs are not alone, and Uyghurs are not fighting for their freedom alone! It would be a great encouragement!”

I am silent, being a Uyghur who has lived in the West for decades and struggled in the heart of the overseas Uyghur freedom movement for nearly ten years. Having seen that in recent years Western countries have paid lip service to the Chinese government’s wanton trampling of human rights, but for the sake of their economic benefit have shortsightedly closed their eyes, what can I say?

I quietly pray in my heart that the European Parliament lives up to the hopes of the brave Uyghurs in East Turkestan who live under the dark rule of the CCP, and that the Sakharov Prize for Human Rights will be awarded to Ilham Tohti! Do not let the Uyghur people’s last hope be lost!

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The Government Puts a Positive Spin on East Turkestan at the China-Eurasia Expo

The fifth annual China-Eurasia Expo takes place this week in Urumqi from September 20th to 25th, giving the Chinese government a platform to present its economic vision for the region to an international audience of political and business leaders. This will be the first of these Expos to take place since Xinjiang was “positioned as the core area of the Silk Road Economic Belt,” in the words of the promotional video posted on the event’s official website. The promotional materials describe the event as “an important window for Xinjiang to show itself to the outside world”, but it serves mostly as a trade fair, touting deals signed and promising further “opportunities for industrial capacity cooperation” with nations from the Middle East, South Asia and Europe.

Organized by the Ministries of Commerce and Foreign Affairs together with the XUAR government and the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, the China-Eurasia Expo tends to downplay the Turkic cultural and religious ties that connect the region to the nations on its borders and beyond, in contrast to the biennial China- Arab States Expo held in Yinchuan, capital of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. The Chinese government deliberately presents the Hui as their preferred “bridge” to the Islamic world, while repression of Uyghurs makes such messaging difficult. Despite the fact that for decades most of XUAR’s international trade has flowed westward, the Chinese government’s repressive policies make it difficult for them to capitalize on the Uyghur’s cultural and linguistic ties to their neighbors.

If the government’s One Belt One Road plans do in fact meet with success it will likely raise XUAR’s profile, and with it the attention paid to the government’s repressive policies. Beijing hopes that OBOR will placate Uyghur grievances by creating economic opportunity, but it is likely to lead to further marginalization as well as exacerbation of other problems such as environmental degradation. The Han are better positioned to take advantage of the opportunities OBOR presents thanks to their existing networks and easier access to capital, exclusion from which make it difficult for Uyghurs to be able to participate in the local economy. OBOR investment projects may encourage increased Han in-migration to the region as well as give Beijing a tool to influence the policy of nations in Central and South East Asia regarding whether to hand back Chinese nationals or generally buy into Beijing’s counter-terrorism narrative.

Billboard Advertising Xinjiang in Toronto (crienglish.com)

Billboard Advertising Xinjiang in Toronto (crienglish.com)

Nevertheless we can expect the government to try to put a positive spin on the situation. The region is almost always described as one of ethnic harmony in official propaganda; consider for instance a billboard that appeared earlier this month in Toronto’s Dundas Square “showcasing multiple ethnic groups living together in the region, in peace and harmony.” This can be fit into the pattern of Chinese government publicity efforts in North America including the South China Sea propaganda video played in Times Square.

Indeed, it may be that the Chinese government is beginning to try to more actively direct international perceptions of XUAR as part of the OBOR initiative. Such efforts tend to present the region as one “where different ethnic groups such as Uygur, Kazak, Kirgiz, Tajik and Mongolians have over time created the splendid music of harmonic life together in peace” in the words of a Xinhua report on the “2016 Experience China in Iran” cultural festival held in Tehran last month, organized by the XUAR government and the State Council Information Office. The festival also touted the economic opportunities OBOR presents to nations like Iran, promoting the textile industry with an exhibit of traditional dresses described as “ethnic beauties.”

“Manchu Dress” exhibited at the 2016 Experience China in Iran cultural festival (Xinhua)

“Manchu Dress” exhibited at the 2016 Experience China in Iran cultural festival (Xinhua)

This is part of a series of “Experience China” cultural festivals SCIO has held overseas, sometimes focusing on regions like Tibet, “Western China” or on Chinese minorities; this is the first to focus on XUAR, and the decision to hold it in Tehran was no doubt calculated as part China’s efforts to shape the Xinjiang narrative as the OBOR project moves forward. How successful it will be remains to be seen.

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