Xinjiang: Beijing’s chilling attempt to erase and replace Uyghur identity

‘Social harmony’ has been prized by Chinese leaders for millennia. To achieve that vision, they’ve experimented with reengineering people’s behaviors and beliefs – often forcefully.

The sky is pitch black in this town in China’s far western region of Xinjiang. Streets are quiet and empty apart from police vans flashing red and blue lights – part of a mazelike security grid of patrols, stations, and checkpoints. Suddenly, the predawn stillness is shattered as “Ode to the Motherland,” a classic Communist propaganda song, blasts from loudspeakers, issuing a shrill wake-up call for miles around.

It is only 5:40 am local time in Hotan, an oasis town that was once a junction along the historic Silk Road and is closer to Kabul than Beijing. The barrage of patriotic music is a jarring reminder to townspeople – mostly Muslim, Turkic-speaking ethnic Uyghurs – that their clocks, and marching orders, are set two time zones away in China’s capital.

Beijing has worked since the 1949 Communist takeover to consolidate control over Xinjiang, a vast borderland of desert and mountains that occupies about one-sixth of China’s territory and contains large deposits of coal, oil, and natural gas. “In the Karamay wilderness, you can see the oil rolling to the sea,” the singers belt out in Mandarin, referring to Xinjiang’s Karamay oil reserves flowing to China proper – a source of Uyghur resentment.

Today, the blaring anthems – replacing long-silenced calls to prayer from local mosques – epitomize the Communist Party’s chilling new campaign to “standardize” ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. According to human rights groups, authorities have incarcerated as many as 1 million of the region’s 11 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in political reeducation camps in recent years, claiming drastic steps are needed to combat the “three evils” of ethnic separatism, religious extremism, and terrorism. The broader context of the brutal crackdown is Beijing’s aggressive attempt to engineer the thoughts and behavior of an entire people and to transform Uyghurs’ Muslim beliefs and cultural identity into faith in the party and loyalty to the Chinese nation.

“On its face, it’s a campaign to force the Uyghurs after decades of clinging to their culture to give it up after one cataclysmic period and get with the Chinese program,” says Gardner Bovingdon, an expert in Xinjiang politics and associate professor at Indiana University in Bloomington.

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Driving the campaign is the Communist Party’s growing preoccupation with stability and control nationwide under the leadership of President Xi Jinping. Party authorities argue that human behavior can be standardized and stability manufactured to achieve social harmony, a goal of China’s rulers for millennia.

The party’s powerful United Front Work Department (UFWD) has taken charge of state organs responsible for ethnic and religious affairs, as Beijing has largely abandoned the emphasis on ethnic diversity and autonomy that marked China’s early reform era of the 1980s and 1990s, says James Leibold, an expert in China’s ethnic policy at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. The UFWD has set up a new office for Xinjiang headed by Hu Lianhe, an official who has long advocated strengthening “national identity” and “standardizing human behavior” for the sake of stability.

Xinjiang authorities are now essentially force-feeding Chinese language, culture, and political ideology to Muslim ethnic minorities while also intensifying efforts to “Sinicize” Islam – defined as making the religion “more Chinese” and “compatible with socialist society.” Religious repression is growing across China, affecting Christianity, Buddhism, and other faiths, but has been most draconian in the border regions of Xinjiang and Tibet.

During a visit to Hotan and other parts of Xinjiang in October, You Quan, head of the UFWD, stressed that Sinicizing religion was necessary to promote ethnic solidarity and harmony, according to the state-run Xinhua news service.

Critics say such party policies amount to a new form of ethnic cleansing – one that attempts to erase the identities of Uyghurs and other ethnic groups instead of moving them out of a geographic region.

“The traditional idea of ethnic cleansing is removing an ethnic group entirely from its territory,” says Sean Roberts, an anthropologist and expert on Uyghurs at George Washington University. Chinese authorities in Xinjiang, in contrast, “are trying to cleanse members of the ethnic group and alter their consciousness and culture and make them into a minority that the state approves of,” says Dr. Roberts. “It’s unprecedented.”

One-language policy

In the Uyghur heartland of southern Xinjiang, constraints on Uyghur culture, language, and Islam are widespread.

In population centers such as Hotan and Kashgar, language books and teaching manuals in Mandarin Chinese – the language of China’s majority Han ethnic group – crowd bookstore shelves. But employees at several bookstores said they had no Uyghur language instruction materials for students. Plainclothes police intervened repeatedly to stop shopkeepers at a bookstore and newsstand in Kashgar from selling any Uyghur-language publications to a foreign reporter.

“Uyghur language is highly targeted now, so people are not publishing or writing in that language anymore,” says Darren Byler, an expert in Uyghur society and a lecturer in anthropology at the University of Washington. “Many of the leading cultural figures in Uyghur society have been disappeared,” he says. “The best of the poets, writers, musicians, and academics have all been taken.”

Some of most intrusive efforts at repressing Uyghur culture target those most vulnerable to political indoctrination: ethnic youths.

As the sun rises in Hotan, loud shouting fills the air. Two platoons of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers in dark-green fatigues sound off as they jog in formation through Hotan’s streets, ending up at a school in the center of the town.

Meanwhile, Uyghur secondary school students, also wearing mandatory camouflage fatigues with red kerchiefs tied around their necks, arrive at school.

Before, during, and after the school day, the military personnel and students exercise and drill together on the same track and field – with some soldiers toting automatic rifles – as part of a regionwide militarization of school life. Even kindergarten students are taught military-style boxing by PLA soldiers, as posters outside the nearby kindergarten show.

Inside the classroom, students no longer learn in their native Uyghur language. The government has banned its use in schools in one of the potentially most far-reaching efforts to suppress ethnic culture. Instead, they are instructed in Mandarin Chinese. Parents of students in Hotan confirmed reports of a government directive issuing the ban last year. “A year ago, they stopped teaching Uyghur language in schools. There’s only Han language now,” said the father of an elementary student. “They are making the Uyghur language useless.”

Students are bombarded with Chinese-language patriotic messages from dawn to dusk. At one school in Hotan, students walk to lunch as loudspeakers blare “Without the Communist Party, there would be no New China.”

On Monday morning, students and teachers gather on an outdoor track for a flag-raising ceremony. Giving a speech of loyalty, referred to as liangjian, or literally “flashing the sword,” the teacher calls for “heartfelt gratitude for the party.” Raising a fist in the air, she exclaims, “As long as we have one breath, let us struggle forward together!”

To ensure teachers toe the party line, the Hotan Communist Party committee in September announced it will investigate, expose, and punish any hint of resistance or lack of resolve among education workers. Attacking “two-faced people” – anyone who subverts, or does not enthusiastically promote, the party’s policies – it encourages people to turn in family members, friends, and colleagues. A large red poster on a main Hotan street lists dozens of offenses that must be immediately reported to authorities, including “misrepresenting” Xinjiang’s history; refusing to listen to public television broadcasts; or praying, fasting, or going on religious pilgrimages “in violation of regulations.”

Borrowing rhetoric from a 1950s Maoist movement to “eliminate hidden counterrevolutionaries,” the campaign in Hotan is a microcosm of the purges under way throughout Xinjiang’s society – all of which make clear that the party views unfettered Islamic faith as one of the most subversive dangers of all.

Change ‘under the barrel of a gun’

Chinese officials for years have argued that radical Islam poses a major terrorist threat to the country, citing several deadly bomb and knife attacks carried out by Uyghurs.

“In southern Xinjiang we have a religion problem. … Some people have extreme views,” says one Hotan Communist Party cadre who has worked in the town for eight years. In the past, “you couldn’t go out at night; it wasn’t safe,” says the cadre, a Han Chinese, reflecting some Hans’ fear of Uyghurs. “But the county government has controlled it fairly well.”

Yet the current “de-extremification” campaign has cast a nearly all-encompassing net over daily religious expression and activities.

Xinjiang authorities have banned long beards, veils, clothing bearing Islamic symbols, and certain names drawn from the Quran. Dozens of rules limit lawful religious activity to narrow confines approved by the state, making it illegal, for example, for a person to listen to an overseas religious radio broadcast. Adults are forbidden from allowing young people under 18 to receive religious education.

Although practicing Islam within government strictures is not technically banned, the widespread detentions of Muslims for minor expressions of faith mean that no one dares to worship publicly.


One Uyghur Muslim resident of Hotan said that he was not allowed to go to the mosque. Another said she couldn’t find a mosque even if she dared to go, exclaiming “They’ve all been torn down!”

Authorities, it is estimated, have demolished thousands of mosques in southern Xinjiang, including several in Hotan. In one village on the outskirts of the city, a Communist Party committee office has been built where a mosque once stood. In another village, all that remains of a once-large mosque destroyed in 2017 is a pile of bricks and an empty lot.

Famous mosques protected as heritage sites still stand but are required to fly Chinese national flags and hang propaganda banners and pro-party messages on the walls. All are installed with surveillance cameras.

At Kashgar’s yellow-tiled Id Kah mosque, the largest in Xinjiang, Quranic scriptures have been removed, replaced with a red-lettered digital propaganda ticker praising “Xi Jinping thought” and long lists of rules, including the “26 illegal religious activities.”

Above the entrance to the main prayer hall hangs a huge photo of Mr. Xi along with a call to “develop patriotic religious persons.”

Visitors to the mosque undergo a search by police and a metal detector and pay an entrance fee. Women are forbidden from wearing headscarves inside. The mosque is empty but for a few tourists. Asked when prayers take place, a worker wearing a white doppa skullcap responded evasively. “Although I work here, I don’t know about religious activities,” he said. “You have to understand it is secret.”

In Yarkand, a Uyghur town east of Kashgar where unrest erupted in 2014, the doors of the central mosque are locked, and a huge banner hanging on the front reads “Love the Party, Love the Country.”

Many Islamic holy sites that not long ago attracted thousands of pilgrims have been closed. In Tuyoq village outside Turfan, an arid town in eastern Xinjiang surrounded by red-earthed mountains and grape orchards, a hillside tomb or mazar is believed to be the resting site for the first Uyghur convert to Islam in Xinjiang. Any Uyghur hoping to make the pilgrimage to Mecca is supposed to come here first. Today, though, pilgrims and visitors are no longer allowed at the tomb, and the Chinese character for mazarhas been scratched off all the surrounding signposts.

Xinjiang authorities claim their policies are bringing stability by changing residents’ thinking. “Some ethnic minorities have reflected on major issues and achieved religious desensitization,” writes Niu Changzhen, an official at the Communist Party General Office in Xinjiang, in an October op-ed in Global Times.

Yet foreign scholars with years of experience in Xinjiang believe the party’s real agenda is to scare the population into submission through the mass detentions. “This is a deeply cynical strategy,” Bovingdon says, doubting that “anyone in the party believes it is possible to force … Uyghurs to change their beliefs under the barrel of a gun.” By “demoralizing up to a million people,” he warns, “they are setting themselves up for widespread trauma, deepened hostility, and violence.”

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