China: Suppression of religious freedoms in Xinjiang continues

(Photo illustration: Shutterstock)

(Photo illustration: Shutterstock)

During China’s Cultural Revolution the Uyghur linguist Ibrahim Mutte’i, who helped compile a comprehensive multilingual dictionary, was tortured in the pursuit of cultural conformity by having large volumes of his edited dictionary dropped on his head.

Although the Cultural Revolution resonates as an extreme moment in China’s modern history, today the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) continues to develop expansive legal and political frameworks that repress the cultural and religious freedoms of its Uyghur population in Xinjiang province.

China maintains a stifling grip on the largely Muslim minority Uyghurs of Xinjiang. Aspirations for greater autonomy are repressed through ambiguous and far-reaching criminal laws that equate expressions of independence with separatism and terrorism. Severe restrictions in cultural and religious freedoms are part of considered government policy and Uyghurs are practically the only minority group subject to structural executions for religious offences.

Narratives of “terrorism”, external threats and fanatical separatism have been successfully produced and reproduced by the CCP, to confront ethnic problems in Xinjiang and delegitimise criticisms of government policy. The post 9/11 context has enabled the CCP to widen the scope of “terror” offences in its criminal code, where potential crimes include the dissemination of information and public gatherings that “disturb social order”. Rights to free assembly and expression, alongside peaceful protests are prohibited through punitive legal frameworks.

Expansive definitions of terrorism to include any “non-state” action decontextualise violence in Xinjiang as isolated extremism and privilege national security over individual human rights. By externalising ethnic discord, the CCP denies the existence of legitimate dissent and acts with domestic impunity.

The abuse of national security and anti-terror laws to marginalise and censor free speech are emphasised in the recent arrest of prominent Uyghur intellectual Ilham Tohti.

In a statement released by the Bureau of Public Security in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang, Tohti is charged with promoting “Xinjiang independence”, the spread of separatism and ethnic discord, sending followers overseas to engage in separatist activities and praising individuals involved in “terrorist” attacks. China’s state-owned newspaper, the People’s Daily, commented that “police authorities have uncovered the concrete evidence behind Ilham Tohti’s separatist activities”.

Tohti has not joined calls for an independent East Turkestan but questioned the impact of economic, social and cultural policies in Xinjiang, and advocated for better treatment of Uyghurs. His arrest and official discourses explaining his crimes point to the criminalisation of dissent and a predictable pattern whereby challenges to state power are not tolerated.

Alongside the political and legal frameworks deployed to proscribe freedom of expression, curtailments of religious and cultural self-determination continue unabated. A recent Project Beauty campaign endorsed by the provincial government in Kashgar, ostensibly to promote “beauty” and “modern culture”, registered veiled women and bearded men at checkpoints in attempts to discourage expressions of Islamic and Uyghur identity.

The Uyghur Human Rights Council documents the indiscriminate targeting of religious practice. Outward expressions of faith at state institutions are forbidden, with public signs ostracising Islamic dress through explanations such as “women and girls, open your veils, don’t disturb modern civilised society”. In addition Uyghur language is being systematically eliminated from tertiary institutions, and classes on Uyghur literature, instructed entirely in Chinese, have been subject to inspection by “language police”.

Local religious leaders must complete compulsory political training through the state-run Islamic Association of China, which provides the Islamic clergy with a collection of state-sanctioned sermons and “approved” copies of the Koran. Private religious education is banned and those found to facilitate the independent tuition of Islam or in possession of non-approved literature, are often charged with “illegal” religious activity.

Furthermore, state employees and anyone under the age of 18 cannot enter a mosque. These measures point to a comprehensive draconian system of censorship, with Uyghurs arrested for offences such as “possession of wrong books” and “teaching the Koran”.

A report from Human Rights Watch, citing the official document A Manual for Urumqi Municipality Ethnic Religious Work, provides further evidence of the flagrant denial of civil and political rights. The manual identifies illegal religious activities to include: “inciting the masses to illegally rally and demonstrate”; “distorting history”; going abroad to study religion or engaging in any kind of religious activity that “span[s] different localities”; and carrying out activities “harmful to the good order of society”. These highly ambiguous injunctions restrict not only freedoms of religious belief, but also deny free expression and freedom of movement under virtually any pretext.

The tragic reality of Xinjiang is that a multidimensional system of surveillance, control and religious suppression has exacerbated an ongoing human rights crisis. Although the number of missing Uyghurs is difficult to verify, most estimates point to the arbitrary detention of thousands every year for “illegal” religious activity.

The signs in 2014, of continued violent “separatist” attacks and aggressive state crackdowns, should alarm the international community as controls seem likely to escalate. Beyond the political disenfranchisement, economic exploitation and cultural erosion of Uyghur identity, CCP assimilationist policies ironically serve only to reinforce a sense of alienation and difference.

This article was posted on 3 Feb 2014 at

Xi’s the one: What the pundits are saying about China’s next leader

The world’s two biggest superpowers are about to choose their next leaders. While the American battle is laid bare for all to see, in China, Beijing’s new emperor and his closest advisers are something of a mystery.

Chinese flags (Shutterstock)

Chinese flags (Shutterstock)

That hasn’t stopped the rest of the world debating what Xi Jinping (China’s most likely candidate for the new Communist Party chief) and his top officials will mean for the country.  So far it’s all guesswork, and there are some widely differing opinions from Xi the reformer, to Xi the hardliner. Here’s a round-up of the predictions from Tokyo to Washington.

Hong Kong

While there is virtually no discussion in mainland media about the new incoming Politburo, Hong Kong-based pundits are free to publish their views. According to AFP, Hong Kong-based website Mirror Books is pessimistically predicting that the new line-up will be dominated by conservatives and not reformers. It predicted the line-up “would include Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng, Liu Yunshan, Zhang Gaoli and Wang Qishan, citing sources close to the party.”

Hong Kong political commentator Willy Lam was positive: “This looks like the line-up. It is not one that will be good for reform hopes”.


The Australian Strategic Policy Institute argues that it will be business as usual under Xi. He won’t be “making any drastic domestic changes”, argues Hayley Channer, because of his “allegiance to the Communist Party.”  But compared to current premier Hu Jintao, Xi is “more approachable as well as more confident.” Channer suggests that domestic problems will keep Xi busy and away from acting too feisty in regional politics.

Kevin Rudd, the Chinese-speaking former Australian prime minister, pointed out last month that the new government — likely to be announced on 8 November, two days after the US elections — will have the same key goal as all other Chinese governments since 1949: that is “the new leadership will seek to sustain the political pre-eminence of the Chinese Communist Party within the country.” This will be tough, Rudd says, because of corruption, economic issues, and the need to boost the country’s international standing.

In terms of issues of free speech, Xi will be walking into a much freer China: “Democratic forces within China also now have greater space to operate than used to be the case,” Rudd writes. “There is now a much more open debate about Chinese policy questions in the Chinese media.”

And while the Party itself is off limits and will continue to be so as a topic of public discussion, Rudd suggests that “the public debate, both in the mainstream media, the social media and on the ground through popular protest activity over local decisions, is now a firm and probably fixed feature of Chinese national political life.”

We can only bide our time,  he says, to see how much Xi is prepared to allow this develop.

Xi Jinping during a trip to Dublin, Ireland, February 2012. Art Widak | Demotix

Xi Jinping during a trip to Dublin, Ireland, February 2012. Art Widak | Demotix


Dr. Satoshi Amako at The Association of Japanese Institutes of Strategic Studies bleakly pedicts that Xi will be more hardline than Hu.

“Some analysts contend that [Xi] will adopt more conservative policies and try to strengthen one-party rule domestically,” Amako says. “ His statements are conservative but reformist, China-centric but internationalist.”

Xi will have to grapple with a number of crucial issues, one of which is the struggle between a growing need among the people for more freedoms and the supremacy of the Party. He says:

China’s open reform policies not only realized economic growth but also generated a sense of rights, and the Communist Party has applied a strong brake to social and political liberation. On the other hand, various steps have been taken to introduce a degree of flexibility. Nevertheless, resistance from minorities, farmer movements, frequent civil and mass protests, civil rights movements aimed at raising public awareness of rights, and expansions of “free spaces” by informal media are now all evident.

Amako, sadly, offers no prediction over how Xi will attempt to juggle this one.

United States

Xi’s strong ties to the military could mean that he will be a “formidable leader for Washington to contend with”, writes Jane Perlez in the New York Times. With an increasingly stronger People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Xi is likely to focus on making China more assertive on the world stage, particularly in Asia, Perlez cites analysts as saying.

Not so, says infamous former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. After he held talks with Xi this year he said he was convinced China’s new leader would bring sweeping reforms to the country.

“It’s unlikely that in 10 years the next generation will come into office with exactly the same institutions that exist today,” Kissinger said.

Like Rudd, Kissinger believes internal issues will dominate Xi’s agenda so that he will not be looking for confrontation with the West:

What we must not demand or expect is that they will follow the mechanisms with which we are more familiar. It will be a Chinese version (…) and it will not be achieved without some domestic difficulties.

According to The Diplomat, Xi’s “confidence” — which Channer in the Australian Strategic Policy Institute also referred to — may be good or bad. A. Greer Meisels writes:

It could mean that President Xi may be more difficult to work with, at least from an American perspective, because he may feel as if the U.S. should be more deferential to China and its core interests. On the other hand, he could be easier to deal with because he may have the confidence to make bolder moves on the foreign policy, political, and economic reform fronts.

So again we’re advised to “wait and see”. And we may have to wait some time: The Diplomat warns that it will be at least one to two years before  Xi will have amassed enough “political capital” to make his mark.

United Kingdom

The Economist asks if Xi has “the courage and vision to see that assuring his country’s prosperity and stability in the future requires him to break with the past?” In other words, Xi must start to relax the party’s grip on power to deal with the problems facing China today: a slowing economy, corruption and growing social discontent.

Social media and growing incomes have meant people are more willing and able to voice their complaints, and news of protests can now be debated nationwide.

Xi could, the Economist says,  privatise rural land and give it to peasants. The judicial system needs to properly address grievances, and  “a free press would be a vital ally in the battle against corruption.”

While the magazine concedes this scenario is highly unlikely, it argues that Xi has no choice if he wants a strong a stable China in the years to come.

More on this story:

China will change leaders, but keep censorship

China will change leaders, but keep censorship

Sometime before the end of the year, China Communist party will hold its 18th Congress, when the old batch of leaders will step aside for a new crop. Rumours are flying about what will happen then, from the almost certainty that Xi Jinping will become China’s next president to suggestions that the Politburo Standing Committee will be cut from nine members to seven, demoting the power of the Political and Legal Affairs Committee.


Founder of Chinese political party on trial

Guo Quan, the founder of the China New Democracy Party will plead not guilty when he stands trial today for subversion against the state according to his lawyer. The trial comes amid reports of numerous detentions and trials of dissidents, alongside an apparent crackdown on activist lawyers possibly to stifle dissent ahead of the 60th anniversary of the Communist state’s founding in October. Read more here