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I. Summary

“Xinjiang will always keep up the intensity of its crackdown on ethnic separatist forces and deal them devastating blows without showing any mercy.”1
–Xinjiang Party Secretary Wang Lequan, January 2003

China is known for tight constraints on freedom of religion. This is particularly evident in its northwest Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR), an oil-rich area that borders eight other nations. Here the Muslim faith of Uighurs, the largest non-Chinese ethnic group in the region, is under wholesale assault by the state. Uighurs have enjoyed autonomy in the past. Many now desire greater autonomy than is currently allowed; others demand a separate state. Uighurs are thus seen in Beijing as an ethno-nationalist threat to the Chinese state. Islam is perceived as feeding Uighur ethnic identity, and so the subordination of Islam to the state is used as a means to ensure the subordination of Uighurs as well.

Documents obtained and interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch reveal a multi-tiered system of surveillance, control, and suppression of religious activity aimed at Xinjiang’s Uighurs. At its most extreme, peaceful activists who practice their religion in a manner deemed unacceptable by state authorities or Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials are arrested, tortured, and at times executed. The harshest punishments are meted out to those accused of involvement in separatist activity, which is increasingly equated by officials with “terrorism.” Because of fears in Beijing of the power of separatist messages, independent religious activity or dissent is at times arbitrarily equated with a breach of state security, a serious crime in China and one that is frequently prosecuted. 

At a more mundane and routine level, many Uighurs experience harassment in their daily lives. Celebrating religious holidays, studying religious texts, or showing one’s religion through personal appearance are strictly forbidden at state schools. The Chinese government has instituted controls over who can be a cleric, what version of the Koran may be used, where religious gatherings may be held, and what may be said on religious occasions. 

Violations of these strictures can result in expulsion, fines, entries into the personal file that the state keeps on every Chinese citizen, harassment of one’s family, and administrative punishments, including short-term detention and administrative detention in China’s notorious and discredited reeducation through labor (RTL) program.

This report, based on previously undisclosed regulations and policy documents, as well as interviews in Xinjiang and elsewhere, makes it clear that systematic repression of religion continues in Xinjiang as a matter of considered state policy. It explains key changes in official terminology that signal important policy shifts and describes the principles that are expected to guide the actions of officials.

This report details for the first time the complex architecture of law, regulation, and policy in Xinjiang that denies Uighurs religious freedom. These include:

  • the current regulations governing religious activities in Xinjiang;

  • a manual for government and Party cadres on implementing policy on minority religious affairs, circulated internally in 2000, that elaborates many of the repressive practices subsequently codified in the regulations;

  • regulations prohibiting the participation of minors in any religious activity;

  • documents acknowledging vast increases in the number of Uighurs imprisoned or held administratively for alleged religious and state security offenses, including through the discredited reeducation through labor system; and

  • regulations detailing how religious and ethnic minority matters come to be classified as “state secrets.” 

These documents are deemed extremely sensitive and are accordingly restricted to internal Party or Party and government circulation. They are made public for the first time in this report and a selection can be found in the appendices.

In November 2004, China promulgated stringent new national religious regulations, effective March 1, 2005.2 According to article one of the new regulations, two of the main purposes are to ensure “freedom of religious belief” and to regulate “the administration of religious affairs,” objectives consistent with earlier policy statements, regulations, and practice. Although it cannot be predicted what the effects of implementation will be, the new regulations add additional layers of complexity to an already burdensome regulatory structure. It would appear that the government's unstated aims are twofold: to make it more difficult than ever for a religious body or a church, mosque, temple, monastery, or congregation to exist without State approval; and to solidify oversight of the personnel, finances, and activities of every approved religious body or site. Because of certain similarities between the new national regulations and the pre-existing regulatory structure in Xinjiang (stricter than elsewhere in China with the exception of Tibet), it appears that policies in place in Xinjiang may have influenced the new national standards.

While China’s constitution, many of its laws, and various government white papers on religion and ethnic minorities contain guarantees of religious freedom, the reality is that Muslims in Xinjiang have only as much religious freedom as local and national authorities choose to allow at any given moment. For many who experience state repression, arbitrariness is the touchstone: what is permissible for some can result in harsh punishment for others, particularly those suspected of having separatist tendencies, leadership qualities, or disloyal political views. Genuine freedom of religion, that is, the right of individuals to freely practice their religion with others, is conspicuously absent for Uighurs in Xinjiang.

Informants interviewed for this report gave accounts of how the legal and regulatory framework is implemented in Xinjiang––from the annual training of imams for conformity with a government role, to the destruction of “non-conforming” mosques, to the control of religious publications, to purges of schools.

Since the mid-1990s, state control of Islam has evolved from a focus on clergy to harassment of laity. We heard often that mosques are under comprehensive government control and surveillance, designed to discourage attendance, especially by children or young adults. Students and civil servants reported that it was impossible for them to publicly engage in any religious activity other than observing the Muslim ban on eating pork. Others told of people losing jobs, or even being arrested, because they were perceived as too religious. Both practicing and non-observant Muslims explained that there is almost no public latitude for religious expression. Hardly any young practicing Uighur Muslim we spoke with was without a story of harassment.

One of the most common devices for religious repression in Xinjiang is the annual “strike hard” campaign against general criminality. While “strike hard” is carried out throughout the country and leads to abuses wherever it is implemented, in Xinjiang it is used to crack down on Uighur religious activity on the theory that such activity is a cover for separatist activity.

Although official statistics on arrests, sentencing, and executions are kept secret, the contents of local media reports monitored by Human Rights Watch are consistent with estimates that thousands are detained every year for “illegal religious activity.” In September 2004, Xinjiang’s Chinese Communist Party Secretary acknowledged that the authorities had prosecuted twenty-two cases of groups and individuals involved in “separatist and terrorist activities” in the first eight months of the year, and had passed fifty sentences, including an unspecified number of death sentences, which at the time had not been carried out. Xinjiang leads the nation in executions for state security “crimes,” with over 200 people sentenced to death since 1997.

Beijing asserts that heavy-handed measures are necessary to address its concerns about Uighur separatist activity and Islamic-based terrorism in the region. Although there is no question that some Uighur extremists have advocated violent overthrow of Chinese rule, such individuals are a small minority, even among Uighur political activists. If anything, as described below, recent evidence shows a decline in militant activity in the region. Chinese fears likely have been exacerbated by its relatively weak control of the region compared to other areas, and the region’s hard-to-police border with eight countries. In addition, in recent years, Xinjiang has become an economic asset to China, with discoveries of oil that make it an attractive investment destination. This has led to strategic and security concerns finding their way to the top of political decision-making about Xinjiang. One result is that all policies in Xinjiang have an “anti-separatism” element; stamping down on freedom of religion is seen as a useful tool in this campaign.

For Beijing, Xinjiang falls into the same broad category of political concerns as Taiwan and Tibet. Demands for separation and/or autonomy are seen in Beijing as a threat to the continued viability of the Chinese state––they are a dangerous signal to the many parts of the country with large ethnic-minority populations––and the rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). 

Thus, a primary purpose of this highly repressive regulatory framework is the enforcement of loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party and the state. Public expression of dissent or deviance from the Party line is associated in Party documents, the press, and the courts with “harming national unity,” “disuniting nationalities,” or even “harming State security,” charges which carry very heavy penalties under China’s criminal law.3 This aggressive response to real or potential dissent is reflected in the bellicosne tone of official speeches and policy documents, in which authorities are called upon to “smash,” “suppress,” “eliminate,” and “wipe out” unlawful religious activities and to “rectify,” “reeducate,” and “wage war against” non-conforming believers and clergy.

Separatist sentiments are a reality in Xinjiang, though they provide no justification for the broad denial of basic rights. There appears to be strong popular support for genuine autonomy from China in a province more than 3,000 kilometers from Beijing, with a distinct history, ethnic make-up, and culture. In spite of large-scale Chinese migration, more than half of the population continues to be of Central Asian origin and Muslim. Much like Tibetans, the Uighurs in Xinjiang are concerned for their cultural survival in the face of a government-supported influx of ethnic Chinese migrants.

China’s efforts to control Uighur religion are so pervasive that they appear to go beyond suppression to a level of punitive control seemingly designed to entirely refashion Uighur religious identity to the state’s purposes. Non-Uighur groups are not perceived as presenting a secessionist threat for Xinjiang and are subject to less stringent controls. The other ethnic groups in Xinjiang (Kazakhs, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Mongols, and others) have independent states outside China and are not perceived to have similar ethno-nationalist aspirations. Among the major Islamic groups, only the Uighurs do not.

For most Uighurs the paramount issue is not religion per se, but the perceived threat that religious repression poses to their distinct identity coupled with their acute feeling of being colonized. They view the tight restrictions placed by the Chinese authorities on Uighur Islam as an attempt to debase their very identity, as Islam is an essential component of their traditional identity and culture.

Apparently for precisely this reason, religious activity among Uighurs is presumptively illegitimate unless approved by the CCP apparatus. Despite the Chinese government’s claim that it guarantees the right to freedom of religion, such respect applies only to what is essentially “state-sanctioned” religion.

Genuine freedom of religion, which includes the right to manifest, in public or private, alone or in community with others, one’s religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, and teaching, is plainly absent for Uighurs in Xinjiang.

China’s attempts to suppress Islam as a motive force for separatism by confining it to tight state control is not only profoundly violative of human rights, but is a policy that is likely to alienate Uighurs, drive religious expression further underground, and encourage the development of more radicalized and oppositional forms of religious identity. Moderate voices that could mediate tensions between the state and this minority population are likely to dwindle.

Since September 11, 2001, China has attempted to position its repression of Uighurs as part of the global “war on terror.” By exploiting the climate that followed the attacks on the United States and the fact that some Uighurs were found fighting in Afghanistan, China has consistently and largely successfully portrayed Uighurs as the source of a serious Islamic terrorist threat in Xinjiang. This perception seems to have now become dominant with the Chinese public, which because of the lack of a free media has little ability to compare sources of information and come to independent judgments about this claim.

The incorporation of the “terrorist” label into the public discourse has in turn heightened distrust between the Uighur and ethnic Chinese communities in Xinjiang. Uighurs interviewed in the region point out that opponents to Chinese rule in the area have been given many labels over the last half-century: they were described by the state as feudal elements and as ethnic nationalists in the 1950s and 1960s, as counter-revolutionaries in the 1970s and 1980s, as separatists in the 1990s, and now, since 2001, as terrorists.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks on the United States, China successfully lobbied Washington to support its efforts to place the “East Turkestan Islamic Movement” (ETIM) on a United Nations list of banned terrorist organizations. While small pro-independence organizations have in the past resorted to violence, since 1998 there have been no reports of significant militant activity. This is not to suggest that there may not be individuals or groups who continue to embrace violence to further their political goals. But Chinese officials admit that in recent years separatist activity has actually decreased and is not a threat to the viability of the state. China has opportunistically used the post-September 11 environment to make the outrageous claim that individuals disseminating peaceful religious and cultural messages in Xinjiang are terrorists who have simply changed tactics. 

Human Rights Watch urges China to reconsider its approach to religion and human rights in Xinjiang. China’s friends and neighbors, many of them Islamic states, and groups like the Organization of the Islamic Conference should insist that China make public all regulations on religion applicable to Xinjiang. China should be pressured to invite and allow unfettered access to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief and invite the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to return to China for the express purpose of visiting Xinjiang on terms fully consistent with its mandate.

In view of China’s record of arrest, imprisonment, torture, and even execution of religious prisoners, no country should participate in deportation, extradition, or rendition of Uighurs to China. Foreign investors in Xinjiang should insist on religious freedom within their workplaces and ensure that their operations do not in any way abet the lack of religious freedom in Xinjiang. The United States should not, for political convenience, acquiesce in any future demands from China to place organizations on lists of terrorist organizations without sufficient evidence.

A note on methodology

This report is based on previously unavailable documentary sources as well as interviews with Uighur individuals at different times over a period of three years. In Xinjiang, Human Rights Watch visited urban and rural areas and interviewed people from all walks of life, including students, teachers, private and state-sector employees, business owners, unemployed individuals, farmers, migrant workers, clerics and journalists. We visited mosques, schools, universities, hospitals, bazaars, restaurants, tourist sites, and other public places. Interviews were also conducted in the street, in trains, buses, and private cars.

Because of the highly repressive climate prevailing in Xinjiang, Uighur individuals have a legitimate fear of being seen, heard, or even suspected of talking with outsiders about government policies. Respondents frequently observe that many people serve as government agents, willingly or unwillingly, making it unsafe to talk publicly about sensitive issues such as religion and ethnicity. In private and secure settings, however, most interviewees freely expressed their views.

To protect interviewees, in this report we have used pseudonyms and omitted the place of interview where necessary to protect the identity of persons who spoke with us. Where pseudonyms are used, the citations so indicate.

There is no international standardized romanization for the Turkic-Uighur language, and the term “Uighur,” the transcription we use in this report, is found in a variety of other spellings, including Uygur, Uyghur, and Weigur. In Chinese, the name is transliterated as Weiwu’er [维吾尔]. People’s names also differ markedly, depending on whether the original name is in Uighur, in Chinese transliteration, or in the abbreviated form used in official documents. Thus, for example, the Uighur name Abdulkerim is transliterated in Chinese as Ahbudoukelimu [阿布都克里木], but will appear as Abudou [阿布都] in official documents. Places have different names in Chinese than in indigenous languages. Thus the city of Yining [伊宁] is called Ghulja in Uighur, and Hetian [和田] is known as Khotan.

For the sake of uniform orthography and wider recognition, this report has adopted the official Chinese transliteration of place names in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, which we refer to simply as “Xinjiang.”

[1] Wang Lequan: [Xinjiang] will deal devastating blows to ethnic separatist forces,” China News Agency, January 14, 2003 [王乐泉:将给与民族分裂势力以毁灭性打击, 中国新闻社,2003年1月14日].

[2] State Council (Order N. 426), Regulations of Religious Affairs, promulgated November 30, 2004, effective March 1, 2005 [中华人民共和国国务院令(第426号),宗教事务条例, 2004 年11月30, 2005 年3月1日起施行], [online], (retrieved February 14, 2005)].

[3] See Human Rights in China and See Human Rights Watch/Asia (joint report), "Whose Security? ‘State Security’ in China's New Criminal Code," A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 9, no. 4, April 1997.

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