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VI. Controlling Religion in the Education System

Minors barred from “participating in religious activities” in Xinjiang

Although China prohibits religion within the state educational system nationwide,133 there is no law prohibiting children from participating in public or private state-sanctioned religious activities.134

The situation is markedly different in Xinjiang, where article 14 of the XUAR regulation entitled Implementation Measures of the Law on the Protection of Minors states that “parents and legal guardians may not allow minors to participate in religious activities.”135 The implementation of the ban seems to vary from place to place, but some mosques display signs prohibiting the entry of anyone under eighteen years of age.136 Uighur Muslims report that the ban is implemented against them more harshly than against members of other ethnic or religious groups, but it applies to all religions in the region.137 This ban on religious activity among children has no basis in Chinese law and is not known to exist anywhere else in China. The national Law on the Protection of Minors138 does not include this clause. Neither do similar implementation measures adopted by other provinces. Even Tibet does not have such stringent regulations. The Chinese government has always denied the existence of such a prohibition, which contradicts both China’s own constitution139 and international legal obligations.140

In Kashgar, people complained that even talking about religion to their children was fraught with risks. One Kashgar educator put it this way:

This is a Uighur school and we are mostly Uighurs working here. But neither at home nor at work are you supposed to talk to the children about religion. You just talk about it and it is illegal. Even with my own son, I am not supposed to tell him about Islam. How can this be possible?141

Parents cannot avoid these strictures by sending their children abroad to study. In addition to barring private religious education in Xinjiang, the 1996 directives also imposed strict controls on exchanges with the outside world, stressing that “elementary and high school students from the border regions are not allowed to attend the elementary and high schools of foreign countries.”142 The directives instruct relevant authorities to “severely restrict elementary and high schools from developing cultural exchange programs with schools in foreign countries” and to “tightly limit cultural exchange activities such as foreign teachers teaching at Xinjiang schools.”143 Instead, the directives establish political loyalty as the principal criterion for allowing students to study abroad.144

Purging the schools of religion

In Xinjiang, restrictions on religion in state educational institutions go far beyond prohibiting the teaching of religion. Xinjiang authorities are actively hostile to any action that may encourage religious interest among the young. The Urumqi Manual (discussed in Chapter IV, above) details the following “policy restrictions” on religion in the educational system at all levels, including the university level:

  1. no religious activities to be carried out at schools;
  2. no religious classes or preaching of religious beliefs, no obstruction to education on morality and scientific culture;
  3. no coercing or seducing students to take up religious beliefs; no activities that would enhance the development of religious followers;
  4. no school at the secondary level or below may adopt teaching materials that promote religious belief; all teaching materials on religion adopted by the university must be examined by the administrative department responsible for education above the province level [in Beijing];
  5. no teacher may violate the rules by leading the students to participate in religious activities; foreign teachers are forbidden to engage in the preaching of religion at school.145

The political sensitivity of religion, and particularly religion as it contributes to Uighur social and cultural identity, is evident from the case of a Uighur professor at a higher education institution in Xinjiang who was banned from teaching local musical traditions. He described these events:

That is how it has gone with me, and mind you I am not what you would call a fervent Muslim. Only during class I would often talk about religious songs. They are widespread; it is absurd that you are not allowed to speak about it. It is an important part of our musical history and tradition, which is what I was supposed to teach. But then, the next term they [the school authorities] tell me not enough students enrolled in my course, which is not true. So I have not taught for a year now. They have not dismissed me and I should not complain too much because I still eat the bread of the Communist Party, but I just walk around campus or sit at my desk. It is a total waste, but it is better not to talk about it.146

Beginning in 2001, schools in numerous localities across Xinjiang underwent “clean-ups”. Books which had “separatist content” were removed from libraries, teachers were investigated and reportedly fired, and students were warned that they were monitored and would be expelled if they did not conform to the new ideological requirements.

A report issued by the Hetian CCP Committee on January 5, 2002, ordered educational authorities to “clean up and reorganize the schools, their leaders, and the teaching body so as to turn schools into a stronghold against separatism and infiltration.”147

Do not allow religion to corrupt the schools; do not allow anyone to teach school children ethnic separatism or to publicize religious ideas. Remove textbook contents which inspire ethnic separatism and publicize religious ideas. … Since we launched our battle against Eastern Turkestan separatist forces, we found that religion, illegal religious activities and extremist religious thought have severely influenced, disturbed and infiltrated society and villages, and in particular education.148

Virtually any dissent or outward expression of religious belief is banned in schools. Forms of dress or outward appearance deemed too closely associated with traditional practices of Islam, such as men with beards or women with headscarves, are banned from schools. In Kashgar, for instance, a female teacher in a public education institution told Human Rights Watch how this ban affected practicing Muslim women teachers:

My husband allows me to work here, even if he is upset that now all state jobs forbid you to wear even a little scarf over your head, or something as small as a handkerchief. I am lucky: many colleagues of mine were told by their husbands that they could not go out in the street and into work with their heads uncovered, and simply had to quit their jobs.149

Even performing the most basic requirements of the Islamic faith, such as reading the Koran, engaging in daily prayer, and fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, have been prohibited. In November 2001, a female student was reportedly expelled for disobeying school orders to stop performing five daily prayers. She was praying in her dormitory room when discovered.150 The same report quoted a member of the staff of the Kashgar Teachers’ College as saying, “Teachers and administrators have been asked to sign statements saying they will accept responsibility if any student in their class is caught fasting.”151

Uighur students at Xinjiang University, Kashgar Teachers’ College, and Yining Teacher’s College all told Human Rights Watch that all religious attitudes and practices are forbidden, praying is impossible for fear of reprisals, and the mere fact of having a Koran or any religious publication is considered grounds for expulsion.

Non-teaching personnel in schools also have had to discard religious practices. A relative of a Uighur working in an office in a Kashgar school interviewed by Human Rights Watch recounted that simply sporting a beard was too much:

I managed to set up some business with other relatives, and that is my pride. I was working before in an office, dealing with food supplies for schools, but then they said: “No beards allowed in here. Not even mustaches.” I thought how can they tell me what I do with myself? This is our tradition, nobody’s business. So I had an opportunity to leave, and I left. But if you cannot find another job, in the private sector, you either shave or starve.152

Such anecdotal accounts about interference with even the private exercise of religious freedom by students and teachers were confirmed by an official document obtained by Human Rights Watch. A letter was sent by the authorities of the Xinjiang School of Forestry to some parents on July 15, 1999, quoting regulations from the Autonomous Region Education Commission. The letter warned the parents that their children “have been praying and keeping fast, [and have been] involved in some religious activities” and that “if this behavior is seen again the students will be expelled.” The document states that “praying, keeping fasts and other religious activities” are explicitly banned by an official directive, “Document No. 5 (1996) of the Autonomous Region Education Commission,” and by “our school rules.”

These restrictions are still in place. In November 2004, an official from a county-level Chinese Communist Party religious affairs committee told Radio Free Asia that they had been ordered to report anyone fasting during the month of Ramadan:

“We have an agreement with the Chinese government that I am responsible for preventing students from fasting during Ramadan,” said the official, who declined to be identified. “If I find out that any of them have been fasting I have to report it.”153

Enforcement through surveillance

“Education branches should pay special attention to the investigation and organization of teaching in schools. 154
–Political Bureau of the Chinese Communist Party

In Xinjiang today, both students and teachers are subjected to surveillance by school authorities, the CCP, and Party-affiliated organizations. In addition, there is an elaborate network of section directors, class heads, and others who are held responsible if any case of dissident behavior appears. The denunciation of any “suspect” act is strongly encouraged, resulting in a general climate of fear and mutual suspicion.

For example, in Kashgar Teacher’s College, students complained that there were random searches in the dormitories at least twice a year, and that anyone caught possessing religious or politically sensitive materials risked expulsion from the college. The students expressed a constant fear that they might be overheard and mentioned cases of fellow students having been expelled for expressing political opinions, criticisms of the Party or government policies, or because they had “talked about religion.” Uighur sources allege that a schoolteacher in Kashgar’s Mush district, Abdhurahman, was dismissed on the grounds of “possession of incorrect books” and “religious activities.”155

Political “witch-hunts” within schools in Xinjiang are confirmed by the authorities themselves, who acknowledge having set up “information networks” (xinxi wang 信息网) in schools linked to the Public Security Bureau. In 2001, Liu Baojian, the Party’s Deputy-Secretary of Kizilsu Tadjik Autonomous Prefecture, stated:

In every school we have established an information network integrated with the local police station, with the teachers in charge of a class acting as the basis [of a network] comprised of classroom heads, section heads, teaching offices and school directors.156

He added candidly that the objective was to “control (zhangwo 掌握) the evolution of the thinking of the pupils … in order to teach and ‘guide’ them.”157

Special campaigns

As a complement to the structural elements of political control described above, the authorities have launched periodic campaigns to enforce patriotic education and indoctrinate students against separatist ideology and illegal religious activities. The May 2001 campaign illustrates this approach. In an article entitled “Closely Monitor the Education of Youngsters” published in the Xinjiang Daily on May 15, 2001, the Xinjiang Propaganda Department emphasized that “education is the most important front in the fight against separatism.” The article continued:

The stability of schools is not only related to the stability of the whole society, but also to the long-term stability of Xinjiang. Strengthening the educational training of youngsters and the political thinking of the teachers is a very important part of the work of preserving the social stability of Xinjiang and opposing on a daily basis the battle against separatism.158

Two days later, the authorities declared that an anti-crime “Strike Hard” campaign–– periodic drives against serious crime conducted throughout China––was to be extended to the education system, “Strike Hard Rectification Does Not Forget to Educate Youngsters about the Legal System,”159 read a headline in the Xinjiang Daily, announcing that institutes of higher learning throughout the region were to be subjected to a “three rectification” drive.160 Speaking at a “reeducation” mobilization meeting in February 2002, Xinjiang Party Secretary Wang Lequan stressed again the fact that political loyalty was to be placed above anything else.161

According to parents, students, and teachers across Xinjiang with whom Human Rights Watch spoke, the political climate deteriorated sharply in 2001-2002, with the authorities organizing numerous rallies against separatism which teachers and students were forced to attend. One Uighur teacher in Kashgar interviewed for this report described this process of ongoing indoctrination:

I have had no holidays for three years, because when we do have holidays we are supposed to go and study anti-separatism, anti-this and anti-that. I cannot tell you the stuff we have to study. Still, if you want to work, or need the pay, what else can you do? You go and read that stuff as if it made sense.162

As described in the next section, these propaganda campaigns against separatism often converged with anti-crime sweeps of putative “separatists.” 

[133] The constitution stipulates that religion should not “interfere with the educational system of the State” (art. 36), while the Education Law states that “No organization or individual may make use of religion to conduct activities that interfere with the educational system of the State.” (art. 8).

[134]The U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child states: “For the purposes of the present Convention, a child means every human being below the age of eighteen years unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier.” Convention on the Rights of the Child, art. 1, adopted November 20, 1989 (entered into force, September 2, 1990). In the report, the terms child or children is sometimes used to .acknowledge the relationship between two or more persons.

[135] Standing Committee of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Regional People’s Congress, Implementation Measures of the Law on the Protection of Minors, September 25, 1993 [新疆维吾尔自治区人民代表大会常务委员会: 新疆维吾尔自治区实施‘未成年人保护法’办法, 1993年9月25日].

[136] Statement by Dr. Jacqueline Armijo (Acting Assistant Professor, Religious Studies, Stanford University) to the United States Congressional-Executive Commission on China, July 24, 2003 (

[137] Implementation of the ban for Xinjiang Catholics has been reported as recently as September 2003. A Catholic priest in Yining city, Father Song Zunsheng, reported to UCA News in September 2003 that government officials had banned people younger than eighteen, as well as all students, teachers, soldiers, and government officials from practicing any religion and taking part in any religious activity. He reported that two government officials guarded the entrance of the city's only church from April to June 2003 and drove away any children who may have wanted to enter it. “Government Restrictions Hamper Church Development in Remote Muslim Area,” UCA News, September 22, 2003.

[138] Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Protection of Minors, September 9, 1991 [国 人 民 代 表 大 会 常 务 委 员 会: 中华人民共和国未成年人保护法), 1991年9月4日].

[139] Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, Art. 36 [中华人民共和国宪法, 第三十六条].

[140] The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which China ratified in March 2001, enshrines the rights of the parents to provide religious education: “States parties undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents (…) to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.” (art. 13). The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), to which China is also a party, stipulates that “States Parties shall respect the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” (art. 14). See also the Convention against Discrimination in Education (CDE) which prohibits “any distinction, exclusion, limitation or preference which, being based on…religion…has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing equality of treatment in …” (art. 1). China ratified the CDE on February 12, 1965.

[141] Human Rights Watch interview with informant B, Kashgar, June 2002.

[142] “Record of the Meeting of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Chinese Communist Party concerning the maintenance of Stability in Xinjiang (Document 7),” reproduced in Human Rights Watch, “China: State Control of Religion: Update #1,” March 1998.

[143] Ibid.

[144] “When choosing students for study abroad, pay great attention to their attitude and their actual behavior. Do not send those without a good attitude. Concerned branches should tightly control their criteria in this respect when investigating and permitting students with political backgrounds to go abroad for study with their own money.” Ibid.

[145] Manual, p. 31.

[146] Human Rights Watch interview with informant C, Urumqi, June 2002.

[147] “Separatists Alleged to have infiltrated Xinjiang Schools,” Agence France-Presse, January 31, 2002.

[148] Ibid.

[149] Human Rights Watch interview with informant B, Kashgar, June 2002.

[150] “China cracks down on its Muslims,” Agence France-Presse, November 23, 2001.

[151] Ibid.

[152] Human Rights Watch interview with informant D, Kashgar, June 2002.

[153] “China Steps Up Religious Controls Over Muslim Uighurs,” Radio Free Asia, November 17, 2004.

[154] “Record of the Meeting of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Chinese Communist Party concerning the maintenance of Stability in Xinjiang (Document 7),” reproduced in Human Rights Watch, “China: State Control of Religion: Update #1,” March 1998.

[155] World Uighur Network News (WUNN), April 4, 2002. The information was not corroborated by other media.

[156] “Comprehensive Public Order: Urging Stability from the Small to the Large,” Xinjiang Legal Daily, May 17, 2001 [“宗治:由小到大促稳定,” 新疆法制报, 2001年5月17日].

[157] Ibid.

[158] “Highly monitor the education training of young pupils,” Xinjiang Daily, May 15, 2001 [“高度重视对青少年的倍养教育,” 新疆日报, 2001年5月15日].

[159] “Strike Hard Rectification Does Not Forget to Educate Youngsters about the Legal System,” Xinjiang Legal Daily, May 17, 2001 [“严打整顿不忘青少年法制教育,” 新疆法制报, 2001年5月17日].

[160] Ibid.

[161] Xinjiang Daily [新疆日报], February 9, 2002, FBIS, March 25, 2002.

[162] Human Rights Watch interview with informant B, Kashgar, June 2002.

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