By Maya Wang
First, the authorities in her village in Xinjiang in northwestern China removed the crescents from the mosque, Auken told me. Then the imam and the boy responsible for the call to prayer disappeared into custody.
The authorities began requiring everyone in the village to gather for the weekly Chinese flag-raising ceremony. Once the police hit an elderly woman, telling her to take off her headscarf. Authorities confiscated prayer mats and copies of the Quran.
Chinese authorities have long imposed pervasive restrictions on peaceful religious practice. In Xinjiang, a region in which over half the population is Sunni Muslim, people cannot wear long beards, veils, or anything deemed “extremist” attire. Children are prohibited from learning about religion, even at home. People are not allowed to go to Mecca unless they join state-organized pilgrimages.
But these controls have dramatically stepped up since late 2016, and Auken’s experience is not unusual. The government says it must eliminate terrorist threats by “eradicating ideological viruses” of some “incorrect” Islamic beliefs and non-Chinese identities.
The government’s religious restrictions are now so stringent that it has effectively outlawed the practice of Islam. And having a family member living abroad in one of the official list of 26 “sensitive” countries – that is, according to Beijing, predominantly Muslim – including Afghanistan, can be enough to get one interrogated.
There has been comparatively little international outrage over what may be among the world’s most draconian and comprehensive controls over Muslim religious life. None of the 26 “sensitive” countries appear to have publicly protested that designation or China’s treatment of Muslims, even though some of these countries had criticized the US travel ban on visitors from several Muslim countries.
The Chinese government’s increasing human rights violations have used a wide variety of repressive tactics on an unprecedented scale. Beijing has mobilized a million government agents in Xinjiang to spy on people through intrusive “homestay” programs, is encouraging neighbors to spy on each other, and has affixed QR codes on homes to monitor residents’ conduct. The authorities collect biometric data, such as DNA and voice samples, including from children, without consent.
Officials use questionnaires to pore over people’s everyday behavior, inputting the results in a big data program: do they smoke? do they drink? Any indications of religious piousness, along with “storing lots of food in one’s home,” or owning fitness equipment, can be construed as signs of “extremism.”
Credible estimates say a million people are being indefinitely held without any legal authority in “political education camps” until their daily routine of learning Mandarin and singing songs in praise of the Chinese Communist Party are deemed to have made them “politically qualified.”
Outside those camps, people are required to attend political indoctrination meetings and, for some, Mandarin classes. People have to apply to the police for permission and go through numerous checkpoints just to visit the next town. Authorities have recalled passports from people in the region, and prohibited communication with people outside the country, including relatives. Children have also been caught in the crackdown—some of those whose parents are held in political education camps have been removed from their extended families and raised in state-run orphanages or boarding schools.
China is Afghanistan’s biggest foreign investor. Beijing is also interested in getting Afghanistan’s cooperation in preventing ethnic Uyghurs from entering Xinjiang through the Wakhan Corridor. But as Afghanistan deepens its relations with Beijing, particularly as it engages with the Chinese government’s ambitious “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure plan, it should be wary of this powerful neighbor whose policy toward minorities displays a disturbing mix of racism, Islamophobia, and a growing appetite for domination and control within and beyond its borders.
Afghan government officials need to set their relationship with Beijing right by speaking up for Muslims in Xinjiang, both publicly and privately with senior Chinese government officials. It should raise concerns about Xinjiang during the 2018 Universal Periodic Review of China at the United Nations Human Rights Council on November 6. It should also raise it with fellow member states at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to mobilize as it did in response to the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar.
And it should not forcibly return Uyghurs or other Turkic Muslims to China without providing a full and fair individualized examination of their risk of being persecuted or tortured in China.
Beijing feels little international pressure to change course in Xinjiang. Hearing concerns from governments like Afghanistan’s about gross violations against Muslims might help change Beijing’s mind.
Maya Wang is a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch.