HONG KONG—Chinese authorities in the troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang have imposed travel restrictions on the region's ethnic minorities since the regional capital Urumqi was rocked by deadly ethnic rioting last year, local residents and travel industry sources said.
"[Passport applications] must bear the seal of the nationalities and religious affairs committees before [applicants] are allowed to leave the country," said an employee who answered the phone at the Xinjiang branch of the state-owned China Travel Service (CTS).
"They haven't been sending back these forms for some time, so ethnic minorities are totally unable to process their applications [to leave the country] right now."
She said the apparent restrictions had been in place since last year across the entire region. "There have been less than 10 successful applications during that time," she added.
Ethnic Uyghurs took to the streets en masse in July 2009 in an initially peaceful demonstration to protest a violent attack weeks earlier against Uyghur migrant workers in far-off Guangdong province, which officials allegedly failed to quell promptly.
Those clashes in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), left some 200 people dead, according to official figures.
Passports 'off limits'
The CTS employee said ethnic minorities aren't being allowed to leave the country for any reason at all, under current restrictions.
"There's no way they could get a passport [to visit relatives or for tourism]," she said.
Repeated calls to the Urumqi municipal police department's entry and exit bureau went unanswered during office hours Wednesday.
Xinjiang is home to mostly Muslim ethnic Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and Tartars, among other recognized ethnic groups.
Uyghurs, who number more than 16 million, constitute a distinct, Turkic-speaking, Muslim minority in northwestern China and Central Asia.
They declared a short-lived East Turkestan Republic in Xinjiang in the late 1930s and 40s but have remained under Beijing's control since 1949, with many calling for independence.
An employee at a second major travel company in Urumqi said that they could only get passports for Han tourists now.
"If they are going out in a tour group and they don't already have a passport, we can apply for their passports for them," the employee said. "But we don't do this for ethnic minorities because it's hard to get the application accepted. We only do this for Han Chinese."
He said non-Han Chinese need to follow a different procedure when applying for a passport.
"It's hard to say [when things will ease up]," he said. "These are all internal policies. I don't know about them."
A Uyghur youth resident in Urumqi said he had been told that authorities are no longer accepting passport applications for ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.
"They said that ethnic minorities need an extra two forms on top of those required by Han Chinese," he said. "They said they aren't even issuing passports to go to Turkey. They've just stopped."
"They said Han Chinese can still get passports. I don't know why this is," he said.
Original reporting in Uyghur by Kurban Wali and in Mandarin by Ding Xiao. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.