Authorities in northwest China’s Xinjiang region have extended a recently introduced ban on “extreme” Islamic names for ethnic Uyghur babies to include anyone up to the age of 16, according to official sources and residents, and the order may soon include Uyghurs of all ages.
According to a recent posting on WeChat by the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region’s Public Security Bureau, Order No. 4425 requires all Uyghur parents to change the names of children under 16 years of age, if they are among those listed in a region-wide ban uncovered by RFA’s Uyghur Service.
In April, official sources told RFA that “overly religious names”—such as Islam, Quran, Mecca, Jihad, Imam, Saddam, Hajj, and Medina—were banned under the ruling Chinese Communist Party's “Naming Rules For Ethnic Minorities,” and that any babies registered with such names would be barred from the “hukou” household registration system that gives access to health care and education.
A police officer in Hotan (in Chinese, Hetian) prefecture recently confirmed to RFA that his station in Hotan city’s Elchi district was ordered last month to complete name changes of Uyghurs aged 16 and younger by June 1, but said that due to technical issues the deadline may be extended to July 1.
The officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said “15 names cannot be used, including Arafat,” and that parents should bring both their own and their children’s household registration papers to the police station to make the change.
“We are changing only the names of minors under 16,” he said.
“The ones 16 and above have not been ordered to change yet, due to the difficulty of changing their ID cards and driver’s licenses, so we do not have any directive on changing their names.”
According to the officer, students who have completed primary school must also change the names on their graduation certificates, meaning they must visit both their local police station and education department.
He acknowledged that the name change process is difficult, as many parents have been the target of a crackdown on what Beijing calls religious extremism in Xinjiang, with authorities conducting regular “strike hard” campaigns including police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people.
“Basically, the village cadres are assisting the minors to change their names, because some of their parents are either in jail or detention,” he said.
The officer said that many Uyghur parents had given their children “extremist” names when Beijing’s policies in the region were “lenient,” but “at the moment, since they cannot use those names, they are simply changing them.”
“The locals have no objections,” he added.
An official from Hotan prefecture’s Qaraqash (Moyu) county government also told RFA his office had recently received an order to change banned names for Uyghur children.
“There are around seven names and the order specified that the name change should be done for free,” said the official, who also asked to remain unnamed.
“For example, they have to change names like Arafat. My colleague’s son’s name was Arafat and he was made to change it. He is a Xinjiang Medical University student.”
The official did not specify the age of the young man.
A teacher in Hotan city also confirmed the name ban, but said that none of the Uyghur students at her school had “radical” names.
“There are some students named after their grandparents—such as Ayshem, Tohti and Mahmut—and most have more popular names—such as Ilnur and Dilnur—so we didn’t hear much about the name ban here,” she said.
Sources in Hotan had previously detailed to RFA a list of banned names in 2015, but an employee who answered the phone at a police station in the regional capital Urumqi suggested in April that the ban had since been rolled out region-wide.
The employee said at the time that names “with a strong religious flavor, such as Jihad” or those with “connotations of holy war or of splittism [Xinjiang independence]” were no longer allowed.
Other rules on what constituted an “extremist” name seemed arbitrary, at best.
Names of Islamic scholars could be regarded as “promoting terror and evil cults,” Yultuzay—a reference to the star and moon symbol of the Islamic faith—is “pagan,” and Mecca “would be a bit over-the-top,” the employee said, adding that he didn’t think Saddam would be acceptable either.
“Just stick to the party line, and you'll be fine,” he told RFA.
“[People with banned names] won't be able to get a household registration, so they will find out from the hukou office when the time comes.”
A second source told RFA at the time that the safest names for Uyghurs are those that are considered more “mainstream” by the Chinese Communist Party, such as Memet.
Invasion of privacy
Dolkun Isa, general secretary of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress exile group, strongly condemned the Chinese government for forcibly changing the names of Uyghur children under the age of 16.
“This demonstrates how far and wide the Chinese government violates the fundamental human rights of the Uyghur people and invades the very privacy of their lives,” he told RFA.
“Clearly, Uyghur parents are being stripped of the right to name their own children.”
Isa noted that in every culture, baby names are carefully selected—often with the input of the extended family—and said Uyghur families should not be denied that right.
“China should be ashamed of forcing Uyghur parents to change the names of their children under any circumstances,” he said.
While China blames some Uyghurs for "terrorist" attacks, experts outside China say Beijing has exaggerated the threat from the Uyghurs and that repressive domestic policies are responsible for an upsurge in violence there that has left hundreds dead since 2009.
Reported by Mihray Abdilim for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.