Authorities in northwest China’s Xinjiang region are using an updated set of guidelines to detain Muslim Uyghurs on charges of religious “extremism” that now include their postures while at prayer, the color of their hair, and even how they wear their watches, according to official sources.
Since April, thousands of Uyghurs accused of harboring “extremist” and “politically incorrect” views have been detained in political re-education camps and prisons throughout Xinjiang, where members of the ethnic group complain of pervasive discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression under Chinese rule.
Authorities have relied on a list circulated earlier this year of “75 Signs of Religious Extremism” to detain Uyghurs amid a string of harsh policies attacking their legitimate rights and freedoms enacted since Communist Party secretary Chen Quanguo was appointed to run the region in August 2016.
Among the signs of extremism on the list were “conducting business as usual” and “women who wear religious clothing to work” during the holy Islamic month of Ramadan, “storing or purchasing large quantities of food for home” and “acting abnormal,” and “praying in groups in public outside of mosques.”
But Communist Party secretaries in villages in Xinjiang’s Hotan (in Chinese, Hetian) prefecture recently told RFA’s Uyghur Service that they were notified in April of several new “signs of extremism” security personnel should look for to determine whether a Uyghur is at risk of becoming an Islamic “radical.”
“There are many different signs of religious extremism—we have a list of 75,” a village secretary from Hotan city’s Ilchi township said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“[New guidelines say to look for] those who, when at prayer, stand with their legs wide apart and place their hands above their chest, and also those who dye their hair red [with henna].”
In addition to existing guidelines that warn against Uyghurs who “grow their hair or beards long,” the new instructions advise authorities to be wary of “those who wear short trousers” and “those who wear a watch on their right wrist,” he said, without elaborating.
“In villages, people who don’t greet the party secretary or cadres, and those suddenly abstaining from drinking alcohol—these changes are [now] also considered to be a sign of religious extremism,” he added.
The secretary did not provide details of who had issued the new guidelines or whether anyone had been detained in his village because of them.
‘Change in ideology’
A second village secretary from Ilchi confirmed that anyone exhibiting any of the original 75 signs of “extremism,” or those from the new set of guidelines, is subject to arrest.
“We talk with whoever exhibits any of the signs and ask them to correct their behavior,” said the secretary, who also asked to remain unnamed.
“If they refuse to cooperate, we send them for re-education in order to liberate their thoughts and minds.”
According to the secretary, security personnel monitoring area mosques for “extremist” activity “pay particular attention” to those who “place their hands on their upper chest or stand with their legs apart.”
Additionally, those who “dye their hair or grow long beards, which they dye, despite being young” are singled out by authorities, he added.
“In our opinion, they are part of an organisation, and they coordinate and identify one another by their colored hair—otherwise they wouldn’t do it,” the secretary said.
“We also believe there has been a change in their ideology [that made them become extremist].”
The secretary declined to comment on which branch of government was responsible for determining the new guidelines, and would only say that “some” of the more than 200 Uyghurs from his village who had been imprisoned or placed in re-education camps since April had exhibited the signs, leading to their arrest.
Turghunjan Alawudun, the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress exile group’s director of Religious Affairs, rejected the idea that the “signs” listed in the guidelines distributed to authorities in Xinjiang were indicators of religious extremism among Uyghurs.
He noted that people in many Arab countries pray standing with their legs apart, which he said was a “cultural tradition,” and said Muslims were instructed by the Prophet Muhammad to prevent any clothing from touching the ground for reasons of hygiene.
Dying one’s hair with henna is also an Islamic practice in many Arab countries, as well as in India and Pakistan, Alawudun added.
“These are just cultural and historical habits—our Prophet used to do it, so traditionally people have followed what he did,” he said.
“For the Chinese government to add these as ‘signs of religious extremism’ is absolutely laughable.”
According to Alawudun, the growing list of guidelines is an indication of Beijing’s paranoia over the Islamic faith, which he said advocates justice and instructs followers not to bow to oppression.
He questioned what right the state has in banning citizens from dyeing their hair and wearing long clothing, and suggested that outlawing such practices was an attempt by Chinese authorities to justify a crackdown on what he called “the increasingly strong beliefs of Uyghur Muslims.”
“The aim of the Chinese authorities is to extinguish Uyghur people’s faith completely, by using various tactics and excuses to stop those people from believing in Islam,” he said.
“In their view, once the Uyghur people become atheist, it would become more convenient to assimilate the entire population … [so that they] are the same as the [ethnic Han] Chinese,” he said.
“In order to persecute the wider [Uyghur] population, they are listing normal behaviors as ‘radical,’ with the end goal of eradicating our faith and culture.”
‘Strike hard’ campaigns
China regularly conducts “strike hard” campaigns in Xinjiang, including police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people, including videos and other material.
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 Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.