A city in northwestern China’s restive Xinjiang region has prohibited people with beards or those wearing Islamic clothing from traveling on public transportation, state media said, prompting anger from an overseas group who called the policy “racist” against the mostly Muslim minority Uyghurs.
Authorities in Karamay city said people wearing hijabs, burkas, or clothing with the Islamic star and crescent image—a symbol that had been used by two short-lived Islamic republics in the region—are banned from riding local buses, the Karamay Daily reported.
The paper said that the ban extends to men wearing “large beards,” adding that “those who do not cooperate with inspection teams will be handled by police.”
According to the report, the ban was introduced to bolster security during an Aug. 8-20 athletics event in the city.
The Xinjiang region, which is home to the Turkic-speaking Uyghurs, has seen an upsurge in violence that has left hundreds dead since 2012, and which China has blamed on terrorists and Islamic insurgents seeking to establish an independent state.
Alim Seytoff, president of the Washington-based Uyghur American Association, said the Karamay ban was unfairly targeting members of the Uyghur community, who complain that they are subject to various controls for opposing Chinese rule.
“Officials in Karamay city are endorsing an openly racist and discriminatory policy aimed at ordinary Uyghur people,” Seytoff said in a statement.
Seytoff said that officials in Xinjiang “feel they can flaunt the laws of China” to implement a tough one-year anti-terror campaign introduced by President Xi Jinping in May, following a bombing in the regional capital Urumqi, which killed 31 people and injured 90.
He said that since its introduction, the campaign “appears more and more to be a wholesale onslaught against the Uyghur peoples’ religious beliefs and practices.”
“What this bus ban tells us is that Uyghurs in China have fewer rights than other citizens, even in their homeland, and that it green lights discrimination against Uyghurs by ordinary Han Chinese.”
Uyghur rights groups accuse the Chinese authorities of heavy-handed rule in Xinjiang, including curbs on Islamic practices and the culture and language of the Uyghur people.
Many Uyghurs say headscarves are a marker of Uyghur rather than Muslim identity. Chinese authorities, however, discourage the wearing of headscarves, veils, and other Islamic dress in the region.
Authorities in Urumqi last month banned bus passengers from carrying a range of items including cigarette lighters and yogurt, in a bid to prevent violent attacks.
Chinese state media said this week that 96 people were killed in July 28 riots which erupted after a “gang” of Uyghurs attacked a police station and government offices in Kashgar prefecture’s Yarkand (in Chinese, Shache) county, and that the authorities reacted with “a resolute crackdown to eradicate terrorists.”
However, Rebiya Kadeer, president of the Germany-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC), accused authorities of a cover up of what she called a “massacre” of Uyghurs in Yarkand and claimed that at least 2,000 Uyghurs may have been killed by Chinese security forces following the riots.
The official Xinhua news agency cited the government as saying investigations showed the attack was "organized and premeditated,” and "in connection with the terrorist group East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).”
Many Uyghurs refer to Xinjiang as East Turkestan, as the region had come under Chinese control following two short-lived East Turkestan republics in the 1930s and 1940s.
Chinese authorities have blamed ETIM and “separatists” from Xinjiang for a series of attacks which have expanded in scale and sophistication over the last year.