Authorities in northwestern China’s Xinjiang region have begun searching the homes of mostly Muslim ethnic Uyghurs for “illegal items,” including religious materials and attire, after a deadline for handing in the contraband expired over the weekend, according to official sources.
In early March, Chinese authorities in Hotan (in Chinese, Hetian) prefecture’s Guma (Pishan) county issued an order requiring local Uyghurs to turn in items such as unsanctioned religious publications, calendars and utensils with the Islamic star and crescent logo, and religious attire, such as burkas.
Uyghurs were called on to hand over the items—as well as other goods, including matches, leftover fertilizer and carpets—by April 1, after which “delinquencies will be dealt with,” according to the order, which did not specify what actions authorities planned to take against those who failed to comply.
On March 15, a police officer in Hotan—the location of a deadly attack carried out by a group of Uyghurs a month earlier—told RFA’s Uyghur Service that the goods could be brought to local neighborhood committees or police stations, where they would be confiscated in exchange for compensation.
“If they bring them to us, we simply take them and log the items [in a record book],” the officer, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity, said at the time.
“They have to bring all the items listed as illegal. They will be given compensation for the value of their items, though we can’t guarantee that they will be given money for all of them.”
But while police had earlier deferred to local residents to deliver the so-called “illegal items” to local authorities, RFA learned in recent days that security personnel have been carrying out searches of Uyghur homes since the deadline expired.
A security guard at the Guma township police station in Guma county contacted over the weekend told RFA that residents would not be held accountable if they hand over items during house searches, despite the passing of the deadline.
Those who do not offer up illicit goods to police that are subsequently uncovered during the searches, however, “will be dealt with accordingly,” said the guard, who asked not to be named.
A Guma county police officer, who also did not give his name, said the house searches were “not extreme measures at all,” in the aftermath of the Feb. 15 attack by three Uyghurs in Guma county that left five passersby dead and another five injured, with the attackers themselves shot dead by police.
“[Official] working groups are visiting the homes they are responsible for and having conversations with the homeowners,” the officer said.
“The mosque management committee, village committee and police—we are all conducting the investigation. We are doing this because maintaining social stability is of the utmost priority.”
According to the officer, if books found in homes are on a list of 156 “legal publications” endorsed by the official United Front and Mosque Management Committee—which includes the Quran—authorities will stamp them with the Chinese characters “inspected” and allow residents to keep them.
Books “without clear publishing details,” as well as those on a list of “illegal publications” provided to them by the regional government, are confiscated.
“Some of the illegal books we collected include ones published during 1980s and 1990s, ones with words that are no longer permitted, ones without copyright information and ones sold by booksellers on the streets,” he said.
Residents of Hotan told RFA that the searches, and other security measures enacted by authorities in the region since the February knife attack, had made the lives of local Uyghurs extremely difficult.
An ethnic Han Chinese member of the 47th Regiment of the Hotan region Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps—a quasi-military brigade also known as the “bingtuan”—said area Uyghurs are required to attend meetings in local village offices every two or three days.
“I’m not saying there shouldn’t be any controls, but the controls should have limits,” said the man, who gave his surname as Wang.
“[The authorities] are interfering in every aspect of their existence, but the Uyghurs have to have a life as well.”
Wang said that many Uyghurs in the area agree with the central government’s basic policies in the Xinjiang region, but that “the lower level of government’s way of doing things is really different.”
“If you go to someone else’s house and order them to do this and that and harass them, you will disturb their normal daily lives and they will not accept that either,” Wang said.
“This kind of harassment will drive them to do things they wouldn’t normally consider.”
Authorities in Hotan have cracked down on Uyghur residents since the Feb. 15 knife incident, which sources say was motivated by anger at threats by local officials to punish the attackers for praying with their family—an activity outlawed as part of a bid to restrict Muslim religious practice in Xinjiang.
A week after the attack, the Hotan prefecture government said in a statement that 100 million yuan (U.S. $14.5 million) had been set aside to reward would-be tipsters reporting “suspicious” acts possibly linked to terrorism.
A second announcement, issued Feb. 28 by the Chira (Cele) county government, said those who report individuals for having “stitched the ‘star and crescent moon’ insignia on their clothing or personal items” or the words “East Turkestan”—referring to the name of a short-lived Uyghur republic—on their mobile phone case, purse or other jewelry, were also eligible for cash payments.
China has vowed to crack down on what it calls religious extremism in Xinjiang, and regularly conducts “strike hard” campaigns 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 Uyghur extremists 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 Jilil Kashgary for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.