China Detains, Brainwashes 'Wild' Imams Who Step Out of Line in Xinjiang

The crackdown comes after the Xinjiang Communist Party chief calls for a massive region-wide security operation to prevent the occurrence of any incident, large or small.

Officials of the "stability maintenance" team in the Kanas Scenic Area of Xinjiang's Altay prefecture, close to China's border with Kazakhstan, in undated photo.

Authorities in the northwestern region of Xinjiang have launched a crackdown on "wild" imams, incarcerating and brainwashing any who refuse to toe the line set by the ruling Chinese Communist Party's religious affairs officials, sources told RFA on Monday.

An anonymous source in Xinjiang said the crackdown is based on a recent speech given by the region's Communist Party secretary Chen Quanguo on Sept. 29 ordering officials to to keep close tabs on all detention centers and re-education centers, including those set up to re-educate "wild" imams who depart from government directives when preaching Islam.

Chen also called on officials to ensure that "nothing happens: not major incidents, not medium incidents, nor minor incidents," in the run-up to the party congress in Beijing on Wednesday, the source said.

"The tightening of controls over these [detention centers and re-education centers] is a sign of how Uyghurs are increasingly being targeted for persecution," Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the exile World Uyghur Congress group, told RFA.

"The wild imams are being subjected to full-on, forcible brainwashing right now, and re-education in a sealed environment, to persuade them to totally relinquish their religious beliefs," he said.

Raxit said the government is also clearly worried about a violent backlash to the incarceration of Uyghurs and other ethnic groups with overseas links in recent months.

"The detention centers are bursting at the seams right now, and the authorities are worried about unrest," he added.

Last week, authorities in Xinjiang's Altay prefecture, close to the border with Kazakhstan, began a probe into several senior officials of the "stability maintenance" team in the Kanas Scenic Area, because they were unable to recite the key points of Chen Quanguo's Sept. 29 speech on demand.

Two officials were suspended pending review, while deputy team leader Gao Changjiang was dismissed, and two other officials handed "serious warnings."

Higher-ranking political and legal affairs official Wu Xinsheng and a local police chief were also sanctioned because the stability maintenance team was under their command.

Calls to the Kanas Scenic Area stability maintenance team rang unanswered during office hours on Monday.

A journalist who answered the phone at the regional Communist Party newspaper, the Xinjiang Daily News, said she didn't know which "four points" she was supposed to know, however.

"Four points made by party secretary Chen Quanguo? Which ones?" she said, before suggesting words that had little connection to his comments on stability maintenance.

U.S-based Qiao Mu, a  former dean of Beijing Foreign Studies University's Center for International Communication Studies, said punishments for failure to memorize speeches are rare in post-Mao China, and recall the days when any self-respecting Chinese citizen could spout quotations from Mao Zedong on command.

"I would say that this is a return to the Cultural Revolution [1966-1976], and such things as the cult of personality and the learning and study of leaders' speeches," Qiao told RFA. "Back in the day, newlywed couples recited the works of Chairman Mao on their wedding night, with a portrait of Mao on their wall."

Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wong Lok-to and Sing Man for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.