Chinese authorities in the troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang have stepped up campaigns against "'unauthorized" Islamic activities among the region's Uyghur ethnic minority, an overseas group says.
The campaigns include restrictions on the wearing of traditional headscarves and beards.
Since the regional capital of Urumqi was rocked by deadly ethnic riots in July 2009, Chinese authorities have stepped up controls on Uyghurs, especially in provincial towns and cities, activists say.
Officials in the Silk Road city of Hotan [in Chinese, Hetian] recently held a "criticism session" attended by around 400 people, according to a spokesman for the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress.
The meeting, held 10 days ago in Hotan's Punak village, closely resembled the "struggle meetings" of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), spokesman Dilxat Raxit said.
"In its pursuit of religious oppression, the officials in this district even held a criticism meeting in the style of the Cultural Revolution to criticize [local people]," Raxit said.
"There were also economic punishments handed out," he said.
Raxit said the region had not seen anything like it since the political turmoil of the Cultural Revolution.
"The main purpose was to target illegal religious activities," Raxit said.
"Some of them had been listening to recordings of Quranic recitations at home, or had played religious recordings to others.".
Singled out, fined
Raxit said that 78 people were singled out as having participated in illegal religious activities, while five people were fined 1,500 yuan (U.S. $225) each during the meeting.
"Their annual income doesn't come to 1,000 yuan (U.S. $150)," he said.
A resident said there are few sources of income to be had in the local area, which is mostly desert.
"The Uyghurs mostly haul rocks to the rest of China, or to Urumqi," the man said.
"They don't even know how much they are worth, and if they find a buyer they'll accept whatever price they are offered for them."
The moves form part of a campaign to "take the rule of law to the villages," according to the official website of the Hotan municipal government.
Under the system, villagers must sign an agreement with officials not to take part in any "unofficial" religious activities.
"The village agreements scheme openly puts pressure on Uyghurs not to engage in any religious activities which the Chinese government regards as forbidden," Raxit said.
"This means that people aren't allowed to listen to recordings of the Quran or breastfeed each other's babies in their own homes," he said, referring to the use of wet-nurses, permitted in the Quran, which recommends breast-feeding for up to the first two years of an infant's life.
So far, 34,971 households in Hotan, representing 98.6 percent of the population, have signed the agreements, the website said.
Raxit said that 29 men had so far been fined as much as 500 yuan (U.S. $75) each for wearing beards, while 38 women had been fined between 200 yuan and 1,000 yuan (U.S. $30 to $150) for wearing headscarves.
Calls to the Hotan county government went unanswered during office hours on Thursday.
An official at the Hotan municipal government office declined to comment.
"You should call the law enforcement office ... or the propaganda office," the official said.
A Han Chinese resident of Hotan described the government's approach to pushing the agreements.
"They say, do this, or do that, and people are supposed to obey," he said. "If they refuse to sign [the agreements], they have the freedom not to sign."
"But then they use administrative measures to interfere, and force them to do it."
Raxit said the campaigns are not confined to Hotan, and that around 140 people have recently been detained for similar reasons in northern Ili prefecture, where a 1998 uprising was suppressed with military force.
"They are being accused of incitement, of separatism and, of carrying out illegal religious activities and promoting religious extremism," Raxit said.
"The oppression of religious activities has continued this year, and has been without let-up since the July riots," he said.
In August, four members of a police auxiliary unit were killed in a bomb attack in Xinjiang province's Aksu city after they harassed Uyghurs, singling out men with beards and women wearing traditional head coverings.
They had gone out on patrol to “check” Uyghurs who appear in public wearing beards or traditional head coverings.
Uyghurs say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness despite China's ambitious plans to develop its vast northwestern frontier.
Chinese authorities blame Uyghur separatists for a series of deadly attacks in recent years and accuse one group in particular of maintaining links to the Al-Qaeda terrorist network.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese service. Translated and written by Luisetta Mudie.