Authorities in the northern Chinese province of Hebei have ordered a regional soccer club to expel nine youth trainees of Uyghur ethnicity, citing "counterterrorism" concerns, leaving them potentially with nowhere to go, RFA has learned.
Hengshui Power Football Club received applications for training contracts from promising youngsters from across China following a nationwide recruitment drive, among them nine members of the mostly Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uyghur group, who won places on the scheme.
Trainees are given the opportunity to enter the club's intensive soccer training program at the same time as completing their education, and the youngsters had already been enrolled in a local school since the start of the academic year.
"These kids are very talented, and the club wanted to train them up properly," a Xinjiang-based coach told RFA. "But the local state security police wouldn't allow the club to take on these children from Xinjiang, and that they would have to go home."
"They weren't to be allowed to attend school here," he said.
The police decree had caused anger and consternation at the club, sources close to the story said, as even the local middle school had offered the boys places to study, and the boys had won the official support of the State Ethnic Affairs Commission in Beijing.
But state security police vetoed the plan. Four of the children have already left Hengshui, but five others remain in their dormitories in the hope of pursuing their dream of becoming soccer stars, the coach said.
"We are very shocked and very angry about this, because we are citizens of China, it says so on our ID cards," he said. "We are very patriotic, but we just grew up somewhere different and we look a bit different, is all."
"We are Chinese too. Maybe you can subject adults to such controls, but what is there to fear from children?" he said. "I can't get my head around it."
Far worse consequences
The ban has left the children facing potentially far worse consequences, too, as their hukou, or household registrations, were moved to Hebei after they signed the contract with the club and the middle school, the coach said.
This means they are no longer eligible for enrollment in schools back in Xinjiang, as the hukou system is the basis for access to all government services.
The coach said it would be impossible to find similar training opportunities for the children closer to home.
"There are far more opportunities in majority Han Chinese areas of China, including better teaching and more funding," he said. "Soccer is much better developed there than in Xinjiang."
Repeated calls to the Hengshui Power Football Club rang unanswered during office hours on Thursday and Friday.
A second coach close to the story told RFA that the reason for the police decision was linked to China's antiterrorism campaign.
But he said the boys were likely to be negatively affected by being expelled from the soccer training program.
"Everyone says that Chinese soccer is going to depend on talent from Xinjiang in future," the coach said. "Now they're putting pointless obstacles in the way of that."
"I really hope that the relevant departments take note of what is happening here, and help out these future national heroes."
While China blames Uyghur extremists for a string of violent attacks and clashes in recent years, critics say Beijing has exaggerated the threat from the Uyghurs, and that repressive domestic policies are responsible for violence that has left hundreds dead since 2009.
China has vowed to crack down on what it calls religious extremism in Xinjiang, and regularly conducts "strike hard” campaigns including random, nighttime police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people, including clothing and personal appearance.
Anhui-based rights activist Shen Liangqing said ethnic tensions remain high in China, blaming flawed policies in Beijing.
"The main reason for this is that the [ruling] Chinese Communist Party insists on copying Russia's approach to ethnic conflict," Shen said.
"This sort of overreaction on the part of the authorities is just going to make ethnic tensions even worse."
"Right now, Uyghurs aren't allowed to work, study or travel freely through the rest of China, and now they are interfering with the training of Uyghur youths," he said.
"This sort of hyper-vigilant paranoia goes far beyond normal counter-terrorism measures, and it will make Uyghurs feel insulted and discriminated against," he said.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.