Two weeks into Ramadan, authorities in the northwestern region of Xinjiang have handed down punishments to at least 100 ethnic minority Muslims for breaking the ruling Chinese Communist Party's restrictions around observance of the religious fasting month, an exile group has said.
Since Muslims in China began observing dawn-to-dusk fasting and other restrictions on May 27, the government has been imposing fines and other sanctions on any state employees who refuse to eat in the middle of the day, according to the World Uyghur Congress, which represents the mostly Muslim Uyghur ethnic group in exile.
"Since the beginning of Ramadan, at least 100 people have been punished for breaking the Chinese government's policies on Ramadan in Kashgar and Hotan [in Chinese, Hetian]," the group's spokesman Dilxat Raxit told RFA.
"Some of them were fined, while others were sent to compulsory reeducation classes aimed at opposing religious extremism," he said. "They are now being forcibly brainwashed, while others were fined 500 yuan."
He said that fines of that magnitude in themselves represent an intolerable financial burden for poverty-stricken rural families.
Raxit said some of those punished were farmers, while others were state employees or government officials, all of whom are forbidden to fast or pursue any other religious activities under the atheist Communist Party.
Anyone in an official job is put under intense pressure to break their fast, to show loyalty to the government, he said.
"The authorities will send people to take [Uyghur Muslims] out to lunch, for example," Raxit said. "In the countryside, the officials go into the fields and eat and work alongside the people there ... it's basically a political campaign [against religious practice]."
"They go into the fields with food and drink, and they try everything [to get people to eat or drink]," he said. "They have set up a special stability maintenance team which consists of police, citizen security agents and village-level officials, as well as stability maintenance specialists sent from [regional capital] Urumqi."
Similar restrictions are being enforced in Urumqi, according to resident of the city surnamed Jiao.
"The same stability maintenance work is going on, whether it be in the city or the countryside," Jiao said. "But there are differences between neighborhoods, and some neighborhoods have increased security, with ID checks on anyone going in or out."
"I think the authorities are worried about people gathering together, maybe extremists gathering in those neighborhoods; they are terrified of this happening," he said.
While authorities in Xinjiang have typically forced restaurants to stay open and restricted access to mosques during Ramadan to discourage traditional observation of the holy month, officials in Hotan prefecture said the local government is taking more drastic steps this year and assigning party officials to each Uyghur family for monitoring purposes, sources told RFA last week.
Another Xinjiang source, who gave only his surname Zuo, said the regional branch of the Communist Party's disciplinary arm has fired or demoted dozens of officials for breaching party guidelines on religious observance.
"There are two ways of investigating people, overtly and covertly," Zuo said. "These stability maintenance measures are the product of very particular circumstances, both in and outside China."
"There is a connection with anti-terrorism measures internationally, which are pretty tight right now."
But Raxit said Beijing is using any means it can to step up political pressure on Uyghurs.
"They are using all manner of political threats [with these sanctions] to force officials to deliver on Beijing's policies targeting Uyghurs for persecution and control," he said.
Reported by Wong Lok-to for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Xin Lin for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.