Six months after Xinjiang Communist Party Secretary Chen Quanguo came to power in August 2016, he launched a program that forced Uyghur cadres, religious clergy and intellectuals to write “open letters” professing their loyalty to the ruling party.

The “open letter” movement first started with Obulqasim Mettursun, the head of Jay Township at Keriye (Yutian, in Chinese) county on March 25, 2017, when he published an open letter entitled "A Plea to Uyghur Brethren."

Shohret Zakir, chairman of the Uyghur Autonomous Region, followed with an open letter on April 20 that expressed support for Obulqasim Mettursun’s open letter. He identified himself as the chairman and called for all Uyghurs to be politically diligent and never allow “three evil forces” to highjack the Uyghur nationality, and he called for Uyghur people to break through what he called their narrow ethnic mentality.

China says terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism are the “three evil forces” threatening Xinjiang.

Immediately following these letters, Ilham Sabir, the mayor of Urumqi, also published an open letter and said “Uyghurs must open their eyes, use their intelligence and identify the real danger of the ‘three evil forces’ and must have a clear separation from those “three evil forces.”

On April 24, Eziz Musa, the governor of Hotan (Hetian) prefecture, stressed in his open letter that Uyghurs should not forget their “historical background.”

"Uyghurs are not descendants of the Huns or the Turks. Uyghur blood is mixed with the blood of Han and other nationalities. Han blood also includes Uyghur blood. They became blood relatives throughout history. This is a historical reality. Therefore, each Uyghur must remember where their ancestors came from, and must get rid of the mentality that Uyghurs and Han Chinese are separate peoples,” Musa wrote.

A security officer holding a shield and baton guards a security post leading into a center believed to be used for re-education in Korla, Nov. 2, 2017. Photo: AFP

Overseas Uyghur activists and intellectuals found the letters cringe-worthy, and saw a darker purpose behind Chen’s campaign.

“The exact procedure was performed during the great Cultural Revolution. All the Chinese people used to write such letters,” noted Enver Tohti, a Uyghur activist in England.

“The key here is humiliation and demonization. When people write the same thing against their will every day, they start to lose their pride,” he told RFA.

“When people lose their pride,that is the end of that nation. It is the slave mentality. When they break our pride, then we will automatically obey them,” added Tohti.

Patrik Meyer, a visiting scholar at Peking University, told RFA the goal of the government policy is to make Uyghurs “feel Chinese.”

“However, the historical ties, cultural roots, and religious background connect Uyghurs to Central Asia. More specifically, Uyghur identity doesn't belong to the Chinese but belongs to Uyghurs themselves,” he told RFA.

“If Uyghurs keep their own culture, religion, and language, then it will be difficult for the Chinese government to achieve their goal and their plans, and the transformation of the Uyghur identity will fail,” added Meyer.

“So, first, they need to terminate your own character, the regional identity, and replace it with a new identity.”

RFA learned that Abdullatip Abdurehim Damolla, the vice-president of the Islamic Association of China and imam from Nawagh mosque in Hotan, was arrested during the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp parliament, in March 2017.

On May 14, Chinese social media published an open confession letter purportedly from Damolla praising the Communist Party’s leadership.

“My age is not very young, and my education level isn’t very high. However, I know that gigantic reforms have taken place in Xinjiang under the Communist Party leadership. ‘Three evil forces’ attempt to use our religion and ethnicity to deceive the Uyghur Muslims, and hope to disrupt our peaceful, happy lives. That is their unrealistic dream, which we shall never allow them to achieve,” he wrote.

Kahar Barat, a U.S.-based Uyghur intellectual, said the Chinese government is using carrots and sticks to force Uyghurs to give up their national and religious identity.

“By using such tactics, the Chinese government is trying to make Uyghur people surrender their national identity and to give up their culture, their history, and language and become entirely Chinese,” he told RFA.

“The sticks are intimidation, threats, and force, and the carrots are bonuses and incentives, and both aim to eventually force the Uyghur people to give up their religion, culture, and language,” he said.

Police officers on duty in the vicinity of a center believed to be used for re-education in Xinjiang's Korla city, Nov. 2, 2017. Photo: AFP

Meyer said it is unsurprising that Uyghurs “dislike the policies for sure, 100 percent.”

“No one can like those. But, if you want to work with the government, you have to say that they are right and must follow. That is the reason that the government is using the Uyghur cadres,” he said.

Throughout 2017, writing open letters became a common practice among Uyghur government employees and intellectuals in Xinjiang.

Xinjiang Normal University professor Abduqadir Jalalidin’s open letter calling on Uyghurs to “follow the Communist Party’s education roadmap, and carry out the responsibilities of China’s major growth era” was spread through social media.

“As a minority teacher in the Xinjiang educational field, I have recognized that ‘three evil forces' are trying to create chaos and ethnic problems and jeopardize the unity of our homeland. What they are doing is nothing but harming society, humanity, and culture. They are the traitors to their country, and their nationality, and are the enemies of the multi-ethnic Xinjiang people,” Jalalidin’s letter read.

Meyer said the hundreds Uyghur academics, officials, and common people he has spoken to recently “all have reservations for the Chinese government's harsh policies since the 1990s in the Uyghur region.”

“As far as I know, most of the Uyghurs want independence and dislike the Chinese rule over the region, deep down inside them,” he said.

“However, the reality is very cruel. They must survive. They must live and work within the existing system,” said Meyer.

Economic reality in a region of deepening Chinese control “forces them to align with the government policies and support regional measures to keep their jobs within the system.”

“These people, apparently when they are dealing with Han Chinese, with the government, they must present themselves as a supporter of the Chinese policies. Otherwise, they will lose their job,” said Meyer.