Communist Party Secretary Chen Quanguo launched his draconian rule in Xinjiang with a policy of confiscating the Uyghur people's passports. Reporting throughout Xinjiang, RFA learned that from the capital city Urumqi to outlying counties and the countryside, all passports were confiscated by the local police.

An official from Ilanliq Township in Toksun (In Chinese, Tuokexun) county of Turpan (Tulufan) prefecture, told RFA all passports were seized from the entire population of the prefecture at once in 2017 and stored in prefectural police stations.

“We have collected the passports they have,” he said.

“They must get recommendation letters from the village and township authorities, give their reasons for the travel, and bring them here for confirmation,” said the official, explaining how Uyghurs could retrieve their passports for approved foreign travel.

Uyghur observers say Chen’s policy marks a reversal of his predecessor’s practices when it came to allowing Uyghurs to travel.

"Chen Quanguo not only confiscated the passports from the Uyghur people who are in the Uyghur region, but also pressured the Uyghurs who have been traveling as visitors or students abroad to turn in their passports,” said Ilshat Hasan, president of the Uyghur American Association.

Family members of people stranded in China by a passport confiscation drive lodge a complaint with the Chinese consulate in Almaty, Kazakhstan, May 31, 2017. Photo courtesy of an RFA listener

Previous Xinjiang party bosses gave passports to some Uyghurs people due to international pressure, he said.

Under Chen, however, the government is “forcing Uyghur students who are studying abroad by holding their parents as hostages in the name of ‘political studies’ and having the parents call or send messages to their children and pressuring them to return home,” said Hasan.

“In Western countries, the U.S., European countries, the Arab world, or the Turkic nations, no matter where they are in the world, Uyghur students are terrified, and some even returned because they were panicking. They disappeared after they returned,” he told RFA.

U.S.-based physician Jur'et Obul, a Uyghur activist, said the policy reversal under Chen has been painful and costly for Uyghurs who took advantage of the passport policies of Chen’s predecessor.

“Sure enough, for a while, many people got their passports and traveled abroad, and many travel agencies were established and arranged overseas tours. Furthermore, some Uyghurs even bought homes in Turkey and felt that they were free to travel overseas and felt they were also being treated the same as Han-Chinese citizens, and were pleased,” he told RFA.

“However, after the arrival of Chen Quanguo, the passports were severely controlled. Not only were Uyghurs’ passports seized, they also faced background checks,” said Obul.

“Uyghurs who bought houses in Turkey or were doing business abroad suffered tremendous financial loss. The channels were blocked for the students who were planning on studying abroad, or for people who were planning on traveling overseas. Everyone's passport was confiscated,” he added.

“Now, they are conducting policies as severe as during the great Cultural Revolution,” said Obul.

British-based researcher Enver Tohti said the policies of Chen flow from “an old Chinese mindset to control other nationalities” that still governs the way it treats Uyghurs and Tibetans. “They never believe Uyghurs and Tibetans. It comes down to humiliation and slave mentality policies against Uyghurs, and against the Tibetans as well. This is a part of the major strategic plans of the Chinese government,” he told RFA.

“The demonization of the Uyghur image is already starting to show its effects,” said Tohti.

“The ordinary Han Chinese people in the region used to treat Uyghurs in a normal fashion, although the government was discriminating against the Uyghurs in the past. Now even the regular Chinese people turn their faces when they hear the word ‘Uyghur.’”

A copy of the document detailing the security threat of 13 Uyghur residents of Western Hebei Road, in Xinjiang's Yengisheher district.Photo: RFA

Tohti says he fears anti-Uyghur sentiment is spreading among Chinese people overseas as well.

“We must be cautious about this, because demonization is an early sign for a future ethnic cleansing or genocide,” he said.

“First, the government tries to demonize the ethnic group and make everyone else detest this ethnic group. Then it is easy to say, We all hate them, and I am going to get rid of them.’ No one would object to it. What the Chinese government is doing today is precisely this tactic, to make us look evil,” said Tohti.

U.S.-based Uyghur intellectual Kahar Barat said he believes Chen's policy of confiscating Uyghurs’ passports is designed to cut off their connections with the outside world.

“The government believes that the Uyghurs currently overseas are appreciating the freedom of human rights and democracy, learning to think freely, and enjoying access to all the news, and furthermore are aware of the real circumstances of the Uyghur region, which most Uyghurs who are living there don't even know,” he told RFA.

“Most importantly, they hear Uyghur democrats' advocacy voices and activities. Those undoubtedly influence the Uyghurs who travel abroad. This reality itself scares the Chinese government. Therefore, the government is restricting the overseas travel of Uyghurs by confiscating their passports. This is another of the tactics of the Chinese state,” added Tohti.

Researcher Patrik Meyer, a visiting scholar at Peking University, said his field research in Urumqi, Kashgar (Kashi), and Hotan (Hetian) between 2010 and 2013 showed a sharp deterioration in conditions that began with July 5, 2009 ethnic violence in the capital Urumqi.

“The local restrictions and policies toward the Uyghur people got more exploitive,” he said.

The policies, Meyer said, do not “reduce radicalism, but actually foment radicalism and increase Uyghurs’ resentment against Chinese rule.”

“These actions are radicalizing some Uyghurs and making them more anti-Chinese,” he said.