A full year before Chen Quanquo took over as Xinjiang Communist Party chief, in the summer of 2015, the first administrative order banning a number of Islamic names was issued by the local political committee in the township of Tohula, Karakash (In Chinese, Moyu) county in Hotan (Hetian).
News media at the time revealed more details about the “List of Forbidden Names,” including the Islamic names banned for boys as extremist: Arafat, Hüsein, Seypidin, Seypulla, Nesrulla, Shemshidin, Sadam, and Mujahit; and those forbidden for girls – including Muslime, Muhlise, Ayshe, Fatima, Hediche, and others.
The measure was seen by Uyghurs as part of the Chen administration’s drive to dilute their ethnic and religious identity, while simultaneously enforcing the “Chinese nation” ideology as part of their plan to dissolve the Uyghur identity.
When RFA called the Tohula police station in Karakash county, the policeman who picked up the phone refused to share internal details about the administrative order, but confirmed that local political cadres had in fact held meetings with religious leaders to discuss the administrative order.
“We are not sure of such details. Meetings were held with local religious leaders about the specific names that are forbidden, so they would know more,” the officer told RFA by telephone. He said his station did not have the list of banned names.
A Uyghur woman in Niye (Minfeng) county confirmed to RFA that the administrative order was indeed in effect and shared her personal experience of being ordered by the local police station to change her daughter’s name, which was Muslime.
A Uyghur child walks past a mural depicting China's Tiananmen Gate on the streets of Aksu in western China's Xinjiang province, July 14, 2014. Photo: AFP
“My daughter’s name was Muslime, and the local police notified us saying that we had to change her name, so we changed it,” said the woman, who declined to have her name broadcast or published.
Asked about other names and whether in addition to newborns, older people who had now-banned names would have to change them, she said: “I’m not sure, I just know that they banned the name Muslime.”
“I’m not clear about the reason why we had to change her name. We were told to change her name, so we did,” said the woman.
The Hotan prefectural government announced a list of “Forbidden Islamic Names” for all those under its jurisdiction, which took effect on May 1, 2017, and requires children with the banned Islamic names who are under age 16 to change their names with the local police department, an officer at the Ilchi police station in Hotan city told RFA.
“There are about 15 names on the list, like Arafat and so on, which need to be changed within three days. Those under the age of 16 with these names must change their names,” said the policeman.
“As for those who are over age 16, it has yet to be determined, since they would typically have obtained a driver’s license already, which could complicate things. Name-changing can be done at a local police station in Hotan or other governmental registration offices,” the officer added.
Rukiye Turdush, a Uyghur activist based in Canada, said that China’s assimilation efforts and its intention to dilute Uyghurs’ national and religious identity through forbidding Islamic names will prove to be fruitless and fail to achieve its intended goal.
“Religious identity is an integral part of one’s national and ethnic identity, and China wants to wash way the Uyghurs’ religious identity through prohibiting Islamic names and other religious practices,” she said.
“In a world in which people across the globe are connected with one another, China’s efforts to disconnect Uyghurs from their religious identity as Muslims is unrealistic, since global connectivity allows people to preserve their religious identity,” said Turdush.
Children ride on the back of a tricycle of a Uyghur sweets vendor in Yarkand, Xinjiang, June 24, 2017. Photo: AFP
In the longer term, she said, China’s repression of Uyghurs will run counter to its interest in taking on a bigger international role.
“It’s true that China is also trying to limit Uyghurs’ access to the benefits of today’s globalized world, such as increased connectivity and communication. But these efforts will also prove to be fruitless since China itself plans to be a global leader and aspires to take a position of global power, like America,” said Turdush.
“This means China’s practice of shutting out Uyghur people from global connectivity contradicts China’s global aspirations, therefore making it an unsustainable practice.”
Kahar Barat, a U.S.-based Uyghur intellectual and activist, said China’s assimilation policies and other practices towards minorities will inevitably face opposition.
“The way China treats the Uyghur and Tibetan peoples is not one of respect,” he said.
“It doesn’t consider what is actually beneficial for the people, their values, culture, or customs. Instead, the Chinese government’s primary concerns are making them obey and assimilate, through policies with xenophobic foundations,” said Barat.
Chen, he said, was merely the latest in a long line Chinese officials sent to run Xinjiang who have “all prioritized ways to make Uyghur people conform.”
“This failure to prioritize the interests of people or to respect them, seen in the various ruthless tactics we’ve experienced, will not lead to good outcomes,” said Barat.
Ilshat Hassan, president of the Uyghur American Association, called China’s assimilation campaign “one of the most radical policies in recent history.”
“Some of China’s practices are identical to those used by ISIS in the Middle East; in both cases, the most intimate parts of people’s private lives–from their daily attire to names given to children to the length of their beard–are controlled. Similar tactics were used by the Taliban in Afghanistan,” he told RFA.
“Such radical control measures have never been sustainable in any part of the world,” added Hassan.
“I am not sure whether China’s policies and practices will become more radical, but it is certainly the case that eventually, any people living under ruthless oppression always finds a way to reinvigorate itself,” he said.