Updated at 2:20 p.m. EST on 2013-11-27
A top ethnic minority Uyghur scholar and activist has hit out at moves to ban college students in China's troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang from graduating unless they pass a test of political views, saying that the policy is "dangerous" and "ridiculous."
"The Xinjiang authorities are in the process of doing something very dangerous," Uyghur university professor Ilham Tohti, a vocal critic of China’s policies toward ethnic minority Uyghurs, said in response to official media reports from a regional education conference.
"The way they carry out their anti-splittism campaigns is always less intelligent in Xinjiang than it is in other places," he said.
"It's insulting, blatant and draws attention to itself."
Top regional education officials said this week that their institutions were the frontline in a "life and death struggle" for the people's hearts, the ruling Chinese Communist Party's official newspaper in the region, the Xinjiang Daily, reported on Tuesday.
Any students seeking graduation from the region's colleges will be held back unless they pass a political test which renounces "ethnic splittism," the paper quoted top officials as saying.
The policy was announced at a regional education conference that set out to make universities and colleges "a main battle front for anti-splittism," it said.
"Higher education schools should first ensure that the talent they produce have passed in politics, so that they can defend ethnic unity down to the last letter, and oppose ethnic divisions," the paper quoted Li Zhongyao, Party secretary of Xinjiang University, as telling the conference.
Xinjiang, which came under Chinese control following two short-lived East Turkestan Republics in the 1930s and 1940s, has seen a string of violent incidents in recent years as Beijing tightens security measures and extends house-to-house raids targeting Uyghur families.
Xu Yuanzhi, Party secretary of Kashgar Normal University, vowed to work to oppose "political extremism" there, following the incidents involving mostly Muslim Uyghurs, who chafe under Chinese rule, and police.
"Those students who don't pass politics, however good they are in their specialist subject, should not be allowed to graduate," Xu said.
Tohti said the new restrictions showed that Beijing is following a mistaken policy in the restive region.
"In the Internet age, the Chinese authorities' policy of trying to control ideology and public expression to achieve stability is quite ridiculous," Tohti said.
Henryk Szadziewski, senior researcher with the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project, said the move was "worrying news."
"This is a step backwards for Uyghur students in higher education," Szadziewski told RFA's Mandarin Service. "Uyghurs are already in a difficult situation, educationally, because all higher education must be carried out in Chinese."
"Clearly this move is aimed at controlling ideology and scholarship in universities, but the most worrying thing is that students in higher education in Xinjiang will have to be very careful indeed now if they wish to get a degree certificate," he said.
'Form of terror'
Uyghurs say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination and oppressive religious controls under Beijing’s policies.
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC), said university authorities in the region were also stepping up surveillance of students, encouraging them to report each other for holding the wrong political views.
But he said it was hard to see how the situation could get worse as a result of the policy.
"Even those students who do pass politics, and who do get a degree certificate, won't be able to get a job when they do graduate," Raxit said.
"This means that this move by the universities is just a form of terror aimed at political opinion," he said. "Uyghur students understand this very well."
He said China's policies of surveillance and political pressure in Xinjiang would only serve to strengthen the backlash against Beijing in the region.
China blamed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) for an Oct. 28 attack, when a vehicle plowed through bystanders on Tiananmen Square in Beijing and burst into flames, killing three people in the car and two bystanders.
However, a different Islamist militant group has claimed responsibility for the incident.
Many Uyghurs refer to Xinjiang, which borders Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the former Soviet Central Asian republics, as East Turkestan.
ETIM seeks independence for the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and is designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the United Nations.
Reported by Xi Wang for RFA's Mandarin Service and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.