Authorities in Kashgar (in Chinese, Kashi), in northwest China’s Xinjiang region, have launched an anti-religion propaganda drive through local police stations, whose officers are rolling the campaign out to residents of the mostly ethnic Uyghur-populated prefecture, sources said.
A purported photo of a group of policemen from Kashgar’s Maralbeshi (Bachu) county holding a banner with the slogan “We Must Solemnly Reject Religion, Must Not Believe in Religion” recently drew attention on the WeChat social media channel, suggesting the launch of a campaign in the prefecture, which has one of Xinjiang’s largest concentrations of Uyghur Muslims.
An officer in Maralbeshi’s Yengisheher township police station, who spoke on condition of anonymity, recently confirmed to RFA’s Uyghur Service that the photo had been taken in his department as part of the campaign, before hanging up the phone.
Officers from two additional township police stations in Maralbeshi—Shi Tong and Awat—also confirmed that they were taking part in the anti-religion drive, before terminating the call.
Sources told RFA that the campaign began around two months ago and is intended to undermine the Islamic faith of local residents.
It was not immediately clear which level of government had initiated the campaign or how it was being carried out in Xinjiang, where Uyghurs complain of pervasive ethnic discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression under Chinese rule.
While Chinese authorities have claimed that previous crackdowns on religion are meant to weed out a small minority of the region’s population whom they deem “extremists,” Uyghur activists in exile maintain that they in fact target Islam and the Uyghur people, and the wording of the new campaign suggests a much broader scope.
Further investigation into the “We Must Solemnly Reject Religion, Must Not Believe in Religion” drive found that it is also under way elsewhere in Kashgar, as well as other parts of the Xinjiang region.
A police officer at the Baghawat township police station in Kashgar’s Yarkand (Shache) county confirmed to RFA that his department was taking part in the campaign, before refusing to answer further questions and hanging up the phone.
And a supervisor at the Aykol township police station, in the seat of Aksu (Akesu) prefecture, said officers were also participating in the campaign there, but would not discuss the scale of the drive or who its intended targets were, citing rules of confidentiality for the police force.
“Yes, we are all aware of it,” said the supervisor, who also asked to remain unnamed.
“Currently this campaign is being carried out in all government sectors, so how is it possible that we would not be aware of it?”
He referred additional questions to the head of the department—a party secretary surnamed Li, who he said was in a meeting and could not take a call at the time.
But an officer at the Qarqu township police station, in Hotan (Hetian) prefecture’s Keriye Nahiyisi (Yutian) county, told RFA that the campaign was being propagated to area law enforcement as well as “the general public.”
Prior “anti-religious extremism” campaigns have been spread through the government’s regional Communist Party cadres and propaganda officers, and the new campaign is the first known example of law enforcement taking part.
And while the authorities have openly restricted party members and cadres from religious activities in the past, the new campaign also marks the first known instance of religious restrictions extending to the police and local residents.
RFA was unable to determine whether those who refuse to follow the campaign will face punishment for continuing to practice their religion.
Since April last year, Uyghurs accused of harboring “extremist” and “politically incorrect” views have been detained in political re-education camps throughout Xinjiang.
Authorities have relied on a list circulated early last year of “75 Signs of Religious Extremism” to detain Uyghurs amid a string of harsh policies attacking their legitimate rights and freedoms enacted since Communist Party secretary Chen Quanguo was appointed to run the region in August 2016.
Among the signs of extremism on the list were “storing or purchasing large quantities of food for home” and “acting abnormal,” and “praying in groups in public outside of mosques.”
But Communist Party secretaries in villages in Hotan prefecture recently told RFA that they were notified in April 2017 of several new “signs of extremism” security personnel should look for to determine whether a Uyghur is at risk of becoming an Islamic “radical.”
The new signs included those who, when at prayer, stand with their legs wide apart and place their hands above their chest, dye their hair red with henna, grow their hair or beards long, wear short trousers, or wear a watch on their right wrist, the sources said.
China regularly conducts “strike hard” campaigns in Xinjiang, including police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people, including videos and other material.
While China blames some Uyghurs for "terrorist" attacks, experts outside China say Beijing has exaggerated the threat from the Uyghurs and that repressive domestic policies are responsible for an upsurge in violence there that has left hundreds dead since 2009.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Alim Seytoff. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.