Authorities in the capital of northwestern China’s Xinjiang region are requiring all ethnic Uyghur and Kazakh individuals to undergo a stringent background check before registering a vehicle in the city, official sources have confirmed.
Earlier this month, neighborhood residential committees in Urumqi made efforts to collect personal information about the members of each household in the city and their extended relatives, with a focus on an individual’s ethnic background—though when asked about the directive, official sources suggested it had been ordered to document “all ethnic groups.”
Last week, sources told RFA that a new order from the Urumqi Motorized Vehicle Licensing and Testing Department, which went into effect on Aug. 21, follows on previous efforts to record information about minority residents of the Xinjiang capital, but specifically and publicly targets Uyghurs and Kazakhs.
“Any drivers of Uyghur or Kazakh ethnicity must first go to report to the Midong District Vehicle Licensing and Administration Department’s No. 2 Hall for [security] checks before a vehicle registration can be approved,” says the order, a copy of which was recently obtained by RFA’s Uyghur Service.
Urumqi has become increasingly segregated amid tensions between Uyghur and majority Han Chinese residents in the aftermath of ethnic violence in the capital in July 2009 that, according to state media, left some 200 dead, although Uyghur groups in exile put the number much higher.
The new order appears to be the latest effort by Xinjiang party chief Chen Quanguo to promote stability in the region, where Uyghurs regularly complain of pervasive ethnic discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression under Chinese rule.
This week, staff members at the Tengritagh (in Chinese, Tianshan) District Vehicle Licensing and Testing Department and the Kaziwan Village People’s Convenience Service Center in Midong district, which handles suburban administrative requests, acknowledged the new order, but said their offices were not equipped to provide the services it required to register a new vehicle.
But a Han Chinese staff member at the Kaziwan Vehicle Licensing and Testing Department confirmed that her office was processing security checks for local Uyghurs and Kazakhs looking to register vehicles.
“Individuals’ personal information will be collected and checked, but we have no idea exactly what it will be used for,” she said, adding that the background checks were being conducted at the Midong District Vehicle Licensing and Administration Department’s No. 2 Hall.
The staff member, who spoke under condition of anonymity, told RFA that she did not know whether the municipal government or Urumqi’s residential committee had ordered the new policy, and was unsure why only Uyghur and Kazakh vehicle owners needed to comply.
“The only thing I know is that we received the order from an upper level department,” she said.
“We’re just carrying out the order and we always do what we’re told.”
A Han Chinese staff member at the Midong District Vehicle Licensing and Testing Department, who also asked to remain unnamed, confirmed that “all Uyghurs and Kazakhs should go and get checked” before registering their vehicles, adding that the background investigations would be used to “compare drivers’ personal information [with database records].”
She said she couldn’t explain over the telephone why the order only pertained to members of the two ethnic groups, adding that “we only received a verbal order [from the Urumqi Motorized Vehicle Licensing and Testing Department] requesting us to check drivers’ personal information, so we must do so.”
“Attention all ethnic comrades,” she said, repeating the order her office had received. “In order to improve our customer service to all new vehicle buyers, better administer the drivers and vehicles that are newly entered into [our] system, and improve second-hand vehicle registration, we order you to undergo this checking process from now on.”
The staff member said that the order was in effect until further notice.
Uyghur observers in exile told RFA that the new policy is likely to lead to further instability in Xinjiang, where China regularly conducts “strike hard” campaigns, including police raids on Uyghur households and restrictions on Islamic practices under the banner of fighting "terrorism."
Ilshat Hassan, president of the Washington-based Uyghur American Association, said the new order is “very likely” a continuation of efforts to collect personal information from Uyghur residents of Urumqi started earlier this month.
“An increase in such checks and collection of information that particularly targets the Uyghurs will definitely intensify fear among members of the Uyghur community and create extra pressure in their everyday lives,” he said.
“Repeatedly issuing such orders and notifications will cause more instability within society and will harm efforts to establish a ‘harmonious society’ in [Xinjiang]. Meanwhile, Uyghurs will increasingly feel as if they are living within a ‘police state.’”
Last week, Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the exile group World Uyghur Congress, said he had received reports of similar orders from a number of different locations in Xinjiang, adding that police had dispatched additional personnel to highways and gas stations in the south of the region and public places.
"In particular, they are now carrying out checks in the area of vehicle first registration, purchases and transfers of ownership," Raxit told RFA at the time.
In February, local officials told RFA that authorities in Xinjiang’s Bayingolin Mongol Autonomous Prefecture had issued orders for all vehicles to have compulsory GPS trackers installed, as part of the government's nationwide "stability maintenance" program.
Under the policy, which was set to be implemented by the end of June and eventually rolled out to all of Xinjiang, vehicles that do not comply will be turned away from gas stations throughout the region.
Reported and translated by Kurban Niyaz for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.