China changes names of 630 Uyghur villages in Xinjiang: report

It’s another way of erasing Uyghur religion, history and culture, a human rights group says.
By Gulchehra Hoja for RFA Uyghur
2024.06.24
China changes names of 630 Uyghur villages in Xinjiang: report A vehicle drives past a signboard reading 'Welcome to the Hotan Unity New Village' in Hotan, northwestern China's Xinjiang region, Sept, 21, 2018.
Andy Wong/AP

China has changed the names of about 630 Uyghur villages to Mandarin words such as “Harmony” and “Unity” to promote ethnic harmony in Xinjiang, a report by a human rights group found,

The move is “part of Chinese government’s efforts to erase the cultural and religious expression” of the more than 11 million predominantly Muslim Uyghurs living in China’s far-western Xinjiang region, New York-based Human Rights Watch, or HRW, said in its June 18 report.

“How these village names are being kind of erased and replaced shows how dystopian the whole project of the Chinese government in the Uyghur region is,” Maya Wang, acting China director at HRW.

“It’s about repressing people and … the past, and erasing the future, and erasing what they can imagine as a possibility for their own children or grandchildren,” she said.1_ENG_UYG_HRW-VILLAGE-NAME-CHANGES_06212024.jpg

The results came after HRW and Norway-based Uyghur Hjelp scraped names of villages in Xinjiang from the website of China’s National Bureau of Statistics.

All told, China hanged the names of 3,652 of 25,000 Uyghur villages in Xinjiang between 2009 and 2023, but most of these changes have been mundane, such as correcting numbers or the way the names were written, they found.

But 630 of the changes were more dramatic and religious, cultural or historical in nature. And most renamings occurred between 2017 and 2019, when the Chinese government’s repression escalated in the region, the report said, but they appear to be continuing.

‘Erasing symbols’

For example, Aq Meschit, or “White Mosque,” village in Akto county, Kizilsu Kyrgyz Autonomous Prefecture, was renamed Unity village in 2018.

The same year, Hoja Eriq, or “Sufi Teacher’s Creek,” village in Aksu Prefecture was rechristened Willow village.

And Dutar, a village named after a Uyghur musical instrument, in Qaraqash county of Hotan prefecture, was renamed Red Flag in 2022.

The Chinese government has used the village renamings along with other tactics, including the banning of hijabs for women, beards for men, and Muslim names for children, to wipe out Uyghur culture and to humiliate the ethnic group, Wang said.

“On a very fundamental level, erasing the symbols of people, the language and culture is about erasing who they are and teaching them to fear,” she said.  

The village renamings are also part of the greater set of serious rights abuses and crimes against humanity involving the detentions of an estimated 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Turkic people in “re-education” camps, torture, forced labor, sexual violence and the forced sterilization of woman, Wang said.

Uyghur children play in a square where a propaganda poster shows Han Chinese and Uyghurs posing together in a photograph with the words 'Hotan City Unity New Village Unity Square'  at the Unity New Village in Hotan, northwestern China's Xinjiang region, Sept. 20, 2018.  (Andy Wong/AP)
Uyghur children play in a square where a propaganda poster shows Han Chinese and Uyghurs posing together in a photograph with the words 'Hotan City Unity New Village Unity Square' at the Unity New Village in Hotan, northwestern China's Xinjiang region, Sept. 20, 2018. (Andy Wong/AP)

Campaign for Uyghurs, a Washington-based Uyghur advocacy group, condemned the village renamings.

“The names, which have now been changed to empty CCP [Chinese Communist Party] slogans, once reflected our long history and rich culture and have been in our homeland for hundreds of years,” said Rushan Abbas, the group’s executive director, in a statement.

“Although the CCP appears to celebrate Uyghur culture by showcasing elements like our music and dance, these displays are nothing but hollow propaganda masking the regime’s ongoing and systematic suppression of cultural and religious expression,” Abbas said.

In response to such measures, foreign governments, especially those in Muslim-majority nations, can put pressure on the Chinese government to stop its abuses involving religious and ethnic minorities and condemn such behavior, said Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington.

Edited by Roseanne Gerin and Malcom Foster.

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