A Uyghur Muslim leader and delegate to China’s top political consultative body has voiced rare public criticism of religious restrictions and employment discrimination in the restive northwestern Xinjiang region, drawing praise from fellow members of the ethnic minority.
Ablimit Ahmettohti Damolla Hajim, delegate to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), said majority Han Chinese emigration to Xinjiang and strict curbs on everyday practice of Islam are sidelining Uyghurs in their own homeland.
During last week’s CPPCC meeting in Beijing, Hajim called on leaders in China’s central government to address the issues and create clearer “instructions” that would protect ethnic minority and religious rights guaranteed in existing national laws, according to his interview with state-run media.
The CPPCC is part of the ruling Chinese Communist Party-controlled governmental structure and meets once a year along with the National People’s Congress, the country’s rubber stamp parliament.
“All policies must be in accordance with the nation’s Constitution and the Regional Autonomy Law,” Hajim said in the interview on the sidelines of the “two sessions” meetings.
'Misunderstanding' of Islam
Hajim, who is also a member of the government-affiliated Islamic Association in Xinjiang’s southwestern Hotan prefecture, said the government’s “misunderstanding” of Islam is preventing Uyghur Muslims from practicing “normal religious life.”
Land development plans carried out by the government leave no space for mosques in Uyghur communities, while an attack against Islam in the education system is pushing Uyghur students away from schools, he said.
“The schools do not recognize the Muslim pupils’ religious beliefs. Anti-religious propaganda permeates the atmosphere in the schools,” he said.
He said there should be “no conflict” between Islam and modern education and questioned why Uyghur children are “fleeing from schools.”
“There are no permits to build new mosques for Muslim residents in the newly developed residential areas.”
“In airports in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region there are special rooms for smokers, but no spaces for people to pray.”
“How are people to practice their normal religious life in their own land?”
Uyghur Muslims have also been subjected to more “extreme” restrictions on religious practice, such as being forced to sign promises not to pray in state-run hospitals, he said.
These kinds of policies “go against the Constitution and Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law,” he said.
“So I raised these problems [at the conference] and asked for instructions from the leaders of the central government.”
Unemployment and job discrimination
One of the most pressing issues he called on the government to address at the conference, Hajim said, was rampant unemployment among Uyghur youth following decades of government-encouraged Han Chinese emigration into the region.
Uyghur young people are not seeing the benefits of the country’s economic growth because employers are discriminating against them and preferring Han Chinese instead, he said.
“Recently there have been a great amount of immigrants and job-seekers coming to Xinjiang from everywhere [else in China].
“They occupy the most important jobs and vacancies, and local Uyghurs cannot find jobs even if they have achieved a high level of education,” he said.
Hajim’s remarks in the interview triggered a flurry of comments from Uyghur netizens, many of them praising him for boldly speaking out against government policies in the region.
One commenter on Baghdax, one of Xinjiang’s most popular websites, posted in Uyghur, “No Uyghur people’s representative has ever before dared to speak such true words to the central government on the behalf of Uyghur people’s interests.”
“He is the true representative of the Uyghur people,” another commenter on the website said.
Misranim, a popular Urumqi-based Uyghur-language website, urged readers to listen to the radio interview.
Hajim’s comments came while all eyes were on Xinjiang during the March 3-13 legislative meetings as leaders pledged to promote stability in the region in the wake of a deadly stabbing attack in the southwestern city of Kunming that leaders have blamed on Uyghur “separatists.”
Critics who have called for greater autonomy in Xinjiang have been accused of “separatism” and faced imprisonment—including prominent Uyghur economist Ilham Tohti, who was detained in January.
China has intensified a sweeping security crackdown in Xinjiang, where according to official figures about 100 people are believed to have been killed over the past year—many of them Uyghurs accused by the authorities of terrorism and separatism.
Rights groups and experts say Beijing exaggerates the terrorism threat to take the heat off domestic policies that cause unrest or to justify the authorities' use of force against Uyghurs.
Reported and translated by Eset Sulaiman for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.