HONG KONG—Authorities in China’s westernmost city of Kashgar are stepping up pressure on government employees to go clean-shaven, and the city’s large ethnic Uyghur population, whose adult males overwhelmingly sport moustaches, aren’t happy about it, residents say.
Kashgar Prefecture propaganda chief Omerjan Tohti said the tough new line against facial hair aims to make government employees look more presentable, but he acknowledged that the issue has become politicized.
There are some radical elements politicizing beards and mustaches to incite separatism."
Omerjan Tohti, Kashgar prefecture propaganda chief
“State employees should be clean and neat at all times, and they should be models for other people,” Tohti said. “That’s why we’re doing this.”
“Kashgar’s situation is very complicated,” Tohti said. “There are some radical elements politicizing beards and mustaches to incite separatism.”
Asked if Uyghurs—who are overwhelming Muslim and have chafed against Chinese rule for decades—had been targeted specifically, he replied: “All ethnic groups are equal in our country, and every ethnic group has the right to live freely in their way … [but] state employees should look like state employees.”
In an online posting, one teacher reported that, as part of the campaign against facial hair, officials at his school had even removed from the auditorium and classrooms portraits of mustachioed Communist icons Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Vladimir Lenin.
Authorities appear to be enforcing a 2007 regulation from the Kashgar City Party Committee, which stipulates that employees must be secular in appearance or face penalties ranging from fines of 100-300 yuan (U.S. $15-45) to dismissal, an employee at Kashgar City No. 1 Upper School said.
Asked if there had been any protest, he cited initial resentment among Uyghurs in Kashgar, who pointed out that authorities weren’t enforcing similar regulations in Urumqi, a larger city also in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region but with a far larger Han Chinese population.
Uyghur scholars also note Kashgar’s symbolic importance as the traditional center of Uyghur culture.
“Over the summer break, teachers grow their moustaches back,” he said. “But then they shave them before school resumes.”
An official in the prefectural human resources department in Kashgar, a Uyghur himself who asked not to be named, said he initially felt awkward without his moustache.
“When I first had to shave, I felt uncomfortable. I felt as if everyone was looking at me when I went out, but I got used to it after a week or two,” he said.
“Recently more and more people are wearing beards and moustaches, and that is why we have stepped up enforcement,” he said, adding, “This isn’t newsworthy.”
Uyghurs, many of whom resent China’s often heavy-handed rule in the region, staged a large-scale protest in March 2008 against a ban on traditional Uyghur head scarves for women—which, like beards and moustaches for men, distinctly identify them as belonging to the Uyghur ethnic group.
The protest in Hotan prompted a swift response by authorities who feared a repetition of the massive and violent protests that had erupted two weeks earlier in Tibetan areas.
Uyghurs constitute a distinct, Turkic-speaking, Muslim minority in northwestern China and Central Asia. They declared a short-lived East Turkestan Republic in what is now Xinjiang in the late 1930s and 40s but have remained under Beijing's control since 1949.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch says authorities in Xinjiang maintain "a multi-tiered system of surveillance, control, and suppression of religious activity aimed at Xinjiang's Uyghurs ... At a more mundane and routine level, many Uyghurs experience harassment in their daily lives."
"Celebrating religious holidays, studying religious texts, or showing one's religion through personal appearance are strictly forbidden at state schools. The Chinese government has instituted controls over who can be a cleric, what version of the Koran may be used, where religious gatherings may be held, and what may be said on religious occasions."
China has waged a campaign over the last decade against what it says are violent separatists and Islamic extremists who aim to establish an independent state in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
Original reporting by Shohret for RFA’s Uyghur. Translation by Dolkun Kamberi and Enver Kadir. Uyghur service director: Dolkun Kamberi. Written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.