HONG KONG—Children belonging to the ethnic Uyghur minority at an orphanage in northwestern China routinely undergo changes of identity in which they assume Chinese names, according to current and former employees.
“When I started working in this institution in 1998, there were about 30 Uyghur children,” Amangul, a former teacher at the Urumchi Welfare Institution for Abandoned Children, said.
“At least 10 of their names and file details were all changed to Chinese,” she added.
She said a Uyghur boy of 10 had his name changed from Turghunjun, denoting his Muslim, Turkic ethnicity, to Wang Bin, a Han Chinese name.
We use only the Chinese language here, and we rename Uyghur children with Chinese names in the case of those who have no family records."
A seven-year-old called Alim had his name changed to Xin Xia, while Arzigul, 10, was forced to answer to Li Li.
“There is a record in the archives that shows where they came from,” Amangul said. “The surname represents which province the child is from, while the given name represents which region the child is from.”
An employee who answered the phone at the orphanage confirmed Amangul’s account.
“We use only the Chinese language here, and we rename Uyghur children with Chinese names in the case of those who have no family records,” she said.
She said the orphanage was home to around 400 children, most of whom were Han Chinese.
“Most of them are mentally challenged. There are many Han Chinese children,” she said. “We have only a few Uyghur children.”
Chinese curbs on the traditional Muslim culture of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region are creating a social crisis among Uyghur youth, according to experts and Uyghurs at home and overseas.
According to exiled Uyghur businesswoman Rebiya Kadeer, for many years the Uyghur people were able to preserve their identity and way of life under Chinese rule, which began after the demise of a short-lived East Turkestan republic in the late 1930s and 40s.
But she has accused Beijing of “brainwashing” Uyghur youth by forcing them to adopt Han Chinese ways, mostly through the education system and other institutional means.
Children well looked after
An office director at the orphanage surnamed Xu said the children at the orphanage ranged from infants to 20-year-olds, with some of them “mentally challenged.”
“We only have a few Uyghur children here, and they speak their own language among themselves,” Xu said. “But in general, everyone uses the Chinese language here.”
“You are asking very sensitive questions. For more detailed questions you should ask higher level officials,” he added.
The officials said the children were well looked after and healthy, which was confirmed by former teacher Amangul.
“They were brought to this institute from different parts of Urumchi city,” said Amangul, who said she was disciplined with night-shift and mental-health related assignments for protesting the name changes.
“Yes, they are very healthy. Most of their parents are in jail for political offenses,” she said.
Children were also frequently transferred to foster homes in the rest of China, where they lived in a Han Chinese environment, and were fed pork and dog meat as part of their diet, she said. Both meats are forbidden to Muslims.
Those who protested were severely punished, Amangul added, who said Arzigul, 10, was disciplined for refusing to eat the food served to her.
“After she came back she was criticized, not allowed to talk to the other Uyghur children or Uyghur teachers, forced her to use her Chinese name Li Li, punished without food, and put in solitary confinement for two days,” Amangul said.
The female orphanage employee also confirmed that it was possible for Uyghur children to be fostered by Han Chinese families.
Meanwhile, Amangul said the orphanage had once paid a Muslim to cook for the Uyghur children, but had later served only Han Chinese-style food, which contains forbidden meats such as pork.
“There are seven cooks. All of them are Chinese. When I started working here in 1998, there was one Chinese Hui [Muslim minority]. After he left, they didn’t hire any more Muslims to replace him,” Amangul said.
She said her husband, Mutallip, also a member of staff at the orphanage, was punished for suggesting separate dining halls for Muslims and Han Chinese.
“I opposed changing Uyghur names to Chinese, and I was petitioning to establish a Muslim dining hall and bring in a Muslim cook,” Mutallip said.
“They said that my Uyghur nationalistic feeling was too strong, and sent me to work in the furnace room for hard labor from October 2001 to April 2002."
Mutallip, who is a university graduate, said he also had to work for six weeks in the kitchen.
He added that Amangul was allocated the night-shift and work with mentally ill children, for which she was untrained, for expressing sympathy for Arzigul.
Curbs on religion
Uyghurs constitute a distinct, Turkic-speaking, Muslim people living in northwestern China and Central Asia.
China has accused Uyghur separatists of fomenting unrest in Xinjiang, particularly in the run-up to and during the Beijing Olympics in August last year when a wave of violence hit the vast desert region. The violence prompted a crackdown in which the government says 1,295 people were detained for state security crimes.
Many Uyghurs resent Chinese rule in the region, and they, along with rights groups and Western analysts, accuse Chinese authorities of taking heavy-handed aim at their unique ethnic identity, notably by suppressing Islam and mores associated with it such as beards worn by men and headscarves by women.
In its 2008 annual report, the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) described the regional government in Xinjiang as "[maintaining] the harshest legal restrictions on children's right to practice religion."
"Regionwide legal measures forbid parents and guardians from allowing minors to engage in religious activity," the report said.
"Local governments continued to implement restrictions on children's freedom of religion, taking steps including monitoring students' eating habits during Ramadan and strengthening education in atheism, as part of broader controls over religion implemented in the past year."
Original reporting by Mihray for RFA’s Uyghur service. Director: Dolkun Kamberi. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.