Chinese authorities in the troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang have launched a New Year "strike hard" campaign targeting cell phones, computers, and religious materials belonging to ethnic minority Uyghurs, an exile group and local residents said on Thursday.
"Since Jan. 1, the authorities have been engaged in raids and searches for cultural products ... and a 'strike hard' campaign in Uyghur neighborhoods," Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the exile World Uyghur Congress (WUC) group said.
"The government is stepping up these raids, even to the point of armed police shooting Uyghurs who refuse to cooperate and offer some kind of resistance," he said, in a reference to a string of shooting deaths in clashes between Uyghurs and police.
"They have created a range of terror tactics and persecution," he said, likening the raids to the political turmoil and kangaroo courts of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
"We are concerned that any provocation could lead to further violence," Raxit said.
He said the increased raids came ahead of regional parliamentary sessions which began at the weekend and ahead of the Chinese New Year travel rush, and that they specifically targeted the mostly Muslim ethnic Uyghur group, many of whom chafe under Chinese rule.
"This is going ahead across all districts where Uyghurs live," he said.
He warned that the stepping up of such raids, which often unearth printed materials, DVDs, and audio CDs of religious material unapproved by Beijing, would likely spark further violence in the region, which has seen a string of deadly clashes in recent months.
"Some [violent] incidents occurred because of 'strike hard' campaigns in the first place, and yet they still continue," Raxit said.
He said local sources had also reported that any Uyghurs in government jobs, including state-owned enterprises, were being pressured into signing written pledges to renounce Islam.
"These guarantees [promise] that neither they, nor their relatives or children, will take part in any religious activities," Raxit said.
"If they break these agreements, they will be removed from public office," he said.
Online reports said the central Xinjiang city of Korla was one of the regions being targeted in the "strike hard" campaign.
However, a police officer who answered the phone at the Ittipaq Road police station in Korla denied any knowledge of the operation.
"We didn't conduct such an operation," the officer told RFA's Uyghur service.
"If the local media reported this, then you should ask them," he said. "I can't tell you anything."
However, a stallholder at the Fustan Bazaar in Korla said police had stepped up raids on "cultural goods," in recent days, including cell phones, audio CDs, and other communications devices.
"Yes, they have," she said. "They run checks at odd times...I heard that some people are dealing in [religious materials]."
And a business owner at the Golden Triangle shopping mall in Korla's Tuanjie Road said police had been to check electronic goods on sale in the mall.
"They aren't just targeting religious materials but anything that is related to the maintenance of stability," he said.
But he declined to comment further.
"I don't want to discuss sensitive topics on the telephone," he said. "We should talk face to face."
Raxit said electronic surveillance is only part of China's "stability maintenance" strategy in the region.
"They are also making use of person-to-person surveillance, and there has been an obvious rise in the number of armed personnel in every city, county, and village," he said.
"Their raids on Uyghurs are conducted without discipline, in the middle of the night or the early hours of the morning, and they are conducted with violent, forced entry [into people's homes]," Raxit said.
"The string of clashes we have seen is connected to this."
On Dec. 30, Chinese authorities in Yarkand (in Chinese, Shache) county near the Silk Road city of Kashgar shot dead eight Uyghurs who they said attacked a police station, calling them "terrorists" and "religious extremists."
Authorities moved swiftly to brand the killings as a premeditated attack by terrorists and religious extremists.
In recent months, dozens of Uyghurs accused of terrorism have been shot dead in lightning raids in Xinjiang, which is home to some 10 million Uyghurs.
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 by Jelil Kashgary for RFA's Uyghur Service, by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service, and by Xin Lin for the Mandarin Service. Translated by Luisetta Mudie and Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Luisetta Mudie.