Authorities in China's troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang have stopped issuing new passports, and are recalling all existing passports to be held by police, amid a widening security clampdown by the ruling Chinese Communist Party, officials told RFA.
"All residents of the district who have passports must hand in their passports before May 15," an April 30 notice issued by the party's powerful political and legal affairs committees in Xinjiang's Ili prefecture and seen by RFA's Uyghur Service said.
"Anyone not handing in their passport on time will have their passports canceled, under the relevant public security regulations," said the notice, which was issued to Ghulja city's Uchderwaza police
station and signed by the politics and legal affairs committee of Ili prefecture and the municipal political and legal affairs office of Ghulja (in Chinese, Yining).
An Uchderwaza police officer who gave only a single name, Kahar, confirmed the notice was genuine.
"We issued this notice recently on orders from higher up," he said, adding: "Our sole intention in collecting passports stems from the need to maintain social stability."
China has vowed to crack down on the "three evils" of terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism in Xinjiang, which it links to the mostly Muslim minority Uyghur ethnic group.
But experts outside China say Beijing has exaggerated the threat from Uyghur "separatists" and that domestic policies are responsible for an upsurge in violence that has left hundreds dead since 2012.
The government has accused East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which wants an independent homeland for Xinjiang's Uyghurs, of orchestrating attacks in the region, and claims that Uyghurs are being trained in overseas terrorism camps.
Kahar said police wouldn't cancel the passports, but hold them on behalf of local residents.
"Our intention is not to confiscate the passports, but to keep them for the public," he said.
He said police would perform background checks on passport holders wishing to leave the country.
"If there aren't any issues, we will give them their passport," Kahar said. "When they come back they will hand in their passport to us again."
Passport holders have two weeks to comply with the order.
"If a passport holder doesn't hand in his or her passport within the two-week period, his or her passport will be sent to the border control agency," Kahar said.
"They can cancel anyone's passport at any time."
He said the authorities in Xinjiang are prioritising "stability maintenance" amid ongoing violence in the region.
"Stability maintenance is the most important work in Xinjiang right now," he said. "Incidents of instability are happening everywhere."
Growing tendency to leave
He said the move is being implemented as more and more local residents seek to leave China.
"In recent months, not only Ghulja, but other part of our region the tendency to leave the country is becoming stronger," Kahar said.
"Some people just disappear after leaving the country, and incidents of instability have been happening domestically as well internationally because of that," he said, without giving details.
"In order to prevent incidents like that from happening in the future, our station issued this notice on orders from higher up," he said.
He said police currently hold detailed information on every household in their jurisdiction, via China's ubiquitous neighborhood committees, whose officials question residents about every detail of their
personal lives and gather information from informants.
"We have information like the number of people in their family, their occupation, social connections, background information and all of the information related one person," Kahar said.
He said there are more than 4,000 passport holders in Uchderwaza district alone, which is one of 16 districts of Ghulja.
An official who answered the phone at the Ili prefectural police department also confirmed that no new passports are being issued.
"We have stopped issuing individual passports for the time being," the official said. "We stopped on March 7, and we don't yet know when we will start again."
"We have to wait for orders from higher up," he said. "A lot of people are asking about this."
He confirmed that passports are also being taken from local residents by police across the prefecture.
"Passports for tourism purposes are being controlled centrally by the prefectural government," the official said.
"They will be collected by the local police stations and passed on to be held by the prefectural entry and exits bureau," he said.
Asked if Han Chinese residents would also have to comply, or whether the rules would target the Uyghur ethnic group, the official hung up the phone.
The manager of a private service company offering to help Uyghurs and members of other non-Han Chinese groups apply for passports said that Uyghurs already face huge barriers to applying for passports.
"Government policy here in Xinjiang is very strict when it comes to ethnic minorities applying for passports," said the manager, who gave only her surname, Sun. "They are afraid that, once they've left, they won't come back."
"This has been going on for many years," she said.
Foreigners kept out of Ili and Ghulja
She said the authorities are also stopping foreigners from going to Ili and Ghulja.
"If you're a Westerner, then you won't be allowed into Ili or Ghulja ... because there have been some violent incidents there in the past couple of years," Sun said. "That's why both the central and the local governments are controlling passports so tightly."
"Now it's got to the point where you need an ID card to do anything, and buses going to other places, prefectures will get stopped maybe twice for checks," she said.
Beijing-based rights lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan said there is no provision in the Passport Law of the People's Republic of China requiring citizens to hand in their passport to the authorities, however.
"There is no legal basis for this," Liu said. "Individual passports should definitely be in the keeping of the individual, just like ID cards."
"This is in breach of the laws and regulations."
Reported by Eset Sulaiman for RFA's Uyghur Service, by Xin Lin for the Mandarin Service, and by Pan Jiaqing and Ho Shan for the Cantonese Service. Translated by Mamatjan Juma and Luisetta Mudie. Written in English by Luisetta Mudie.