The Chinese authorities have been doing all they can to discourage Muslim Uighurs from fasting since Ramadan began. Free slices of watermelon were handed out in the middle of the day at Urumqi’s University of Medicine in Xinjiang, a region with a huge Muslim Uighur population.
Though Islam is legal in China, our Observers say that the authorities in the Xinjiang region are increasingly clamping down on the religion and its followers. This food handout is just one of many examples in which China has tried to pressure the country’s Uighurs. Civil servants have come under the most pressure, according to several official Chinese websites and official minutes taken during Communist Party meetings in Xinjiang. Measures taken include banning them from taking part in traditional religious practices that have anything to do with Ramadan, such as fasting or prayer gatherings. They’ve also been given the "responsibility" of discouraging friends, family, and colleagues from observing religious rituals and so-called "superstitions". At the same time, official media outlets have been keen to stress that fasting during Ramadan could lead to health problems.
These restrictions weigh most heavily in the Xinjiang region in northwestern China, home to the country’s Uighurs. Along with a scattering of other Muslim minority groups, these Turkish-speaking Sunni Muslims make up 45% of the region’s population. Since the 1950s, the Chinese government has invested heavily in the region, which is rich in oil and natural gas, in a bid to encourage the country’s dominant ethnic group, Han Chinese, to settle there. The Han now make up 40% of the population. Tensions have been boiling over the past few years as China’s Uighurs fight back against attempts to make Xinjiang overwhelmingly Han Chinese. There have been frequent riots and in October 2013, an attack on Tiananmen Square led by a group of Uighur separatists left five people dead and 38 injured.
Police blocked women and children from going into the mosque at the beginning of Ramadan … at sundown, when we break the fast, there are always policemen who watch over the entrances to holy places.
Ramadan is largely tolerated elsewhere in China but our Observers say that in Xinjiang, authorities are clamping down harder on the ritual.
“My mother is so scared that she doesn’t even dare to keep a Koran at home”
This food handout of melons is nothing new. Last year, a photo showing water being handed out on campus at the University of Kashgar made the rounds on Chinese social networks. If the students refuse the handouts, they risk getting their diplomas taken away, and that could put their families in danger. At universities during Ramadan, professors also invite students to drink tea and eat with them. At night, they check to see if the lights are on in campus dorms. If students are caught breaking the fast, they’re given a warning, likewise for the professors. Despite everything, there are still students who fast in secret. They eat in the dark in their dormitories during the evening, but it’s very risky.
The mother of a friend of mine teaches English at the University of Xinjiang in Urumqi. Her colleagues constantly put peanuts and sunflower seeds on her desk during Ramadan. The head of studies ordered them to do it…
“Religious rituals are so badly looked down on that everyone is afraid”
Authorities use classic surveillance techniques to spy on Uighurs. Your neighbour, work colleague or classmate could all be a government informer— the authorities have people they can rely on in every street. Mosque entrances are put under surveillance, and they have cameras inside [Editor’s note: Several sources have confirmed this information]. In southern Xinjiang, where 95% of the population is Uighur, restaurants are threatened with sanctions if they don’t open.
In theory, people in the private sector don’t have to abide by these restrictions. But in reality, religious rituals are so badly looked down on that everyone is afraid. My mother has never worked in her life, but she doesn’t even dare to keep a Koran at home. In the Chinese heartlands, Muslims are far freer. The government isn’t necessarily against Islam, but they’re afraid that the Uighurs might rally around their religion.
During Ramadan, police activate a surveillance alert in Xinjiang. I know before it even starts that this month will be difficult.
“There are tanks and armed police literally on each and every corner”
Religious practices have always been more or less advised against in Xinjiang. But before tensions began running high, there was much less surveillance. A few years ago I worked in a state company there and everyone respected the fact that I observed the fast. I couldn’t wear the veil to work, but it was allowed in the street.
That said, recently, I wanted to wear my veil in a public park but the police forced me to take it off. Things have changed little by little since rioting broke out in 2009 [Editor’s note: the Xinjiang riots broke out in Urumqi in July 5, 2009, followed by attacks against Han Chinese that left 200 dead according to Chinese government sources]. The more the Uighurs protest, the more Beijing tries to water down the percentage of Uighurs living in the region by encouraging the Han Chinese to settle there.
I went back to Xinjiang to see my friends last year. The police stopped my car to go over everything that was in the boot before letting me enter a residential area. There are tanks and armed police on each and every corner. The authorities are against all kinds of gatherings and banned early-morning markets in 2013… I also have lots of friends who still live in Xinjiang who have had their passports confiscated.
“Residents in possession of passports must hand them to the commissariat of police before May 15, 2015. Use must be requested in advance. Passports not handed back on time will no longer be valid starting from the date indicated above.”
FRANCE 24 tried getting in touch with Uighurs who currently live in Xinjiang, but no one would speak to us out of fear that the authorities had tapped their phones.