The Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic group in China's Xinjiang's province, make up less than 1% of the country's population, but in recent years they’ve faced disproportionate and heavy-handed attention from the federal and regional government.
Fearing the type of insurgencies that have roiled the Middle East in recent years, the Chinese government has gone to extensive measures to repress the Uighurs.
Recently, the government outright banned burqas and “abnormal” beards to criminalize and discourage Muslim dress codes and behaviors.
Elsewhere in the world, attempts to ban the burqa have met with public backlash, but in Xinjiang province, protesting the measures would result in swift crackdowns by security forces.
Dictating appearance is just one aspect of a pervasive and relentless attempt to hollow out Uighur culture.
At security checks throughout towns and cities, law enforcement don’t just demand identification. They also ask for people’s cell phones so that they can search for suspicious apps and software such as Skype and Whatsapp.
A call from abroad or a visit to a banned website could result in a visit from police and potential detention. House-to-house security checks are common and traditional symbols of identity such as prayer and fasting have been campaigned against. A prominent moderate Uighur thinker, Ilham Tohti, was imprisoned for life in 2014 for his writings.
Any Uighur who travels outside Xinjiang must carry an ID card with the contact information of their landlord and local police station so that police officers can verify claims when they almost inevitably make a visit.
Travel in general has been greatly restricted, to the point that many migrant laborers are unable to travel to their historic work sites, such as to vineyards.
“All of us have become terror suspects,” a 23-year-old Uighur engineering student told The New York Times. “These days, even receiving phone calls from overseas is enough to warrant a visit from state security.”
Mosques are no longer able to broadcast calls to prayer via speakers; imams instead have to shout from rooftops. Children under the age of 18 are prohibited from entering mosques and after-school religious classes are banned. People are legally required to watch state television and listen to state radio.
Schools have begun using Mandarin rather than Uighur as the primary language, the government is offering financial incentives to Uighurs who marry a majority Han citizen.
In the town of Hotan, two dozen names deemed “too Muslim” were banned, and anyone who held those names had to get a new name.
Many shops are required to sell cigarettes and alcohol, in violation of religious norms.
Ancient Uighur architecture has been destroyed by the government in an ironic inversion of ISIS’s destruction of ancient cities in Iraq and Syria — state sanctioned flattening of culture versus terrorist flattening of culture.
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The suffocating array of restrictions and humiliations, bordering on martial law and cultural genocide, has driven many Uighurs to despair. Many experts believe that recent spikes in violence are a direct result of the government’s escalating cultural crusade.
But since the cultural revolution Beijing has always attempted to mold a homogenous culture and attempts at separate ways of life have been squashed as threats.
This heavy-handed approach to eliminating difference is becoming harder as people across the country demand more freedoms.
As James A. Millward wrote for The Times:
“Management of diversity and pluralism is a pressing world issue, from Scotland to Ukraine to Ferguson, Mo., China has an opportunity to contribute its own fixes to the bugs in the nation-state model, but cannot do so by locking up its most creative and courageous thinkers."