Karamay's clumsy policy is likely to fray nerves further in an already tense region.
- By Alexa OlesenAlexa Olesen was a foreign correspondent for the Associate Press in Beijing for eight years and has been a reporter for Foreign Policy. She now works for ChinaSix, a New York-based consulting firm.
A city in China’s remote western Xinjiang region has temporarily banned men with beards and women with Muslim headscarves from taking public buses. The extreme security measure — to be implemented for the duration of a sports competition slated to kick off in northern Xinjiang’s Karamay city on August 8 — is the latest example of the kind of religious intolerance that some say has fueled growing anti-government feelings and radicalized the region’s Muslims, particularly the Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking minority concentrated primarily in Xinjiang. The QQ news portal and other Chinese news sites that picked up the report also ran a graphic showing the "five abnormal styles" that weren’t allowed on Karamay public transport. It showed pictures of women in full and partial veils, headscarves, and men with full beards and even a modest goatee.
The new rule also bans anyone wearing star and crescent symbols associated with the Uighur separatist movement from taking a city bus during the games, which wrap up August 20. The announcement of the new policy, carried in the local state-run Karamay Daily newspaper on August 4, underscores the region’s high state of anxiety following a string of deadly rampages by alleged Uighur terrorists. An attack by knife-wielding assailants in two counties not far from the Silk Road city of Kashgar on July 28 left 37 civilians dead, with 59 attackers gunned down by police, according to the government account. Uighur exile groups say Chinese police opened fire on Uighurs protesting government policies. It was the deadliest instance of ethnic unrest since riots swept the regional capital of Urumqi in early July of 2009. Two days after the Kashgar incident, on July 30, an imam who was considered supportive of the Chinese government’s policies in the region was assassinated outside his mosque following a morning prayer service. On August 1, nine alleged extremists were shot dead in a cornfield hideout on the outskirts of southwest Xinjiang’s Hotan city.
The cluster of violence comes at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and follows reports of Uighur Muslim civil servants being forbidden to fast during the holiday. It also roughly coincides with a report from the New York Times on July 30 that cited prosecutors who said moderate Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti had been formally charged with separatism. If convicted, Tohti, a passionate supporter of Uighur rights whose supporters say has never advocated violence or independence for the Xinjiang region, could receive the death penalty.
Experts say the cycle of repression and violence has created an increasingly polarized Xinjiang region and a narrowing of the space available for moderates. In this environment, even simple displays of piety are being read by authorities as extremism. In Karamay, where headscarves are to be banned on buses, police posted a recruitment notice for traffic cops on August 1. It said people with "strong religious ideals" were not eligible. Other disqualifiers include criminal records and tattoos. "Chinese officials seem to be holding a line that ‘you are either with us or against us,’ and punishing accordingly," Henryk Szadziewski, a senior researcher for the nonprofit Uyghur Human Rights Project in Washington, D.C., told Foreign Policy via email.
While religious conservatism has risks, so too does speaking out against extremism and backing Beijing’s crackdown. The government blames Uighur extremists for the murder of the Kashgar imam, Juma Tahir, on July 30 and says two were killed following the attack and one was captured. At an August 1 seminar of religious leaders, another Kashgar imam was quoted as saying that Tahir had been devoted to "safeguarding national and ethnic unity and opposing separatism and religious extremism."
It’s not the first time an imam has been killed. Last year, an official with the government-affiliated Islamic Association in eastern Xinjiang’s Turfan city, Abdurehim Damaolla, was stabbed after evening prayers in front of his house. Radio Free Asia quoted Turfan locals who spoke on condition of anonymity that Damaolla had helped police track down terror suspects. Both attacks have reinforced the dangerous possibility of deadly reprisals from separatists.
Part of the government’s response to the latest uptick in violence has been to more actively involve ordinary Uighurs and other minorities in the anti-terror fight. On August 4, the official Xinhua News Agency announced that the government would spend close to $50 million in Xinjiang on dispensing rewards to people who help hunt terror suspects. The campaign makes for compelling propaganda. State-run broadcaster CCTV on August 3 ran a story headlined: "Defending Kashgar: Herders guard against terrorists," about the Tajik sheepherders who have been recruited to patrol for terrorists slipping across the border from Afghanistan. The story said that the Chinese army trains them and supplies them with satellite phones. It quoted one local Tajik sheep herder, Bayika Laqini, saying: "We all hate terrorists. They come to kill our people and threaten our peaceful lives." Laqini added that terrorists are not just "the enemy of the army here. They are the enemy of everyone."
It’s not surprising that a man-on-the-street quote supportive of the official line would show up on CCTV. By contrast, in Chinese cyberspace, grassroots users were split in their reaction to the new no-beards policy in Karamay. On the Twitter-like Weibo platform, some voiced outrage, with one person asking rhetorically whether "having a beard now counts as religious extremism?" Others were supportive of the restrictions: "Normal Muslims don’t dress like this."
Such a heavy-handed approach may not benefit Beijing in the long run. "Rising tensions in Xinjiang are producing an escalating cycle of radicalization on all sides," Carl Minzner, a professor at Fordham Law School in New York, told FP via email. Minzner said that suppression of moderates such as Tohti "appears to be radicalizing some within the Uighur community" and leading to "violent outbursts," which brings more Chinese government repression. "Moderates are being driven out, leaving only space for extremists." Kilic Kanat, a political science professor at Penn State University who closely follows the situation in Xinjiang, told FP that there is no logic or reasonable explanation for rules like banning beards on public transport. Kanat said he wonders if local officials enact such rules in a misguided attempt to impress Beijing in the hopes of promotion. He compared restrictions like the most recent ones in Karamay to "trying to extinguish a fire by throwing gasoline on it."
State reports from Xinjiang do not paint an optimistic picture. Another recent story from the anti-terror front lines came out of Hotan, where nine alleged terrorists were shot dead and one was captured on August 1. State-run China News Television again sought to involve the Uighur public, saying that tip-offs were instrumental in the manhunt and interviewing several Uighurs who described how they helped surround the suspects who had been hiding out in a small home hidden in a cornfield. In a cursory nod to the dangers of being a snitch in such a tinderbox atmosphere, the faces of the men were obscured to protect them from retaliation. Szadziewski of the Uyghur Human Rights Project said the fact that the government feels the need to call on Uighurs when conducting raids shows "how estranged the Chinese state has become from Uighur communities."