Uyghur in Xinjiang are prevented from observing Ramzan

The Uyghur in Xinjiang in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) face a dual challenge of domestic curbs in the way they lead their lives and lack of international attention to their plight. As is the norm, the Uyghur also observe Ramadan, but are prevented by State Authorities in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region. Further, countries in Central Asia, many of whom have ethnic bonds with the Uyghur, have tended to ignore their plight as the CARs, primarily having authoritarian governments take the side of an economically and militarily strong PRC to meet their foreign policy and security goals. Chinese authorities began banning Muslims in Xinjiang from fasting during Ramadan in 2017. The restriction was partially relaxed in 2021 and 2022, allowing people over 65 to fast, and police reduced the number of home searches and street patrol activities. But in 2023, authorities ordered all Muslims in Xinjiang not to fast and used surveillance and spies to report on these who did.  

Erkin Tuniyaz, Chairman of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, led the first delegation in meetings with Kyrgyz President Sadir Japarov in Bishkek on 1 April 2024, following discussions with Uzbek and Kazakh leaders the previous week. An ethnic Uyghur who has himself been sanctioned by the US government for his alleged role in human rights abuses, Tuniyaz led discussions on cooperation in trade, mining, cultural exchanges and humanitarian aid. Chinese Minister of Public Security Wang Xiaohong held security talks with Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev that same day. Central Asian leaders’ readiness to overlook human rights abuses to enhance economic and security ties with China stems from their own styles of governance. The warm welcome given the Chinese officials recently reflects the CARS growing economic ties with China.

A police officer in Atush who spoke to Radio Free Asia Uyghur (RFAU) said authorities had been tasked with coordinating various activities and events, some overseeing security, while others perform surveillance or organize art shows. A village security director in Upper Atush said since the beginning of Ramadan, residents have had to gather at the village meeting hall in the early evenings. During events attended by city and political officials, there were no explicit speeches banning Ramadan or fasting. Instead, lectures were delivered on maintaining social order and stability and eating meals regularly to maintain one’s health, some officials said. In Atush, for instance, officials organized arts events and outdoor feasts and distributed free food, during the month. They also held communal meetings in the early evenings to coincide with sundown when Muslim families typically gather to eat after the daylong fast in a practice known as iftar. Police in the northwestern city of Ghulja conducted street patrols and home inspections to see if residents were fasting. They also banned residents from gathering on the streets to prevent them from meeting for dinner together.

To the outside world, it may seem that this is normal for the Uyghur. However, comments given to RFAU by government and police officials show the degree to which the lives of Uyghur are being controlled. “It is prohibited to do iftar together and prayer together,” a police officer in Ghulja told RFAU. “We tell them fasting is not allowed. We also pay attention [to see] if they are visiting their relatives during iftar.” In the capital Urumqi, a traffic police officer said officers had been tasked with monitoring taxi drivers to ensure they were not fasting or praying during the month. A flurry of social media videos coming out of Xinjiang showed the Uyghur singing Chinese songs and gathering around outdoor tables with beer bottles in their hands. The intent of these videos is to promote eating, dancing and entertaining – not prayer and fasting. Uyghur advocates and experts outside China say that for years China has been trying to restrict and discourage Uyghur and other Turkic minorities in the region from observing Ramadan and practicing Islam in general – all in the name of fighting religious extremism and terrorism.

China’s treatment of its ethnic minorities, including the Uyghur does not get attention it should is because Beijing uses its economic influence to ensure that countries do not criticise it. This became evident recent when Chairman of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and the Minister of Public Security visited some countries in Central Asia. The warm welcome given to the Chinese officials reflects the region’s growing economic ties with Beijing. According to Salih Hudayar, in the Washington-based East Turkistan Government in Exile, Central Asian leaders are deepening ties with China despite its well-documented human rights abuses against Uyghur and other Turkic peoples. He told the Voice of America that willingness of some Central Asian regional governments to do business with Chinese officials, including those in Xinjiang, whose majority Uyghur have deep ties across Central Asia, is driven by the lack of international action over rights abuses on the ground.

The US and European Union have officially labelled China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang as genocide, while the UN Human Rights Office has stated that China’s actions in Xinjiang could constitute crimes against humanity, including arbitrary detention, forced labor, forced sterilization, and widespread surveillance targeting Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities. Pertinently, all Central Asian countries are authoritarian, and the same concerns that the US has toward the situation in China also apply to the regimes in Central Asian countries. So, in this regard, none of the Central Asian countries would consider allegations of human rights abuse coming from the West, as a factor affecting their relationship with China. The CAR leaders are pragmatic and understand that without China, development of their economies and political stability is impossible today. This is despite that Xinjiang and the countries on the other side of the Tien-Shan Mountains, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have been linked for millennia by trade and culture.

But these ties mean little to the governments of modern-day Central Asia that have received tens of billions of dollars in investments and loans from China. According to Kazakh media, bilateral trade reached US$ 31.5 billion last year, with Xinjiang contributing over 64%, or US$ 20.3 billion. Notably, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said during his meeting with Tuniyaz that he had recently been in the Xinjiang capital of Ürümqi, where his delegation “had very good negotiations regarding the prospects for Kazakhstan’s cooperation with China as a whole and, of course, with Xinjiang province.”

Xinjiang’s crucial role in Central Asian countries’ economic cooperation with China underscores its current and future importance to them, as China’s assistance in diversifying their global economic connections increases. Official statistics show China has become the primary trade partner for all five Central Asian states. The Uyghur thus, still struggle to live the life they choose to lead, instead they are being forced to lead the life that the Communist Party of China wants them to lead. Probably, next year’s Ramadan will also be the same for the Uyghur in Xinjiang. That is the reality of China!




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