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Hundreds of Xinjiang Villages Renamed in Latest Attempt to Erase Uyghur History and Culture
Hundreds of Xinjiang Villages Renamed in Latest Attempt to Erase Uyghur History and Culture

Hundreds of Xinjiang Villages Renamed in Latest Attempt to Erase Uyghur History and Culture

Chinese authorities are continuing their efforts to Sinicize religious and ethnic minorities. Religious practices during Ramadan were stifled and censored this year, and many mosques across China have been stripped of their Arabic features. At the heart of this campaign is Xinjiang, where hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and members of other ethnic groups remain in detention or subject to forced labor. This week, Human Rights Watch published an investigation showing that hundreds of Xinjiang villages have been renamed, in an apparent attempt by the Chinese state to further erase Uyghur history and culture:

Human Rights Watch research has identified about 630 villages where the names have been changed that way. The top three most common replacement village names are “Happiness,” “Unity,” and “Harmony.”

[…] The changes fall into three broad categories. Any mentions of religion, including Islamic terms, such as Hoja (霍加), a title for a Sufi religious teacher, and haniqa (哈尼喀), a type of Sufi religious building, have been removed, along with mentions of shamanism, such as baxshi (巴合希), a shaman. 

Any mentions of Uyghur history, including the names of its kingdoms, republics, and local leaders prior to the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, and words such as orda (欧尔达), which means “palace,” sultan (苏里坦), and beg (博克), which are political or honorific titles, have also been changed. The authorities also removed terms in village names that denote Uyghur cultural practices, such as mazar (麻扎), shrine, and dutar (都塔尔), a two-stringed lute at the heart of Uyghur musical culture.

[…] Examples of Village Name Changes

  • In Kashgar Prefecture, Qutpidin Mazar village (库普丁麻扎村), named after a shrine of the 13th century Persian polymath and poet, Qutb al-Din al-Shirazi, was renamed Rose Flower village (玫瑰花村) in 2018;
  • In Akto County, Kizilsu Kyrgyz Autonomous Prefecture, Aq Meschit (“white mosque”) village (阿克美其特村) was renamed Unity village (团结村) in 2018;
  • In Aksu Prefecture, Hoja Eriq (“Sufi teacher’s creek”) village (霍加艾日克村), was renamed Willow village (柳树村) in 2018;
  • In Karakax County, Dutar village (都塔尔村), named after a Uyghur musical instrument, was renamed Red Flag village (红旗村) in 2022. [Source]

The changes have created personal and practical harm for Uyghurs. Commenting on the report, Abduweli Ayup, a Uyghur linguist based in Norway and founder of Uyghur Hjelp, said that the Chinese government wants to “erase people’s historical memory, because those names remind people of who they are.” One Uyghur villager told the report’s authors that she faced difficulties going home after being released from a re-education camp because the ticketing system no longer included the name she knew. She also faced difficulties registering for government services due to the change. Helen Davidson from The Guardian shared criticism from human rights advocates who decried this latest attack on Uyghur history and culture:

“This is part of the broader efforts by the Chinese government to conflate Islam with terrorism,” said Elaine Pearson, the director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. “They see anything Islamic or Arabic sounding as threatening, so they renamed these things to be more in mind with [Chinese Communist party] ideology.

[…] Rayhan Asat, a Uyghur human rights lawyer and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, whose brother disappeared into the Xinjiang detention regime in 2016, told the Guardian the changes were part of Beijing’s “overarching objective to eradicate the Uyghur culture and people entirely and create a system of apartheid”.

“The names of their villages serve not only as historical records but also embody the community’s ties, distinct town culture, and values. The state-imposed erasure and replacement policy aimed to sever Uyghurs from our history, culture, and civilisation.” [Source]

A lot of these will ofc be “translated” back into Uyghur by just transliterating the Mandarin into the Perso-Arabic script, as in Urumqi’s metro, so any visitors who only see the surface think the languages are still equal

— Thomas Batchelor (@tobbinatorscw.bsky.social) Jun 19, 2024 at 0:01

Australia’s ABC News shared the reaction from James Leibold, who traced the roots of this latest Sinicization drive and described its significance:

James Leibold, a La Trobe University expert on China’s ethnic policy, said the changes were a direct response to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s call for the “sinicization” of religions at the 2016 Central Religious Work Conference.

“This unleashed CCP officials to ‘rectify’ not only the placenames highlighted in the HRW report but also mosques, cemeteries, shrines and other parts of the sacred landscape in the Uyghur homeland and other parts of China,” he said. 

“This process of cultural erasure was also a part of a wider crackdown on perceived religious extremism and terrorism that resulted in an estimated one million Uyghurs and other minorities being extra-judicially imprisoned in re-education camps across Xinjiang.”

[…] Professor Leibold said place names are “important repositories of cultural and historical identity”.

“They help connect people to the landscape, and in the case of the Uyghur homeland, these village names are symbols of Uyghur identity, sovereignty and the CCP’s [now broken] promise to allow the Uyghurs and other minority nationalities to be ‘masters of their own home’,” he said. [Source]

Multiple ethnic minority groups are being targeted. This week, Xi Jinping conducted an inspection tour in a Tibetan region of Qinghai Province, where he told local leaders to forge “a strong sense of community for the Chinese nation” and “adhere to the direction of sinicisation of religion in our country, and strengthen the management of religious affairs, especially the management of religious venues.” In Foreign Policy, Ruslan Yusupov described how ethnic minority children, particularly Hui Muslims, are being targeted with religious restrictions and Sinicization measures similar to those imposed on Uyghurs in Xinjiang:

The notice in Yuxi [issued to Muslims during Ramadan and authorizing surveillance of fasting among local schoolchildren] suggests that China’s treatment of its “model Muslim minority” is increasingly taking a Xinjiang turn. Reports show that so-called “convenient police stations,” installed throughout Xinjiang every few hundred feet from each other to monitor behavior, are spreading to neighboring provinces of Gansu and Qinghai. Meanwhile, party cadres from the province of Ningxia—another Hui stronghold—are traveling to the region to receive “anti-terrorism training.”

[…] In Shadian today, [Shadian is a Hui community 90 miles from Yuxi,] the policing of Islam among children is becoming pervasive. Children are restricted from participating in religious retreats and activities, and madrasas are no longer allowed to organize them. Han teachers are being brought to madrasas as a way to secularize the Islamic curriculum, which both students and teachers told me places madrasas under careful watch.

[…] In July 2022, for example, Hikvision successfully won a multimillion tender for the Smart Campus project at Minjiang University, located in the coastal province of Fujian. The tender included the development of a system called “Assisted Analysis of Ethnic Minority Students” which allows for the tracking of “dining records” and sending alerts to university administration when students are “suspected of fasting during the month of Ramadan.”

The very fact that such software was demanded by a public university is an ominous sign of what awaits China’s ethnically Muslim youth once they escape surveillance in their schools and hometowns. Like Uyghurs in Xinjiang, they can sever their connection with their faith, but they may never be able to assimilate fully to the dominant part of Chinese society. Their loyalty to the party will always be suspect—and their heritage a justification for their continued alienation and subjugation. [Source]

Human rights organizations have continued to draw attention to issues related to abuses against ethnic groups in Xinjiang. On Wednesday, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders publicly called on Chinese authorities to provide information on the status of imprisoned Uyghur doctor Gulshan Abbas. Dr. Gulshan Abbas, who is the sister of U.S.-based Uyghur human rights defender Rushan Abbas, was reportedly detained in September 2018 and is believed to be serving a 20-year sentence on terrorism charges. (It was only in 2020, two years after her detention, that authorities revealed the nature of the charges against her.)

On Thursday, the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) translated into Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian, and Spanish the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights’ report on the situation in Xinjiang, to commemorate the two-year anniversary of its release. The report concluded that human rights violations in Xinjiang may constitute crimes against humanity, but the current U.N. High Commissioner has not demonstrated any strong willingness to follow up on the report. Various rights groups urged the commissioner to take more decisive action to address these human rights violations in Xinjiang:

Elaine Pearson, Asia director at Human Rights Watch: “The publication of the UN human rights office’s report was a landmark moment for highlighting the gravity of human rights violations in Xinjiang. Now it’s up to the UN High Commissioner to make full use of that report to improve the situation for Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang.”

[…] Raphael Viana David, China programme manager at the International Service for Human Rights: “The UN’s Xinjiang report is an irrefutable milestone: for millions of Uyghur victims seeking justice, and for all those, across the globe, who firmly believe that even the powerful must be held to account. Despite Beijing’s efforts to discredit it, the Xinjiang report and its recommendations chart the way forward for meaningful human rights change in the Uyghur region.”

[…] Sarah Brooks, China director at Amnesty International: “’We urge States at the Council to put principles first. The second anniversary of the report’s release should be an opportunity to build momentum for an independent international mechanism to monitor, report on, and investigate allegations of severe human rights violations, including crimes against humanity in Xinjiang. No State, no matter how influential, should be shielded from accountability for human rights violations.” [Source]