Chinese authorities are taking steps in the remote western region of Xinjiang to regulate participation in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Official statements on several local government and school websites last week banned communist party members, government employees, students and teachers from fasting or participating in religious activities during Ramadan, which in Xinjiang started on July 20.
Chinese authorities say the prohibition was put in place out of concern for people’s health. They also say they are simply encouraged residents “to eat properly for work and study purposes.”
Xinjiang is home to many different ethnic groups, including Muslim Uighurs who make up around 45 percent of the region’s population.
Ilham Tohti, a Uighur scholar at the Beijing-based Minzu University, sees the regulations as a sign of mounting religious intolerance.
“Except from the period of the cultural revolution there has not been a time when religious restrictions were as harsh as nowadays,” says Tohti.
Tense relations between the government and the local Muslim population peaked during riots in 2009, which killed about 200 people. Authorities interpret much of the discontent in Xinjiang as separatist sentiment, and justify their monitoring of religious activities as a way to avoid religious extremism and terrorism.
Dilshat Raxit, spokesman of the World Uighur Congress - an exiled Uighur advocate organization - told media groups in recent days that the Xinjiang government has established “security and stability work plans” during Ramadan. Raxit said that the plan mandated official monitoring of mosques, home searches for non-state produced religious material, and “ideological meetings” to be held in mosque with Chinese Communist Party officials.
China’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and since 1984 the government has granted minorities in designated autonomous areas like Xinjiang numerous rights, including various degrees of self governance, affirmative action policies and greater control over economic development in their regions. But implementation of the law has varied greatly across China.
Tohti says that in Xinjiang the law is often disobeyed, and that local authorities regard religious belief as “factors of disharmony.” Tohti believes that the central government’s long-term goal in Xinjiang is aimed at eroding minorities’ customs.
“In a culture of atheism, religion is backward,” Tohti says, referring to the Communist ideology that sees religion as a feudal concept. “[The government] thinks that Islam in Xinjiang is a sign of backwardness and does not match with the present times,” Tohti adds.
Permits to open Koran schools are also strictly managed by the local government, which fears Uighur Muslims might be exposed to extremists’ training within its borders.
Last week local media reported that 20 people, all with Uighur names, had been sentenced to up to 15 years of jail for inciting violence and separatism on the Internet.
The courts said the suspects had manufactured explosives.
“I think that the government has a pretty tight grip on what people are doing in the country,” says Raffaello Pantucci, a Shanghai-based associate fellow at the International Center for the Study for Radicalization at King’s College in London.
“What they don't have a grip on is people that are going outside the country to train,” Pantucci says.
China has blamed unrest in Xinjiang on Pakistan-trained Uighur Chinese. Last year, when a series of violent attacks killed 40 people in the cities of Kashgar and Hotan, the region’s governor said that extremists in Xinjiang had “a thousand and one links” to Pakistan.
Pantucci says China has since put more pressure on Pakistan to monitor their shared borders, and has brought up the subject of Pakistani trained terrorists with the United States during Sino-U.S. dialogue on counterterrorism, institutionalized since 2009.
But in its most recent report on terrorism worldwide, the U.S. State Department accused China of suppressing Uighurs under the pretext of fighting against terrorism.
Internally, China advocates development as the only response to Uighur discontent and possible future radicalism. But critics say massive investment and Han migration have fueled local resentment against Chinese rule.
“It is a very difficult dilemma,” Pantucci says. “The solution that they see is, for some people, the problem.”
Minzu University professor Tohti worries that the government’s steps will incite more Uighurs to become radicalized.
“If the authorities are not tolerant, and if they do not provide a channel for people to express their dissatisfaction, then it is more likely that Xinjiang people will resort to violence,” he says.