China: Hundreds Of Uyghur Village Names Change, Says HRW

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Chinese authorities in Xinjiang have been systematically changing hundreds of village names with religious, historical, or cultural meaning for Uyghurs into names reflecting recent Chinese Communist Party ideology, Human Rights Watch said.

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 Chinese authorities have been changing hundreds of village names in Xinjiang from those rich in meaning for Uyghurs to those that reflect government propaganda,” said Maya Wang, acting China director at Human Rights Watch. “These name changes appear part of Chinese government efforts to erase the cultural and religious expressions of Uyghurs.”

In joint research, Human Rights Watch and Norway-based organization Uyghur Hjelp (“Uyghur help”) scraped names of villages in Xinjiang from the website of the National Bureau of Statistics of China between 2009 and 2023. 

The names of about 3,600 of the 25,000 villages in Xinjiang were changed during this period. About four-fifths of these changes appear mundane, such as number changes, or corrections to names previously written incorrectly. But the 630, about a fifth, involve changes of a religious, cultural, or historical nature. 

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.

While the renaming of villages appears ongoing, most of these changes occurred between 2017 and 2019, when the Chinese government’s crimes against humanity escalated in the region, and mostly in Kashgar, Aksu, and Hotan prefectures, Uyghur majority regions in southern Xinjiang.

Because of a lack of access to Xinjiang, the full impact of the village name changes on people’s lives is unclear. Uyghur Hjelp interviewed 11 Uyghurs who lived in villages whose names had been changed, and found that the experience had a deep impact on them. One villager faced difficulties going home after being released from a re-education camp because the ticketing system no longer included the name she knew. She later faced more difficulties registering for government services due to the change. Another villager said he wrote a poem and commissioned a song to commemorate all the lost locations around where he had lived.

Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which China has signed but not ratified, states that, “In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language.”

The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the independent expert body that interprets the covenant, has stated in a General Comment that, “[t]he protection of these rights is directed towards ensuring the survival and continued development of the cultural, religious and social identity of the minorities concerned, thus enriching the fabric of society as a whole…. [T]hese rights must be protected as such.”

In May 2014, the Chinese government launched the “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism” in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Since 2017, the Chinese government has carried out a widespread and systematic attack against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang. It includes mass arbitrary detention, torture, enforced disappearances, mass surveillance, cultural and religious persecution, separation of families, forced labor, sexual violence, and violations of reproductive rights. Human Rights Watch in 2021 concluded that these violations constituted crimes against humanity. 

The Chinese government has continued to conflate Uyghurs’ everyday religious and cultural practices, and their expressions of identity, with violent extremism to justify violations against them. In April 2017, the Chinese government promulgated the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Regulation on De-extremification, which prohibits “the propagation of religious fervor with abnormal … names.” Authorities reportedly banned dozens of personal names with religious connotations common to Muslims around the world, such as Saddam and Medina, on the basis that they could “exaggerate religious fervor.”

In August 2022, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) issued a report concluding that Chinese government abuses in Xinjiang “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.” While foreign governments have condemned Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang, and some have imposed targeted and other sanctions on Chinese government officials, agencies, and companies implicated in rights violations, these responses have fallen short of the gravity of Beijing’s abuses, Human Rights Watch said.

“Concerned governments and the UN human rights office should intensify their efforts to hold the Chinese government accountable for their abuses in the Uyghur region,” said Abduweli Ayub, founder of Uyghur Hjelp, “They should make use of the upcoming UN Human Rights Council sessions and all high-level bilateral meetings to press Beijing to free the hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs still wrongfully imprisoned as part of its abusive Strike Hard Campaign.”

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