By Gary Sands*
Chinese President Xi Jinping called recently for the creation of a “great wall of iron” in an effort to curb extremist violence in China’s troubled far-western province of Xinjiang. Shortly thereafter, the Xinjiang People’s Congress adopted legislation that targets Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking, mostly Muslim ethnic minority.
The new legislation, which came into effect April 1, prohibits the wearing of full-face coverings by women and long beards by men. Such attire and facial hair are “deemed to promote extremism,” according to the English-language version of the state-owned newspaper China Daily.
Implementation of the legislation is being overseen by Chen Quanguo, who took over as Xinjiang’s top Communist Party official last August, after serving as party boss for five years in Tibet. In his new post, Chen has instituted many of the same security and surveillance measures that he employed in Tibet, including setting up special taskforces at regional, prefectural and county governments, and the evaluation of local leaders on counterterrorism efforts. Another feature of Chen’s administration in Xinjiang is occasional shows of force in the form of parades featuring thousands of armed police.
The new regulations in Xinjiang also establish a broad definition of extremism, saying it constitutes anything that uses or displays “radical religious beliefs to interfere with others’ lifestyles and comments.”
Overall, the law bans 15 types of behaviors deemed to be “manifestations” of extremism. Among newly banned practices are: marrying or divorcing according to religious practices; interfering with the enforcement of family planning policies; damaging national identity cards, household registration books or the currency; following Halal rules in non-food-related areas; and preventing children from obtaining national education.
The legislation also makes it illegal to refuse to watch state television and listen to state radio.
Supporters contend the new regulations will help distinguish between extremism and protected religious activities.
Critics say the legislation is overreaching and, in effect, places curbs on the Uighur cultural identity. “Many aspects of Uyghur cultural and religious life are now being deemed ‘abnormal’ and ‘manifestations’ of extremism, and thus subject to punitive enforcement,” James Leibold of La Trobe University in Australia told the South China Morning Post.
Leibold argued the new legislation could “increase their [Uighur] sense of cultural insecurity and thus ultimately undermine the party-state’s attempts to create a more socially cohesive and stable society in Xinjiang.”
Xinjiang has been the scene in recent years of violent incidents that authorities blame on Islamic militants. Uighur nationalists complain that measures being implemented by national and regional officials under the guise of combating terrorism unfairly restrict the minority group’s civil and cultural rights.
Some Eurasian states, including Azerbaijan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, have imposed restrictions on attire and grooming that are targeted specifically against Muslim believers. Such initiatives, however, have not had a proven effect on discouraging extremism, and in some cases, their implementation has stoked protests.
*Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed commentaries to US News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, Global Times and China Digital Times.