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Chinese Muslims face further infringements of basic rights as authorities demand passports

30th Dec 2016


Meng Yihua

A few weeks ago, the Uyghur Muslims experienced further discrimination, as the regional police ordered an arbitrary recall of their passports indefinitely, curtailing the citizens’ freedom to travel.

Over 10 million Uyghurs in China will be affected by this policy, which had already been implemented in various counties across Xinjiang since last April.

The Uyghurs are a group of ethnically-Central Asian Muslims who live primarily in Xinjiang, northwest China, a resource-rich region whose demography – and the beliefs and culture associated with it – have been giving the national Government cause for concern in recent years. In attempts to suppress the region’s ethnic minorities, and maintain control of the region’s valuable resources, the Government has been implementing discriminatory policies that repress religious and cultural freedoms, further angering the citizens and leading to violent uprisings in response.

The policy calls for all Uyghur citizens to hand their passports into local police stations for “examination and management”, with the official deadline given as February 2017. However, in one district, Kumul, the police notice was issued on October 15, setting the deadline for passports to be returned by October 18. To add to the frustration, Xinjiang residents living in the rest of the country have received notices that they must relinquish their passports in person, and are thus forced to travel back to their local police in Xinjiang to do so. Anyone failing to return their passports within the deadline faces the risk of being barred from leaving the country at all.

One policeman in Aksu said that anyone who requires their passport has to obtain special permission to have it temporarily returned by applying to the police station. As it stands, the application process for passports and travel documents is already difficult and many are denied.

Since June this year, new regulations in Yili prefecture in Xinjiang requires residents to provide DNA samples, fingerprints, voiceprint samples and a 3D body scan image in order to receive their passports, police-issued exit permits, and other travel documents, including travel passes to Hong Kong and Taiwan. The policy came into effect on June 1, just before the start of Ramadan, during which month civil servants and children are already banned from fasting.

In April 2015, Yili had already ordered its residents to hand their passports in, and it was officially declared that no new ones would be issued. Liu Qing, a New York based rights activist argues that collecting DNA is an example of one of the Government’s many attempts at heightening the sense of fear; this was in response to the widely-offered claim that the new rule is part of Beijing’s effort to maintain social order and prevent future terrorist attacks. The President of the Washington-based Uyghur American Association (UAA), Ilshat Hassan, said that the policy has two main purposes: the first is to delay the Uyghurs from obtaining passports, and the second is to give them the sense that they are under threat. This is because their voice would still be recognisable if they were abroad and speaking to media. Moreover, these restrictions have made it more difficult for Uyghurs to go for Hajj, or indeed to book any overseas trips.

Sophie Richardson, Director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) declared that “seizing the passports of an entire region violates both Chinese and international law”. HRW point out that China is a signatory to the covenant on civil and political rights, within which it is stated that “everyone shall be free to leave any country, including his own”.

Beijing claims that all the policies are in the interests of security; evidence of the necessity for such measures is offered by pointing to the violence from extremist groups. However, independent experts doubt the threat and point instead to China’s economic interest in Xinjiang as a resource-rich region, leading to their tough security measures.

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