China renames hundreds of Uighur villages

1 month ago

Hundreds of Uighur villages and towns have been renamed by Chinese authorities to remove religious or cultural references, with many replaced by names reflecting Communist party ideology, a report has found.

Research published yesterday by Human Rights Watch and the Norway-based organization Uighur Hjelp documents about 630 communities that have been renamed in this way by the government, mostly during the height of a crackdown on Uighurs that several governments and human rights bodies have called a genocide.

The new names removing religious, historical or cultural references are among thousands of otherwise benign name changes between 2009 and last year. According to the two organizations that conducted the research, the apparently political changes, which mostly occurred in 2017-19, targeted three broad categories. Any mentions of religion or Uighur cultural practices were removed, including terms such as hoja, a title for a Sufi religious teacher, which was removed from at least 25 village names; haniqa, a type of Sufi religious building taken from 10 village names; and mazar, meaning shrine, which was removed from at least 41 village names.

Photo: AP

The authorities also changed names that referenced Uighur kingdoms, republics or leaders from before 1949 when the People’s Republic of China was founded. The report said there were no longer any villages in Xinjiang with the word xelpe or khalifa (ruler) or meschit (mosque) in their names.

Uighurs are a Turkic ethnic group mainly found in Xinjiang. They have long had a fractious relationship with Beijing, which accuses many of them of wanting to break away from Chinese rule.

The report said the new village names were typically in Mandarin Chinese and expressed a “positive sentiment, which the government wants Uighurs to embrace and express under the Chinese leadership.”

In 2018, Aq Meschit (White Mosque) village, in Akto County, was renamed Unity village, the report said. In 2022 the Karakax County village of Dutar — named for a Uighur traditional instrument — was renamed Red Flag village.

“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.

“We’ve seen this also in the way mosques have been demolished, changed, altered. We’ve seen many different examples in the way the Chinese government uses this to violate aspects of free expression and cultural identity and religious freedom.”

Rayhan Asat, a Uighur 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 Uighur 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 Uighurs from our history, culture and civilization.”

The practice of renaming locations — like many of the policies imposed in Xinjiang — was first done in Tibet. The Chinese government last year began referring to Tibet as “Xizang” on official documents. Since 2017 it has also issued official Chinese names for locations in Arunachal Pradesh, the disputed Himalayan region where China claims territory.

In Tibet and Xinjiang the increasingly militarized and surveilled environment makes it extremely difficult for information to come out about human rights abuses, and the Chinese government rarely responds to requests for information.

Pearson said: “Part of the reason we know this is happening is that in one case a woman released from a re-education facility tried to get a bus ticket home but found her village didn’t exist any more.”

Since launching its “strike hard” campaign against Uighur and other Turkic Muslims in 2014 in the name of counter-terrorism, the Chinese government has arbitrarily detained millions of people, in re-education camps and jails, criminalizing religious acts such as growing beards or reading the Quran. Others have been persecuted for having contact with the international diaspora or traveling overseas.

There is evidence of enforced mass labor transfer programs, enforced social re-education, torture and enforced disappearances, and coercive reproductive control.

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