Authorities in China’s restive western province of Xinjiang reacted this week to a growing threat of separatist and Islamist violence by banning women from wearing burqas in public in the regional capital.
But covering one’s face with a veil is just one of many ways Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang risk coming under official suspicion and being arrested. On Friday, police in the province issued a list of 75 “specific signs” that might indicate a Uighur was a “religious extremist.”
The list included many predictable items, from reading extremist Web sites and sharing radical materials to wearing veils, reading religious books or abstaining from alcohol. But they also included some things that the casual observer might otherwise not notice as a sign of dangerous radicalism.
Selling land, sheep or oxen without cause, for example, could be a sign, for the appropriately alert policeman, that someone might be planning a suicide attack. Storing a large quantity of food at home should also arouse suspicion, as well as having secret chambers or tunnels in the house, the police in Jinghe County said on their Wechat social media account.
Attending religious activities in a neighboring district, having many beds in the house, having strangers visit “secretively" imply having “many people gathering together” are all listed as potentially suspicious. Item 33, for example, cites “buying or storing dumbbells, barbells, boxing gloves and maps, compasses, binoculars, ropes, tents etc, without cause” as potentially problematic. Item 60 tells police to watch out for anyone who “openly chases, abuses or threatens people who dress fashionably.”
China’s iron rule in Xinjiang has fuelled a long-running separatist insurgency, which has turned increasingly violent in the past year and seems to have taken on an increasingly Islamist tinge. The more the violence escalates, the harder the Chinese authorities have tried to force people to abandon conservative forms of Islam, or indeed abandon Islam entirely, with government employees and young people banned from even attending mosques or observing the Ramadan fast. They have also intensified surveillance of Uighurs in an attempt to identify radicals, with widespread house-to-house searches being carried out.
The burqa ban, announced in Urumqi on Thursday, appeared to be an extension and intensification of a long-running campaign, known as Project Beauty, which has tried to force Uighur women not to wear face-covering veils and men not to wear long beards. Critics, though, say the government’s campaign is both heavy handed and potentially counterproductive, giving police more reasons to detain Uighurs on flimsy pretexts and breeding more resentment.
“The Party’s attempt to find symbols of extremism is extremely crude,” said James Leibold, an expert on China’s ethnic policies at Melbourne’s La Trobe University. “It is a form of racial profiling, and the end result is to push people to resist.”
Leibold said women in Xinjiang wear burqas and veils for many reasons, including because they are symbol of a transnational Muslim identity, because they are popular, or because their husbands ask them to.
Xu Yangjingjing and Gu Jinglu contributed to this report.