China accused of erasing religion, culture from Uighur village names

Rights groups’ analysis of official data from 2009-2023 shows some 630 villages in Xinjiang had their names changed in this way.

Uighur men silhouetted against the sky after leaving Eid prayers in Kashgar
It has become harder for Uighurs to practise their religion and culture in recent years [File: Greg Baker/AFP]

China has “systematically” changed the names of hundreds of villages with religious, historical, or cultural meaning for Uighurs to names that resonate with the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party, according to a new report from Human Rights Watch.

The rights group, working in partnership with Norwegian advocacy organisation Uyghur Hjelp, said it identified 630 villages in the far western region of Xinjiang whose names had been changed in this way by scraping data from 2009 to 2023 on the website of the National Bureau of Statistics of China. The most common replacements were 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,” Maya Wang, acting China director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement accompanying the report on Wednesday. “These name changes appear part of Chinese government efforts to erase the cultural and religious expressions of Uyghurs.”

China’s policies in Xinjiang drew international attention in 2018 when the United Nations said that at least one million mostly Muslim Uighurs and other Turkic minorities were being held in a network of re-education centres. Beijing said the camps were vocational training centres teaching Mandarin and other skills necessary to tackle “extremism” and prevent “terrorism“.

Leaks of official government documents, investigations by human rights groups and academics, as well as testimony from Uighurs themselves revealed Uighurs had also been targeted in other alleged abuses from forced sterilisation to family separation and targeting of religious beliefs and traditions.

The latest Human Rights Watch report said most of the village name changes took place between 2017 and 2019 – the height of the crackdown – and ensured references to Uighur history, including the names of its kingdoms, republics and local leaders before the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, were removed. Village names were also changed if they involved terms that suggested Uighur cultural practices, such as mazar (shrine), and dutar (a two-stringed lute).

Among the examples in the report was Qutpidin Mazar village in Kashgar, which was originally named after a shrine of the 13th-century Persian polymath and poet, Qutb al-Din al-Shirazi, but became known as Rose Flower village in 2018. Meanwhile, Dutar village in Karakax County was renamed Red Flag village in 2022.

Uyghur Hjelp interviewed 11 Uighurs who lived in villages whose names had been changed, and found that the experience had had a deep effect on them. One villager told the group she faced difficulties going home after she was released from a re-education camp because the village name she knew was no longer included in the ticketing system. Another villager told Uyghur Hjelp that he had written a poem and commissioned a song as a memorial to the now lost locations where he had once lived.

The UN’s then human rights chief Michelle Bachelet requested access to Xinjiang when details of the re-education camps first emerged.

She was finally allowed to visit in 2022 and concluded that “serious human rights violations” had been committed and that the scale of arbitrary and discriminatory detention of Uighurs and other mostly Muslim groups … “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity“.

Abduweli Ayup, founder of Uyghur Hjelp, urged international governments to do more to press China over the situation in Xinjiang, where he said hundreds of thousands of Uighur people remained “wrongfully imprisoned”.

“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,” he said in the statement.

Source: Al Jazeera