Authorities in western China’s restive, Muslim-majority Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region are offering rewards to locals who inform on their neighbors for “wearing beards,” government-controlled media reported this week. Islamic liturgy recommends that Muslim men wear beards.
In recent months, local officials have tightened religious restrictions on Xinjiang’s ethnic Uighurs, in response to a series of armed attacks that were allegedly perpetrated by Uighur separatists. Many Uighurs accuse Chinese authorities of religious repression, and say economic development measures in their home region benefit mostly ethnic Han people, who are the majority in China.
Informants in parts of Xinjiang’s Aksu prefecture, an epicenter of the region’s ethnic tensions, can earn anywhere from $8 to $8,000 for reporting their neighbors’ illegal religious or “separatist activity” — which can now include facial hair, according to Chinese newspaper The Global Times.
"That's a lot of money for Uighurs in the south [of the region]. There they are very poor. This is an incentive to betray their fellow Uighurs to get some financial gain," Alim Seytoff, spokesman for the Uighur rights advocacy group World Uyghur Congress (WUC), told Al Jazeera.
Aksu officials had not responded to an interview request from Al Jazeera by the time of publication.
Local authorities have attempted to suppress various ostensible signs of Muslim religiosity in the past. But Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, said this appeared to be first time officials are comfortable enough with such measures to allow them to be reported in an English-language publication geared toward foreigners.
"What is new and extremely worrying [is that] the Chinese government is so bent on suppressing Uighur Islam that it thinks it's appropriate to make public these restrictions and to sketch out what behavior is considered suspect by the state," Bequelin told Al Jazeera.
Bequelin believes Chinese authorities are publicizing information about the attacks to pre-empt criticism by portraying the rewards as a measure against armed attacks that Beijing says are carried out by Uighur religious extremists.
WUC's Seytoff said he contacted Human Rights Watch days ago with reports of the restrictions. Seytoff believes that WUC's communications have been compromised by Chinese intelligence, and that the Chinese media report was likely an attempt to establish Beijing's stance ahead of any claims that would be made by the international human rights watchdog.
Xinjiang, which abuts South and Central Asian nations including oil- and energy-rich Kazakhstan and Pakistan, is of great strategic and economic value to Beijing. In September of last year, China signed a slew of contracts with neighboring nations to import oil and gas directly into Xinjiang. Uighur rights activists have told Al Jazeera that religious repression is one means of controlling a restive Uighur public that Beijing sees as a threat to its commerce.
In recent months, other religious restrictions imposed by local governments have barred women wearing traditional headscarves from entering public venues. In one case in Aksu, authorities placed the Chinese flag at the head of a mosque, in an apparent bid to make worshippers bow to a symbol of the state.