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.
Al Jazeera 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.
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.