China Changed Names Of 630 Village ‘To Erase Uyghur Culture’ In Xinjiang: Report

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New York, United States of America (USA)

This picture taken on July 19, 2023 shows a Uyghur food vendor tending to his stall in Artux, northwestern China’s Xinjiang region. (Photo by Pedro PARDO / AFP)

Chinese authorities in Xinjiang systematically change village names with cultural meaning for Uyghurs to reflect Communist Party ideology, says Human Rights Watch

The Chinese government in northwest Xinjiang province has been systematically changing hundreds of village names with religious and historical meanings for Uyghurs into names reflecting Chinese Communist Party ideology, according to a New York-based rights watchdog.

About 630 villages were identified by Human Rights Watch (HRW) where the names have been changed that way. The top three most common replacement village names are “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,” said Maya Wang, acting China director at HRW. “These name changes appear part of Chinese government efforts to erase the cultural and religious expressions of Uyghurs.”

In joint research, HRW and Norway-based organization Uyghur Hjelp (“Uyghur help”) scraped names of villages in Xinjiang from the website of the National Bureau of Statistics of China between 2009 and 2023. The names of about 3,600 of the 25,000 villages in Xinjiang were changed during this period. About four-fifths of these changes appear mundane, such as number changes, or corrections to names previously written incorrectly. But the 630, about a fifth, involve changes of a religious, cultural, or historical nature.

The changes fall into three broad categories. Any mentions of religion, including Islamic terms, such as Hoja, a title for a Sufi religious teacher, and haniqa, a type of Sufi religious building, have been removed, along with mentions of shamanism, such as baxshi, a shaman. Any mentions of Uyghur history, including the names of its kingdoms, republics, and local leaders prior to the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, and words such as orda, which means “palace,” sultan, and beg, which are political or honorific titles, have also been changed.

The authorities also removed terms in village names that denote Uyghur cultural practices, such as mazar, shrine, and dutar, a two-stringed lute at the heart of Uyghur musical culture. While the renaming of villages appears ongoing, most of these changes occurred between 2017 and 2019, when the Chinese government’s crimes against humanity escalated in the region, and mostly in Kashgar, Aksu, and Hotan prefectures, Uyghur majority regions in southern Xinjiang. Because of a lack of access to Xinjiang, the full impact of the village name changes on people’s lives is unclear, according to HRW.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the independent expert body that interprets the covenant, has stated in a General Comment that, “[t]he protection of these rights is directed towards ensuring the survival and continued development of the cultural, religious and social identity of the minorities concerned, thus enriching the fabric of society as a whole…. [T]hese rights must be protected as such.”

According to several rights groups, the Chinese government has continued to conflate Uyghurs’ everyday religious and cultural practices, and their expressions of identity, with violent extremism to justify violations against them. In April 2017, the Chinese government promulgated the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Regulation on De-extremification, which prohibits “the propagation of religious fervor with abnormal … names.” Authorities reportedly banned dozens of personal names with religious connotations common to Muslims around the world, such as Saddam and Medina, on the basis that they could “exaggerate religious fervor.”

In August 2022, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) issued a report concluding that Chinese government abuses in Xinjiang “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.” While foreign governments have condemned Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang, and some have imposed targeted and other sanctions on Chinese government officials, agencies, and companies implicated in rights violations, these responses have fallen short of the gravity of Beijing’s abuses, Human Rights Watch said.

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