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16 Jul 2024 19:14
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  •   Home > News > International

    China removing religious and cultural references from Xinjiang place names, rights groups say

    Authorities in China's western Xinjiang region are systematically replacing the names of villages inhabited by Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities to reflect the ruling Communist Party's ideology, a report released by Human Rights Watch says.

    Chinese authorities in Xinjiang have been systematically changing the names of hundreds of villages in an effort to erase Uyghur culture, according to a report released by Human Rights Watch.

    The report, done in collaboration with the Norway-based organisation Uyghur Hjelp and released Wednesday, compared the names of 25,000 Xinjiang villages as listed by the National Bureau of Statistics of China between 2009 and 2023.

    While the majority of the name changes "appear mundane", about 630 villages in Xinjiang have had their names changed to remove references to Islam or the Uyghurs' culture and history, according to the report.

    Words like "dutar", a traditional Uyghur string instrument, or "mazar", a shrine, have been removed from the names of villages, and replaced with words such as "happiness", "unity" and "harmony" — generic terms often found in the Communist Party's policy documents.

    ABC News has contacted the Chinese embassy in Australia for comment on the report. 

    Most of the village name changes occurred between 2017 and 2019, at the height of the government crackdown in Xinjiang, according to the report.

    James Leibold, a La Trobe University expert on China's ethnic policy, said the changes were a direct response to Chinese President Xi Jinping's call for the "sinicization" of religions at the 2016 Central Religious Work Conference.

    "This unleashed CCP officials to 'rectify' not only the placenames highlighted in the HRW report but also mosques, cemeteries, shrines and other parts of the sacred landscape in the Uyghur homeland and other parts of China," he said. 

    "This process of cultural erasure was also a part of a wider crackdown on perceived religious extremism and terrorism that resulted in an estimated one million Uyghurs and other minorities being extra-judicially imprisoned in re-education camps across Xinjiang."

    Xinjiang is a vast region bordering Kazakhstan that is home to about 11 million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities.

    In 2017, the Chinese government launched a campaign of assimilation that has included mass detentions, alleged political indoctrination, alleged family separations and alleged forced labour among other methods.

    As part of the crackdown, more than one million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and other ethnic minorities were estimated to be held in extra-legal internment camps.

    The Chinese government at the time described the camps as "vocational training centres" and said they were necessary to curb separatism and religious extremism.

    The UN Human Rights Office in 2022 found accusations of rights violations in Xinjiang "credible" and said China may have committed crimes against humanity in the region.

    Ramila Chanisheff, president of Australian Uyghur Tangritagh Women's Association, said renaming the villages was "detrimental" for Uyghurs in China and overseas. 

    "This is horrific," she said.

    "Their everyday lives are being sinicized by the Communist Party.

    "Many residents in the counties will be older people who probably don't know the Chinese language at all. They will be completely confused. 

    "And will we [Uyghur diaspora] know where we are going if we ever go back there?" 

    Ms Chanisheff called for the Australian and international community to speak up against the "ethnic and culture cleansing" of Uyghurs in China.

    "We've protested against Australia to further its ties with China and not bringing up human rights violations in stark daylight," she said.

    "This blatant change of names of streets and shrines and mosques [means] our history is being erased in front of our eyes and the world is not doing anything about it. 

    "Our government is not doing anything about it." 

    Efforts to 'erase Uyghur identity and culture'

    The changes to the names of Xinjiang villages included removing mentions of religion, including terms such as "Hoja", a title for a Sufi religious teacher, and "haniqa", a type of Sufi religious building, or terms such as "baxshi", a shaman.

    References to Uyghur history or to regional leaders prior to the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949 have also been removed, according to the report.

    Professor Leibold said place names are "important repositories of cultural and historical identity".

    "They help connect people to the landscape, and in the case of the Uyghur homeland, these village names are symbols of Uyghur identity, sovereignty and the CCP's [now broken] promise to allow the Uyghurs and other minority nationalities to be 'masters of their own home'," he said. 

    Changing the village names reflected the Chinese government's effort to "erase Uyghur identity, language and culture" and replacing them with Han Chinese norms, Professor Leibold added.

    "Under Xi Jinping, the CCP has intensified its colonial dispossession of Xinjiang and other borderland territories."

    Professor Leibold gave the example of changing the name of the city of Kashgar, which means "place of stones" in Persian, to the Chinese word Kashi.

    "This great cultural and architecture centre of Altishahr [a historical name for the Tarim Basin] becomes just another Chinese city," he said. 

    The original Persian word was also a connection to Uyghur history and identity that's distinct from China and its colonial occupation, he added. 

    Impacts on local villagers

    The report's authors interviewed 11 Uyghurs who lived in villages with changed names.

    One villager faced difficulties going home after being released from a re-education camp because the ticketing system no longer included the name of the place she knew.

    She later faced difficulties registering for government services due to the change. 

    Another villager said he wrote a poem and commissioned a song to commemorate all the lost locations around where he had lived.

    A Human Rights Watch report in 2017 also found that Chinese authorities prohibited Uyghurs from using dozens of names with religious connotations common to Muslims around the world.

    Renaming locations have happened elsewhere in China. 

    Since 2017, China's Ministry of Civil Affairs started to issue official Chinese names for locations in Arunachal Pradesh in north-east India, which China claims to belong to its southern Tibet region.

    The Chinese government is also gradually dropping the name "Tibet" in official English-language references in favour of the region's Mandarin Chinese name "Xizang" since 2023. 



    © 2024 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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