Even in death, Uighurs feel long reach of Chinese state
China is destroying burial grounds where generations of Uighur families have been laid to rest, leaving behind human bones and broken tombs in what activists call an effort to eradicate the ethnic group's identity in Xinjiang.
In just two years, dozens of cemeteries have been destroyed in the northwest region, according to an agency investigation with satellite imagery analysts Earthrise Alliance.
Some of the graves were cleared with little care – in Shayar county, journalists saw unearthed human bones left discarded at three sites. At other sites tombs that were reduced to mounds of bricks lay scattered in cleared tracts of land.
While the official explanation ranges from urban development to the "standardisation" of old graves, overseas Uighurs say the destruction is part of a state crackdown to control every element of their lives.
"This is all part of China's campaign to effectively eradicate any evidence of who we are, to effectively make us like the Han Chinese," said Salih Hudayar, who said the graveyard where his great-grandparents were buried was demolished. "That's why they're destroying all of these historical sites, these cemeteries, to disconnect us from our history, from our fathers and our ancestors," he said.
China's Uighur heartland turns into security state
China says it faces a serious threat from Islamist extremists in its Xinjiang region. Beijing accuses separatists among the Muslim Uighur ethnic minority of stirring up tensions with the ethnic Han Chinese majority. By Nadine Berghausen
Economy or security? China routinely denies pursuing repressive policies in Xinjiang and points to the vast sums it spends on economic development in the resource-rich region. James Leibold, an expert on Chinese ethnic policy says the focus on security runs counter to Beijing's goal of using the OBOR initiative to boost Xinjiang's economy, because it would disrupt the flow of people and ideas
China's far western Xinjiang region ramps up security: three times a day, alarms ring out through the streets of China's ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar and shopkeepers rush out of their stores swinging government-issued wooden clubs. In mandatory anti-terror drills conducted under police supervision, they fight off imaginary knife-wielding assailants
One Belt, One Road Initiative: an ethnic Uighur man walks down the path leading to the tomb of Imam Asim in the Taklamakan Desert. A historic trading post, the city of Kashgar is central to China's "One Belt, One Road Initiative", which is President Xi Jinping's signature foreign and economic policy involving massive infrastructure spending linking China to Asia, the Middle East and beyond
China fears disruption of "One Belt, One Road" summit: a man herds sheep in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. China's worst fears are that a large-scale attack would blight this year's diplomatic set piece, an OBOR summit attended by world leaders planned for Beijing. Since ethnic riots in the regional capital Urumqi in 2009, Xinjiang has been plagued by bouts of deadly violence
Ethnic minority in China: a woman prays at a grave near the tomb of Imam Asim in the Taklamankan Desert. Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking distinct and mostly Sunni Muslim community and one of the 55 recognised ethnic minorities in China. Although Uighurs have traditionally practiced a moderate version of Islam, experts believe that some of them have been joining Islamic militias in the Middle East
Communist Party vows to continue war on terror: Chinese state media say the threat remains high, so the Communist Party has vowed to continue its "war on terror" against Islamist extremism. For example, Chinese authorities have passed measures banning many typically Muslim customs. The initiative makes it illegal to "reject or refuse" state propaganda, although it was not immediately clear how the authorities would enforce this regulation
CCTV cameras are being installed: many residents say the anti-terror drills are just part of an oppressive security operation that has been ramped up in Kashgar and other cities in Xinjiang's Uighur heartland in recent months. For many Uighurs it is not about security, but mass surveillance. "We have no privacy. They want to see what you're up to," says a shop owner in Kashgar
Ban on many typically Muslim customs: the most visible change is likely to come from the ban on "abnormal growing of beards," and the restriction on wearing veils. Specifically, workers in public spaces, including stations and airports, will be required to "dissuade" people with veils on their faces from entering and report them to the police
Security personnel keep watch: authorities offer rewards for those who report "youth with long beards or other popular religious customs that have been radicalised", as part of a wider incentive system that rewards actionable intelligence on imminent attacks. Human rights activists have been critical of the tactics used by the government in combatting the alleged extremists, accusing it of human rights abuses
An estimated one million mostly Muslim ethnic minorities have been rounded up into re-education camps in Xinjiang in the name of combatting religious extremism and separatism.
Those who are free are subject to rigorous surveillance and restrictions – from home visits from officials to bans on beards and veils.
China has remained defiant despite escalating global criticism of its treatment of Uighurs. This week, the United States said it would curb visas for officials over the alleged abuses and blacklisted 28 Chinese firms it accuses of rights violations.
According to satellite imagery analysed by AFP and Earthrise Alliance, the Chinese government has, since 2014, exhumed and flattened at least 45 Uighur cemeteries – including 30 in the past two years.
The Xinjiang government did not respond to a request for comment.
The destruction is "not just about religious persecution," said Nurgul Sawut, who has five generations of family buried in Yengisar, south-western Xinjiang. "It is much deeper than that," said Sawut, who now lives in Australia and last visited Xinjiang in 2016 to attend her father's funeral. "If you destroy that cemetery ... you're uprooting whoever's on that land, whoever's connected to that land," she explained.
Even sites featuring shrines or the tombs of famous individuals were not spared.
In Aksu, local authorities turned an enormous graveyard where prominent Uighur poet Lutpulla Mutellip was buried into "Happiness Park", with fake pandas, a children's ride and a man-made lake.
Mutellip's grave was like "a modern day shrine for most nationalist Uighurs, patriotic Uighurs," recalled Ilshat Kokbore, who visited the tomb in the early 90s and now resides in the United States.
The "Happiness Park" project saw graves moved to a new cemetery in an industrial zone out in the desert. The caretaker there said he had no knowledge of the fate of Mutellip's remains. The Aksu government could not be reached for comment.
In China, urban growth and economic development has laid waste to innumerable cultural and historic sites, from traditional hutong neighbourhoods in Beijing to segments of Dali's ancient city wall in south-western Yunnan province. It is an issue Beijing itself has acknowledged.
The government has also been criticised for its irreverence towards burial traditions outside of Xinjiang, including the destruction of coffins in central Jiangxi last year to force locals to cremate.
But activists and scholars say the clearances are especially egregious in Xinjiang, where they parallel the erasure of other cultural and spiritual sites – including at least 30 mosques and religious sites since 2017, an AFP investigation found in June.
"The destruction of the graveyards is very much part of the wider raft of policies that are going on," said Rachel Harris, who researches Uighur culture at the School of Oriental and African Studies University of London.
"From the destruction of holy shrines, the tombs of saints, to the destruction of tombs of families, all of this is disrupting the relationship between people and their history and the relationship between the people and the land that they live on," she said.
The official explanation for cemetery removal or relocation varies by site.
In Urumqi, the regional capital, a cemetery near the international airport was cleared to make way for an urban "reconstruction" project.
In Shayar, where the local government has built new cemeteries near some of the old sites, an official told journalists the programme was aimed at "standardisation".
A sign by a new cemetery in Shayar, which replaced a graveyard from the 18th century containing about 7,500 graves, echoed this statement.
The rebuilt sites "saved space, protected the ecosystem" and were "civilised", it said.
"The new cemeteries are standardised, clean and they're convenient for residents," Kadier Kasimu, deputy director of Shayar's cultural affairs bureau, told journalists.
Tamar Mayer, a professor of geosciences at Middlebury College, who researches Uighur shrines and cemeteries, described the new sites as homogenous and tightly packed.
Families, which traditionally leave gifts by the graves, no longer have "space to mourn", she said, adding the policy seemed to be an attempt to "sanitise the area of Uighurs".
Aziz Isa Elkun, a Uighur activist in Britain whose father was buried in one of the many destroyed cemeteries in Shayar, agreed: "If you want to build new graves then you can, but you do not need to destroy the old ones."
The Shayar government did not respond to journalists' questions on the process of moving remains to new sites.
But it is clear that human remains have been left behind in the process. On a trip to Xinjiang in September, journalists visited 13 destroyed cemeteries across four cities and saw bones in at least three Shayar sites.
Local officials dismissed the evidence – one even picked up a bone, held it next to his right shin and declared it "too big to be a human's".
But seven forensic anthropologists who saw images taken by journalists identified a number of human remains, including a femur, feet, hand bones and part of an elbow.
"There are a range of ages," said Xanthe Mallett, a criminologist at the University of Newcastle.
In Hotan, southern Xinjiang, residents were given just two days to claim their dead, according to a government notice photographed by an agency journalist in May.
"Any tombstone that was not claimed during the registration period will be relocated as an unclaimed corpse," it read in Uighur. "The owner of the tombstone is solely responsible for any consequences coming out of the failure in registration."
The move to raze Uighur cemeteries is not new – satellite imagery reviewed by journalists shows destruction from more than a decade ago.
But while Uighurs and ethnic minorities are still exempt from certain policies like cremation, which goes against Islamic tradition, authorities appear to be hardening their stance, said Rian Thum, a Uighur history and culture expert at the University of Nottingham.
They used to have a "non-confrontational approach to Uighur culture, but now any policy that attacks Uighur culture seems to get a boost rather than put in check as their approach has changed," said Thum.
The security crackdown in Xinjiang has also made it easier for authorities to ram through policies, said Tahir Hamut, a Uighur poet in the U.S. who left Xinjiang in 2017.
"No one dares to speak up now," he told journalists. "No one raises demands with the government." (AFP)