HomeOppression and Human RightsChina’s Erasure of Uyghur Culture: Renaming Villages in Xinjiang

China’s Erasure of Uyghur Culture: Renaming Villages in Xinjiang

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Chinese authorities have systematically changed the names of hundreds of villages in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, according to a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Norway-based organization Uyghur Hjelp. These changes are part of a broader effort to assimilate the Uyghur population into mainstream Chinese culture and eradicate their unique religious, historical, and cultural heritage.

Systematic Name Changes

Human Rights Watch has identified approximately 630 villages where names rich in Uyghur cultural, historical, or religious significance have been replaced with those reflecting Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ideology. Common replacement names include “Happiness,” “Unity,” and “Harmony.” Maya Wang, acting China director at Human Rights Watch, asserts, “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.”

This name-changing campaign is not merely a superficial alteration; it is a deliberate attempt to strip away the identity and heritage of the Uyghur people. Between 2009 and 2023, about 3,600 out of 25,000 villages in Xinjiang had their names changed. While some changes were mundane or corrected previous errors, about one-fifth, or 630, involved significant cultural erasure. The most affected areas include Kashgar, Aksu, and Hotan prefectures, predominantly Uyghur regions in southern Xinjiang.

Targeted Cultural Erasure

The renaming primarily targets religious terms such as “Hoja” (a Sufi religious teacher) and “haniqa” (a type of Sufi religious building), historical references like “sultan” and “beg” (political or honorific titles), and cultural practices such as “mazar” (shrine) and “dutar” (a two-stringed lute central to Uyghur music). For example, Qutpidin Mazar village, named after a shrine dedicated to the 13th-century Persian polymath Qutb al-Din al-Shirazi, was renamed Rose Flower village in 2018. In another example, Aq Meschit (“white mosque”) in Akto County was renamed Unity village in 2018.

Impact on Uyghur Villagers

The impact of these changes on Uyghur villagers is profound. Uyghur Hjelp interviewed 11 Uyghurs who experienced difficulties due to the renaming. One villager struggled to return home from a re-education camp because the ticketing system no longer recognized her village’s old name. Another villager expressed his sorrow by writing a poem and commissioning a song to commemorate the lost locations of his past. These personal stories highlight the deep emotional and practical consequences of the village name changes.

Violations of International Rights

The Chinese government’s actions violate Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states that ethnic, religious, or linguistic minorities should not be denied the right to enjoy their own culture, profess and practice their religion, or use their language. Although China has signed but not ratified this covenant, the UN Human Rights Committee emphasizes the importance of protecting minority rights to ensure the survival and continued development of their cultural, religious, and social identities. The Committee has stated that protecting these rights is essential for “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.”

Broader Campaign Against Uyghurs

Since launching the “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism” in Xinjiang in 2014, the Chinese government has intensified its efforts to assimilate the Uyghur population. This campaign has resulted in mass arbitrary detentions, torture, enforced disappearances, mass surveillance, cultural and religious persecution, family separations, forced labor, sexual violence, and violations of reproductive rights. Human Rights Watch concluded in 2021 that these actions constitute crimes against humanity.

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.”

International Response

Despite international condemnation and some targeted sanctions against Chinese officials and entities, responses have been inadequate given the severity of Beijing’s abuses. Abduweli Ayup, founder of Uyghur Hjelp, calls on concerned governments and the UN Human Rights Office to intensify efforts to hold the Chinese government accountable. “They should make use of the upcoming UN Human Rights Council sessions and all high-level bilateral meetings to press Beijing to free the hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs still wrongfully imprisoned as part of its abusive Strike Hard Campaign,” Ayup urges.

The systematic renaming of Uyghur villages is a stark reminder of the Chinese government’s relentless campaign to erase Uyghur identity. The international community must act decisively to protect Uyghur culture and hold China accountable for its actions.

Examples of Village Name Changes

Some specific examples of village name changes include:

  • Qutpidin Mazar village in Kashgar Prefecture, named after a shrine of the 13th-century Persian polymath and poet, Qutb al-Din al-Shirazi, was renamed Rose Flower village in 2018.
  • Aq Meschit (“white mosque”) village in Akto County was renamed Unity village in 2018.
  • Hoja Eriq (“Sufi teacher’s creek”) village in Aksu Prefecture was renamed Willow village in 2018.
  • Dutar village, named after a Uyghur musical instrument, in Karakax County was renamed Red Flag village in 2022.

Abduweli Ayup, founder of Uyghur Hjelp, urges international governments to do more to press China over the situation in Xinjiang, where he says hundreds of thousands of Uyghur people remain “wrongfully imprisoned.”

“Concerned governments and the UN human rights office should intensify their efforts to hold the Chinese government accountable for their abuses in the Uyghur region,” he said in a statement.

ACZ Editor: The Chinese Communist Party has zero tolerance for cultural differences, their goal is a single, controllable culture. Is there anything the rest of the world can do about this? Not a lot, without great cost or great repercussions.

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