Erasing Identity

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China’s government has been renaming villages inhabited by ethnic Uyghurs in the northwestern province of Xinjiang with names reflecting the ruling Communist Party’s ideology, a move human rights groups say underscores Beijing’s ongoing efforts to weaken its minorities’ identities, Nikkei Asia reported this week.

On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian group, Uyghur Hjelp, released a report detailing how authorities are systemically removing names with cultural or religious associations with the province’s Uyghurs and other minorities.

The report identified around 630 such changes and categorized them into three patterns.

The first involves changing village names with religious affiliations, such as Hoja, a title for a Sufi religious teacher. The second altered references to Uyghur history, such as historical kingdoms and local leaders pre-1949 – the year the People’s Republic of China was founded. The third was related to Uyghur cultural activities, such as their traditional musical instruments or monuments.

The replacement Mandarin names generally include the words “happiness,” “unity” and “harmony.” For example, the village of Aq Meschit (White Mosque), was renamed Tuanjie-cun, meaning “Unity Village,” in 2018.

Meanwhile, data from China’s statistics bureau showed that roughly 3,600 out of 25,000 villages experienced name changes between 2009 and 2023. The report noted that more than 80 percent of them were technical modifications and revisions.

The findings also showed that a majority of these changes took place between 2017 and 2019, which coincided with the mass internment of Uyghurs throughout the region.

Following the report’s release, Chinese officials countered that the Uyghur culture has been “effectively protected and promoted.”

But analysts and human rights advocates told Voice of America that the government’s actions are part of a campaign to eliminate Uyghur culture and religious expression, as well as assimilate them into the Han Chinese majority.

In recent years, China has come under increased scrutiny for detaining thousands of Uyghurs and other minorities in the region in what it calls “re-education camps.” Beijing has claimed that the camps and other measures are aimed at countering terrorism and extremism, and has denied accusations of human rights abuse.

Even so, the United Nations human rights agency released a report in 2022 saying that China’s actions in the region “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.”

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