A Chinese government worker in the ancient Silk Road oasis of Kashgar beckons two women to her streetside stand and logs their details under the gaze of a surveillance camera. Their offence: wearing veils.
The “Project Beauty” campaign aims to discourage women from covering their faces — a religious practice for some Muslim Uighurs, the largest ethnic group in China’s Xinjiang region — in an attempt to improve security.
But critics warn the effort could sow resentment and backfire instead.
“We need to hold onto our traditions and they should understand that,” said a 25-year-old woman who has been registered twice.
Offenders were made to watch a film about the joys of exposing their faces, she added, speaking behind a white crocheted covering.
“The movie doesn’t change a lot of people’s minds,” she said, like others declining to be named.
Xinjiang, a vast area bordering Pakistan and Central Asia in China’s far west, beyond the furthest reaches of the Great Wall, has followed Islam for centuries.
It came under Chinese control most recently during the Qing dynasty in the late 1800s.
For years it has seen sporadic unrest by Uighurs which rights groups say is driven by cultural oppression and intrusive security measures but China attributes to extremist religion, terrorism and separatism.
Authorities’ concerns intensified after a deadly attack in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square last month which police blamed on Uighurs.
Kashgar residents say veil restrictions sparked at least one deadly conflict this year near the city, where 90 per cent of the area’s 3.3 million residents are Uighur.
“For the Chinese government the causal process is: the Islamic extremists ask for independence, ask for separatism, then that’s why they set very strict limits on Uighurs’ religious activities,” said Shan Wei, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore.
“For the Uighurs’ part, it’s: ‘OK, I wasn’t involved in any political movements, I’m not a separatist at all, but you set so many stupid restrictions on my daily religious activities that I hate you’,” he added, pointing out that China’s other Muslim minorities did not face such rules… see more