Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Ban on Islamic Clothing in Xinjiang

Pedestrians walk past propaganda posters in Urumqi, Xinjiang. Image credit: The Uyghur American Association.

In April 2011, France became the first Western country to ban the wearing of full-face veils in public. Similar national and regional bans in other secular Western countries soon followed, including in Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Austria, and Canada. In Australia, there is ongoing legislative debate on the issue. Under these bans, anybody caught wearing a burka (a veil covering the full face and body) or a niqab (a veil covering the face except the eyes) in public can face fines and in some cases even imprisonment.

China is an officially atheist country. Civil servants and teachers across the country have long been prohibited from participating in religious activities or wearing religious clothing in public. In schools, students can be disqualified from scholarships, government subsidies, attending their graduation ceremonies and even face expulsion if found wearing religious clothing on campus. Around the same time when many in the West were busy passing anti-Islamic legislation, China was rocked by the Urumqi Riots of July 2009. Shortly after, the Xinjiang government began tightening restrictions on Islamic clothing on security grounds in the autonomous region, home to a Muslim population of over 13 million.

In enforcing restrictions on Islamic clothing, Chinese officials have denied that veils are a part of Uyghur culture and have attempted to stigmatize wearers as uneducated and sharing a propensity towards religious extremism. A Phoenix News Media article in 2014 reported that veils had historically never been part of Uyghur culture and only first gained traction in southern Xinjiang in the 1980s. While officials argue that veils are unique to uneducated Uyghurs who share a propensity towards extremism, they also blame religious extremism in Xinjiang as deriving from overseas forces – a line of argument frequently used to justify the forced deportations of overseas Uyghurs. A Uyghur researcher from the Xinjiang Academy of Social Science’s Institute of Sociology opined that the phenomenon of religious extremism was largely driven by the high and disproportionate rates of poverty and unemployment among the Uyghur population. As Xinjiang becomes increasingly dominated by a market-oriented economy run by the Han population, Uyghurs feel they face greater economic, cultural, religious, and political marginalization. The same Uyghur scholar stated that the local Uyghurs’ disillusionment with their future in Xinjiang has led more Uyghur women to adopt the black veil and jilbab in place of their traditional headscarves, especially after the 2009 attacks and the ensuing incidents of ethnic unrest in the region.

Not only has Xinjiang outlawed the wearing of veils in public, but Dui Hua has also uncovered cases of individuals facing criminal charges for wearing veils in their own homes and for selling the banned clothing items.

The “Five Abnormalities”

The restrictions on Islamic clothing in Xinjiang first emerged in a number of localities in province’s southern region. However, after the 2009 Urumqi attacks, similar regulations were implemented in northern Xinjiang. Restrictions in the north remained relatively lax until 2013, when the Xinjiang government issued a provisional-wide directive known as Document No.11. In a question and answer format, the document serves as a set of guidelines for local authorities and as a warning to the public on how “illegal religions and extremism” will be handled; there are three mentions of the ban on the jilbab in the text. The document does not specify what the punishment for wearing a jilbab is. It merely calls on officials to “resolutely handle” violators.

The “Five Abnormalities” in Karamay, Xinjiang. August 2014. Image credit: ifeng.com

It should be noted that the translation of terms used to describe Islamic clothing under Chinese regulations differ from what is generally used in Islamic communities. In August 2014, authorities in Karamay, a city in northern Xinjiang, banned those wearing Islamic clothing and those with beards from boarding a public bus, including women and girls who were wearing what authorities call a jilbab. In Islamic communities, a jilbab refers to a long and loose-fitting garment or cloak designed to cover the entire body while leaving the face visible, whereas under Chinese regulations they use the word jilbab for what would be considered a burka or a niqab in most Islamic communities, which covers the body and the face. The first category of women shown in the "Five Abnormalities," with veils covering their face and hair but not their eyes, are wearing what would be considered a niqab outside of China, but is called a jilbab in China.

The ban also prohibits young women from wearing what China calls a niqab, a garment that would generally be referred to as a hijab (a headscarf covering the hair and neck while leaving the face visible) in most Islamic communities.

As a provincial-wide directive, Document No.11 has been introduced in localities across Xinjiang. In Karamay, authorities have banned the jilbab, the niqab, all face-covering veils, as well as young men from growing “big beards.” The ban has also outlawed clothes featuring the Islamic star and crescent symbol.

Also in 2013, Xinjiang’s Ili Prefecture issued a provisional rule to proscribe the “five abnormalities” from all public spaces. The 2014 Ili Yearbook reported investigating nearly 1,000 violators and confiscating 7,364 jilbabs and garments with the star and crescent symbol. The following year, the capital of Urumqi followed suit. Instead of using the term jilbab, which opens room for debate about what constitutes a jilbab, the Urumqi regulation has added the more secular-sounding but even vaguer term – “face-masking robes” (蒙面罩袍) – to the Chinese legal lexicon, giving authorities even greater power to determine what garments can be considered illegal.

Effective April 1, 2017, Xinjiang’s “Anti-Extremism Regulations” claimed that the wearing of “face-masking robes” and “abnormal beards” symbolized extremism. The regulations also officially expanded the administrative ban to the entire autonomous region.

The five main categories of Islamic clothing in the Islamic world. Image credit: ABC News

Criminalization of Islamic Clothing

Violators of the aforementioned bans can face criminal prosecution under a number of offenses. One can be prosecuted for “forcing others to wear terrorism, extremism clothes or symbols,” a new offense that carries a maximum sentence of three years’ imprisonment. It was added to the Criminal Law in November 2015 and can be used in cases where violence or coercion is involved. Dui Hua is unable to find online judgments to understand how often this offense is being used by authorities. Unofficial news media has reported on cases of Uyghur women sentenced for promoting the wearing of headscarves, but the exact charges remain unknown.

Dui Hua has found one case where the charge of illegal business activity was used to prosecute an individual for selling banned Islamic clothing. Yang Bao’an (杨宝安), a Han Chinese man who originally migrated to Xinjiang from Hunan, was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment in April 2015 in Ili Prefecture for selling a hundred niqabs in a shopping center in Korgas (China’s westernmost port bordering Kazakhstan). Twenty-four of the niqabs carried the star and crescent symbol. The court found that Yang violated the “five abnormalities” ban that had been widely enforced in Ili Prefecture. Yang pled innocent on several grounds – 1. He was not aware of the meaning behind the star and crescent symbol; 2. Nobody had purchased any of the garments from him; 3. He did not know about the local rules since he had only just arrived in Xinjiang. Given that he had obtained a university education, the court found that Yang should have been aware and cautious about local regulations and that his actions had adversely affected the social stability of the area.

There is also evidence that wearing banned Islamic clothing can fall under the purview of the crime of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.” In September 2014, the Supreme People’s Court, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, and the Ministry of Public Security jointly issued a judicial interpretation to expand the applicable scope of this “pocket crime” in cases related to terrorism and extremism. An individual is now punishable for this offense if they disrupt social order by “willfully attacking, chasing, intercepting, and insulting others” while calling others “infidels or religious traitors.”

In March 2015, China Youth Online reported that a court in Kashgar sentenced a group of religious extremists for “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.” The report cited one case in which a Uyghur couple repeatedly refused to comply with “Project Beauty," a campaign to discourage men from keeping long beards and women from wearing veils and headscarves. The husband was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment for “ignoring the national law.” Not only was he punished for keeping a long beard, but he was also punished for encouraging his wife to wear a veil. As his wife was said to have shown remorse, she was given a relatively lenient two-year imprisonment sentence. The original report was removed the day after it was originally posted. An anonymous source who proclaimed to have written the article allegedly sent an apology statement via WeChat for misreporting the case. Critics remain skeptical of its authenticity, with some suspecting that the apology was made under duress. The article has since been widely circulated online and remains accessible on official news websites.

Banning Islamic Clothing in the Home

Although the ban on Islamic clothing has been enforced in the name of “maintaining public order,” Dui Hua has found cases where authorities in Xinjiang have enforced the ban in people’s homes.

Dui Hua uncovered a judgment in which a Muslim man, Gong Xiaojun (龚小军, ethnicity unknown), was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for "disrupting official business" in Urumqi after arguing with community cadres in December 2014. When the community cadres paid Gong a home visit in June 2014, they found that Gong had grown an “abnormal beard.” The cadres admonished Gong for his beard and Gong allegedly responded with “extreme language” insisting that he grew the beard because he simply liked the way it looked.

The cadres informed Gong and his wife about the ban on “black religious clothing,” and accused his wife of wearing a jilbab. Gong argued that his wife was wearing a long loose black robe, not what the cadres were calling a jilbab and that the cadres had no right to intervene in what his family chose to wear at home. He claimed that he had requested his wife to wear the robe and his wife agreed that she had done so voluntarily. Gong was first indicted for "picking quarrels and provoking troubles," but was convicted of a different charge – "disrupting official business." The judgment did not explain in what ways Gong’s language was “extreme,” it only vaguely stated that his language was “extreme” and provocative enough to disrupt law enforcement.

Beyond Xinjiang

For Muslims who belong to China’s Hui minority, reports suggest that they currently do not face the same intensity of restrictions as Muslims in Xinjiang do. In a propaganda film entitled Leaving Heart in Hezhou (情定河州) about China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, the Hui women of Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture in Gansu Province are portrayed in long black garments covering their bodies, hair, and necks. While the same clothes are banned in public and private spaces in Xinjiang and violators can face imprisonment, in Linxia, also known as “China’s Little Mecca,” Hui women are currently free to wear veils in public. However, given the growing restrictions on religious freedom in Linxia, the question remains for how long this freedom will last.

Xinjiang's ban on Islamic clothing is no less controversial than the anti-Islamic legislation we see in the West and is no less discriminatory to Muslims. Since joining the global ranks of countries that impose restrictions on the appearance of its Muslim citizens, China has been under fire by human rights groups for intruding on its citizens’ religious freedoms. Although transparency of criminal cases involving the ban on Islamic clothing leaves much to be desired in Xinjiang, given what we know about how the sellers of Islamic clothing and those who wear Islamic clothing in their homes have fared, it is likely that those caught wearing Islamic clothing in public are facing increasing risks.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Dui Hua Book Review: The People’s Republic of the Disappeared

Michael Caster’s The People’s Republic of the Disappeared: Stories from Inside China’s System for Enforced Disappearances. Image Credit: RSDLMonitor.Com

Dui Hua examines the stories of dissidents held under the coercive measure “residential surveillance in a designated location” in Michael Caster’s The People’s Republic of the Disappeared: Stories from Inside China’s System for Enforced Disappearances (Safeguard Defenders, 2017).

As the waves of repression in China have intensified over the past decade, one encounters the strange phrase “residential surveillance in a designated location” (RSDL) with greater frequency.

It was memorably employed (though by no means for the first time) against the late Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, after the publication of “Charter 08” in December 2008. Later, it was used in the crackdown against the so-called “Jasmine Revolution” in the spring of 2011. Most recently, it has been a prominent feature of the ongoing crackdown against rights lawyers and activists that began in July 2015.

This measure, with its relatively benign-sounding name, has been examined critically before, both inside and outside China. The new book The People’s Republic of the Disappeared makes an important contribution to this critique by collecting vivid accounts from those who have been subjected to the measure. Together, these accounts paint a damning portrait of how Chinese law enforcement agents are using the power they have been given under the law to violate human rights with impunity in the name of safeguarding state security.


What exactly is RSDL? At first glance, it looks like it might be a form of house arrest, although “designated location” suggests that it might involve something other than being confined in one’s own home. “Surveillance” only adds to the mystery, suggesting some sort of monitoring without making exactly clear how intrusive it might be.

In China’s Criminal Procedure Law (CPL), RSDL is what’s known as a “coercive measure.” Simply put, coercive measures authorize law enforcement agents to restrict a person’s liberty in the course of a criminal investigation. The degree and duration of that restriction depends on a variety of factors, but coercive measures are meant to serve a rather limited set of aims: preventing suspects from posing further threats to society or obstructing the investigation process and ensuring their availability to face questioning or stand trial. Coercive measures are not meant to be punitive or to be used as tools of investigation in their own right.

In Chinese criminal procedure, “residential surveillance” exists alongside other coercive measures such as custodial detention (seen as the most restrictive measure) and “release on guarantee pending further investigation” (qubao houshen, which is much less restrictive). The ordinary form of residential surveillance—which, as the name suggests, permits suspects to remain in their homes under certain restrictions—is a relatively lenient, non-custodial measure. For that reason, the CPL allows it to be imposed for up to six months.

Six months spent under house arrest is no picnic, but it is likely to be a more comfortable experience than being sent to a detention center. For this reason, reformers have promoted the greater use of non-custodial measures like residential surveillance as a way of reducing overuse of custodial detention.


The book features eleven accounts, all but one of them presented in the first-person, from lawyers and political activists who were subjected to RSDL or similar measures between 2011 and 2016. These include well-known human rights lawyers, such as Tang Jitian, Liu Shihui, Sui Muqing, and Wang Yu. It also includes an account by Peter Dahlin, a Swedish human rights activist detained in 2016 for his connection with some of these lawyers and activists. Though each account is distinct, the victims’ experiences under RSDL share some key features. It is difficult to ignore how the measure of RSDL has become an integral part of a systematic regime used by authorities to target particular individuals.

Though regulations require that the locations used for RSDL “possess conditions for ordinary living and rest,” it is clear from these accounts that disruption of routine daily activities is key to how the system operates. Sleep deprivation and the withholding of food and personal hygiene products are common practice. Detainees are cut off from communication with family, friends, and lawyers. Guards and interrogators use humiliation, enforced discipline, physical and verbal abuse, and threats to friends and family members. Family members of victims are also subject to varying degrees of surveillance, including house arrest, such as in the case of Wang Yu’s family. International law recognizes family members of victims of enforced disappearances as full victims.

The victims’ accounts of confinement and interrogation becomes at times indistinguishable, since most detainees are subjected to questioning in the same place they are held—contrary to the provisions of RSDL. Invisible, alone, and at the mercy of guards and investigators who act with impunity, it is unsurprising that, in almost every case included in this book, involuntary confession is what brings the ordeal to an end.

Lawyer Liu Shihui, who describes his 2011 confinement under RSDL, calls the measure “a system designed for prisoners of conscience [and] a place designed for torture.” Time and torment essentially ensure that any resistance gives way to capitulation. However, some accounts reveal that even in their acts of forced “confessions”, victims attempt to resist the abuse of state power. For example, lawyer Sui Muqing recounts the importance he placed in maintaining a degree of personal integrity and dignity by refusing to incriminate others in his confession.

In reading these accounts one cannot escape the recurring sense that authorities use the brutal conditions of confinement in RSDL for the purpose of obtaining these confessions—the veracity and voluntariness of which does not necessarily matter. In this sense, one can certainly see how useful investigators would find RSDL—especially as a tool in sweeping crackdowns with multiple, linked suspects. Even if, as in most of the cases in this book, confessions do not lead to direct criminal prosecution, the authorities can still use them against other suspects. And by recording and broadcasting these forced confessions, the authorities can attempt to bring public discredit on both the individuals and the causes they promoted.

Beyond confessions, the brutal confinement of RSDL constitutes a form of punishment in itself, especially when stretched to its six-month limit. Even the mere existence of RSDL seems designed to spread fear, and threat of its use can be enough, in some cases, to achieve the desired outcome.


Of course, no matter how well RSDL might serve the aims of the Chinese authorities in terms of maintaining stability and political control, it doesn’t justify the use of torture and many other violations of individual human rights that it enables. Liu Shihui’s judgment that RSDL is a “place where law doesn’t exist” is amply backed up by the other accounts in this book.

The similarities in these accounts unquestionably demonstrate a pattern of abuse. Yet, there may still be some who will claim that these stories are exceptional and do not represent the entirety of RSDL. For every instance of abuse under RSDL, there are sure to be examples in which the measure is being used in more benign ways. Even if these cases are exceptional, this is precisely why RSDL is so insidious. By labeling these acts a form of “residential surveillance,” Chinese authorities are engaged in a deliberate effort to obscure their use of torture and enforced disappearance. Through publishing these accounts, The People’s Republic of the Disappeared is attempting to shatter the veneer behind which these severe violations have tried to hide and expose them for the world to see. And given that the accounts are diverse in both the time frames and geographical regions they represent, it is unlikely that they are simply exceptional cases. The accounts come from two separate sweeps, one carried out in 2011 and the other in 2015-2016 and they take place across four distinct locations: Beijing, Guangzhou, Tianjin, and Changsha.

Of all the people who should read this book, which has also recently been released in Chinese, it can only be hoped that it will be read by all of the Chinese academic legal experts who have been so instrumental in directing the reform of China’s criminal justice system. In the past, many of these experts had publicly criticized the ways Chinese investigators used residential surveillance. Yet these same experts stood by and even defended the inclusion of RSDL measures in the most recent revision to the CPL, rejecting predictions that the measure would be abused. In a perfect world, this book would prod their consciences and, in the name of human rights and rule of law, lead these influential experts to turn their efforts to stopping the outrageous abuses exercised under RSDL.