HomeNewsInternational rights group hits China for renaming Uyghur villages to suppress culture

International rights group hits China for renaming Uyghur villages to suppress culture

New York-based Human Rights Watch accused China of systematically erasing the cultural and religious identity of Uyghur communities in Xinjiang through a campaign of renaming villages. 

The rights group reported that names with significant historical and cultural meanings to the Uyghur people are being replaced with names that reflect Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ideology.

HRW reported that Chinese authorities have been altering the names of approximately 630 villages in Xinjiang, substituting traditional Uyghur names with ones like “Happiness,” “Unity,” and “Harmony.” 

This renaming initiative is part of the CCP’s broader strategy to integrate the region more closely with the rest of China, disregarding the unique cultural identity of its indigenous Uyghur population.

“The changing of village names from those that are deeply meaningful for Uyghurs to ones that propagate government propaganda is a clear attempt by the Chinese authorities to erase the cultural and religious expressions of Uyghurs,” said Maya Wang, acting China director at HRW.

The research for this report was conducted jointly with Uyghur Hjelp, a Norway-based organization, and involved analyzing data from the National Bureau of Statistics of China from 2009 to 2023. 

The study revealed that while some of the name changes were mundane, such as numerical adjustments, a significant portion involved the elimination of words related to Islam, Uyghur history, or culture.

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For example, terms such as “Hoja,” a title for a Sufi religious teacher, and “Mazar,” meaning shrine, have been systematically removed from village names. 

Most of these changes occurred in the southern Xinjiang regions of Kashgar, Aksu, and Hotan, which have significant Uyghur populations, especially between 2017 and 2019 when Beijing intensified its control over the area.

The implications of these changes are profound, according to HRW, impacting Uyghurs’ daily lives and cultural continuity. 

Several Uyghurs interviewed by Uyghur Hjelp expressed distress and confusion over their villages’ name changes, which in some cases, hindered their ability to navigate local bureaucracies and access services.

“Village names represent more than just geographic markers; they are a reservoir of history and culture. Erasing these names erases part of the Uyghur identity,” said Abduweli Ayub, founder of Uyghur Hjelp.

“It is imperative for international actors to escalate their efforts to challenge these violations at global forums,” Ayub added. 

HRW called for an increased international response to what it describes as an ongoing cultural genocide in Xinjiang. 

The organization urged concerned governments and the United Nations human rights office to leverage upcoming diplomatic and human rights venues to press China on its policies in the region.

The report also detailed specific examples of name changes and analyzes their impact on the Uyghur community, underscoring the need for immediate and concerted international action to address these systematic efforts to erase the Uyghur cultural identity.

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