China Tightens Noose on Uyghurs' Faith in Xinjiang Region

February 20, 2024

The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) of China is in the news again. In the fourth week of December last year (2023), Chinese authorities in the strategic northwestern region of Xinjiang brought about a set of new Chinese rules, norms and regulations on religious affairs. These measures, duly approved by the Standing Committee of the People's Congress of Xinjiang on  December 22, have subsequently come into effect on  February 1, 2024. The Chinese authorities have added and amended as many as nine chapters and 78 clauses in these new regulations specifically pertaining to managing religious organizations, religious venues, religious activities and religious properties.

This in-depth commentary attempts to critically analyze and elucidate the Chinese government's policies and actions that restrict the religious freedoms and practices of the Uyghur Muslim minority in Xinjiang. While providing a comprehensive overview of the situation grounded in factual evidence, drawing from reports, academic research, and policy analyses, the commentary informs about the severity and scope of the religious and cultural repression faced by the Uyghurs.

Mechanisms of Suppression

One of the most important sections of these government regulations has made clear that "no organization or individual shall use religion to engage in activities that divide the country, spread religious extremism, incite ethnic hatred, carry out terrorism, undermine national unity, disrupt social order, or harm the physical and mental health of citizens, nor shall anyone use religion to obstruct the implementation of state administration, judiciary, education, and other systems." Furthermore, the Chinese Central government has issued strictures under these regulations that "if anyone discovers illegal religious organizations, preachers and activities, they should promptly report to the local township governments, sub-district offices, or relevant departments of religious affairs."[1]

A clear-cut indication of these regulations is that any religion professed and practiced in China must show subservience to the Chinese nation, and anyone involved in any religious activity must abide by Chinese law. In addition, any kind of religious activity taken up by anyone must emulate the Chinese form, style and characteristics. Any deviation from these rules is subject to stern action by the authorities. The regulations mentioned above are the reverberation of the often repeated and often proclaimed Chinese safeguard against discrimination based on religion as well as Chinese action against any anti-state or anti-national religious activities.

These Chinese intents are channelled through the White Papers, one of the government's most prominent propaganda mechanisms. According to one such White Paper published by the State Council Information Office in 2018, the Chinese Central government has often been claiming that as a socialist country under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) since the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the authorities have devised, adopted and implemented "policies on freedom of religious belief based on national and religious conditions to protect citizens' right to freedom of religious belief, build active and healthy religious relationships, and maintain religious and social harmony." For instance, the government has vociferously claimed that in the last decade or so (particularly since the 18th CPC National Congress in 2012), the CPC Central Committee, with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the vanguard, has advanced "law-based governance in all respects, integrating religious work into the national governance system, employing laws to deal with all social relationships concerning religion, and improving the management of religious work under the rule of law."[2] If one analyses the Chinese Central government's religious policy towards Uyghurs in the last 75 years or so, it can be found that the communist nation has prepared a solid defence and made several pleas and pretexts about its plans, policies and programmes towards the minority groups. For example, while defending the present set of regulations, the Chinese authorities claim these as key to the country's systematic campaign against the three "evil forces" (separatism, extremism and terrorism) since the early 1990s and, most importantly, as an integral part of its 'de-extremification' campaign in 2016 onwards.

However, several scholars, academics, activists and experts working on Uyghurs, in addition to various regional and international institutions, think tanks, human rights organisations and governments, have criticized the Chinese religious policies in Xinjiang, especially towards minority Muslims such as Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Huis etc. since Xi Jinping took over Chinese leadership in the early 2010s. It is a well-known fact that since 2016, more than a million (some estimate it as nearly 2 million) Uyghurs and Kazakhs have been incarcerated in the so-called re-education camps throughout Xinjiang. The imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs in the pretext of re-educating them and reorienting their religious practices is denounced by the international community as an effort "to stamp out Uyghur culture."[3] The detention or internment camps are dubbed as 21st-century Nazi concentration camps. The then US Secretary of State, Michael Pompeo, in September 2019, labelled China's treatment of the Uyghurs an 'attempt to erase its own citizens' Muslim faith and culture.'[4] It is important to note herewith that Islam has been followed by Uyghurs living in Xinjiang since the end of the 8th century. At present, the religion is followed by more than 15 million people in the region and consists of a dozen ethnic groups in Xinjiang who practice Islam, including the majority of Uyghurs, who are roughly 12 million in number.

Religious and Cultural Persecution

Religious persecution is nothing new in an authoritarian country like China. In the past seven decades of the existence of the PRC (since 1949), the Chinese Central government, as a typical communist set-up, has viewed religion as "opium", which is antithetical to the state, nation and people, besides describing it as an alien and aggressive force that could divert the attention of the people, undermine the government and its smooth functioning. Therefore, the Chinese authorities vowed to suppress or at least control all major religions in the country, especially Islam.

Furthermore, the present set of regulations is nothing but a clear reflection of the decades-extended Chinese policy of "Sinicization" that requires, even many times demands, any group, especially religious groups, to surrender their ideology, religion, doctrine, tradition, custom, culture and morality to the Chinese/Han culture in the larger interests of the country. The present state of affairs in Xinjiang reminds us of the political mayhem that occurred during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s at the behest of Mao Zedong, which resulted in relentless persecution of minority nationalities (Uyghurs, Tibetans, etc.) under the garb of eliminating the Four Olds (old customs, old habits, old culture and old thinking). Religion, be it Buddhism in Tibet or Islam in XUAR, bore the maximum brunt. It is essential to note herewith that during the Cultural Revolution, the atheist communist leadership pursued a policy that curtailed religious freedom in Xinjiang, outlawed Islam, persecuted, imprisoned and even killed Uyghur religious leaders, abolished Muslim holidays and festivals like Ramadan, halted Haj pilgrimage, and desecrated mosques and cemeteries. All worship and religious education were forbidden, even utterances like Inshallah (God Willing) and al-hamdullila (praise be to God) were prohibited. Even the government, under provisions of its national law, forbade minors or youth below 18 years to take part in any religious services or celebrations or be taught about religion in any way.[5]

In June 2011, while conversing with a young Uyghur from Kashgar who resides in Kayseri, Turkey, this author learned about the stringent restrictions imposed by China on the daily Islamic prayers (namaz). The young man recounted an instance where his father would have him stand guard outside their home during prayer times. This precaution was taken to alert the family of approaching Chinese security officers, who were known to enter homes forcefully, without prior notice, taking severe action.

Demolition of religious places and cultural spaces is one of the stringent measures of religious persecution the Chinese authorities have been implementing religiously for decades. As discussed in the previous paragraph, it was done during the Cultural Revolution and has been done brazenly recently. In this context, it is important to highlight the findings of a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (2020).[6] The report states that some 16,000 mosques in XUAR (nearly 65 per cent of the total number of mosques in Xinjiang) were destroyed or damaged mostly since 2017. An estimated 8,500 were demolished outright, and, for the most part, the land on which those razed mosques once stood remains vacant. Over 30 per cent of the total important Islamic sacred sites in XUAR, such as shrines, Mazars and pilgrimage routes, including many protected under Chinese and international law) have been demolished across Xinjiang, which is described as the "spatial cleansing of Xinjiang".[7]

Furthermore, under the government-sponsored "Mosque Rectification Program," undertaken in 2016 with the pretext of replacing old and unsafe buildings with new Chinese-style structures, the Chinese government demolished as many as 5,000 mosques in the year 2016 alone within three months.[8] The Chinese authorities have reportedly constructed new structures in the form of public conveniences (urinals, toilets, etc.) on those razed Islamic monuments, which have not only hurt the religious sentiments of the Uyghurs but have also led to simmering discontent among them.

Concluding Thoughts

The analysis reveals that the Chinese government has systematically imposed arbitrary regulations to oppress the Uyghur minority, simultaneously employing Uyghurs loyal to the state to undermine community resistance. A notable instance involves Shohrat Zakir, an ethnic Uyghur loyal to China and former Provincial Governor of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), who characterized the controversial re-education centers as facilities for treating Islam as a mental disorder. This strategy of leveraging government-aligned Uyghurs, including appointing them to high-profile positions like the Provincial Governor, serves Beijing's agenda by legitimizing its policies. When such figures publicly commend the government's development initiatives in XUAR, claiming they bring peace and stability, it reinforces the state's narrative and undermines the legitimacy of Uyghur grievances. This context underscores that the current regulations on religious practices are designed to suppress the Uyghur minority further, violating their fundamental human rights, including the freedom to practice their religion.


[1] “Xinjiang Issues New Revised Regulations on Religious Affairs,” The Global Times, January 04, 2024,

[2] “China’s Policies and Practices on Protecting Freedom of Religious Belief,” The State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, April 2018,

[3] William Drexel, “Kashgar Coerced: Forced Reconstruction, Exploitation and Surveillance in the Cradle of Uyghur Culture”, Uyghur Human Rights Project, June 03, 2020,

[4] Mahesh Ranjan Debata, “Chinese Assimilationist Policies in Xinjiang: From Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping,” International Studies, 59 (3), 2022, pp. 207-208.

[5] Mahesh Ranjan Debata, China’s Minorities: Ethnic-Religious Separatism in Xinjiang, Pentagon, New Delhi, 2007, p. 83.

[6] Nathan Ruser (et al.), “Cultural Erasure: Tracing the Destruction of Uyghur and Islamic Spaces in Xinjiang,” Policy Brief, The Australian Strategic Policy Institute Limited, Report No. 38, 2020, p. 3.

[7] Rian Thum, “The Spatial Cleansing of Xinjiang: Mazar Desecration in Context,” Made in China Journal, August 24, 2020,…

[8] Bahram K. Sintash, “Demolishing Faith: The Destruction and Desecration of Uyghur Mosques and Shrines,” Uyghur Human Rights Project, October 28, 2019, p. 2,…

Author Note
Mahesh Ranjan Debata teaches at the Centre for Inner Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.