Tea Leaf Nation

In One Xinjiang City, Beards and Muslim Headscarves Banned From Buses

Karamay's clumsy policy is likely to fray nerves further in an already tense region.

A city in China's remote western Xinjiang region has temporarily banned men with beards and women with Muslim headscarves from taking public buses. The extreme security measure -- to be implemented for the duration of a sports competition slated to kick off in northern Xinjiang's Karamay city on August 8 -- is the latest example of the kind of religious intolerance that some say has fueled growing anti-government feelings and radicalized the region's Muslims, particularly the Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking minority concentrated primarily in Xinjiang. The QQ news portal and other Chinese news sites that picked up the report also ran a graphic showing the "five abnormal styles" that weren't allowed on Karamay public transport. It showed pictures of women in full and partial veils, headscarves, and men with full beards and even a modest goatee. 

The new rule also bans anyone wearing star and crescent symbols associated with the Uighur separatist movement from taking a city bus during the games, which wrap up August 20. The announcement of the new policy, carried in the local state-run Karamay Daily newspaper on August 4, underscores the region's high state of anxiety following a string of deadly rampages by alleged Uighur terrorists. An attack by knife-wielding assailants in two counties not far from the Silk Road city of Kashgar on July 28 left 37 civilians dead, with 59 attackers gunned down by police, according to the government account. Uighur exile groups say Chinese police opened fire on Uighurs protesting government policies. It was the deadliest instance of ethnic unrest since riots swept the regional capital of Urumqi in early July of 2009. Two days after the Kashgar incident, on July 30, an imam who was considered supportive of the Chinese government's policies in the region was assassinated outside his mosque following a morning prayer service. On August 1, nine alleged extremists were shot dead in a cornfield hideout on the outskirts of southwest Xinjiang's Hotan city. 

The cluster of violence comes at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and follows reports of Uighur Muslim civil servants being forbidden to fast during the holiday. It also roughly coincides with a report from the New York Times on July 30 that cited prosecutors who said moderate Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti had been formally charged with separatism. If convicted, Tohti, a passionate supporter of Uighur rights whose supporters say has never advocated violence or independence for the Xinjiang region, could receive the death penalty.

Experts say the cycle of repression and violence has created an increasingly polarized Xinjiang region and a narrowing of the space available for moderates. In this environment, even simple displays of piety are being read by authorities as extremism. In Karamay, where headscarves are to be banned on buses, police posted a recruitment notice for traffic cops on August 1. It said people with "strong religious ideals" were not eligible. Other disqualifiers include criminal records and tattoos. "Chinese officials seem to be holding a line that 'you are either with us or against us,' and punishing accordingly," Henryk Szadziewski, a senior researcher for the nonprofit Uyghur Human Rights Project in Washington, D.C., told Foreign Policy via email.

While religious conservatism has risks, so too does speaking out against extremism and backing Beijing's crackdown. The government blames Uighur extremists for the murder of the Kashgar imam, Juma Tahir, on July 30 and says two were killed following the attack and one was captured. At an August 1 seminar of religious leaders, another Kashgar imam was quoted as saying that Tahir had been devoted to "safeguarding national and ethnic unity and opposing separatism and religious extremism." 

It's not the first time an imam has been killed. Last year, an official with the government-affiliated Islamic Association in eastern Xinjiang's Turfan city, Abdurehim Damaolla, was stabbed after evening prayers in front of his house. Radio Free Asia quoted Turfan locals who spoke on condition of anonymity that Damaolla had helped police track down terror suspects. Both attacks have reinforced the dangerous possibility of deadly reprisals from separatists.  

Part of the government's response to the latest uptick in violence has been to more actively involve ordinary Uighurs and other minorities in the anti-terror fight. On August 4, the official Xinhua News Agency announced that the government would spend close to $50 million in Xinjiang on dispensing rewards to people who help hunt terror suspects. The campaign makes for compelling propaganda. State-run broadcaster CCTV on August 3 ran a story headlined: "Defending Kashgar: Herders guard against terrorists," about the Tajik sheepherders who have been recruited to patrol for terrorists slipping across the border from Afghanistan. The story said that the Chinese army trains them and supplies them with satellite phones. It quoted one local Tajik sheep herder, Bayika Laqini, saying: "We all hate terrorists. They come to kill our people and threaten our peaceful lives." Laqini added that terrorists are not just "the enemy of the army here. They are the enemy of everyone." 

It's not surprising that a man-on-the-street quote supportive of the official line would show up on CCTV. By contrast, in Chinese cyberspace, grassroots users were split in their reaction to the new no-beards policy in Karamay. On the Twitter-like Weibo platform, some voiced outrage, with one person asking rhetorically whether "having a beard now counts as religious extremism?" Others were supportive of the restrictions: "Normal Muslims don't dress like this."    

Such a heavy-handed approach may not benefit Beijing in the long run. "Rising tensions in Xinjiang are producing an escalating cycle of radicalization on all sides," Carl Minzner, a professor at Fordham Law School in New York, told FP via email. Minzner said that suppression of moderates such as Tohti "appears to be radicalizing some within the Uighur community" and leading to "violent outbursts," which brings more Chinese government repression. "Moderates are being driven out, leaving only space for extremists." Kilic Kanat, a political science professor at Penn State University who closely follows the situation in Xinjiang, told FP that there is no logic or reasonable explanation for rules like banning beards on public transport. Kanat said he wonders if local officials enact such rules in a misguided attempt to impress Beijing in the hopes of promotion. He compared restrictions like the most recent ones in Karamay to "trying to extinguish a fire by throwing gasoline on it."

State reports from Xinjiang do not paint an optimistic picture. Another recent story from the anti-terror front lines came out of Hotan, where nine alleged terrorists were shot dead and one was captured on August 1. State-run China News Television again sought to involve the Uighur public, saying that tip-offs were instrumental in the manhunt and interviewing several Uighurs who described how they helped surround the suspects who had been hiding out in a small home hidden in a cornfield. In a cursory nod to the dangers of being a snitch in such a tinderbox atmosphere, the faces of the men were obscured to protect them from retaliation. Szadziewski of the Uyghur Human Rights Project said the fact that the government feels the need to call on Uighurs when conducting raids shows "how estranged the Chinese state has become from Uighur communities." 

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Tea Leaf Nation

China's Bizarre Fixation on a 23-Year-Old Woman

Guo Meimei is being used to represent all that's wrong with Chinese charities -- and maybe China itself.

GUANGZHOU -- On August 4, a 6.5-magnitude earthquake viciously struck Ludian County, a township in the southwest province of Yunnan, with a death toll surpassing 400. The news swiftly hit Chinese headlines, and images of the devastation circulated widely on Weibo, China's massive microblogging platform.

None of this has diminished Chinese state media's enthusiasm for a story that, by comparison, appears trivial at first blush: The misdeeds of a 23-year-old woman, Guo Meimei, an Internet sensation with a ruinous fondness for the good life. Guo now sits in a jail cell, detained in early July by Beijing police along with seven others on suspicion of gambling on World Cup matches. At around midnight on August 4 -- just eight hours after the Ludian earthquake -- Weibo lit up with seemingly coordinated official accounts of Guo's confession on state-run China Central Television, or CCTV. The posts came from state outlets including Xinhua News Agency, People's Daily, China National Radio (CNR), and CCTV itself, all of which almost simultaneously shared the news of Guo's mea culpa.

Xinhua News agency struck first with an article, nearly 4,000 Chinese characters long, carrying the titillating headline, From Ostentation to Gambling -- Why Did She Fall Into the Criminal Abyss? The article reads as an exposé on Guo's background, touching on her family, her relationship with her sugar daddy, and, crucially, her alleged affiliation with the Red Cross Society of China (RCSC). The article quotes Guo insisting that none of her friends or loved ones work for the RCSC, "and I don't know anyone that does." Guo apologized for making "a huge mistake out of vanity" which has "seriously destroyed the reputation of the RCSC. Saying ‘sorry' isn't enough to express my remorse." While she was at it, Guo also confessed to operating illegal gambling venues from which she gained a profit of thousands of dollars, fabricating news stories about having fallen deep into debt, and having sex with men for money.

Minutes later, People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party and the government it controls, published 12 consecutive tweets on its official Weibo account about Guo. CCTV then issued 10 of its own, and CNR followed. In no time, #exposéonguomeimei had become one of the top trending topics on Weibo.

For Guo herself, it was a public tarring-and-feathering on the same medium that made her a celebrity in the first place. In June 2011, Chinese netizens gleaned from Guo's verified Weibo account that she liked posting images of her lavish lifestyle, which included Hermes handbags, a Maserati, and a jet ski. In her Weibo profile, she fatefully identified herself as "commercial general manager of the Red Cross Chamber of Commerce," although such an organization does not in fact exist. The apparent connection of such a profligate youngster with the RCSC, one of the largest government-linked charity organizations, outraged Chinese netizens, who had already suspected that Red Cross donations were being misused. Although both Guo and the RCSC later denied any ties to each other, the RCSC was met with an unprecedented crisis of trust with continuous disclosures of its staffers allegedly squandering the donations. (In December 2011, the RCSC issued an internal report finding "no connection at all" with Guo, but most online commenters responded with incredulity.)

Even before Guo's confession, she has been widely blamed for destroying the reputation of the non-profit RCSC, which is not affiliated with any international Red Cross organization. The perception is a somewhat self-serving one, allowing the online vouyerism and sexism that drives much of the fascination with Guo to borrow the mantle of righteous indignation. A search for Guo on Baidu, China's search engine of choice, calls up over 73 million results, including many of her now-ubiquitous selfies as well as articles debating the meaning of the "Guo Meimei phenomenon." In other words, Guo's proclivity for (over) sharing met an Internet eager to seize on characters like her. As a result, fairly or not, Guo has become tightly associated in the public mind not just with the RCSC, but with China's gilded-age excesses in general.

Given that netizens have spent the subsequent three years calling for an in-depth investigation on the alleged affiliation, state media might be forgiven for expecting Chinese netizens to react gleefully to Guo's downfall, or at least be grateful that officials were finally responding to the scandal with what appeared to be a direct answer.

But state media bungled the effort. Releasing the Guo exposé so soon on the heels of a major earthquake only focused attention on an old controversy at a time when the RCSC had bigger fish to fry. In an effort to divert attention, the foundation issued its own statement on Weibo hours after Xinhua's report, pleading with the public to "forget about Guo Meimei for right now," arguing that "nothing's more important than rescue operations in the Ludian disaster zone." The statement reminded readers that "the death toll has already surpassed 300, a dark number that will probably grow this summer night," as it did.

Not everyone was convinced. Ren Zhiqiang, an outspoken real estate investor with over 22 million followers on the Twitter-like microblogging platform Weibo, asked rhetorically why the RSCS hadn't "used law to protect its honor in the first place," an apparent reference to using Chinese defamation law against Guo. Ren claimed he had personally urged RCSC officials to do so, to no avail. Grassroots netizens also evinced continuing suspicion of the RCSC. "It seems to me that the media is deliberately trying to clear public's suspicions about the RCSC by publishing so-called inside stories about Guo," read one post. The author speculates that the story was intended to make readers forget that the RCSC "might have misused our donations during the Wenchuan earthquake," a May 2008 disaster that claimed over 60,000 lives.  (Indeed, in May 2013, the RCSC admitted to redirecting a donation of over $12 million, originally intended for earthquake relief).

Others decried what they felt was official media's undue focus on Guo in the teeth of a wider tragedy. In a widely shared comment, Zhan Jiang, a journalism and communication studies professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University, questioned CCTV's decision to focus on Guo during its television news broadcast the evening of the Ludian quake. The show led with Ludian, but, Jiang wrote, "From 10:20 to 10:49, it was all about the exposé on Guo Meimei." Jiang asked, "Who made such a decision? News media had been used as a mere tool." In another popular post, Ye Tan, a finance and economic columnist, warned that law, not broadcasters, should be the judge. (Starting in August 2013, Chinese state media has featured several public confessions from accused individuals not yet afforded their day in court.)

For now, it's not sure what Guo's own verdict will be -- she, too, has not had a chance to explain herself to a judge. Whatever the ruling, it's likely the public will forget about Guo Meimei eventually. But the issues her fame has raised about Chinese charities, and the character of the country’s Internet, are likely to last. 

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