Written by Jin Wei.

On March 27th 2015, Kashgar Special Zone News reported that a group of offenders was sentenced and punished for wearing burqas and hijabs or growing a beard.

The report stated that “guided by China’s overall objective, which focuses on the maintenance of its long-term social stability, and regarding the “Counter Religious Extremism” campaign as a focal point, Kashgar City People′s Court tried and sentenced to prison in an open manner a group of outlaws, who refused to give up wearing burqas and face veils or growing long beards due to having been brainwashed by religious extremism.”

The report continued by providing the following example. Mehmet, from Yingwusitan village, Kashgar, started to grow long beard, and his wife to wear burqas and a face veil, in 2010. They repeatedly ignored multiple attempts made by their village leaders and staff members from Kashgar’s Political and Legal Affairs Commission, who tried to discourage them from doing so. Therefore, Kashgar Municipal People′s Procuratorate decided to lodge an indictment against them. After their cases were heard, Kashgar City People′s Court handed Mehmet a six-year prison sentence and deprived him of his political rights for two years for defying the national law prohibiting its citizens from growing long beards in public places, which constitutes the crime of provocation. His wife was given a lighter sentence of two years, due to her earnest repentance.

A few days later, the reporter apologized and retracted the report citing a lack of on the ground fact checking. Nevertheless, the report has generated much debate since then. It represents the difficulty and headache for people and government officials to carry out public policies and implement relevant measures towards “chuan, dai and liu”.

The history of “Chuan Dai Liu”

The term Chuan Dai Liu (穿戴留) refers to females wearing burqas and hijabs, and males growing long beards. Some scholars believe women wearing face veils is a behaviour motivated by religious beliefs and before the 1950s in Southern Xinjiang Uyghur women who went out without face veils had been subject to the “Qadi” flogging punishment. Since the Founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Islamic religious practices such as wearing face veils and fasting have shifted from being obligatory to voluntary and the number of people practicing these customs had decreased. However, since the beginning of the 1980s, examples of female Muslims wearing face veils have re-emerged and their number has kept increasing. The body covering garment has shifted from the traditional face veils made of a long strip of white and brown fabric to black veils (some female Muslims also wear tinted sunglasses, black gauze masks, black gloves) and black burqas, both of which were introduced from Muslim countries in the Middle East. In recent years, Xinjiang has become more volatile with frequent riots and terror attacks. The forces of religious extremism have used factors affecting “ethnic and religious affairs” to mobilise hatred, and the “Chuan Dai Liu” issue has attracted the attention of local government in Xinjiang. According to Articles 23 and 26 – two regulations issued by the Xinjiang Government to define illegal religious activities – forcing women to wear face veils is outlawed. However, in the enforcement of these two regulations, the activities of anyone wearing face veils regardless of the reason is categorised as illegal.

Governmental organisations in China believe that women wearing face veils and men growing long beards are the product of religious extremism. In their view, the spread of these practices could create space for the dissemination of illegal religious activities and religious extremist ideology, leading to a rampant increase in religious extremism. They argue, therefore, that women wearing face veils and men growing long beards are not merely a matter of individual behaviour, but have a much more complex political background. As a result, the “Removing Face Veils and Long Beards” campaign has become an important task concerning religious management in Xinjiang.

In 2011, Urumqi, the capital city of Xinjiang, introduced “Project Beauty”, encouraging Uyghur women to wear traditional or modern colourful dresses in order to deter them from wearing black. In 2014, this project was included in 22 major governmental projects regarding people’s livelihoods in Xinjiang. Further measures, which benefit Uyghur women, have been added to it, including the provision of practical skills training and an increase in job opportunities. In 2012, more than 6,000 Communist Party members and leaders in Lop County were sent to its rural regions and urban residential communities to educate and persuade its people not to wear face veils and burqas. At the same time, civilian patrols with red armbands, whose major role is to assist police to maintain social stability, were sent into its streets to persuade anyone wearing face veils or burqas to remove them on the spot with a “zero tolerance” policy. In the same county, local businesses were required to sign a certificate of responsibility, in which they promised to stop anyone wearing face veils and burqas from entering their business premises. In Yutian County the “Special Methods to Address the Issues regarding the Violation of Traditional Dress Norms” campaign was launched, and a work team wearing red armbands was established and sent to allocated zones of the county, responsible for stopping people from wearing face veils in these zones. The 21st Session of the Standing Committee of the 15th People’s Congress of Urumqi City held on December 10th 2014 examined and adopted “the Regulations regarding the Prohibition of Wearing Face Veils and Burqas in Public Places of Urumqi”.

It is very difficult to contain this religious practice of “Chuan Dai Liu”, for a variety of reasons, including it being a matter of individual activity, being easy to practise, having religious and moral philosophical implications, and it being supported by various forces. When the government increases efforts to crack down on it, the number of people practicing it decreases and vice versa. Since the 1990s, various measures have been introduced by relevant governmental departments throughout Xinjiang. However, increases in the number of people practicing it after the end of governmental crackdowns have been seen repeatedly.

What Crimes have these Outlaws Committed?

The writer checked the relevant legal provisions of national laws and found nothing to justify the convictions of these “outlaws” by Kashgar City People’s Court. According to the above-mentioned news report, these die-hard “Chuan Dai Liu” were convicted of the crime of provocation and sentenced to prison. The crime of provocation falls into the category of hooliganism which was defined in Article 160 of the Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China (1979 Version). Its latest definition in Article 42 of Amendment VIII to the Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China, which came into effect in 2011 is as follows: Whoever commits any of the following acts of causing disturbances, thus disrupting public order, shall be sentenced to fixed-term imprisonment of not more than five years, criminal detention or public surveillance:

(1) Beating another person at will and to a flagrant extent;

(2) Chasing, intercepting or hurling insults to and threatening another person to a flagrant extent;

(3) Forcibly taking or demanding, wilfully damaging, destroying or occupying publicly-owned or privately-owned money or property to a serious extent; or

(4) Creating disturbances in a public place, thus causing serious disorder in the place.

Whoever musters others to repeatedly commit any act mentioned in the preceding paragraph and seriously undermines social order shall be sentenced to fixed-term imprisonment of not less than five years but not more than ten years.

According to the four circumstances under which the crime of provocation is defined in the criminal law of the PRC, what these convicted Muslims, including Mehmet, have done does not constitute breaking the law.

In terms of the crime of provocation, an additional regulation has recently been added. On September 9th 2014, the Supreme People’s Court, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate and the Ministry of Public Security jointly issued a regulation called “Several Suggestions on Issues of how to Apply the Existing Laws to Deal with Criminal Cases Concerning Violence, Terrorism and Religious Extremism”. The purpose of issuing this regulation is to “accurately understand and apply the existing criminal law of the PRC and relevant laws and regulations to the stern punishment of criminal acts involving violence, terrorism and religious extremism in order to prevent crimes associated with violence and terrorism from occurring”. In particular, the following article provides clear guidance on how to deal with relevant cases: “Article 8, which outlines the correct identification of the nature of criminal cases, stipulates that whoever commits any of the following crimes on the grounds of punishing “infidels “or “apostates” should be convicted of the crime of provocation: beating at will, chasing, intercepting and hurling insults to another person and disrupting public order to a flagrant extent.”

According to the news report, Mehmet and his wife did not commit the act of “beating at will, chasing, intercepting and hurling insults to another person”. What they did was merely “repeatedly ignored multiple attempts made by their village leaders and staff members from Kashgar’s Political and Legal Affairs Commission, who had tried to discourage them from wearing burqas and face veils and growing long beards”. At most, this breached the relevant regulations laid down by the local government. However, it did not violate state law. Therefore, the nature of what they did only falls into the category of internal disagreements among Chinese people and this can be handled through methods of persuasion and education. If the relevant governmental organisations had dealt with their cases properly in compliance with the relevant laws, they would not have been convicted.

Has the Severe Punishment of “Chuan Dai Liu” Succeeded in Wooing or Alienating the Muslim Community?

Since the 5th July 2009 Urumqi riots, the central and Xinjiang governments have made a great effort to implement various measures, including accelerating economic development and improving people’s livelihoods, in order to promote national unity among its ethnic groups and social stability in this region. Since 2010, large-scale projects supporting the development of Xinjiang begun, with the involvement of 19 provinces and cities as well as 53 central state-owned enterprises, each allocated a specific area or enterprise in Xinjiang to assist, with a total investment exceeding one trillion Yuan. In 2014, the Xinjiang government launched a three-year campaign called “Experiencing and Forming an Understanding of Public Feeling, Doing Good Deeds to Improve People’s Well being, and Winning the Hearts of People”. Since then, 200,000 party officials have gone to residential, rural and pasturing areas throughout Xinjiang, and have done a substantial amount of good deeds to improve the lives of local people. These measures are significantly beneficial for local governments to enhance cohesion, win hearts and minds, and improve national unity among its ethnic groups in this region and they are helping to win local people’s support.

Substantial evidence has shown that the majority of illegal religious activities conducted in Xinjiang were manipulated mainly by “three forces”, namely ethnic separatism, religious extremism, and terrorism. It is imperative for local governments to improve their relevant policies and measures to deal with illegal religious activities and to strengthen their efforts to crack down on them in order to protect lives and property. However, it is too idealistic for local governments to think that high-handed policies involving strict control or inducement will suppress or dilute the religious atmosphere or weaken religious influence. If some relevant strict control measures targeting certain religious groups are introduced or implemented improperly by local governments, this will trigger dissatisfaction among believers, or even among non-religious party officials and fellow citizens of the same ethnicity. Furthermore, they are likely to be exaggerated by national separatist and religious extremist forces as measures to “eradicate religion”, triggering further discontent with local governments.

In recent years, some bans on certain religious activities, such as wearing face veils, could not stop these activities completely, and in some cases the number of people practicing them actually increased (a phenomenon which is dubbed “cutting chives” in Chinese since chives tend to grow more quickly after being cut). The reasons that some people keep practicing certain banned religious activities are not purely due to their religious beliefs or because they have been brainwashed by religious extremism. Some simply want to express a level of resentment towards the government through these practices.

Compared with the campaigns of removing face veils conducted throughout Xinjiang in recent years, the harsh sentencing of “Chuan Dai Liu” in Kashgar is unprecedented, with an intensified crackdown on offenders. However, the harsh sentencing of people who are deceived by religious extremism has alienated rather than attracted the support of ordinary people, their relatives and clan members, who have been affected by negative factors of religious extremism but who have never been involved in any disruptive behaviour, pushing them into a position against the government and of supporting extremist forces. Thus, this kind of policy which is supposed to serve as a deterrent to others, is not effective. In the short term, it might succeed in deterring others from committing the same crime. However, it has not solved the fundamental problems and cannot convince people. As a result, it cannot win people’s hearts and minds and instead, as Lenin put it “makes matters easier for our enemy”.

Over the past decade, in an increasingly complex international and domestic political environment, regions inhabited by people of ethnic minority groups in China are facing increasing difficulties and challenges in terms of social governance and management of religious affairs. In general, the following basic principles of governance should be upheld. Firstly, governments in these regions should take appropriate measures to manage local affairs. A well-known quotation reminds us: “if one cannot assess the situation appropriately, both harshness and kindness will be misused.” Policies should be made to distinguish between internal and non-internal disagreements among Chinese people when these regions confront the threat of the penetration of and destruction by the above-mentioned three forces at home and abroad. In terms of internal disagreements among Chinese people such as dealing with “Chuan Dai Liu”, communication, negotiation, mediation, and guidance should be employed and the scope of any crackdown should not be widened in order to avoid triggering conflict and resentment among ordinary people. Secondly, governance of these regions should be in compliance with laws. Only by doing so are local governments able to win recognition and support from its people. Otherwise the authority and credibility of governments will be damaged, and their legitimacy may even be challenged. Thirdly, governments in these regions should respect differences and tolerate diversity. It is unrealistic for governments to expect to use high-handed policies to keep people unanimous in their opinions in an increasingly diverse society. As long as ordinary people support the national unity of China and respect legal norms, their cultural characteristics, beliefs and religious activities should be tolerated.

Since the new Communist Party of China (CPC) leadership came into office, it has attached great importance to effective social governance in China. The Third Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee of the CPC defined its overall objective of deepening its all-round reform as to “Promote the Modernisation of the State Governance System and its Governing Capacity in China”, while the Fourth Plenary Session explicitly set forth the concept of the “rule of law”. Therefore, local governmental organisations and governments at all levels in Xinjiang must administer this region in compliance with the law and strive to achieve the modernisation of the local governance system and its governing capacity. Only by doing so can the rapid economic development and long-term social stability of Xinjiang be promoted and maintained.

Professor Jin Wei is Director of the Research Centre of Ethnic & Religious Studies at the Party School of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. Between March and May 2015 she is being hosted by the CPI as a Chevening Thought Leader. Image Credit: CC by IamNotUnique/Flickr.