Religious and cultural mentions removed from names of China's Xinjiang villages, rights groups say

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — Authorities in China’s western Xinjiang region have been systematically replacing the names of villages inhabited by Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities to reflect the ruling Communist Party’s ideology, as part of an attack on their cultural identity, a report released by Human Rights Watch said Wednesday.

About 630 villages in Xinjiang have had their names changed to remove references to Islam or the Uyghurs’ culture and history, according to the group's report, done in collaboration with the Norway-based organization Uyghur Hjelp.

The report compared the names of 25,000 Xinjiang villages as listed by the National Bureau of Statistics of China between 2009 and 2023.

Words like “dutar,” a traditional Uyghur string instrument, or “mazar,” a shrine, have been removed from the names of villages, and replaced with words such as “happiness,” “unity” and “harmony” — generic terms often found in the Communist Party’s policy documents.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry didn’t immediately respond to faxed questions about the report and its policies in Xinjiang.

Xinjiang is a vast region bordering Kazakhstan that is home to about 11 million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities. In 2017, the Chinese government launched a campaign of assimilation that has included mass detentions, alleged political indoctrination, alleged family separations and alleged forced labor among other methods.

As part of the crackdown, more than 1 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and other ethnic minorities were estimated to be held in extralegal internment camps. The Chinese government at the time described the camps as " vocational training centers " and said they were necessary to curb separatism and religious extremism.

The U.N. Human Rights Office in 2022 found accusations of rights violations in Xinjiang “credible” and said China may have committed crimes against humanity in the region.

The changes to the names of Xinjiang villages included removing mentions of religion, including terms such as “Hoja,” a title for a Sufi religious teacher, and “haniqa,” a type of Sufi religious building, or terms such as “baxshi,” a shaman.

References to Uyghur history or to regional leaders prior to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 have also been removed, according to the report.

“The Chinese authorities have been changing hundreds of village names in Xinjiang from those rich in meaning for Uyghurs to those that reflect government propaganda,” said Maya Wang, acting China director at Human Rights Watch. “These name changes appear part of Chinese government efforts to erase the cultural and religious expressions of Uyghurs.”

The Chinese government wants to “erase people's historical memory, because those names remind people of who they are,” said Abduweli Ayup, a Uyghur linguist based in Norway and founder of Uyghur Hjelp.

Most of the village name changes occurred between 2017 and 2019, at the height of the government crackdown in Xinjiang, according to the report.