The Chinese Communist Party has razed dozens of Uighur Muslim cemeteries in western Xinjiang province to create more “civilized” areas, the Agence-France Presse (AFP) reported on Wednesday.
China has taken over Uighur burial rites and replaced them with Communist Party-controlled cremations staged in “burial management centers” that ban religious activity surrounding the handling of a person’s remains. Uighur locals and activists have accused China of attempting to erase the ethnic minority’s history and uproot them from their ancestral home.
The Communist Party has also built thousands of concentration camps in Xinjiang holding millions of Uighurs – and used the camps to excuse the replacement of private burials with “burial management centers,” arguing that they are necessary because not enough young men remain free from the concentration camps to help carry bodies and perform burial rites.
Survivors of the concentration camps say Beijing is subjecting Uighurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz people, and other minorities to a host of human rights atrocities, including murder, rape, forced sterilization, and organ harvesting.
The use of government force to kill, sterilize, or rape a people out of existence fits the United Nations international legal definition of genocide.
The AFP’s reporters visit 13 destroyed cemeteries in Xinjiang and reported finding human remains thoughtlessly strewn across the empty plots where tombs used to be. Local officials dismissed concerns about disrespecting the dead, denying that the bones were human (AFP scientific sources confirmed that bone fragments found did indeed belong to people). The news agency found evidence for the destruction of at least 45 Uighur cemeteries:
In Urumqi, the regional capital, a cemetery near the international airport was cleared to make way for an urban “reconstruction” project.
In Shayar, where the local government has built new cemeteries near some of the old sites, an official told AFP the program was aimed at “standardization.”
The rebuilt sites “saved space, protected the ecosystem” and were “civilized,” it said.
“The new cemeteries are standardised, clean, and they’re convenient for residents,” Kadier Kasimu, deputy director of Shayar’s cultural affairs bureau, told AFP.
Uighur families are often buried in the same cemeteries for generations, meaning that the sites serve as historical milestones where individuals can come to study their genealogy and their culture. Uyghur Islamic tradition requires family the have the ability to clean the body, then offer it to family for prayers before ultimately burying the person with their ancestors.
Uighurs whose cemeteries have been destroyed told the AFP that they feel that the Communist Party has launched a campaign to erase them from the history of China. Far from Beijing, Uighur identity developed distinctly in Xinjiang and has little in common with the Han Chinese culture dominant in the rest of the country.
“This is all part of China’s campaign to effectively eradicate any evidence of who we are, to effectively make us like the Han Chinese,” Salih Hudayar, who lost the tombs of great-grandparents, told AFP. “That’s why they’re destroying all of these historical sites, these cemeteries, to disconnect us from our history, from our fathers and our ancestors.”
“If you destroy that cemetery … you’re uprooting whoever’s on that land, whoever’s connected to that land,” Nurgul Sawut, another local, told AFP.
The destruction of Uighur graveyards is not new. The Print reported in July that the Communist Party began rapidly constructing “burial management centers” throughout the region after destroying at least three cemeteries in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. One was turned into an “ecological” park; Chinese authorities have also used a green agenda as an excuse to eradicate Uighur holy sites.
The cemetery where the grave of one of the Uyghurs' most revered poets, Lutpulla Mutellip, once stood now looks like this.
— Rian Thum (@RianThum) October 9, 2019
In Hotan, another major Xinjiang city, the Chinese regime razed a 1000-year-old cemetery holding the remains of several historic figures, including Muslim crusaders from the late second millennium who brought the religion to western China.
Radio Free Asia (RFA), which has pioneered reporting on the destruction of Uighur identity in Xinjiang, began warning of authorities forcing Uighurs to use “burial management centers” instead of burying their loved ones privately in April 2018.
“Recent posts on a social media channel used by the mostly-Muslim Uyghur community included a photo of a notice informing residents of the construction of a center in Keriye (Yutian) county’s Arish township to conduct the burial of local residents,” the outlet noted then.
“The aım of the Chınese government ıs to suffocate us ın every aspect of our daily lıfe by restricting our cultural and relıgıous tradıtıons, which often leads people to rebel—and that gıves the authorities a legıtımate reason to respond with deadly force,” Zumret, identified as a Uyghur political analyst, told RFA at the time. “The Chınese have burial management centers from where corpses are sent for cremation before beıng burıed, and this is the type of procedure the Chınese government wants the Uyghurs to adhere to.”
By June of that year, RFA was warning of the Communist Party “rapidly constructing crematoria” not just to force Uighurs to abandon their cultural traditions, but to hide the evidence of the mass murder of Uighurs and other minorities in concentration camps. An employee of an open crematorium said they had received remains of individuals who died in “vocational training centers” – China’s term for the concentration camps.
Chinese officials have urged Uighurs to abandon their burial traditions “to protect the environment.”
The Pentagon estimates that as many as 3 million people are currently imprisoned in concentration camps.
The United Nations defines genocide as a list of acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Among those acts are killing, “causing serious bodily or mental harm,” “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part,” imposing birth control or sterilization, or forcibly separating children and raising them among other cultures to strip them of their identity.
Uighur activists and victims of the Communist Party allege that China has committed all five atrocities.