Authorities in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) are rapidly constructing crematoria staffed by dozens of security personnel, according to local officials, amid concerns over the eradication of ethnic Uyghur funeral traditions.
Between March 2017 and February 2018, the XUAR government listed 5-10 million yuan (U.S. $760,000 to $1.52 million) tenders for contractors to build nine “burial management centers” that include crematoria in mostly Uyghur-populated areas throughout the region, according to a report listed on the official website of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC).
While investigating an 8 million yuan (U.S. $1.22 million) tender from July last year for a center in Aksu (Akesu) prefecture's Shayar (Shaya) county, RFA’s Uyghur Service discovered a contact number for an existing crematorium in nearby Kuchar (Kuche) county and was told by an ethnic Han Chinese staff member there that the Shayar burial center and crematorium had yet to be completed.
The staff member, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed that the Aksu government was “investing in these projects” and had earmarked funding to expand the size of the Kuchar crematorium as well.
“A very few” ethnic minority corpses are sent to the Kuchar crematorium, he said, which are “normally brought to us with special documentation provided by the police.”
“The police normally contact the head of the crematorium directly and make arrangements,” he said.
“We have no right to get involved in these matters, and we have no knowledge of any details of the arrangements—only the officials know.”
Among the ethnic minority corpses brought to his crematorium are those who have died in “political re-education camps,” he said, where authorities in the XUAR have detained hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” views since April 2017.
When asked if authorities are building crematoria throughout the region, the staff member said the facilities “are being built everywhere,” and typically require a staff of 15 people, who cremate two to five corpses each week in a process that takes around 90 minutes for each body.
“It looks like the trend for the future will be cremation rather than burial,” he said, noting that on television “the government is calling on people, regardless of ethnic background or religion, to choose cremation over burial, as the land in Xinjiang is limited in size, and also to protect the environment and create more green land.”
“All I know is that they are expanding crematoria at the moment, but the policy regarding their use has not been implemented yet,” he added.
Officials have previously told RFA that burial centers help them comply with the “four different orders,” referring to guidelines for governing in the region—strengthening propaganda according to the promotion of Chinese-style religion, encouraging residents to self-report and criticize their own behavior, opposing religious extremism, and expressing gratitude to the Communist Party.
But members of the Uyghur exile community say authorities are using the centers to subvert ethnic traditions and remove the religious context from funerary rites, thereby taking control of the last private aspects of Uyghur lives by regulating burial practices.
Other members of the exile community say that authorities use the crematoria to secretly “deal with” the bodies of Uyghurs who have been killed by security forces during protests against pervasive discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression under Chinese rule in the XUAR, or who have died under questionable circumstances in re-education camps.
Burial centers are increasingly stepping in to arrange funeral services in communities where most of the adult men—who would normally assist with the ceremonies—are in detention, sources say.
According to Uyghur tradition, the dead must be cleansed by a member of the local community who is versed in religious knowledge before relatives say a final farewell. Bodies are then transported by “jinaze,” a coffin-like carriage, to a nearby mosque for a closure prayer.
Afterwards, an imam recites a sermon on the meaning of life and death, reminding the congregation that everyone eventually meets their creator, regardless of what they have done on earth. The body is then transported to a cemetery for burial, and a week later, the family holds a mourning ceremony which is attended by members of the community.
Exile sources say that the ruling Chinese Communist Party had never previously interfered in Uyghur funerals due to the sensitivity of the tradition, but by using the burial centers and crematoria to take over services, authorities are now able to remove one more situation in which local religious leaders hold more influence over residents than the government.
Amid concerns over the expansion of burial management centers in the XUAR, a job posting listed on the official government website for the region’s capital Urumqi last month called for “50 security personnel with above average health, who are physically and mentally fit, and exceptionally brave, to work in the crematorium located in the city’s Saybagh district for a salary of more than 8,000 yuan (U.S. $1,215) per month.”
An employee who recently answered the listed telephone number confirmed that he was associated with the Urumqi City Funeral Management Center in Saybagh district, but referred inquiries about the positions to the center’s recruitment office. It was not immediately clear why 50 armed guards were needed to secure the site.
Other recent reports have suggested that Uyghur government officials are being encouraged to sign documents agreeing to have their bodies cremated in death, rather than buried according to traditional Uyghur customs—a claim verified by at least one official RFA spoke with in Kashgar (Kashi) prefecture’s Yopurgha (Yuepuhu) county.
Perhat Yorunqash, the vice president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress exile group, called the burial management centers a form of “psychological torture” for members of the exile community, who are unable to honor their loved ones back home with Uyghur burial rites according to Muslim tradition.
He urged the international community to send observers to the region to report on the “atrocities and killings against our people.”
China's central government authorities have not publicly acknowledged the existence of re-education camps in the XUAR, and the number of inmates kept in each facility remains a closely guarded secret, but local officials in many parts of the region have in RFA telephone interviews forthrightly described sending significant numbers of Uyghurs to the camps and even described overcrowding in some facilities.
Citing credible reports, lawmakers Marco Rubio and Chris Smith, who head the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China, said recently that as many as 500,000 to a million people are or have been detained in the re-education camps, calling it ”the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today.”
Adrian Zenz, a lecturer in social research methods at the Germany-based European School of Culture and Theology, said the number “could be closer to 1.1 million, which equates to 10-11 percent of the adult Muslim population of the region."
China regularly conducts “strike hard” campaigns in Xinjiang, including police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people, including videos and other material.
While China blames some Uyghurs for "terrorist" attacks, experts outside China say Beijing has exaggerated the threat from the Uyghurs and that repressive domestic policies are responsible for an upsurge in violence there that has left hundreds dead since 2009.
Reported by Gulchehra Hoja for RFA's Uyghur Service. Translated by RFA's Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.