The Council on American-Islamic Relations has condemned the Chinese government's use of spies to prevent Uyghur Muslims from observing Ramadan, calling it a violation of human dignity and international laws on religious freedom.
According to a report by Radio Free Asia, Muslims in Xinjiang were banned from fasting, as authorities used spies known as "ears" to monitor and ensure that Uyghur Muslims were not fasting.
A police officer from an area near Turpan, or Tulufan in Chinese, in eastern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region said the officials were drawn from ordinary citizens, police and members of neighborhood committees.
“We have many secret agents,” she told Radio Free Asia.
China began banning Muslims in Xinjiang from fasting during Ramadan in 2017, when authorities began arbitrarily detaining Uyghurs in “re-education” camps amid larger efforts to diminish Uyghur culture, language and religion.
The restriction was partially relaxed in 2021 and 2022, allowing people over 65 to fast, and police reduced the number of home searches and street patrol activities.
But this year, the government prohibited everyone from fasting regardless of age, gender or profession, said a political official at Turpan City Police Station. “No one is allowed to fast in this Ramadan,” which runs from March 22 to April 20 this year.
Fasting during Ramadan is one of the five pillars, or key practices, of Islam, during which Muslims are urged to abstain from eating or drinking between sunrise and sunset.
During the first week of Ramadan, authorities summoned 56 Uyghur residents and former detainees to interrogate them about their activities and determined that 54 of them violated the law by fasting, a policeman from Turpan City Bazaar Police Station.
Neither he nor another police officer at the station would discuss what happened to those they determined to have broken the law.
Police stations in Turpan have enlisted two or three spies from each village to surveil residents previously interrogated and detained for fasting during Ramadan, and those released from prison, officers told RFA.
“Our ‘ears’ came from three fields — the ordinary residents, the police and the neighborhood committees,” said the police officer from an area near Turpan.
“Because of the language barrier, we recruited Uyghurs to surveil other Uyghurs,” she said. “In my workplace, there are 70-80 Uyghur policemen who either directly work as ‘ears’ or lead other civilian ‘ears.’”
Authorities said they even planted spies among the police force to observe whether Uyghur officers were observing Ramadan by fasting.
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The Turpan City Bazaar Police Station recruited two or three “ears,” meaning spies, from among ordinary citizens from each village and neighborhood committee to watch the activities of residents during Ramadan. Some villages even have four to five spies, a policeman there said.
The police officer from an area near Turpan said her station has 286 police officers, most of whom are Uyghurs. But her “comrades,” or Chinese police, find it difficult to spy on Uyghur residents there because of the language barrier.
Instead, they deployed Uyghur police officers to directly keep an eye on Uyghur residents, or else they were made the leaders of spy rings, she said.
Police will investigate those who previously violated the law or broke the law by fasting during Ramadans past, as well as people who organize fasting activities, said the police officer.
The elderly and teenagers are being surveilled because “older people have rigid ideas and will not transform easily,” while teenagers “are easy to confuse” and susceptible to the words of adults, she said.
The spies within
A staffer at the Turpan Prefecture Police Bureau said authorities there had spies working within the police forces to see if Uyghur officers were fasting from dawn to dusk, and then reported the results of their activities at weekly political meetings.
“We have our upper-level officers and internal agents watching the behavior of Uyghur policemen,” she told RFA, adding that officers tested their Uyghur colleagues by handing out fruit to eat.
As of yet, they have detected no fasting officers, she added.
This year’s policy also includes home searches, street patrols and mosque searches, said a police officer from a station in Turpan city.
Authorities on patrol are questioning Uyghur Muslim families to see if they are waking up before dawn to eat and gathering for a meal after sunset — considered a violation of the law by Chinese authorities — he said.
“When we search the houses, we check if they have carried out illegal religious activities and if there are security threats,” said the political official at Turpan City Police Station. Violators would be punished with legal education for light offenses and jail sentences for severe ones, he said.
But the spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, Liu Pengyu, stated that the "claim is unfounded" and a "common tactic used by anti-China forces to smear" China