20 January 2021

Roles of neighbourhood committee in the surveillance network on Uighurs in China

20 January 2021

On 15 January 2021, Tahir Hamut Izgil, a Uyghur poet who has lived in exile in the US since September 2017, published an article about his experience being interrogated by a low-level cadre in a neighbourhood committee in Urumqi in June 2017. This article provides insight into the roles played by neighbourhood committees in conducting surveillance among Uighurs and identifies what it considers as extremists in need of forced reeducation. 

What is the 'Neighbourhood Committee'?

One of the means of surveillance and control of the Uighur population in Xinjiang, identified by Tahir Hamut Izgil, is through the Neighbourhood Committee (居委会, pronounced jū wěi huì, also called 社区居委会). The neighbourhood committee is the bedrock of socio-political organisation of China today. The China Daily, in an article published in 16 October 2012, describes that the juweihui "arose as autonomous urban grassroots civil organisations in the 1950s", though it is very much integrated into the Party structure. According to Chinese directory Bendibao, there appears to be 184 neighbourhood committees in the Urumqi prefecture city, 46% of which are in the Tianshan district. Despite it being the "lowest level of government in charge of civil affairs", its influence over the daily lives of ordinary people can be extensive. The China Daily, for instance, describes it as having responsibilities for enforcing polices such as "family planning, mobile population management, crime prevention and census administration". It also has responsibilities over the distribution of social security benefits. Thus, the juweihui is, even before Xi's rise to power in March 2013, a very important tool for the Party in exercising social control over its population. 

Roles of juweihui in the surveillance of Uighurs

At a benign level, it can be argued that the juweihui can serve as a conduit for government services and facilitate effective response in times of major crisis. For instance, the juweihui appeared to show its effectiveness during the outbreak of Covid-19 in China, when it was charged with responsibilities of enforcing public health policies at neighbourhood level. An article in Global Times on 31 March 2020 described the juweihui as the "vanguard of virus control". At a darker level, the juweihui has become a key method of surveillance and control of a Uighur population seen as restive by the government. Izgil pointed out before Xi juweihui typically consisted of 3 to 4 people but by 2017 it had increased to up to 40 people, bolstered by the inclusion of police liaison officers in the committee.  The neighbourhood committee would monitor any signs of possible extremist thoughts and behaviours within the district, and would encourage people to identify those people to the committee or the local police. According to Izgil, the first step of someone being sent to reeducation camps (职业技能教育培训中心) usually involves being called to the juweihui or the local police stations for questioning. 

What might be considered 'religious extremism' by the neighbourhood committee?

The low-level cadre who interrogated Izgil on 28 June 2017 would have been guided by a regulation passed by the Standing Committee of Xinjiang's People's Congress (新疆自治区人大常委会) in March 2017, called the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Anti-Extremism Regulation (新疆维吾尔自治区去极端化条例). The legal definition of 'religious extremism' is wide-ranging. For example, the wearing of hijab and growing an "abnormal beard" can be considered as signs of extremism. Not abiding by family planning rules can lead to suspicion of extremism. Unofficial religious marriage and divorce is also regarded as extremism. According to clause 9.6, any individual who promotes Islamic teaching that goes beyond eating halal food can be suspected of being an extremist. Finally, there is a catch-all and ill-defined clause 9.15 that covers "any extremist speech and behaviour". This explains why the low-level cadre who interrogated Izgil could consider having travelled to the UAE and Turkey and praying at home five times a day as possible signs of extremism. That also explains why Izgil felt it was prudent to claim to be an atheist to the juweihui cadre.

Incentives for juweihui cadres to be "vigilant"

Izgil made an astute observation that the cadre who interrogated him and his wife had institutional incentives to identify as many potential extremists as possible:
The salary is low and the work difficult, but if she stuck with it, worked hard, and managed to pass the civil service exam, she would be hired as permanent staff, thus securing her livelihood.
Getting into juweihui is competitive, as aspiring candidates need to have a bachelor degree and pass written exams on Party ideology as well as physical exams. Yet working at juweihui is often seen as just the first step to a secured place in the civil bureaucracy. So there are strong institutional incentives for these low-level cadres to cast a wider net in the search of possible extremists. This is further reinforced by a regulation passed in 2016 that offers monetary reward of up to 5 million renminbi and non-monetary rewards of possible identification of "extremists". These non-monetary rewards could include job promotion, favourable consideration for scholarship applications etc. This could encourage neighbours to inform on others. It also means that juweihui cadres would be working an environment where such expectation is normalised. Furthermore, the 2017 regulation clause 47 sets out repercussion for cadres who fail in their duties to be vigilant against extremism, including self-criticism. 

Final thoughts

What Izgil went through gives us a glimpse into how the low-level government committee has been empowered and coopted, through institutional and legal incentives, into the current systemic oppression of Uighurs in China.

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