China punishes Xinjiang official for refusing to smoke near Muslim elders

South China Morning Post, 2 April 2017

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Associated Press — Authorities in China’s Xinjiang region have punished a local official for declining to smoke in front of Muslim elders, seeing that as a sign he was insufficiently committed to the region’s fight against religious extremism, according to a government report and state media on Tuesday.

Jelil Matniyaz, the Communist Party head of a village in Hotan prefecture, was demoted for “not daring” to smoke in front of religious figures, said the report, issued on Saturday and reproduced by official newspapers and websites. Matniyaz, identified as a member of Xinjiang’s indigenous Uygur ethnic minority, was cited by the report as not having a “resolute political stance”.

The state-run Global Times newspaper on Tuesday quoted other local officials as saying that government leaders should push back against rather than comply with religious prohibitions against smoking, to demonstrate their “commitment to secularisation”.

The punishment appears to be the latest extreme measure by the authorities to exert their will in Xinjiang, particularly its southern portion including Hotan, where Uygur culture is strongest. Chinese authorities and the state-controlled media have increasingly equated religious expression with extremism in their official rhetoric, partly in response to a bloody insurgency blamed on Uygur Islamic militants.

The government has argued that its measures, such as prohibiting women from wearing Islamic veils or men from growing beards, are part of an effort to roll back dangerous religious fundamentalism. Overseas Uygur advocate groups say the restrictions have only increased resentment over heavy-handed Chinese rule and fueled a cycle of radicalisation and violence.