Xinjiang is the frontline of a nationwide crackdown on terrorism that began in 2014 in response to rising incidents of violence in the region and elsewhere in China. The anti-terror campaign, which has seen security measures in Xinjiang steadily increase since its inception, has been criticized by human rights advocates for targeting members of the Uyghur ethnic minority and further exacerbating ethnic tensions. Related policies that appear aimed at Uyghurs, a predominately Muslim ethnic minority, have included selective religious fasting bans, local and region-wide rules against “extremist behavior,” including wearing face veils or long beards, and a recent ban on “extreme” Islamic baby names. Uyghurs, who have traditionally practiced their religion moderately, have been noted to be adopting more conservative religiosity in recent years, which some have interpreted as a subversive response to increasing state regulation. At Radio Free Asia, Qiao Long reports that, according to sources across Xinjiang and in the overseas activist community, authorities have been asking Muslim families to turn over religious items including copies of the Quran and prayer mats, or face punishment:
“Officials at village, township and county level are confiscating all Qurans and the special mats used for namaaz [prayer],” a Kazakh source in Altay prefecture, near the border with Kazakhstan told RFA on Wednesday.
[…] Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the exile World Uyghur Congress group, said reports have emerged from Kashgar, Hotan and other regions of similar practices starting last week.
“We received a notification saying that every single ethnic Uyghur must hand in any Islam-related items from their own home, including Qurans, prayers and anything else bearing the symbols of religion,” Raxit said.
“They have to be handed in voluntarily. If they aren’t handed in, and they are found, then there will be harsh punishments,” he said.
Raxit said announcements are being made by the police via popular social media platform WeChat. [Source]
According to RFA, the new demands from authorities come after a similar campaign to confiscate “illegal” religious publicity material and “tools of terrorism” earlier this year was deemed unsuccessful.
In a report at NPR, Rob Schmitz summarizes the mounting tensions in Xinjiang since 2009, when riots in Urumqi left hundreds dead, noting the substantial increase in security measures since Xi Jinping installed Chen Quanguo as Xinjiang Party Secretary last year. Chen had previously served as Party chief of Tibet, where he irked international human rights advocates and won praise from high Party officials for his hardline policies.
Last year President Xi Jinping appointed a party secretary of Xinjiang, who is transforming this region — bordered to the west by Pakistan, Afghanistan and other Central Asian countries — into one of the world’s most tightly controlled police states. Earlier this year, Chen Quanguo — whose name literally means “entire country” — addressed police in an impressive show of force: 10,000 officers, all dressed in black riot gear, lined up in neat columns.
“The sword is drawn, and we’re about to hear the thunder,” said Chen to his officers. “Comrades: are you ready?”
“We are ready!” they roared in response.
[…] [Adrian] Zenz [of the European School of Culture and Theology] says Xinjiang has posted ads for nearly 100,000 security personnel positions in the past 12 months — 30 times more officers than were hired annually a decade ago.
“This is Xinjiang’s new industry No. 1. It is becoming the most important source of employment,” says Zenz.
Drawing on central government subsidies, Xinjiang spent around $6 billion — more than half the region’s own income — on security in the first half of 2017, he says. […] [Source]
At The Jamestown Foundation, Adrian Zenz and James Leibowitz further detail Chen’s dual security and job creation strategy, compare his security buildups in Tibet and Xinjiang, and note three major risks to longterm security that they see in his approach:
The first risk is economic. The intense securitization of Xinjiang society has placed major burdens on its economy. Chen introduced measures that severely restrict the free flow of labor. Uyghurs across Xinjiang are being forced to return to their home regions, typically rural areas with very few viable sources of employment. In Urumqi, itinerant Uyghur shops and businesses are systematically being shut down. In southern Xinjiang, people cannot even visit a relative in a nearby village without obtaining a written permit. Mushrooming numbers of checkpoints have nearly doubled travel times, increasing the cost of doing business. Businesses are additionally burdened by heavy security requirements, such as installing metal detectors or even airport-style X-ray scanners at entrances, procuring monitoring equipment, alarms, riot-proof doors, or having to hire private security guards. Meanwhile, the state’s massive top-down investments, facilitated through the “pairing assistance” (援疆) program, likewise lack customers, both stemming from intense security measures and a failure to cater for what people actually need (South China Morning Post, September 4). 
The second risk is that heavy-handed securitization exacerbates ethnic tensions. Despite the absence of major incidents, hatred and resentment continues to simmer below the surface. Extreme measures such as restricting the sale of sugar per household to prevent bomb making or placing traceable serial numbers on knives and sharp metal tools cannot possibly replace a genuine long-term solution for sustainable ethnic relations. Inter-ethnic trust and cohesion are in short supply in Xinjiang.
The third, and most easily overlooked risk is the alienation of the local Han population. Those we interviewed claim that Chen Quanguo is disliked—even hated—by both the Han and Uyghur population. A third-generation ethnic Han interviewee from northern Xinjiang stated that even Han from more developed regions with fewer Uyghurs are so deeply affected by the omnipresent security measures that they are desperate to leave, with many seeking to move their residence status to another province, or even emigrate overseas. In fact, XUAR residential property investment declined sharply in 2016, especially in the Han-dominated cities of Urumqi and Karamay, where it fell by 15 and 22 percent respectively.  Another source cited a Han friend as saying: “With Chen, the Uyghurs at last have a hero, because he is driving the Han away [from Xinjiang].”
Chen Quanguo may have succeeded in squashing Uyghur resistance for now, but the human and economist costs might prove unsustainable in the long run. [Source]
Earlier this month at The Globe and Mail, Nathan VanderKlippe reported on how Chen has also applied a re-education campaign, tried and tested during his days in Tibet, to the Uyghur population in Xinjiang:
Early each Monday morning, villagers across Shanshan County gather for a flag-raising ceremony. They sing patriotic songs and listen to speeches from local leaders as sun lights the nearby oasis vineyards.
[…] It’s a campaign aimed squarely at the thoughts and religious beliefs of a minority that has already come under years of heavy government pressure, one conducted under the banner of what Chinese authorities call “extremism eradication,” under a new local leader who has imported and expanded a playbook used to squelch dissent in Tibet.
The campaign is designed to reconfigure the thinking of people Chinese authorities deem suspicious of radicalism, a group that includes those who pray regularly, have studied Islamic teaching, or have family who live in Muslim countries. It is taking place in a country that just this week introduced new regulations regarding “religious-affairs maintenance” – rules, to take effect early next year, that will focus on “blocking extremism” and “resisting infiltration.”
[…] Local media accounts suggest that the use of re-education dates back at least to 2014 in Xinjiang, although its use has intensified in the last year. That timeline roughly matches the August, 2016, arrival of Chen Quanguo as Party secretary of Xinjiang. He previously held the same post in Tibet, another region that has made heavy use of state power to quell dissent and suppress religious practice. Mr. Chen is seen as a front-runner to join the elite 25-member Politburo that rules China, a step that would give a stamp of national approval to the campaigns he has waged in both frontier regions.
Human-rights advocates have expressed alarm over the use of re-education under his rule. […] [Source]
Last month, VanderKlippe was briefly detained during a reporting trip to Xinjiang. While China’s nationwide media controls have long been tighter in sensitive minority regions, authorities have enhanced their measures to control the media narrative on the region amid the anti-terror campaign. Journalists are regularly barred from scenes of unrest and are closely monitored when in the region, giving official media outlets a near monopoly on coverage. Amid these controls, information is often first reported by advocacy groups and foreign government-funded media organizations, whose reporters have also seen China-based family members harassed.