The Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began this week, is a sensitive period of the year in Xinjiang. Beijing blames the Muslim-majority region's Uighur militants for attacks in the country that have left hundreds of people dead in recent years.
Now the authorities have mandated that the residents of the Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture provide DNA samples, fingerprints, voiceprints and a "three-dimensional image" in order to apply for passports. Separate documents will be issued to the residents for travel to the Chinese territories of Hong Kong and Macao, as well as the self-ruled Taiwan, according to the official newspaper "IIi Daily."
The new policy came into effect just before Ramadan with rights activists accusing Chinese authorities of a discriminatory attitude towards the country's minority group. Those who fail to fulfill the requirements will be refused documents.
Ili Prefecture is part of Xinjiang and borders Mongolia, Russia and Kazakhstan.
A Xinjiang government website also called on Communist Party members, government officials, students and minors to not fast during Ramadan.
"During the Ramadan month, food and drink businesses must not close," a report in "The Wall Street Journal" cited a local government website as saying.
In 2014, the Chinese government blamed Xinjiang Islamists and separatists for a spate of violent attacks at transport hubs throughout China. Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed to follow a "strike-first approach against terrorists in the region," stating that long-term stability in the region was "vital to the whole country's reform."
"The Chinese policies targeting Islamic customs seem to reflect a misdiagnosis of the problem of Uighur discontent and separatism. It is clear to many outside observers, and stated resoundingly by Uighur exile groups, that extremist religion is only one element in Uighur discontent," James Millward, a US-based China expert and historian, told DW.
Experts have said that Uighur Muslims, a Turkic-speaking minority in China's northwestern Xinjiang province, have long faced persecution by the country's Communist authorities. They are a distinct and mostly Sunni Muslim community and one of the 55 recognized ethnic minorities in China. However, Uighurs feel increasingly oppressed and view Beijing as a "colonizing power" attempting to undermine their cultural identity, political rights and religion and to exploit their region's natural resources.
"Uighurs identify themselves as the original inhabitants of Xinjiang, which they describe as 'East Turkistan.' Many of the Turkic-speaking Uighurs feel closer to Central Asian states and are in favor of separating from China or receiving greater autonomy," Siegfried O. Wolf, Director of research at the Brussels-based South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF), told DW.
"Therefore, it does not come as a surprise that Chinese security officials are dealing with them very strictly and want to have Xinjiang under their tight control, for both economic and geo-strategic reasons," the expert added.
Radicalization and militancy
In the past few years, the Chinese government has acted strictly against the separatists in Xinjiang. This has pushed many Uighurs towards radicalization and militancy. The situation has also been aggravated as Uighur separatism is not only an ethnic movement but also has a religious dimension.
The Uighur issue is generally viewed as an internal Chinese security problem, but some experts argue it should also be looked at in the context of global jihad and Islamic fundamentalism. The crucial point, the analysts say, is that the Uighur case is being increasingly hijacked by the jihadi movements, particularly in Afghanistan, where a number of Uighur militants are reportedly fighting alongside the Taliban and al Qaeda.
"Militant group 'Islamic State' (IS) has declared jihad against China on the grounds that Beijing is mistreating the Uighur Muslim population. This classic Sunni jihadist propaganda based on the persecution of the Uighurs is evident in videos and other jihadist material in which IS has called for global jihad and an uprising in China," Wolf explained.