The story Official: No passport discrimination appeared in Metro Beijing on December 19. It tells the story of 21-year-old Atikem Ruzi, a Uyghur woman from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, who saw her dream of studying abroad shattered because her passport application was denied. Though she has Beijing hukou, she is still prevented from enjoying equal rights as a Beijing resident in terms of passport privileges because of her ethnicity. The story exposes the differences in the passport application process for Han people and ethnic groups living in the northwest regions of the country. The article was translated by Uyghur Online, a community forum focusing on issues concerning Uyghurs and Xinjiang, into Chinese, sparking much discussion online over ethnic groups and their passports.
On November 17, Ruzi went to the Beijing Exit-Entry Administration Department to apply for a passport. Twenty-five days later, she was informed by an administration official that her application had been denied. The following day, Ruzi went to the administration and was told that Xinjiang officials had not approved her passport application.
Though Ruzi, a junior student at Beijing's Minzu University of China, transferred her hukou to the location of her school, her privileges as a Beijing resident do not extend to the realm of passports. Instead, she needs the approval of her hometown before being issued the travel document. In such cases, approval is given if a thorough investigation into applicants' backgrounds yields no evidence of a criminal record.
An official from the Exit-Entry Administration Department in Hami said that the office followed protocol for ethnic minorities who have lived in Beijing for less than 10 years. He stressed that this is not discrimination and that China's northwest regions have different standards for passport applications.
Certain that she had done nothing wrong, Ruzi wrote a Sina Weibo post about her experience on December 10. The post was forwarded 846 times but gathered few comments, some asserting that the passport policy is unfair to ethnic minority groups while others claimed the policy is not directed against Uyghurs.
Turgunjun Tursun, an associate researcher with the Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences in Urumqi, said that the adoption of different standards is inappropriate and people should be treated according to their deeds rather than their ethnicity.
The back story
When I was first assigned this topic, I was bewildered over why Ruzi had been denied a passport. I remembered that when I applied for my passport to study abroad, the process was easy and smooth.
My first thought was that the roadblock may have been related to her ethnicity. As I myself was robbed by two Uyghur women last month, I can understand that people may have negative stereotypes of this ethnic group. So perhaps her passport difficulties were the symptom of widespread concerns over Uyghurs as a safety risk.
I began by trying to track Ruzi down on Sina Weibo. Late that night I received an alert that I'd been sent a message on Weibo. In that private e-mail, Ruzi sent me detailed information about the process she went through to apply for a passport to study abroad.
The young woman from Xinjiang told me that she thinks she was denied a passport because of two online posts she made on renren.com, a Chinese social media website, in the summer of 2011 that were critical of government policies. "There is nothing to believe, nothing to rely on, nowhere to go - pushed to the road of ruin," she wrote in one of the postings.
Ruzi said police in Xinjiang's Xinhe county had questioned her about her postings before she ever applied for a passport. I phoned two officials in charge of the Xinhe county police for comment on the matter, but they refused to say a word. This was the same treatment that the Beijing Municipal Police Bureau gave me.
While the police felt like a brick wall in this story, the expert I interviewed from the Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences in Urumqi was helpful and illuminating. Tursun held that as a Uyghur with hukou in Beijing, Ruzi should be treated equally, as any other Beijing resident, and that any background check with her hometown is unnecessary.
Tursun also pointed out that ethnic minorities in Xinjiang have to undergo a background check as part of their passport application. They also have to provide more documents such as an invitation letter from friends overseas to receive a passport.
"The different standards are harmful to minorities' image. We should treat people according to their deeds rather than their ethnicity," said Tursun.
To ascertain why there are different standards for passport applications, I phoned the local administration in Hami. An official explained that in the northwest regions, including Xinjiang, the Tibet Autonomous Region and Qinghai Province, passport applications are processed according to whether an applicant has ample reason to go abroad, rather than simply granting the applicant's request.
But the people from some other ethnic minority groups I interviewed didn't have such problems.
Lin Yatong, a senior student with China Foreign Affairs University, who belongs to the Hui ethnic group, told me that she had no trouble with her passport application in Beijing. "There is no difference between me and other students in the passport application process. I got it within two weeks." Another student surnamed Yu in Xingjiang who also belongs to the Hui ethnic group said that he needed to provide more documents when he applied for a passport, including his enrollment certification from a foreign university in both Chinese and English.
A look at the Passport Law of China reveals that applicants considered to be a potential danger to national security should not be given passports.
The day after the story was published, it was translated into Chinese. Ruzi posted the story on Weibo, which attracted hundreds of comments. Despite the attention to the matter, Ruzi's situation has not improved. She was also concerned that the article may have given readers the impression that she made a fuss over a small matter. According to her Weibo, she had not received a passport as of Monday.
Over the last several days, it has become clear that this news aroused public attention and sparked serious debate over the issue of discrimination against ethnic minority groups in the passport application process.