China’s relationship with Islam

by Kelsey Robarts

November 10, 2016

Tension and violence continue to flare in the People’s Republic of China (PRC)’s Xinjiang province, as the communist nation has begun to implement increasingly stringent bans on Muslim activities within the region. While China began 2016 with the introduction of its first comprehensive anti-terrorism bill, its subsequent Muslim-targeted policies have led to sharp criticism and vocal outrage from both outsiders and Xinjiang Uyghurs.

Xinjiang (Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region) is the westernmost province in China, sharing a border with Russia and the unstable Waziristan region of Pakistan. It is also the home to the Uyghur minority population, a traditionally Turkic community that mainly practices Islam and speaks the Turkic-Arabic Uyghur language. During the first half of the 20th century, both Russia and China maneuvered to gain control of Xinjiang to use as a buffer zone from Central Asian and western influence. When the Chinese Communist Party came into power in 1949, it annexed the territory from Soviet/Nationalist control, and Xinjiang now holds strategic importance as a petroleum and commodities provider. Under Deng Xiaoping’s “Expand the West” economic policy, a large influx of eastern Han workers moved into Xinjiang during the 1980’s. Han immigrants were immediately placed in the upper echelons of local government while Mandarin became the working language of Xinjiang schools and businesses. The inequity of the reconfigured social order furthered the instability created by the Sino-Russian cold war in Xinjiang.

After the 9/11 attacks in the U.S., China immediately began a campaign to combat extremism. It was during this same period that the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, or ETIM, emerged within the country in 2001. ETIM’s primary goal is Xinjiang’s secession from China and the subsequent establishment of East Turkestan, a nation designed to be the independent home of Uyghurs and sympathetic Central Asian Muslim populations. Since 2001, both civil strife and extremism have steadily risen in Xinjiang and in Southern China, all cited back to the Uyghurs.

In January 2016, China executed its first comprehensive anti-extremism law to finally tackle Islamist extremism at its roots within Xinjiang. However, the legislation received extensive criticism from other nations and human rights watch groups. The National People’s Congress, China’s parliamentary body, cut out the words “thought” and “speech” from its definition of terrorism, but the word “advocacy” in the definition still allows China to potentially prosecute people for “radical” thoughts and speech, not just actions. The law also calls for “backdoors” from tech companies, letting the central government access personal user login information for countless computers, decrypt private data, and other invasive measures. And, in line with previous anti-extremism initiatives in China since 2001, the law asks for the involvement of citizens in counter-extremism, including mobilizing citizens in manhunts and increasing neighborhood surveillance. As the previous initiatives have primarily been retroactive in nature, this new legislation is important for providing a working definition of extremism that emergency responders and politicians alike can use for mitigation and response.

While the anti-extremism law does not specifically target Muslim extremism in its wording, late 2016 has seen a rash of social policies aimed at controlling Muslim Uyghurs. In June, the local government in Xinjiang announced an annual ban on Ramadan-related activities, including forcing businesses to stay open to their regular hours and prohibiting fasting for civil servants, students, and teachers. Beijing released a statement that there was no official PRC ban on Ramadan, but did not seem to react to the Xinjiang party department’s actions.

In another instance of official disconnect between Beijing and local government, several hotels in Guangzhou reported in August that they had been instructed by provincial police to turn away customers from five Muslim countries. Several of these countries are key trade partners for China, and Beijing stated that it is Chinese policy to be hospitable and open to foreigners, at odds with the Guangzhou report.

The most recent anti-Islam policy came October 12, when the PRC announced that parents who encourage or force minors (including their children) to participate in Islam will face imprisonment. Citing the atheist nature of the country, the PRC warns that students who show signs of “extremism” may be forced to attend “special schools to “receive rectification”.” This latest policy has garnered widespread condemnation, especially considering the education system in Xinjiang that already biases against the native Uyghur language and segregates students ethnically.

There’s no doubt that China is facing increasing terrorist threats. As recently as September, the Chinese Embassy in Kyrgyzstan was attacked by a suicide bomber, although no group came forward to claim responsibility. ETIM has been credited with multiple attacks within the country over the past decade, and today has dramatically increased its propaganda and its global spread (ETIM is currently fighting in Syria, and is thought to be based in neighboring Waziristan). Additionally, popular demonstrations and protests in Xinjiang against the Han government have led to hundreds of deaths in recent years.

However, the PRC will not gain control over Islamic extremism by continuing to aim policies against its Muslim minority province. Anger in Xinjiang can be traced back to the economic and education reforms that created a social disparity between Uyghurs and Han; increasing the inequity through anti-Muslim policies only reinforces this tension. While the PRC has always discouraged religion, it has not persecuted a religious minority in the manner of the Uyghurs since the beginning of the Communist Revolution. The all-inclusive anti-extremism law is a step in the right direction towards national security; for its numerous flaws, it is still broad and outwardly nondiscriminatory. Social policies like the Ramadan ban, however, merely solidify the barrier between the PRC and Xinjiang. If the PRC wants to stop alienating and radicalizing Xinjiang, it needs to halt its recent path of anti-Muslim social policies, and turn its focus back to broader anti-terrorism work.

Kelsey Robarts is a 1st-year MPP student at the College of William & Mary and an Associate Editor of the William & Mary Policy Review.