Western China is far from the happiest place in which to be Muslim right now. At the end of December, police killed seven people in Xinjiang, an area traditionally dominated by the Uighur Muslim ethnic group, using some very sketchy justifications. Days later, the government destroyed a mosque in Ningxia that was just set to reopen after refurbishment, prompting a fight in which at least two more people were killed. The details available on these events have been sparse and often in stark contradiction. It might seem as though we have wandered back in time to the Cultural Revolution, but we’re looking at a very twenty-first century brand of Islamophobia, infused with a legacy of ethnic tensions.
What happened in Xinjiang? The state claimed that police officers confronted a group of fifteen men who had kidnapped two people, and the kidnappers were Muslim extremists or terrorists off to “jihadist training” across the border. Government media sources and spokespeople refuse to specify the ethnic origins of the fifteen. One police officer was also killed.
Non-state media sources are reporting that this group was all Uighur, included children, and was attempting to escape Chinese repression. Other members of the group were taken into custody, and their fates are unknown. It’s far from the first time state information on violence involving Muslims has been questionable, as Edward Wong catalogues at the New York Times. There’s a lot that’s disturbing about this story, from implying that killing a group of people for supposedly kidnapping would somehow justify the killings, that they were killed in front of children, and that these people weren’t welcome in China, but weren’t allowed to leave, either.
As for Ningxia? Taoshan villagers raised USD $127 000 to renovate their mosque. After Friday prayers, the day before the opening ceremony, one hundred villagers faced one thousand soldiers and police officers. Three guesses how that went. The two confirmed dead are reported to have been elderly. This was so unexpected and unprecedented in this area that it sends a message of the state cracking down hard. That’s particularly so given that the soldiers and officers weren’t sent out until the mosque was completed, and all the more so following on immediately from the Uighur deaths.
A major difference between what happened here and what happened in Xinjiang is that the Taoshan Muslims, who say they’ve never experienced religious persecution before, are Hui. China’s biggest Muslim ethnicity, the Chinese-speaking Hui have been far better treated and tolerated by the state than any other Muslim group as they have been considered more properly Chinese – or at least they have been since the mid-twentieth century state classification of ethnic groups. (This is not at all to endorse the sentiment in the piece linked at the start of the last paragraph that Hui “are practically indistinguishable from the Han”. One wonders to whom they are practically indistinguishable.)
Historically, then, China has not been kind to Muslim minorities, and there have been fatal Han/Uighur clashes in recent years, notably in Urumqi in 2009 when some Uighur people attacked Han Chinese, followed by a counterattack. If you’re interested in the relationship between Muslims and the Chinese state, I recommend you consult the historians Dru C. Gladney and Maris Boyd Gillette, but I’ll give you a brief rundown. It was state policy to suppress religious expression from 1949 until 1979, and they’re still not happy about it. Fostering of religious practices under the banner of minority ethnic customs has been on the rise since the 1990s. During this time, Hui gained permission to build mosques, and rebuild those that were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution; you can imagine that the Taoshan destruction must have affected worshippers very badly indeed. Ethnic minorities have been given government entitlements like tax-relief programs and permission to have more than one child. However, as Gillette argues, such measures were designed to counteract imagined substandard development in relation to the Han majority, justifying the state idea of a racial hierarchy. Minority customs and holidays in particular have been exoticised and commodified by the state, including through domestic tourism. And, then, the violence.
What’s going on here is that the Chinese government has a serious longstanding problem with religious expression and ethnic minorities both. The kicker comes in with justifications for deaths, injuries and destruction of property that sound curiously like the kind of Islamophobia you’d hear in a white Western context. Jihadists? Extremists? An evil cult? At play here is the bizarre and unjustified fear of the Muslim other that has been running through Western discourse for years now, to be sure. It also reads like a calculated appropriation of that discourse to justify local prejudices and violences. This time, however, China gets to justify prejudice against Muslim minorities not only on the terms of its own racial hierarchy, and not just to a Han majority, but to the world on Western ones.
It’s hard to keep track of what’s going on for Hui, Uighur, and other Muslim ethnic groups in China, simply because the state is keeping such a tight lid on reports of the true stories. From what’s leaking through, it’s clear that the world should be keeping a sharp eye out, because existing ethnic divisions are only becoming more fraught in China as Islamophobia continues to percolate worldwide.