Tea Leaf Nation

When Marx Meets Islam

A Chinese regulation would prohibit online insults based on religion. Some decry it as antithetical to Communist values.

BEIJING, CHINA - JULY 06: Chinese Hui Muslim men pray during Eid al-Fitr prayers marking the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan at the historic Niujie Mosque on July 6, 2016 in Beijing, China. Islam in China dates back to the 10th century as the legacy of Arab traders who ventured from the Middle East along the ancient Silk Road.  Of an estimated 23 million Muslims in China, roughly half are Hui, who are ethnically Chinese and speak Mandarin.  China's constitution provides for Islam as one of five 'approved' religions in the officially atheist country though the government enforces severe limits.  Worship is permitted only at state-sanctioned mosques and proselytizing in public is illegal.  The Hui, one of 55 ethnic minorities in China (along with the Han majority), have long nurtured a coexistence with the Communist Party and is among the minority groups with political representation at various levels of government. The Hui Muslim population fast from dawn until dusk during Ramadan and it is believed there are more than 20 million members of the community in the country. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - JULY 06: Chinese Hui Muslim men pray during Eid al-Fitr prayers marking the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan at the historic Niujie Mosque on July 6, 2016 in Beijing, China. Islam in China dates back to the 10th century as the legacy of Arab traders who ventured from the Middle East along the ancient Silk Road. Of an estimated 23 million Muslims in China, roughly half are Hui, who are ethnically Chinese and speak Mandarin. China's constitution provides for Islam as one of five 'approved' religions in the officially atheist country though the government enforces severe limits. Worship is permitted only at state-sanctioned mosques and proselytizing in public is illegal. The Hui, one of 55 ethnic minorities in China (along with the Han majority), have long nurtured a coexistence with the Communist Party and is among the minority groups with political representation at various levels of government. The Hui Muslim population fast from dawn until dusk during Ramadan and it is believed there are more than 20 million members of the community in the country. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Almost every Chinese person with even a middle school education must, at some point, run into the famous statement about religion by Karl Marx: “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” It is enshrined in textbooks that introduce students to the philosopher’s materialistic interpretation of the world, which considers religion as a “fantasy” used by reactionary forces to disarm the revolutionary proletariat by promising salvation in the afterlife while preaching endurance in the current one.

Some will argue that there is a Leninist spin in such a presentation of Marx’s view, and that his is a more nuanced one that recognizes, albeit grudgingly, the historically progressive role of religion. Still, Marx’s view has become probably the only modern critique of religion that many ordinary Chinese are familiar with, besides Confucius’s largely agnostic approach to spirituality. It also forms the basis of the Communist Party’s self-branding of a fundamentally atheist party.

That being said, the textbook does not dictate how millions of Chinese actually approach faith, nor does Marxist dogma completely defines how the Party handles religion in the People’s Republic. Marx’s harsh critique of religion does not stop a large number of Chinese from embracing the teaching of Buddha, the message of Jesus Christ, or the words of Mohammed. If anything, the “value vacuum” left by the retreat of a fanatic Maoist ideology since the death of Mao Zedong has increasingly been filled by religion, demonstrated by skyrocketing numbers of new converts.

At the same time, the officially atheist Communist Party has seen its position shift dramatically on this thorny issue over the decades. It has moved from courtship in the early years for the sake of building political alliance, to open hostility in the radically leftist years as a result of internal political struggles, to reconciliation in the early days of the Reform and Opening period, and finally to the cautious ambiguity that defines its approach today.

It is in this ambiguity that a revision proposed in mid-January to a low-level administrative regulation aiming at maintaining social order has stirred such controversy online. In the draft change, authorities added a clause that, by the Chinese standard of social control, may seem innocuous: “Anyone who produces content in publications or online platforms that contain insults or prejudice against a religion or ethnicity may be subject to administrative detainment from 10 to 15 days.” As China is a society dominated by a largely secular majority of Han Chinese, its setting up mechanisms to prevent the abuse of minority ethnic groups does not appear controversial. Measures designed to prevent hate-speech are also not unprecedented. The 2009 Measures for Ethnic Unity Education enacted in the western region of Xinjiang, where a great number of ethnic minorities, particularly the Uighurs, live, also contain a clause that forbids hate-inciting speech. However, this time the outcry was loud and clear, with one Weibo post asking people to oppose the measure collecting over 60,000 shares within a short period of time.

There are a few notable things about this wave of pushback against the regulation. First, the backlash primarily targets Islam and Muslims even though the proposed clause does not specify any religion or ethnicity for which it is designed. Second, online mobilization for the cause concentrates in “pockets” of the cyberspace that have a track record of anti-Islam activism; and rather than a concern with freedom of expression in general, it appears to be sparked by a very specific grievance that has been gradually festering on the Chinese Internet: a discontent with the perceived (unprincipled) accommodation of the spread of Islam by the Chinese state.

Like many online sentiments that accumulate over time, it is likely shaped by the recurrence of events that are perceived (and interpreted) as having a repeating theme. Researchers may point to the violent riots in Xinjiang in 2009 as the starting point of the narrative of the Chinese state being “too accommodating” to ethnic minorities, particularly Muslim Uighurs. And as this recent online mobilization will show, the narrative has evolved and gained momentum from a host of new sources.

Many events that are reinforcing that narrative today may seem trivial: airlines carry only halal-certified foods aboard domestic flights; police in Shanghai were hesitant to intervene when supposedly Muslim beef noodle shop owners tried to stop others from opening competing shops; CCTV’s annual spring festival gala was accused of distorting a Chinese New Year tradition to avoid mentioning pork. Compared to violent ethnic conflicts, these are stories of minor friction often flow beneath the surface of sensational news headlines.

Popular Weibo posts opposing the proposed measure cite the “secular joys” of the Han Chinese life as worthy of protection, going all the way back to the times of the Monkey King when such classic literary works as the Journey to the West could make fun of the ridiculous aspects of religion. “The proposed rule will destroy a core part of Chinese culture,” asserts one post. Some of the commentators see a slippery slope in front of them: “First you can’t eat pork, then girls can’t don short skirts… then your kid can’t go to school because enrollment favors kids from certain religions.”

This highlights the intrinsic contradictions in the Chinese experience with Islam, and, by extension, issues of ethnicity. On the one hand, the impression outside China about the county’s religious policies has been influenced by its heavy-handed social control in regions such as Xinjiang, especially after the riots in the late 2000s. On the other, domestic experience, particularly in Han-dominated central and coastal areas, often contains an element of hurt and frustration. This may seem ironic given the overall economic and cultural advantage that the majority group enjoys, many of which related to its access to opportunities and public resources that tend to concentrate in China’s developed eastern provinces.

But on a micro, personal level, the experience is also very likely to be real. China’s ethnic policy of today, wherein religion constitutes an organic part, features a series of preferential treatments for minorities, ranging from affirmative action in higher education to leniency in the criminal justice system, some more controversial than others. The so-called “two restraint one leniency” policy, issued by the Party’s Central Committee in 1984, instructs law enforcement across the nation to practice restraint in arrest and execution and leniency in treatment when dealing with minority criminals. Even though the supposed intention of the original policy was to accommodate traditional customs in minority areas that could be criminalized under the sweeping campaign to crack down on crimes in the early 1980s, it nevertheless led to a lingering situation where, to quote one scholar, “In legal and civil disputes, authorities throughout the nation tend to side with ethnic minorities for the sake of preserving ethnic unity, even to the dissatisfaction of the Han Chinese.” Reports of police officers turning their eyes away from crimes involving ethnic minorities abound on the Chinese Internet.

China’s different approaches to religion in and outside the Xinjiang (and Tibet) regions, where “leniency” is probably the last word used to describe ethnic/religious policy there, is worth keeping in mind here. For instance, in this recent controversy, many who oppose the draft cited situations in places outside of Xinjiang and Tibet, like Ningxia or Qinghai, where the issue of Islamic expansion seems particularly salient. People share pictures of grand, luxury Mosques being built in those remote, poverty-stricken areas in Western China with the blessing of local governments, and accounts of local children being organized to attend religious schools.

Many netizens feel uneasy about such developments. And this is where Marx clashes with Islam. One of the major concerns that emerges from this wave of criticism is the worry that Chinese society’s unique equipment to keep religion at bay, its atheist socialist ideology, can be severely constrained with the introduction of the proposed measure.

Xi Wuyi, a scholar of Marxism at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and a leading voice denouncing the amendment, embodies this unique Chinese response to Islam. In her strongly worded commentary posted online, Xi asserts that “to research religion and to critique theology is the classic academic paradigm of contemporary Chinese Marxist religion studies” and questions if the new regulatory clause will undermine the “scientific atheists’ efforts to curb the negative impacts of religion,” a stated aim of the National Conference on Religion-related Work held by the Party in 2016. Her arguments were echoed by other influential personalities on Weibo, who have been more colorful when expressing their disapproval: “Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, which topples biblical creationism, and The Internationale, which refutes the existence of gods, can all be taken as offensive to a certain religion. Should they be banned under the new rule?”

An atheist conviction is not critics’ only weapon, especially when it comes to Islam. Broader concerns with women’s rights and the religion’s perceived hostility toward non-believers are also major factors contributing to online acrimony. Again, they are reflected in the online activism of an opinion leader like Xi, who constantly interjects whenever she sees cases of Islamic “intrusion” into secular freedoms. Just as the petition to scrap the amendment was ongoing, Xi mobilized public support for an ethnic Hui girl whose father threatened to kill her for her dating a Han boyfriend. (A large portion of the Hui ethnicity are Muslims.) The father allegedly told the girl, “Killing you would violate Han Chinese laws but I would be celebrated as a hero by my Muslim brothers.” The mobilization to support the girl reinforced the sense of urgency felt by those dreading an Islamic encroachment into Chinese social values, further energizing the opposition to the proposed regulation.

For many commentators who piled on, the invocation of Marx can be a purely strategic choice: citing the Party’s ideological idol in opposition to a governmental initiative seems politically acceptable as a kind reminder of its communist roots. It also speaks to an important aspect of this online revolt: the grievance is directed as much towards Islam the religion as it is to state favoritism and incompetence, hence the online criticism that’s designed to alert the Party of deviating from its true color.

Such alerts can be at times very specific, tracing the proposal to powerful religious figures that are able to influence Party policy. The message is that those figures, mullahs who wear governmental hats, have swayed a Party which so far have resisted religious interference into its rule of the country. The curious Taoist support of the campaign, which won applause online, only adds to the perception that the clause was created solely to block criticism of Islam.

A few commentators have been careful to distinguish between religion and ethnicity, separating what they consider religious prejudice, which for them is a false concept, and ethnic prejudice, which is much less defensible. They maintain that every person, no matter of what ethnic lineage, has the freedom to believe or not believe in a religion. It is also in line with the kind of thinking long advanced by prominent scholars such as Ma Rong, who advocates the “depoliticizing” of ethnic “group” identities and the uphold of “individual” identities. He believes that group-based preferential policies are making ethnic identities more acutely felt, and should be replaced by individual-based welfare policies blind to a person’s ethnicity.

Not everybody has patience for nuanced distinctions. The wave of opposition to the regulation has also brought to the foreground some of the more disturbing elements in Chinese online discussions about the Muslim community. Blanket derogatory terms such as “cult” and “green cancer,” a term that derives from the religion’s symbolic color, are tossed around casually in conversation, which triggers the exact kind of worry that is probably behind the draft measure. “Demonizing Muslims will undermine ethnic unity in our country,” one academic declared, accusing people like Xi Wuyi of “exaggerating the threat of Islam.”

Yet online sentiment cannot be easily tamped down by voices calling for more open dialogue, as developments overseas continue to feed into that narrative, with even the President of the United States signing off a Muslim travel ban. Violent events in countries like Sweden and France, which further fuels anti-Muslim rhetoric globally, were quick to find their way into Chinese cyberspace. The memory of the bloody end that met Charlie Hebdo‘s editors, also an act against free expression, only intensifies that sense of threat. In this regard, Marx’s other important teaching, the camaraderie among fellow proletariat brothers and sisters that transcends ethnicity and national borders, is less important to Chinese netizens eager to contain Islamic influence in the country. Their intense insecurity with Islam, energized by both a love for secular freedom and a frustration with state policy, will likely shape religious and ethnic relationships in China for years to come.

This article originally appeared on the blog Chublicopinion.com. It is republished here with minor edits and permission from the author.

Ma Tianjie writes a blog about public opinion in China (chublicopinion.com). He was an English major at Peking University and has been involved in environmental advocacy in China for over a decade since graduation.

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