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China’s Muslims Brace for Attacks
First, it was the Uighurs. Now, other Muslim minorities are being threatened—and the worst may be yet to come.
At a recent event at the Asia Society in New York discussing the million or more people, mostly Uighur Muslims, being held in internment camps in China’s western region of Xinjiang by the Chinese authorities, a young man of Chinese descent approached me with a disturbing question. “I’m a Hui person,” he said, referring to China’s largest Muslim minority group. “And among the community in China, they are very afraid that they will be next, after the Uighur. There are already ‘anti-halal’ groups attacking us and breaking the windows of our restaurants. What do you think will happen?”
The news for the Hui, and other Chinese Muslims, isn’t good. In mid-December, several provinces removed their halal food standards, a move heralded by government officials as fighting a fictional pan-halal trend under which Muslim influence was supposedly spreading into secular life. That’s a severe contrast with previous government policies, which actively encouraged the development of the halal trade for export. This week, meanwhile, three prominent mosques were shut, sparking protests. Many mosques across the country have already been closed, or forced to remodel to a supposedly more Chinese style, and the Communist Party presence there has been strengthened, with pictures of Xi Jinping placed in prominent locations and the walls covered in Marxist slogans.
There are more than 20 million Muslims in China, and 10 of the country’s 55 officially recognized minorities are traditionally Muslim, with the largest by far being the Hui and the Uighur. Islam’s history in China is more than a millennium old, and there have been previous clashes—as with other faiths—between imperial authorities and believers, most notably the Dungan rebellions of the 19th century. Muslim minority cuisine is common, cheap, and popular throughout the country; these restaurants usually feature Arabic writing and images of famous mosques on the walls. As Islamophobia has grown in the last four years, however, restaurants are increasingly removing any public display of their faith.
Islam isn’t the only religion being targeted. Beijing demands state control and oversight of all faiths. This supervision used to be run through the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA), but that department was dissolved last March, with responsibility for religion taken over directly by the United Front Work Department (UFWD), which handles the Communist Party’s control of civil society domestically. The dissolution of SARA also meant the end of many working relationships between the department and religious groups. Most of the former staff have left, and while Wang Zuoan—the long-standing head of SARA known for a relatively light hand—is now one of 10 vice ministers at the UFWD, he has almost no staff, no power, and no role.
“SARA had become a very important buffer between the legitimate practices, needs, and works of the faiths and the demands of the party. Now it’s been turned into an instrument of overt and explicit control. They were once there to make religion work well. Now they are there to make religion work for the party,” commented one Westerner with long experience working with religious NGOs in China, who asked for anonymity. Local officials, meanwhile, under pressure in an increasingly paranoid internal party environment, have been forced to abandon policies of local tolerance in favor of heavy-handed enforcement.
On the ground, that has translated into a much colder environment for believers. Christians across the country have faced a wave of repression, with arrests of prominent ministers, the closure of churches, a ban on Bible sales online, and the removal of crosses. Tibetan Buddhism, always closely monitored, is being more tightly watched than ever. Even so-called Chinese religions, such as Taoism and non-Tibetan Buddhism, are having a tough time, being denied permission for new buildings or classes and going through layers of added bureaucracy.
But the turn against Islam is by far the most prominent—and potentially the nastiest—example of China’s clampdown on religion. In large part, it flows from the adoption of a totalitarian regime in Xinjiang, where any Islamic practice is now read by the security state as a sign of potential extremism. Other Muslim communities were previously able to endure the storm in part because their Uighur members were forced back to Xinjiang; even advocates of Saudi-style Salafism were able to operate in Ningxia and elsewhere.
Today, though, the intensity of the anti-Islamic campaign in Xinjiang has resulted in other provinces adopting the same ideas, lest their leaders be accused of being soft on terrorism or of having ideological sympathy for Islam. That’s particularly the case for party officials who are from Islamic families; numerous Uighur officials have been arrested for being “two-faced”—presenting themselves as loyal party members while being secretly sympathetic to religion. “They used to ask the Hui officials to help handle Hui affairs sensitively,” a Han Chinese state employee who works in Islamic areas told Foreign Policy. “But now if you’re Hui, you have to be doubly hard on your own people.”
The state campaign has been backed by a growing popular Islamophobia, which has erupted in the last four years. Anti-Uighur racism has always existed, but it previously focused largely on ethnicity, not belief. The new hate largely began with the terrorist attack at a train station in the southern city of Kunming in 2014, when eight Uighur attackers killed 31 travelers. A newly aggressive Han chauvinism became the norm online—aided, perhaps, by it being one of the few remaining forms of tolerated public political speech. Many Chinese friends and colleagues, even relatively liberal ones, bristled at any mention of Islam, seeing Westerners as anti-Chinese and biased in favor of Islam. While other online speech has been harshly shut down, the censors have barely touched abuse of Muslims, even calls for violence.
Chinese Islamophobes have created a mythical halalification movement, which functions in their imagination something like sharia does in the minds of rural American lawmakers fearful that the mullahs might start marching down Main Street. Food has often been a clashing point; young Uighurs often avoid eating in nonhalal restaurants not for religious reasons but as a gesture of cultural defiance, and the forced consumption of pork has now become routine in Xinjiang. In the minds of Chinese Islamaphobes, however, Muslims are the ones imposing themselves on good, ordinary Chinese. The mere offering of halal services is taken as a sign of imminent threat; when one delivery app included it as an option, Muslims faced a wave of online hate.
Several fears are bundled together here. Chinese are very worried about food safety, and the description of halal food as qingzhen—which just means “Islamic” but literally translates as “pure and clean”—created a belief that halal consumers were somehow privileged or claiming that the Han were dirty. That’s linked to a deep-seated belief among Han Chinese that ethnic minorities are enjoying special treatment, based on government policies that gave them bonus points on university entrance exams or allowed more lenient family planning. (As with affirmative action in the United States, those policies were real, but the daily discrimination faced by visibly non-Han Chinese citizens, in contrast, was largely invisible to Han.) Fake news about Muslim atrocities generated by racists in the West, meanwhile, has spread via social media into Chinese society.
There could be another reason for Islamophobia in China. A newly powerful Han nationalism needs an internal enemy, and Islam fits the bill. Originally, the People’s Republic of China, like the Soviet Union from which it drew its model, envisaged itself as a multiethnic state. As with Russians in the Soviet state, though, Han Chinese massively dominated—but at least in official statements, Han chauvinism was condemned from the very top.
Today, however, Han nationalism is openly on the rise, both among ordinary Chinese and in state policy. Minority language education, once guaranteed, has been vastly restrained; even for minorities largely viewed in a positive light, such as Koreans, the number of schools offering their own tongues has shrunk from dozens to a handful. State rhetoric increasingly pushes a purely ethnonationalist line.
A new identity often depends on a convincing foe. The party might prefer it if young Han men and women defined the enemy as Americanness, but that’s impossible in a country that loves The Big Bang Theory and defines success as getting a child into Harvard University. Islam, however, makes for the perfect enemy. It’s perceived as foreign, but it’s present across China. It’s ideologically unacceptable to the state. It’s stained by an association with terrorism. And for the vast majority of Han, it has no cultural or political appeal.
For China’s Muslim citizens, vast numbers of whom see themselves as loyal Chinese, the turn against their faith and history is already a tragedy. But with Islamophobia fueled by both the terror of Xinjiang and the anger of ordinary Chinese, there may be worse to come.