Monday, September 30, 2019

China's War on Islam

In August this year Qatar pulled it's signature to a document which many other Islamic countries had signed in support of Beijing as policy in Xinjiang which has seen more than a million Uighurs detained in so called education camps [Bloomberg].

Activists hailed the move. "We are happy and welcome the fact that Qatar changed its position and ended its support for China's policies against the Muslim Uighurs," Mahmoud Mohamad, vice president of the Istanbul-based Society of Muslim Scholars of East Turkestan (SMSET) told Al Jazeera.

But whilst it was a sign that the international Muslim community might be finally changing it's stance concerning Muslims' plight in China, many Islamic countries have so far ignored China's harsh treatment of Muslims despite an increasing clampdown on Muslims in China, many Islamic countries.


In January this year Beijing passed a new law requiring Islamic shops and restaurants to comply to displaying signage that did not show Islamic symbols or Arabic writing.

While the capital was the first place to see the enforcement of the new rules, the dictate has gradually rolled out across China in what many see as Beijing's ongoing effort of sinicization.

Sinicization is nothing new in China, especially with regards to religion. Indeed one notable example is Tibet. China led a military assault on Tibet in October 1950, and in April 1951 Tibet's leaders said they were strong-armed into signing a treaty, known as the 'Seventeen Point Agreement', which gave China control over Tibet's external affairs and allowed Chinese military occupation, in return for pledging to safeguard Tibet's political system.

However, there was widespread open rebellion against Chinese rule within Tibet by 1956, which tipped over into a full uprising in March 1959. Tibetans say that thousands died during the occupation and uprising, but China disputes this [BBC].

Since then there has been a process of sinicization by means of state propaganda, police presence, cultural assimilation, religious persecution, immigration, population transfer and political reform.

Muslim fears

China is now developing a five-year plan for the sinicization of Islam, according to the country's government-backed China Islamic Association.

One US-based Muslim student activist Sulaiman Gu said the sinicization program had been designed to target Hui Muslims in particular.

"The sinicization of Islam is mostly targeted at Hui Muslims," Gu told RFA. "[They] know very well that there's no point in using the rhetoric of anti-terrorism or separatism to justify it, but it's still a form of cultural genocide."

Meanwhile Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for exile group the World Uyghur Congress, said the sinicization campaign is utterly coercive. "China has always seen the beliefs of Islam as a fundamental challenge to Communist Party rule," he said. "There is a plan; there's an aim here."


Recently a video of Uighurs in China's Xinjiang surfaced online that showed dozens of Uighur men, their heads shaved, blindfolded and with their hands tied behind their backs during a mass transfer at a train station in the north-west region of China [ABC / Sky News].

The images have shocked many especially those in the Muslim community. Alim Osman, president of the Uyghur Association of Victoria in Australia, compared China's treatment of Muslims to Nazi Germany.

"It's chilling and it's very horrifying for us. We feel like we are alone in this battle against the Chinese communist regime," he told the ABC. "[It] feels like exactly the same as what happened in Nazi Germany — it's happening in the twenty-first century again," he said.

Whilst China describes detention camps in Xinjiang as vocational skills education centres they are widely seen as concentration camps by human rights groups [Uyghur Congress].

China is accused of locking up hundreds of thousands of Muslims without trial in its western region of Xinjiang often claiming they are being detained to counter the threat of terrorism.

The region has a long history of rebellion and resistance to Chinese rule. Indeed, the relationship between the Uighurs and their modern-day political masters has long been fraught. But whilst there have been riots and terrorist attacks, Beijing's response has been seen by some as overkill. 

Terror attacks

In 2013, an attack on pedestrians in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, which claimed two lives as well as the three Uighur occupants of the car, marked a significant moment.

Although relatively small in terms of fatalities it rattled the foundations of the Chinese state.

The following year, 31 people were slaughtered by knife-wielding Uighur attackers at a train station in the Chinese city of Kunming, more than 2000 km away from Xinjiang.

These incidents have prompted authorities to clampdown hard. Over the past four years, Xinjiang has been the target of some of the most restrictive and comprehensive security measures ever deployed by a state against its own people.

Facial recognition cameras, monitoring devices that read the content of mobile phones and the mass collection of biometric data is widespread.

New legal penalties have been introduced to curtail Islamic identity and practice - banning, among other things, long beards and headscarves, the religious instruction of children, and even Islamic-sounding names [BBC].

Sinicization spreads

In the last few months the clampdown against Islam appears to be spreading with restaurants, shops and even mosques being forced to comply with new rules.

As far south as Yunnan province authorities have forced businesses to cover up Arabic script and pictures of mosques. Even the English word 'halal' falls foul of the new rules.

Most shops have complied without complaint, though any protestation would likely fall on deaf ears.

Nonetheless there is disquiet in the Muslim community many of whom see the clampdown as an attempt to sinicize China and accuse authorities of "erasing" Muslim culture.

It's not just shops that have drawn the attention of authorities. Mosques too have been forced to comply with new rules.

Some local authorities have insisted Mosques raise the national flag and surveillance on them has also increased.


"There's fewer people attending prayers now," one Muslim told tvnewswatch, adding that increased monitoring had dissuaded some people from attending.

There is, he said, a threat that any officials, such as those in government or police, would be demoted or sanctioned should they attend prayers.

And it wasn't just mosques either. According to this Muslim, even Buddhist temples are being monitored with those in government positions also being dissuaded from visiting.

Indeed there is a general feeling that President Xi Jinping seems bent on ending or at least limiting any independent commitment to a belief system other than the one embodied in official Communist Party propaganda [WBHM].

His government's next target appears to be the 10-million-member Muslim Hui minority, who are scattered all across China including Xinjiang, Gansu, Beijing, Xi'an, Inner Mongolia, Hebei, Hainan and Yunnan.

The Hui minority have no particular record of separatism or extremism but there seems to be a fear within the Communist Party that adherence to the Muslim faith could turn into religious extremism and open defiance of its rule [Washington Post / NYT] .

Rights removed

While most Muslims are still 'free' to practice their religion, albeit under increased surveillance and having complied with new rules concerning signage on shops and restaurants, some are finding their rights eroded.

Uighurs in particular, even those outside Xinjiang, have found their movements restricted.

One Muslim, who lives in south west Yunnan told tvnewswatch his Uigher wife is unable to travel abroad with him since she has had her passport confiscated. She cannot even change her citizenship from Xinjiang to the town where she now lives with her husband in Yunnan province.

With local citizenship refused for Uighers who have relocated there is always the risk they could be rounded up and be placed in one of the detention camps that now house more than one million Uighers deemed a threat by Beijing.

"Everything you see in the foreign media is true," he says, referring to reports such as in-depth investigations by Sky News and CNN.

Growing Islamophobia

However, many Han Chinese don't see the real picture, and see instead a growing Muslim threat.

Such views are exacerbated by the distorted reports that emanate from state media.

While it is true that an uprising in Xinjiang province some ten years ago resulted in the deaths of many Han Chinese, to some extent the events were isolated to that particular region.

"I don't like Muslims," one Han Chinese told tvnewswatch, who had recently returned from the province. He spoke of fearing being attacked by the local Muslim population, whom he said would be quite willing to stab any Han Chinese they encountered.

"I was glad of the strong police presence," he said.

Such sentiments are apparently common. Yet whilst expressing a hatred or dislike for Muslims or Islam, the very same people often choose to eat at Muslim restaurants and even associate with Muslim 'friends'.

These apparent contradictions are hard to reconcile. Indeed, it seems only to indicate that the concerns many have regards Muslims are mostly unfounded.

Most seem unable to recognise that the Uigher uprising that targeted Han Chinese as well as the police, resulted from growing oppression by the authorities, and was not merely Islam versus China.

Playing with fire

Beijing's war on Islam, and indeed other religions, in an attempt to sinicize China may well create bigger problems than it can handle.

Xi Jinping's new China talks of Harmony, Patriotism and Democracy amongst other so-called "socialist core values".

However, alienating core groups and essentially labelling them as the enemy within, is certainly not conducive to establishing harmony.

Indeed, continued repression of the Uighers and Muslims as a whole is more likely to create discord.

So-called Muslim extremists have used Western interference in the Middle East as an excuse to wage war in the form of terror attacks across Europe and the US.

China, thus far, has avoided major attacks. But should it continue with its propaganda campaign and persecution of Muslims and pursue its aggressive policy of sinicization, China may well find itself in the cross hairs of Islamic terrorism.

China's systematic anti-Muslim campaign, and accompanying repression of Christians and Tibetan Buddhists, may represent the largest-scale official attack on religious freedom in the world. Communist China has never been comfortable with religion. During a meeting in Beijing in 1954 Mao Zedong famously told the Dalai Lama, "Religion is poison" [Guardian].

Returning to the past

Xi Jinping is widely seen by observers outside of China as modelling himself on Mao. He is already using tried-and-true methods to craft a personality cult, his airbrushed image looming large on propaganda posters plastered across the country.

And his hardline approach is concerning many.  Cui Haoxin, a Hui Muslim poet who publishes under the name An Ran, fears a return to the days of the Cultural Revolution.

The methods of repression employed in Xinjiang now loom over all of China. "One day this model will not only target Muslims," he says, "Everyone will be harmed by it." [NYT]

He calls it the harshest campaign against faith since the end of the Cultural Revolution, when so-called Red Guards unleashed by Mao Zedong destroyed mosques across the country.

One such incident was the move against the Shadian mosque in Yunnan province which resulted in more than 1,600 deaths [Wikipedia: Shadian Incident].

As China marks the 70th Anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, the Communist Party of China and Xi Jinping faces more than a few problems [BBC / LAT].

Pro-democracy protests continue in Hong Kong, a trade war with the US intensifies and there is an ever increasing rich-poor divide with many people marginalised despite China's economic success.

It also faces a continuing battle hiding its chequered past, including man-made famines and massacres that resulted in millions of deaths, hidden from its 1.4 billion people.

Meanwhile it seems to be on the verge of repeating the same mistakes all over again.

tvnewswatch, London, UK