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What Explains the Silence around China’s Treatment of Muslim Uighurs?

By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam

21 October 2019

It is astonishing that the world is silent over the Chinese treatment of its Muslim minority Uighurs. Not just the Muslim world, but even the European countries who otherwise champion human rights (in non-western countries) are also looking the other way rather than condemning China. Of course, China has done a lot to contain criticism of its policy in Xinjiang. The foremost of this strategy has been not to allow any discussion of Uyghur in the United Nation. Also, China has been quick to point out the western world’s abuse of human rights whether in Guantanamo or their duplicity in the Iraq and Syrian wars.

However, international politics and diplomacy have a way of manoeuvring opinion which makes it hard for individual countries to be able to escape negative spotlight altogether. After all, China is not the only country to spend millions in order to cultivate international opinion in its favour. For decades, the United States has been doing the same and yet, it has not succeeded in its efforts. Not only is there rampant anti-Americanism in Muslim world, but countries across the third world spectrum thrive on latent and at times overt anti American politics. So why is it that China is succeeding where other countries have failed?

The conventional explanation that it is all about the market of more than one billion Chinese consumers does have some merit. It is also plausible that the Chinese are putting pressure on countries through its Belt and Road Initiative. But is there more to the worlds’ silence than meets the eye? Is it possible that there is a Chinese model to tackling Islamic extremism and that the world is looking at it indulgently because all other models have failed? In order to understand this, we must look into the various strategies which China has adopted towards its Muslim population.

The problem of Chinese-Uighur relationship can be understood through the trope of Hannification. It is important to note that there are a number of ethnicities in China. The dominant ethnic group are the Han who have control over state’s resources and it is this group which has shaped much of China’s history. The Uighurs, residing in what they call East Turkestan and what the Chinese call as Xinjiang are of Turkish ethnicity. An overwhelming majority of Uighurs are Muslim and therefore this ethnic tension between the Han and the Uighurs also translated as tension between Han Chinese and Uighurs Muslims. Xinjiang used to be a sparsely populated area and the Chinese have used it for extraction of raw materials, testing of nuclear weapons and also as a buffer zone against any possible international conflict. 

There are three distinct strategies which the Chinese state has employed in this area to subdue and domesticate Muslims. The first is the demographic change which they have affected in this area. In 1953, the Han population in Xinjiang was a mere 300,000 which grew to 6 million in 1990. Clearly, this was a result of state sponsored population transfer. It should not be forgotten however, that China seduced its Han population to settle in this part of the country not through the use of force but through the promise of a better future. The Chinese have invested billions of dollars (one estimated puts it at 200 billion) in developing infrastructure and asking big capital to invest there. Xinjiang is also important because the New Silk Road passes through the area and the new investments need to be protected. The New Silk Road has the effect of creating dependent states in much of central Asia through what is called Chinese debt diplomacy. But it is equally true that many of these countries are themselves trying to defend their nascent states from the onslaught of Islamic fundamentalism and therefore an alliance of interest between China and central Asian states like Kazakhstan and Kyrgystan cannot be ruled out. It seems that the economic development of the region and the repression of its Muslim population will go hand in hand. 

The second strategy which the Chinese have deployed may be called a thorough assimilation of Uighurs within the Chinese national imagination. This has led to erasing the cultural symbols of Muslims like mosques, madrasas and graveyards. However, it needs to be stressed that not all mosques have been raised to the ground and therefore it will be untrue to say that Chinese intention is to obliterate Islam altogether. The Chinese have reasoned that too many mosques are completely unnecessary and that such spaces can be better used as playgrounds or parking lots! A related measure has been the issue of language. The Uighurs have their own language and their Islamic imagination has been shaped through the Arabic language.

 There is some research which suggests that their insistence on using their own language made them deprived in terms of jobs, access to Chinese mainstream, etc. (This is similar to Indian Muslims who insist on using Urdu as their mother tongue, an insistence which has contributed in a big way to make them a deprived community in terms of social and economic indicators). While many states will give in to such demands in the name of diversity and multiculturalism, the Chinese response has been to limit the usage of local Uighur language and promote Mandarin. They have shut down Quranic schools and have advocated the learning of Islamic scriptures in Mandarin. This anti-Arabic crusade of the Chinese state is also in part to cut the cultural memory of Uighur Muslims and their religious and epistemological links with the wider Islamic history and present.

The third strategy of containment has been to put together a technology enabled surveillance state or what Michel Foucault would have called the use of the panopticon. Through smart phones and surveillance cameras with face recognition software, they are able to track and identify individuals even in crowded places. Some analysts have argued that the Chinese are basically building up a laboratory of surveillance in Xinjiang to understand how to manage an eventual resistance. This is being watched by the world and they would in all probability not hesitate to borrow this technique from China to control their own restive populations in case a need arises.

There is one more thing which needs to be stressed when we talk of China’s Muslim policy. The Hui are another Muslim group in China; however, they are not the objects of suspicion as are the Uighurs. Part of the reason for this different treatment seems to be that the Hui have been since the beginning associated with the Communist Party of China. Moreover, there have been modernists within the Hui community who have advocated the use of Mandarin over Arabic in terms of spoken and written language and also in terms of everyday nomenclature. They eventually became much more integrated within the Chinese economy and society.

 Moreover, the Hui spread out and became a diaspora within China, thus making them invisible within the larger Chinese society. Interestingly, these reformists currents within the Hui was a product of Wahhabi reformism which now so besets the Muslim world and others. The Chinese were able to develop deep connections with the middle-east using Hui imams as interpreters. Some of these Hui imams were educated in places like al-Azhar (Cairo) and Mecca. This differential treatment of the Uighurs and the Hui raises the question whether China has a problem with Islam per se or with specific groups of Muslims like the Uighurs who have in the past shown inclination towards violent extremism. We must remember that Islam continues to be one of the officially recognised religions in China and that every year around 10,000 Chinese are giving visas to perform Hajj in Mecca. 

So the silence on Chinese treatment of its Muslim population may not just be because of economic reasons but also because China is giving a model on how to contain a section of its population. The silence of Muslim countries in particular is because they have an equally harsh anti-extremism policy. Moreover, there is a feeling in the Muslim world that they should support China because it is facing up to the US which is considered as the bigger enemy.

Arshad Alam is a columnist


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