Sergio Restelli

China’s double standard for Xinjiang and Gaza

“After 2009, everything changed. Now the rule is, if I go to your house, read some Quran, pray together, and the government finds out, you go to jail.” That’s how the Freedom House had quoted Barna, a Uighur woman from Xinjiang who had been living in the United States since 2015.

In the backdrop of the concerns being expressed by Beijing at the mounting toll of civilian casualties in Gaza in the wake of the war with Israel, such an assertion from a victim of human rights violations in the Xinjiang region of China is surprising indeed. Foreign Minister of China Wang Yi has lately described Israel’s war in Gaza as “disgrace for civilization” and called for “immediate ceasefire.” When examined in the backdrop of the inhumane way China is treating its own Muslim population at home, it is clear that all those concerns at the situation in Gaza are only crocodile tears. There may be other motives behind the concern expressed by Wang Yi over the Gaza situation, but it is certainly not the welfare of the predominantly Muslim Palestinian population.

Antagonism to Islam is not a new phenomenon in China. Only, under the rule of President Xi Jinping this has reached inhumane proportions. The worst sufferers are the Uighur Muslims of the Xinjiang region. Under the rule of President Xi, over one million of them have been sent to concentration camps disguised as re-education centres. They have also faced killing, torture and forced sterilization. The United States High Commissioner for Human Rights has described the treatment meted out to the Uighur Muslims as “crime against humanity.” Other Muslim communities in China too have suffered, from the numerically strong Hui spread all over China to the tiny Utsul community living in the Henan province.

Some of the ingenious ways the Muslim community is humiliated in China, as documented in various reports of international watchdogs and reported in the media, are the promotion of liquor and cigarettes in Muslim-dominated areas, force-feeding of pork and the appointment of communist party officials in governing bodies of mosques. Smoking and drinking are banned in Islam and for Muslims pork is unclean meat. Enforcing them on the Muslims is an attempt by the Chinese Communist Party to force assimilation of the Muslims with the majority Han Chinese population in China. Restaurants and supermarkets in Muslim-dominated areas are sometime forced to sell cigarettes and liquor andbeer festivals are organized.

“Every Friday, we were forced to eat pork meat,” Al Jazeera quoted Sautbay in a report in December 2020 after her release from a detention camp in Xinjiang. “They have intentionally chosen a day that is holy for the Muslims. And if you reject it you would get a harsh punishment.” In 2019, the Xinjiang administration hit upon a plan to turn the autonomous region into a “pig-raising hub;” in a deliberate affront to the way of life of the Uighur Muslims. Students in schools in Xinjiang have been served pork as a meal and forced to eat the meat.

In the Henan province, the tiny Utsul Muslim community has been restricted from wearing their traditional dress. Utsul girls have been asked not to wear ‘hijab’ when going to school. The numerically strong Hui community, too, has been subjected to humiliation. “This video of a young Hui girl reciting Quran versus has drawn a gasp from the public. The Education Department of Gansu Province strongly condemns this act that harms the mental health of the youth, and demands education agencies. Strictly ban religion from campuses,” the Education Department of Gansu Province said in May 2016, as quoted in the Freedom House report on the condition of Islam in China. 

While the Hui population in China is more than 10 million strong, the Uighur population is about 10 million and theUtsuls have a population of only about 10,000. The total Muslim population in China is estimated to be about 23 million.

The excuse of China for the inhumaneways the Uighur Muslims have been treated is that the Xinjiang region harbours terrorist elements. The year 2009 has been described as a “watershed year” for the relations of the Chinese government with the Uighur Muslims. On July 5 that year, the police forcibly suppressed a peaceful demonstration of Uighur people in Urumqi, protesting against the lack of investigation into the deaths of Uighur factory workers in a brawl with Han employees in southern China. The police action sparked an outbreak of violence between the native Uighur people and Han residents in which nearly 200 people were reported to be killed. This was followed by a harsh crackdown, including large-scale disappearance, imprisonment and execution of Uighur people.

But the history of the hatred towards the Muslim community in China is much older, its roots lying in Han Chinese chauvinism which had first appeared in the parts of the Manchu dynasty that ruled China from 1644 to 1911. In the reign of the Manchu dynasty, a westward expansion of the Chinese empire took place; bringing under its rule territories dominated by non-Han people, known by the generic name Hui Muslims. The resistance by the Muslim community against their forcible assimilation with the Han people had first given rise to the Han hatred of the Muslims.

This historical legacy of Han Chinese chauvinism and ‘Hui-phobia’ has continued into the modern era. In the period of Republican rule in China, relations between the two communities had improved but after the advent of Communist rule in China in 1948 the ruling Chinese Communist Party tried to follow the Soviet policy towards “minor nationalities”; which was to suppress their aspirations for real autonomy through a state-sponsored programme of “nation building.” After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the formation of Central Asian Islamic republics, anti-Islamic sentiments got strengthened in China. The Han Chinese rulers started to discover a link between the Islamic religion and the so-called “three evil forces” of “separatism, extremism and terrorism.” The tightening of religious management and the criminalization of peaceful religious activities accelerated after the terror attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. The Communist Party of China became more vocal about security threats involving the Uighur community.

According to an Observer Research Foundation report, in 2019, the Chinese Islamic Association and the Communist Party of China had a meeting in Beijing to work out a five-year plan for the “Sinification of Islam.” It was an effort to make Islam compatible with socialism by 2022. The mandate to ensure that Islam in China reflected the “core socialist values” was set in the 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in 2017 and plans were drawn up for reconciliation of Islam with the socialist society. In 2018, the State Council of China issued a directive titled “Reinforcing and Improving Islam Work in the New Situation,” ordering the removal of Arabic features from mosques. Throughout China, mosques are having their domes removed or covered or replaced with Chinese-style pagodas.

Under the rule of President Xi, both the Hui and the Uighur Muslims have experienced increased restrictions and the antagonism of the Chinese state machinery towards the Muslim community has increased. Controls have become more intense in the Uighur Autonomous Region in Xinjiang. The restrictions on dress, for instance, have now become codified at the national level. The use of smart phones by Muslims in Xinjiang is being monitored more closely and the sale of alcohol in Muslim-dominated areas is being enforced.

It is believed that President Xi is using the Han chauvinism to retain his grip over Chinese society. He is frequently raising concerns about the danger posed to Chinese society by Islam and its traditions. This approach of President Xi has received public commendation throughout China and raised him to the level of an autocratic leader.

It is ironic that the anti-Islam policies pursued by China at home have not met with condemnation by Muslim-majority nations, except for Turkey. In South Asia, Muslim people have not been vocal against the human rights violations of the Uighur people in Xinjiang; except some periodic protests in Bangladesh. China is believed to win over Muslim countries in its favour by pumping in money through the Belt and Road Initiative. Analysts believe that in view of the fact that China is the only country that has helped Pakistan to internationalize the Kashmir issue in the United Nations Security Council and the Chinese criticism, together with that of Pakistan, against the withdrawal of article 370 from Kashmir, it is a strategic mistake on the part of India to remain silent about the human rights violations on Uighur Muslims in China.

About the Author
Sergio Restelli is an Italian political advisor, author and geopolitical expert. He served in the Craxi government in the 1990's as the special assistant to the deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Justice Martelli and worked closely with anti-mafia magistrates Falcone and Borsellino. Over the past decades he has been involved in peace building and diplomacy efforts in the Middle East and North Africa. He has written for Geopolitica and several Italian online and print media. In 2020 his first fiction "Napoli sta bene" was published.
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