China’s recent troubles with Islam and unruly provinces like Xinjiang are not new, nor typically for communist rule, writes journalist Ian Johnson, author of The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao, for the New York Review of books. “It would be tempting to say that all of this is just typical Communist excess, something in the party’s DNA that forces it to turn to repression and violence to solve problems. But the long history of Islam’s persecution points to older, deeper problems in the Chinese worldview.”
Today, though the state no longer adopts the utopianism of a Buddhist religious state, it does have a similarly coercive, assimilationist policy toward its ethnic minorities. When the ethnic Chinese Communist Party took over in 1949, it copied the Stalinist policy of creating nationalities. Fifty-six were identified, including Chinese, Mongolians, and Uighurs, each officially celebrated as comprising a mosaic of groups that formed the People’s Republic.
As in imperial times, this policy was less tolerant than it seemed. In the Mao era, all minorities were supposed to meld into a great Communist brotherhood. In the reform era from the late 1970s to about 2010, development was meant to eradicate all differences, with ethnic groups pursuing money instead of their own cultures.
More recently, the state has taken a more overt policy of Han Chinese chauvinism. Thus the state produces strange statements, such as celebrating Chinese myths, such as declaring the Yellow Emperor the “founder of the Chinese nation,” when, in fact, the nation of China is made up of multiple ethnicities, most of which have no link to the Yellow Emperor. It has also taken steps to reduce Islam’s (and Christianity’s) visibility in China by tearing down churches and mosques—while promoting what it sees as indigenous religions: Buddhism, Taoism, and folk religion.
This prejudicial policy is a leading reason for Xinjiang’s suffering. While cloaked in the war on terrorism, many of the state’s actions are aimed at Islam itself. Shops in Xinjiang have been forced to sell alcohol and tobacco, while university students have been forbidden to fast during Ramadan. Women with veils and men with beards have been systematically barred from some local public transportation.
This has culminated in the reintroduction of a Mao-era measure: re-education camps. Then, the idea was to punish people who had the wrong class background; now, it is Muslims who have not assimilated enough. At first, reports of this seemed like a rumor, perhaps an exaggeration—something that seemed an impossibility in the twenty-first century. Recently, though, the state has admitted they exist, saying they are needed to control extremism.
Over the past four years, the Communist Party has also sent one million ethnic Chinese members to live among Uighurs to teach them the joys of secular life. As the anthropologist Darren Byler described in an extensive exposé on the Asia Society’s ChinaFile website, this involves keeping an eye out for what the state sees as extremist behavior, such as Uighurs’ not watching state-run television or having religious devotional materials hanging from their walls. At first, this seemed to many like another can’t-be-true moment, but Chinese state media has since confirmed it.
In recent months, there are signs that the campaign has moved beyond Xinjiang to the Hui Muslims, the descendants of the first Muslims, who are centered in Ningxia province but also live scattered across China. In Ningxia, Islamic domes and signs in Arabic are being pulled down, while the call to prayer has been banned.
It would be tempting to say that all of this is just typical Communist excess, something in the party’s DNA that forces it to turn to repression and violence to solve problems. But the long history of Islam’s persecution points to older, deeper problems in the Chinese worldview. Most worrisome, it is these very traditions that the state is promoting as a way to bolster its legitimacy, instead of building a pluralistic society open to different faiths, beliefs, and convictions.
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