By Ahmed Elbenni
Screams of terror shatter the idyllic peace as civilians flee the indiscriminate slaughter. News channels reveal the attackers to be radical Muslims. The government vows to strike down the terrorists responsible. Most Americans are familiar with this narrative. Most wouldn’t be with the incident described above, however, because it occurred in China. On the evening of March 1, 2014, the Kunming Railway Station was attacked by eight knife-wielding assailants. Twenty-nine were killed and more than 140 injured. The attacks were almost immediately traced to the usual suspects: Uyghur separatist terrorists from Xinjiang.
The Uyghur are a Turkic-speaking people who constitute one of the fifty-six minority ethnic groups recognized by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). They are culturally, racially, and linguistically distinct from the country’s Han Chinese majority. The eight million Uyghurs who live in China, the vast majority of whom are Muslim, are concentrated in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), which forms one-sixth of China’s landmass. The Uyghur have a cultural and historical connection to Central Asia that the Han do not, and as such their absorption into the modern Chinese state has been fraught with societal difficulties. While 95 percent of Xinjiang was Turkic-speaking and Muslim upon the founding of PRC, that number has since plunged to 40 percent. The government’s economic investments in Xinjiang created new jobs occupied by Han, thus exacerbating unemployment rates among the Uyghur.
Some Uyghurs see the changes as an opportunity to escape into modernity. Others, however, see the influx of Han from mainland China to represent an occupying colonial project, and yearn for the establishment of an independent Uyghur state–much like the stated goal of the East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM). Such nonconformist attitudes have only increased the state’s suspicions of the Uyghur, and it has resorted to brutal oppression to keep them in line. The Uyghurs’s religion is often the target of repressive state policies because it represents the clearest expression of Uyghur cultural identity and a potential source of political resistance.
However, while the Uyghurs comprise a significant percentage of China’s Muslim population, they are not the largest Muslim ethnic group. That title belongs to the 11 million Hui. However, unlike the Uyghur, the Hui are culturally, ethnically, and linguistically indistinguishable from the Han majority. The only notable differences between them, such as the Hui’s abstinence from pork, are rooted in their practice of Islam. Unlike the Uyghur, Hui are not concentrated in one region. Ultimately, these two crucial differences ensure Uyghur and Hui Muslims live totally different lives.
The Uyghurs are not allowed even basic religious freedom, even though this right is protected by China’s constitution. Men are often banned from growing beards, and women cannot don the hijab in public. The few religious schools available are state-controlled. Muslim workers can be forbidden from fasting Ramadan, and children are forbidden from attending mosques and studying religion. To the Hui Muslims in Shadian, a city in in the Yunnan Province, such suppression of Islamic practice is unthinkable. The city boasts eleven mosques, men and women alike study in Islamic schools, employers give their workers time off to accommodate their prayer schedules, and Muslim youth organize inter-mosque basketball tournaments. Shadian is not an exceptional case, either, as similar religious freedom exists in places like the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Province, a freer mirror of the Uyghur equivalent of Xinjiang.
Clearly, then, despite being officially atheist, the Chinese state is not necessarily opposed to Islam. It will allow believers to worship in peace so long as they cooperate with its policies. Loyalty is rewarded with tolerance, while disobedience is punished with repression. The Chinese state prioritizes the maintenance of social stability above all else, and it will allow or repress religious expression for the purposes of achieving that goal.
The differential treatment of the Uyghurs and the Hui is linked to this basic logic: the Uyghur have mostly failed to fully assimilate into Chinese culture and thereby represent a potential threat, while the Hui tend to be more politically unengaged and have assimilated into Han culture. As such, they have won unusual tolerance from the Chinese government, which has previously ignored isolated instances of religious fundamentalism amongst the Hui. The Chinese government has attempted to fashion the Hui into exemplars of legitimate Chinese Islamic expression as political counterpoints to the Uyghur separatists. The construction of a China Hui Culture Park intended to function as a tourist hotspot promoting a state-sanctioned version of Islam is a prime example of this relationship.
Beyond that, the global War on Terror inaugurated by the Bush Administration has had a dire impact on the lives of the Uyghurs. The Chinese government has deemed many of its political opponents “terrorists” with reckless impunity, successfully silencing its Uyghur critics under a cover of international legitimacy. Since the state has an ironclad grip on the flow of information out of China, independent verification of the government’s claims of terrorism is difficult. Meanwhile, the official media’s international branches drum up the threat of terrorism from separatists to gain international support for merciless crackdowns on Uyghur.
Interestingly, however, the domestic media’s portrayal of Uyghurs does not match its international one. A study conducted by Liang Zheng of the University of Colorado found that the state-run media tends to portray the majority of Uyghurs positively, showcasing Uyghur pop icons to uphold the national myth of ethnic harmony. However, such portrayals are undercut by the media’s fixation on Uyghur terrorism and crime, which only reinforce racist stereotypes. “‘Everyone knows’ is very powerful in society,” says Jonathan Lipman, Professor Emeritus of History and Asian Studies at Mount Holyoke College. “So the positive media portrayal of the ‘national minorities’ does not prevent everyone from knowing that Uyghurs are [for example] drug dealers.”
Uyghurs are thus subject to callous discrimination from both the government and the public, which produces a constellation of oppression on both the state and local level. The Hui, despite being Muslims like the Uyghurs, are not immune to this ethnic stereotyping. “I have heard Hui, in Beijing, say that I should beware of the Uyghur kebab guys (or even Uyghur restaurants) because they will steal my money and sell me drugs,” says Lipman. Many Hui Muslims distance themselves from the Uyghurs by disavowing them as fellow Muslims. When the government claimed that some of the terrorists responsible for the Kunming Station attacks had spent time in Shadian, the Hui majority city found itself under increased surveillance of religious activities. While these new restrictions were minor compared to the conditions in Xinjiang, some Hui detested falling under suspicion for the actions of a few radicals. As such, disassociating themselves and their religion from the Uyghur is an expected response.
“I’d say there’s some similarity in how Islam is currently [mis]perceived in the US as well as in China, in terms of Islam being closely associated with Islamic extremism, terrorism, and violence,” says Tao Tao Holmes, a Yale graduate awarded with a Princeton-in-Asia fellowship in Xinjiang. “I think, like with so many cultural chasms, there are lots of stereotypes and lots of assumptions made from a distance.”
Although Xinjiang tends to be closely associated with the Uyghurs, however, roughly one million Hui Muslims live in the province, known among locals as the “Dungan.” The deep tensions that exist between the two ethnic groups manifest themselves in different forms. Hui and Uyghur attend different mosques and rarely intermarry. Some Uyghur don’t acknowledge the Hui as believers, even refusing to eat the meat they slaughter. Ultimately the Uyghurs view the Hui as indistinguishable from the Han and so treat them just as coldly.
The Chinese government has failed to tolerate even peaceful expressions of resistance. Calls for basic human rights are lambasted as separatist rhetoric and their preachers treated as full-fledged criminals. Take Ilham Tohti, a Uyghur scholar who promoted better understanding between the Uyghur and the Han while also criticizing the Chinese government’s dehumanizing treatment of an entire ethnic group. Tohti was arrested in 2014 and sentenced to life in prison on charges of “separatism.” Despite winning a human rights award in 2016, Tohti remains imprisoned. Diasporic Uyghur organizations that echo Tohti’s peaceful demands for reform, such as the Uyghur World Congress (WUC) and the Uyghur Human Rights Project, are similarly condemned by the Chinese government. The WUC has even been officially designated as a terrorist organization. Therefore, ironically, it is the Chinese government’s extremist policies that push so many Uyghurs toward extremist violence. By marginalizing even moderate critics of the status quo, the Chinese state leaves its Uyghur dissenters little option but to resort to violence, which leads to harsher state persecution, which only fuels bloodier resistance. The Chinese government has thus locked itself into a self-perpetuating cycle of carnage that only escalates the longer it lasts.
Whether the situation in China can improve is a mystery no one can answer. All that is certain is the international community’s willingness to disregard China’s suppression of an ethnic minority, all in the name of anti-terrorism, only emboldens the state further. The government’s unequal treatment of the Uyghur and Hui continues to widen the rift between them, further undermining its own myth of ethnic unity. Perhaps most tragically, the cracks separating the two groups preclude the possibility of a harmonious unity based on a shared faith.