Early January 2019, China passed a bill to make Islam compatible with socialism. The bill was announced as part of their 5-year plan to ‘Sinicize’ the minority religious groups within China, mainly the sensitive regions along the western borders. This was announced after a meeting between the representatives from the eight Islamic Associations and the government officials. This announcement drew a lot of attention from the international media with alarming reports relating the ‘re-education’ camps and the bill, calling it violations of human rights of the Islamic community in China.
The last quarter of 2018 also saw multiple agencies come forward against the internment camps in China. Why are these internment camps in China gaining attention now? Is the portrayal by the popular media of the situation in Xinjiang justified? Is a ‘Sino-version of Islam’ or a version of Islam to suit China’s communist agenda, a bad thing?
China and Islam: A Brief History
The commercial and diplomatic interaction between Arab countries and China can be traced back to the BCE. Later, the Arab Caliphs’ policy of expansion from the 7th and 8th centuries, led to the rapid spread of Islam through trade and cultural exchanges between West Asia and East Asia. In the 13th Century, with the advance of the Mongols in the region rulers were deposed one after another, and in the region- from the Sea of Japan in the East to the Volga in the West- the Mongol princes and their successors dominated trade and politics. This advance of the Mongols was of great significance for the Muslims in China. Till then, most of the population considered them barbarians. But with the arrival of the new Mongol rulers, the Han Chinese were deliberately excluded from the affairs of the state and in their place, public administration was staffed with descendants from Central Asian regions or the Hui Chinese.
The Nian and Taiping revolts, the Dungan rebellion and the Panthay rebellion from the 19th century are some of the examples of the clashes between the imperial authorities and Islamic believers. During the cultural revolution, Muslims in China were prosecuted by the ‘atheist’ red guards. Currently, with 20 million population, Muslims are a minority in China. 10 of the country’s 55 officially recognised minorities are traditionally Muslim. Hui Muslims and the Uighur Muslims are the largest among them. Islam is however not the only religion that is being targeted in China. Beijing wants state control and oversight of all faiths.
Religion and Contemporary China
As with every sector in China, education, foreign relations, infrastructure, there is a supervisory body for religion. Until March 2018, this supervision used to be run through the State Administration of Religious Affairs or SARA, which was dissolved and the responsibility was directly transferred under the United Front Work Department or UWFD. The UWFD handles the Communist Party’s control of civil society domestically. The existing working relationships between SARA and the religious groups were dissolved since almost all of the former staff of SARA have left. Wang Zuoan- the long-standing head of SARA is the only known remaining member who has moved into UWFD as one of the 10 vice ministers. He was known for a relatively ‘light hand,’ he now has almost no role, no power and limited staff.
There is a certain pressure on these officials of UWFD to make religion work for the party. SARA stood for policies of local tolerance in favour of these minority religions, but now it seems like a case of heavy-handed enforcement of rules and policies. This is the case with Christians and Buddhists all over China as well. There have been arrests of prominent ministers, the closure of churches, a ban on Bible sales online, and the removal of crosses for the Christian communities. Tibetan Buddhism which has always been closely monitored is being tightly watched, too. Some of the ‘Chinese religions,’ the non-Tibetan version of Buddhism and Taoism also seem to be having a tough time. Hence, UWFD is probably just getting used to its new role, or the Communist Party wants to ensure that it has control on how much of religious interaction takes place.
Is the portrayal justified?
Not denying the sense of repression felt by the population, one cannot help but observe the overtly overdone propaganda by the western media when it comes to such issues. Even in the 1990s, violence and rioting in China’s Xinjiang rocked the American media. “China’s Ethnic Turks may wage Holy War,” “Uyghur Rebellion against the Chinese state,” hyperbolic headlines! This is repeating in the western media again in the past months, “One Million Muslims forced into Chinese internment camps,” “Show communist loyalty by eating pork, Beijing tells Muslim Uyghurs,” “China unveils plans to ‘Sinify’ Islam amid signs of spreading crackdown,” an orientalist and reductive way of putting forward a situation of China’s treatment of ethno-religious minorities. It reflects the western left’s general perception of China.
China’s approach in the past decades with its revolving policies adopted on religious freedoms towards Muslim Uyghurs in Turpan (Eastern Xinjiang) can be looked at as an example. Following the 1978 reforms in China, restrictions were laid on religious education, but Islamic schools were permitted for Uyghur children in Turpan. The Uyghur Communist Party Members were encouraged to go on the Hajj Pilgrimage. Between 1979 and 1989, 350 Mosques were built in Turpan. Some of these Mosques were built with government assistance in Xinjiang’s capital of Urumqi. But the fact that these regions stuck to religious education, they did not get technical education. The lack of technical education meant low-yielding jobs. People from these regions then began complaining about not getting jobs in higher positions.
Would China risk its ‘peaceful growth to power?’
The Chinese government claims that these internment camps are training centres set up to train the populations for skilled labour so that they can be absorbed into the Chinese manufacturing economy. China is seen taking extreme steps to keep the people in its borderlands under control. Reasons being many, they do not want rebellions, western borders of China sees terrorism and groups of persons that are relatively irritated about bad jobs or poverty become an easy target for these terrorist organisations. China intends to avoid such a situation. Why it seems like only the Muslims are targeted, is because they are a majority in the western borders of China.
Another reason could be China’s growth. As part of its investments, China has been involving itself in the region’s growth with massive investments in Pakistan, Central Asian Countries, Sri Lanka, ASEAN countries, the region filled with Islamic countries or countries with a significant Muslim population. This could be an attempt to prepare its population in the Islam-dominated regions to be able to involve itself in the growth of the region. Both South Asia and Central Asia will be directly affected if something like “Nazi-style camps” did really exist in China (like how the media reports it) The region should have seen some form of impact felt, but there are no reports of it. There also are no signs of cultural repression of any sorts in the region. China itself would not want to risk such a situation. In this context, we could place the new Islam Bill introduced in China, where they plan to make Islam more suitable for China and the party’s needs. In all honesty, Islam is not the same in all the countries, every country has its own version of Islam and China will have one of its own in the process of five years.
Harini is a Research Associate at the International Strategic and Security Studies Programme (ISSSP), National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore