China’s national identity has been shaped by a set of historical, political, social and ideological factors, including a deep-rooted consciousness of the grandeur of Chinese civilization, shared descent, collective memories of ‘a century of humiliation,’ marked by China’s defeat in the 1840 Opium War, the Jiawu War, the Boxer Rebellion and the Japanese occupation, the threat and challenge of Western hegemony, the legacy of Confucianism and its reinterpretation in the contemporary context, and Marxism. Ethnicity is central to Chinese national identity. The Han Chinese are considered the true “Chinese,” rather than the country’s ethnic minorities. Ethnicity and nationality in China are almost interchangeable. The Chinese elite believe that all Han Chinese were descended from Huangdi, the “Yellow Emperor,” some 5,000 years ago. Thus race has become a central organising principle in China.
Sun Yat-Sen (d. 1925), China’s revolutionary leader and intellectual who is widely believed as the “father” of the Chine nation, promoted the idea of common Chinse blood. He constructed an ethnic conception of Chinese nationalism based on descent, language and religion. National identity in China is defined in terms of the ideology of Marxism as interpreted by the Communist Party of China, the pre-eminence of the Chinese language and culture, a centralized state, the dominance of the Han majority, cultural homogeneity and the assimilation of ethnic minorities.
This conflation between ethnicity and nationality has significant implications and consequences for the economy, polity and societal cohesion. It is interesting to note that China has only 1,448 naturalised citizens in total, according to the 2010 census, compared with 700,000 in the US. Han Chinese with foreign passports are welcomed and accorded a special status. Anyone with Chinese ancestry has legal advantages in getting a work visa; foreign-born children of Chinese nationals get a preferential treatment in applying to universities.
The conflation of Han and Chinse national identity, to the exclusion of the country’s ethnic minorities, lies at the root of the long-standing uneasy relationship between the Han majority and ethnic minorities. Theoretically, ethnic minorities are said to be treated as equal citizens, but in practice they have been at the receiving end of discrimination and marginalisation over the past several decades. Over the past few decades, Chinese authorities have followed a systematic policy of resettling the Han in the country’s borderlands where ethnic minorities have been concentrated for centuries. For example, through the state-sponsored resettlement project, the share of the Han in the population of Xinjiang rose from 4% in 1949 to 42% today. The Han now make up over 80% of the population of Inner Mongolia, which has been the stronghold of Mongols for centuries.
Muslims in China
China’s major ethnic minorities are Zhuang (16.9 million), Hui (10.5 million), Manchu (10.3 million), Uighur (10 million), Miao (9.4 million), Yi (8.7 million), Tibetans (6.2 million) and Mongol (5.9 million). Ten of China’s 55 national minorities follow Islam. These include Hui, Uighur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Salar, Bao’an (Bonan), Dongxiang, Uzbek, Tajik and Tatar. The numerically large Muslim minority groups are Hui (10.5 million), Uighur (10 million), Kazakh (1.2 million) and Kirghiz (0.2 million).
Relations between China and Arabia predate the emergence of Islam. Chinese traders and merchants regularly visited trading fairs in Arabia to buy and sell goods and merchandise. According to Chinese sources, an Arab delegation visited the Chinese city of Canton (Guangzhou) in 651 CE. Muslim historians say that this delegation was sent by the Caliph Uthman and was led by Sa’ad ibn Abi Waqqas, a Companion of the Prophet Muhammad (SAAW). He is believed to have built a mosque in Guangzhou. The earliest Muslim communities in China were descended from Arab, Persian, Central Asian and Mongolian Muslim traders and soldiers who had settled in China’s southeast coast between the 7th and 10th centuries.
The Hui, who comprise about half of China’s Muslim population, mostly live in the country’s northern and western provinces and have traditionally been farmers, shopkeepers and craftsmen. They are the descendants of Arab, Central Asian and Persian merchants who began arriving and settling in China since the 7th century. Many of them married local Chinese women, which resulted in their gradual assimilation into Chinese society. They generally speak Mandarin or other non-Turkic dialects. An indication of the assimilation of Hui Muslims into mainstream Chinese society is provided by their “Sinified” names. Thus, Muhammad was transformed into Ma or Mu, Husayn into Hu, Sai’d into Sai, Shams into Zheng and Uthman into Cari. The Uighur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uzbek and Tatar, on the other hand, speak Turkic languages while the Dongxiang, Salar and Bonan speak a mixture of Turkic and Mongolian languages. The Tajik speak Indo-Persian dialects. The Uighur language, one of the Turkic languages, is written in the Arabic script. The Uighur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uzbek and Tatar share substantial cultural and folk traditions with the Muslims of Central Asia. There is a substantial population of Muslims in Tibet, locally known as Kachee, which includes the Hui, Salar, Dongxiang and Bonan groups. The Muslims of Tibet, who have been living in the region since the 8th or 9th century, have descended from Muslim migrants from Central Asia, Ladakh and Kashmir.
By and large, Chinese Muslims have safeguarded their religious and cultural traditions and have retained their Islamic identity even in the face of China’s repressive policies and pressures of assimilation. There are thousands of mosques and madrasas across China and Islamic feasts are celebrated with enthusiasm. Like Muslims in general, Chinese Muslims consume halal meat and abstain from alcohol. A majority of Chinese Muslim women wear the headscarf. The architecture of mosques and Sufi mausoleums in China generally incorporates the distinctive Chinese architectural features and styles, particularly the curved roofs.
Xinjiang, which was known as Chinese Turkestan in earlier times, is the westernmost Chinese city, bordered by Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. In the past, the region was under the control of Tibetans, Uighurs, Arabs, Turks and Mongols at different points of time. It was conquered by Genghis Khan in the 13th century. Xinjiang was invaded and annexed by China in 1949. The region accounts for one-sixth of China’s landmass and has the country’s largest deposits of oil, natural gas and coal. Xinjiang, now officially known as Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, is home to several Muslim minority groups, including the Uighur, Kazakhs, Hui, Kyrgyz and Mongols. The Uighurs, who are the original inhabitants of the region, are the largest ethnic group in Xinjiang and account for more than 46% of the region’s population. Ethnic Han Chinese account for 39% of Xinjiang’s population.
Shortly after the annexation of Xinjiang, Chinese authorities launched a calculated policy of settling large numbers of ethnic Han Chinese in Xinjiang. Lured by rising employment opportunities, thousands of Han Chinese workers flocked to Xinjiang. As a result of the planned migration of Han Chinese to Xinjiang, the proportion of Uighurs in the region’s population has shrunk from over 90 per cent in 1949 to 46 per cent today. On the other hand, the population of Han Chinese increased from an estimated 5% in 1940 to 39% today. The Han Chinese now form the majority (more than 70 per cent) of Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi’s population of 2.3 million. Xinjiang has been milked for its abundant oil reserves, but the benefits have not accrued to the region’s Muslim population in any significant measure. Xinjiang has undoubtedly developed, but large numbers of people, especially Uighurs, are still living in poverty. Wang Lequan, the Communist party secretary and absolute authority in Xinjiang for 15 years, carried out a policy of de-ethnicization of Uighur Muslims. He substituted Mandarin for Uighur in primary schools and banned or restricted Islamic symbols and practices, including the Islamic veil, beards and praying and fasting while on the job, among government workers.
The old city of Kashgar, located in Xinjiang, was a key entrepot on the Silk Road for nearly two thousand years. Kashghar’s old city has been described as the best-preserved example of a traditional Islamic city to be found anywhere in Central Asia. There are more than 40 mosques in the city where worshippers gather for the daily prayers. Hundreds of artisans carry on with their traditional crafts using centuries-old methods and techniques. Kashgar’s centuries-old landscape and architecture are set to disappear over the next few years. Large parts of the city wall, a 25-foot-thick earthen berm nearly 35 feet high, have already been torn down. Over the next few years, nearly 85 per cent of the city will be demolished and many of its 13,000 families, mostly Uighur Muslims, will be shifted to other locations.
Chinese authorities have sought to suppress and erase the religious and cultural identity of Muslims in Xinjiang. A Muslim couple is not allowed to have more than two children and those who violate the law have to pay a hefty fine. Children under the age of 18 are not allowed to attend mosques. Since 2014 Muslim officials, students and teachers in Xinjiang have not been allowed to keep the fast during Ramadan. The Uighurs have scrupulously safeguarded their religious and ethnic identity. Most Uighur women cover their heads and alcohol is rarely served in Uighur-owned restaurants. There has been an evident revival and resurgence of Islamic identity among the Uighurs in recent years.
During the past several decades China has carried out a policy of brutal repression and persecution of Uighur Muslims, as a result of which thousands of them have fled the country and taken refuge in Central Asia as well as in the US and Europe. China has been accused by two US-based human rights organizations, Human Rights Watch and Human Rights in China, of conducting a “crushing campaign of religious repression against Muslim Uighurs.” The repressive measures of the government range from surveillance of imams and forced closure of mosques to the detention of thousands of people and executions. There have been frequent protests and demonstrations by Uighur Muslims against the repressive and discriminatory policies pursued by the Chinese authorities. According to Amnesty International, some 3,000 Uighurs have been arrested and 22 executed since the mid-1990s. The Uighurs complain that their jobs are being taken over by the Han, that in many cases their farmlands have been confiscated in the name of development, that they face discrimination in respect of jobs, and that young Uighur women have been prevented from wearing headscarves.
There is widespread prejudice against the Uighurs. “They think of us as wild, as savage” says a Tibetan guide in Xining, the Han-dominated capital of Qinghai province on the Tibetan plateau. Tibetans and Uighurs are routinely refused accommodation in hotels. Reza Hasmath of the University of Alberta found that Uighur employees in Beijing were typically better educated but paid less than their Han counterparts. The best jobs even in minority-dominated regions go to Hans.
The persecution of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang has taken a turn for the worse in the aftermath of the 2009 riots in the capital Urumqi, which left 200 dead and over a hundred injured. Since then Chinese authorities have launched a campaign to censor prayers and religious discourses in mosques, close down Islamic schools and place restrictions on the wearing of Islamic veils. In 2014, official notices published on government websites demanded that Uighurs who are civil servants, teachers and students, must abstain from fasting during the month of Ramadan. Since the summer of 2014, young Uighur males are not allowed to pray at Kashgar’s historic Id Kah Mosque. In universities, closed-circuit television cameras have been installed in class rooms and dormitories. Checkpoints have sprung up at school gates where students are stopped to have their cell phones inspected for Islamic contents, which are viewed with suspicion.
China says it is faced with a serious threat from ‘Islamist’ extremists from amongst Uighur Muslims. It accuses Uighur separatists of stirring up tensions with the Han Chinese in Xinjiang and plotting attacks on the Han and on government buildings. China will be hosting an OBOR summit in Beijing in May this year, which will be attended by world leaders, and the authorities fear that Uighur separatists might attack the venue of the summit, causing embarrassment to the government. Shopkeepers have been instructed to install, at their own expense, security doors and CC TV cameras and to send a direct video feed to the police. Chinese authorities have introduced daily anti-terror drills, in the presence of paramilitary and police vehicles, with a view to alert people to the danger of terrorist attacks and to prepare them to defend themselves. Alarms ring out three times a day through the streets of Kashgar. Authorities offer a reward of 2,000 yuan ($290) for those who report “face-coverings and robes, youth with long beards and other popular religious customs that have been radicalised.” In April this year, Chinese authorities announced a ban on “abnormal facial hair” (read: beards) and robes that cover the whole body and the face (read: Islamic burqa). The new regulations also include spreading “extremist ideas” and refusal to watch or listen to government propaganda on radio and TV and preventing children from receiving “national education.”
However, Uighur Muslims say the new regulations are in fact aimed at greater surveillance and control over the Muslim minority. Human rights organisations say the escalating conflicts between the Chinese authorities and Uighurs are largely fuelled by the government’s restrictive and discriminatory religious and economic policies in Xinjiang. In 2015, a prominent Uighur scholar, Ilham Tohti, a professor at Beijing’s Minzu University, was sentenced to life imprisonment for his critique of the Chinese Communist Party. According to a report released by the Dui Hua Foundation, a US-based human rights advocacy group, the majority of more than 2,300 people arrested for political offences in China in 2013 are Uighurs and Tibetans. Out of the 44 journalists jailed in the country in 2014, 17 were Uighurs.
Unlike the Tibetans, the plight of Uighur Muslims in China has not received much of global attention and sympathy, probably because they are Muslims.