China, home to approximately 1.3 billion people, is also home to more than 21 million Muslims. Going by this figure, Muslims would account for around 1.6% of China’s total population, though some claim the number of Muslims to be higher than this. Islam has been in China for nearly as long as Islam has been alive, with early interactions going back as far as the time of the Prophet Muhammad, evidenced by the “Hundred-word Eulogy”, penned by the Hogwu Emperor of China, in honour of the Prophet. While there are a significant number of Muslims spread throughout China, the majority reside in China’s Xinjiang province. Nestled along the country’s North Easterly border, close to 46% of Xinjiang’s population consists of the Chinese Uighur people, making them the province’s largest ethnic group. The majority of Uighurs are Muslims, mainly adhering to Sunni Islam, while there is a minority of Shia Uighurs too. Sufism is also a significant school of thought amongst this group of Chinese.
Roots of the Problem
Regarding themselves as having a distinct culture and ethnicity from Beijing, Uighurs have fought for independence intermittently over the last three centuries. The region came under Chinese rule in the 18th century, and while the state of East Turkestan declared independence in 1949, this was short lived as China moved to subdue the region and absorb it into Communist China. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought with it the emergence of nationalist independence movements throughout the countries that were once contained within the Soviet Union, as well as those that bordered it. Accordingly, Uighur separatist movements intensified in the 1990s, with Beijing responding by quashing these attempts and forcing the political movement underground. As well as nationalist sentiments, Uighurs complain of institutional discrimination against their people, with ethnic Han Chinese, not indigenous to the region, being given preference in terms of employment; the Han Chinese in Xinjiang are more often than not better off than the Uighurs of the region.
Intensification of the Conflict
The problem intensified in the run up to the Beijing Olympics of 2008, with matters reaching a breaking point in 2009. Large scale rioting broke out, centred on the provincial capital of Xinjiang, Urumqi, leaving more than 200 dead and around 1,700 injured. The death toll carried both Uighurs and Han Chinese. After the riots had been quelled, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that dozens of Uighurs were disappeared, seemingly captured by the state and imprisoned.
Since 2009, the escalation of the persecution of the Uighur Chinese Muslims has increased, with the government in Beijing introducing a raft of legislative measures that have further oppressed China’s Muslims. In 2013, Amnesty International reported that Chinese authorities had been targeting peaceful expressions of the Uighur cultural identity, under the guise of fighting “illegal religious and separatist activities”. In July 2014 China went as far as banning Muslims who worked in government departments from observing the holy fast of Ramadan; this ban included teachers, nurse and doctors working in government institutions. State Administered radio and TV proclaimed, “We remind everyone that they are not permitted to observe a Ramadan fast”. While the government claimed that this was in response to violence that had been committed by Uighur separatists, the infringement on human rights by way of this move is huge and it would seem that such oppression more readily fuels the fire of extremism rather than reducing it.
Banning of “Extremist” Names
Taking things preposterously further, this year the government of China moved to ban Muslims from naming their new-born children “extremist” names such as Muhammad. It is worth remembering that the name of Muhammad is amongst the most popular names worldwide today, if not the most popular. The Uighur Human Rights Project (UHRP) reported that in 2015, 27,000 Uighur were arrested for “political activities” while the number of those who were sentenced to death or life imprisonment from amongst the Uighur, again for “political activities”, rose by 50% compared with 2014. The UHRP also reported that in 2014 the wearing of the hijab was banned in some public places, including when getting married in a religious ceremony, while bizarrely, “extremist behaviour” such as avoiding alcohol, cigarettes or non-halal foods was also banned. HRW reported that the government of China is “directing a crushing campaign of religious repression against China’s Muslim Uighurs in the name of anti-separatism and counter-terrorism”, documenting how religious institutions, schools, publishing houses and public spaces were constantly under surveillance, with teachers, imams, and other public figures being constantly purged of individuals deemed to be unpatriotic.
In 2016, millions of Chinese Uighur were made to surrender their passports to the authorities for an “annual check”. While no official reason was given to justify this policy, the Germany-based World Uighur Congress believed it was a move designed to restrict the movement of Uighurs. Just as recently as this year, the Chinese government continues to escalate the oppression, calling home thousands of Uighur students from Egypt, Turkey and Japan, and arresting them without trial. If the students did not return by the government imposed deadline of the 1st of May (2017), the parents of the students were taken into custody.
Worse Things to Come
Just this past week, on the 17th of May, the British media outlet The Independent reported that the Chinese government had recently purchased $8.7million worth of genetic analysis equipment in order to track the genetic material of its Uighur population. The move would allow the government to record the DNA of up to 10,000 Uighur per day. HRW’s Maya Wang told the Independent, “To collect even more information on a mass scale unrelated to criminal investigations opens the door for an even greater level of surveillance and control”. This move reflects both the vigour with which the Chinese government continues to move against its Uighur population, as well as its determination to supress the Muslim Uighur into submission.
The scale of the crimes being committed against the Chinese Uighur Muslims is unfathomable, while the silence of “Islamic” governments, whose relationships with the government of China are as deep as there are economically fruitful, is deafening.