Censorship, Geopolitical Time Bombs, and China’s Islamophobia Problem

A televised image of Ma Changqing remaining seated during a moment of silence to commemorate victims of terrorism at a 2014 session of the CPPCC.

China has a serious and worsening Islamophobia problem. While relations between China’s Muslim minorities and its Han majority have been fraught since 2009’s deadly inter-ethnic riots in the far western city of Urumqi, recent years have seen the normalization of online hate speech directed at Muslims. The rise of Islamophobia inside China is a product both of government action, and of the government’s failure to act. Commentary on the recent death of a prominent Muslim leader in the western province of Qinghai highlights the extent to which the situation has deteriorated, and suggests the ways in which China’s warped online discourse could blunt its efforts to build influence and win friends in countries across the Muslim world.

The Death of an Imam

On July 16, Ma Changqing (马长庆), a prominent imam and a leader among the Muslims of China’s far western province of Qinghai, passed away at the age of 83 (Xinhua, July 19). Ma was also a member of the China People’s Political Consultative Congress (CPPCC), a consultative legislative body used by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to understand, engage with, and co-opt those parts of Chinese society not under direct Party control. Ma had a brief brush with national notoriety in 2014, when, during a CPPCC plenary session, he failed to stand during a moment of silence meant to commemorate the victims of a fatal knife attack by homegrown Islamic terrorists (China News, March 10 2014).

Although it later emerged that Ma may have failed to stand because of age-related infirmities—he reportedly attended the session in a wheelchair—the supposed slight was neither overlooked nor easily forgotten by many in China (Wen Wei Po, March 7). When news of large crowds attending Ma’s funeral to pay their respects began to spread on China’s internet, a disturbing proportion of responses contained shockingly blunt hate speech.

Filthy swine … it’s good he’s dead!”, read one. (The Islamic prohibition against pork makes pig references one of Chinese Islamophobes’ favorite forms of insult). “Go see Allah, and bring some of your followers with you!”, said another (Weibo, June 18). Another netizen, reacting to videos of crowds at the funeral, said, “Are those 200,000 [Muslims] people? They look more like time bombs to me.”

Ma was, by all accounts, a compliant member of the party-state structure. That netizens would attack him and his fellow Muslims on such slight grounds reveals the degree to which the CCP’s campaign to stamp out Islamic terrorism in China’s far west has turbocharged latent xenophobic tendencies.

That campaign has seen hundreds of thousands of Uighurs—a Muslim minority group—rounded up and interred in “reeducation camps” meant to purge them of “extremist” behaviors (China Brief, May 15). It has also increasingly affected the Hui—China’s other large Muslim minority—despite Hui communities having co-existed peacefully alongside China’s Han majority throughout the country for hundreds of years (AP, April 10 2017). At the same time it has ramped up this campaign of coercion and control, the CCP has singularly failed to publicly condemn Islamophobic rhetoric engendered by state media’s tendency to associate China’s Muslim minorities with terrorism and extremism (Asian Journal of Communication, March 28).

Fostering Islamophobia

This shortfall exists because, in the CCP’s eyes, the real issue is not the undue harshness of its policies, or Islamophobia among China’s Han majority, but rather the inability of some of China’s Muslims to hew to acceptable, state-sanctioned, “modern” expressions of Islamic faith.

Even specialists on Islamic culture publicly toe this line. For example, at a high-level Sino-Arab dialogue last year Xue Qingguo (薛庆国), a professor of Arabic at one of Beijing’s top universities and secretary of the China Arabic Literature Studies Association, delivered a speech in Arabic on “Extremism and Islamophobia” to officials from 16 majority-Arab countries (Baidu Zhidao; Hongse Guxiang, September 4 2017). In his speech, Xue lauded the achievements of Islamic civilization, and admitted that “Islamophobia has gotten some traction in China in recent years”. But he placed the blame for this squarely on Chinese Muslims themselves, condemning those who would “distort a civilization that produced significant advances in all fields of scientific endeavors, a civilization steeped in humanism, into a mass of trivial minutiae about beards, veils, and clothing”.

Xue’s speech is emblematic of a party-state that preaches ethnic unity, but abhors any self-reflection that could be interpreted as criticism of the party line, or as support for greater political autonomy for China’s minorities. The problem is exacerbated by the way the CCP’s online censorship apparatus functions.

China’s censors take their cues from party leaders, scrubbing the internet of views that leaders find unacceptable, promoting those they espouse, and leaving untouched those about which leaders have expressed no opinion. The party-state’s failure to strongly condemn Islamophobia thus places anti-Islamophobic voices at a disadvantage in public debate, since a vocal defense of China’s Muslims could also be read as implicit criticism of the government’s failure to speak out on their behalf. And since CCP leaders brook no criticism of their hardline policy towards Muslim minorities, all but the most anodyne expressions of support for China’s Muslim citizens have a difficult time gaining purchase in wider discourse. By the same token, the censorship bureaucracy interprets top leaders’ failure to condemn vile expressions of Islamophobia as a tacit sanction for their existence, allowing Islamophobic views to circulate more or less freely, and to go largely unchallenged.

The Real Time Bomb

While China’s domestic politics offer little prospect for change, external factors could hold out more hope. If China’s treatment of its Muslims minorities caused its ties with Gulf countries to deteriorate, it might, for example, prompt the CCP to rethink how it shapes the public conversation around Muslims—for China, the Gulf is an important market for weapons, and an important supplier of oil.

But despite the worsening situation in China’s far west, there is little indication that Gulf rulers or their publics will turn against the PRC. Gulf countries recently rolled out the welcome mat for Xi Jinping during his tour of the region, and were generally positive towards Xi’s call for China to serve as a “keeper of peace and stability in the Middle East” during a speech before the Arab League—suggesting a possible willingness on Xi’s part for China to take on a larger security role in the region (South China Morning Post, July 10).

However, if the United States’ experience is any guide, a superpower’s deepening involvement in Middle Eastern politics can complicate ties with the Muslim world in unexpected ways. For China, the real time bomb may not be the way it treats Muslims at home, but how that treatment is perceived abroad.

Matt Schrader is the editor of the Jamestown China Brief. Follow him on Twitter at @tombschrader.