At the recently convened Central Religious Work Conference Chinese President Xi Jinping stressed the importance of fusing religious doctrines with Chinese culture and preventing the interference of religion in government affairs and education (Xinhua, April 23). These comments were directed, at least partially, at the Hui Muslim minority, marking a troubling extension of often irrational fears over the “Islamization” (伊斯兰化) of Chinese society. In subsequent days, Wang Zhengwei, the Hui director of the powerful State Ethnic Affairs Commission (SEAC) was summarily dismissed from his post, making him the shortest serving SEAC director in history and drawing public attention to the heretofore largely inconspicuous Hui community (CCTV, April 28).
Since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, regional authorities in Gansu, Ningxia and Yunnan have been talking up the Hui and the extensive links this dispersed 11 million strong minority group has with Muslims across the global as they promote Xi Jinping’s “One Road, One Belt” (OBOR) initiative. The multi-billion-dollar OBOR strategy seeks to increase trade, investment and contact with the outside world, including Muslim majority states in Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. A recent promotional video for the China-Arab States Expo asserts the Hui are linked in “blood, faith and customs” with their fellow Muslims, making them a cultural bridge between China and the Arab and Islamic world (China Daily, September 5, 2015).
China has a long tradition of dividing its Muslim population into two camps: the “good Muslims,” like the Hui, who speak the Chinese language, abide by core elements of its culture, and thus can be trusted; and the “bad Muslims,” like the Uyghurs, who continue to resist the inevitable process of assimilation and thus are susceptible to the “Three Evil Forces” (三股势力) of separatism, terrorism, and extremism. Tactically, this distinction has served the Han-dominated Chinese Communist Party (CCP) well, with the Hui functioning as strategic intermediaries along China’s vast ethnic frontier, and increasingly overseas as trade and investment opportunities expand rapidly with Muslim countries.
Yet Xi Jinping’s desire to open up commercial ties with the Muslim world is at odds with an increasing nationalist and xenophobic body politic in China. If China chooses to isolate and severely restrict Hui culture and mobility, as they have the Uyghurs, relations with the Muslims countries at the heart of OBOR could be damaged. The implications for ethnic relations in China are equally worrying.
Fear of the Muslim Other
The Han ethnic majority has long been weary of the Muslim Other. A series of Muslim rebellions and interethnic violence in 18th and 19th century China left millions dead. In the recent past, however, this antipathy was not chiefly religious in nature. Rather, anti-Muslim attitudes were rooted in mutual distrust articulated in cultural, spatial and physical idioms. Muslims were marked as suspect because they didn’t eat pork, kept to themselves, and looked different due to their facial hair and skullcaps.
Over the last decade this apprehension has taken on a distinctly anti-religious tone. Party officials are unhinged by the growing religiosity (especially Salafi and Wahhabi influences) among some Chinese Muslims, a trend that echoes the revival of religious beliefs across Chinese society but also the long history of ties between Chinese Muslims and the larger Muslim world. Anti-Islamic sentiment surged following a string of religiously motivated attacks, especially the March 1, 2014 butchering of 29 innocent civilians at a Kunming train station by a group of radicalized Uyghurs (Xinhua, March 2, 2014).
In Xinjiang the Party crack downed hard on “illegal” (非法) and “abnormal” (不正常) religious practices among the Uyghurs. Referred to religious extremism as a “malignant tumor,” Xinjiang officials outlawed 26 “illegal religious activities” in 2013, as they tightened controls over Islamic education, worship, fasting and certain forms of veiling (Siyuewang, March 17, 2014).
In the Hui areas of Gansu, Ningxia, and Yunnan by contrast, a far more relaxed approach was adopted. In the bustling city of Linxia, for example, Hui Muslims were left to freely and openly practice their religion. Known as “Little Mecca,” Linxia grinds to a halt during Friday-prayers with women in fashionable hijabs and men in traditional white skullcaps heading off to pray. Arab-style mosques are increasingly common as is the use of the Arabic script (Duowei, April 26).
Yet recently the mood has darkened in the Hui areas. When local Hui officials proposed the passage of a new national law governing the halal (清真) food industry at the annual National People’s Congress, a small group of politicians and online agitators led a coordinated campaign against what they viewed as a violation of the separation of state and religion. The law was eventually abandoned (Global Times, April 18; The Diplomat, May 27) but the battle against the Hui had just begun.
In early May, a video of unclear origins went viral on the Chinese Internet. The 30-second clip depicts a young girl dressed in a black hijab and robe reciting the Qur’an in Arabic. It was claimed to be a kindergarten in Linxia, although the video has been on Youtube since at least 2013 (Youtube, December 3, 2013). Many netizens expressed outrage: “brainwashing” and “terrorist infiltrating our schools” it was claimed (China Change, May 13). In response the Department of Education in Gansu issued a statement “vehemently condemning acts that harm the mental health of the youth” (Caijing, May 6).
Following the Central Religious Work Conference, rumors and conspiracy theories circulated wildly, with terms like “Hala-ization” (清真化), “Muslim-ization” (穆斯林化), and “Arab-ization” (阿拉伯化) trending on Chinese social media. Commentators claimed a dramatic increase in the number of mosques; the proliferation of all things halal—water, toothpaste, rice, toilet paper, banks, and bathhouses—as well as the spread of Arabic signs, classes and even schools. Ningxia Party Secretary Li Jianhua warned against the burgeoning of halal products, arguing it threated to undermine state security while officials in Qinghai province launched a rectification campaign against the spread of Muslim and halal signs and symbols (Sina, April 28; Phoenix, May 6).
On Weibo, academics and armchair agitators like Xi Wuyi and Mei Xinyu posted photos and links to stories that suggested religious extremism was rampant among the Hui (see, for example, Weibo, May 21; Weibo, May 23). There were also incendiary and often unsubstantiated comments about past Hui uprisings, attempts to ban alcohol, underground Islamic schools, and Han being forced to adopt halal practices, with little intervention from the usually hyper-vigilant state censors. On the tempestuous Tianya blog, netizens shared the sort of anti-Muslim epithets and doctored cartoons that sparked protests and violence in Europe and elsewhere—these included offensive images linking the Hui to jihadist violence, lusciousness and incest, and even the worship of pigs (Tianya, May 6).
On Weixin, the ultra-nationalist “Global Sounds” (环球之音) portal, published a scathing yet anonymous critique of the “Arabization of religion in Northwest China,” which circulated widely on Chinese social media. The article repeated claims about the spread of halal and Arab-style products, architecture, and clothing, but also warned that religious organizations are working in tandem with local government officials to enforce religious law and override secular rule. Demographic changes in the Northwest, such as the declining Han population due to safety concerns and large Muslim families due to exceptions from family planning regulations, were exacerbating this situation. “From a long term perspective,” the article asserted, “the growing religiosity of people in Northwest China is certainly not something out of Arabian Nights,” rather “the religious question is already China’s most pressing problem and one of its most profound” (Huanqiuzhiyin, May 4).
The former Director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) Ye Xiaowei provided semi-official imprimatur for these accusations when he published an opinion piece in Global Times. Ye condemned the rapid proliferation of religion in China, and argued it was “a backdoor to extremism.” He called on local officials to “nip this in the bud” in order to protect the unwitting masses from being hoodwinked by religious extremists. “Behind the spread of Islam there lurks a colossal menace and ‘vile people with evil tidings’ that seek to destroy ethnic unity, stir up ethnic antagonism, and damage today’s state of peace and unity, social harmony, and ethnic amity” (Huanqiuwang, May 7).
The Power Struggle Behind the Anti-Islamic Veil
In the background of this troubling wave of Islamophobia is a decade-old conflict over the future direction of ethnic and religious policy in China (see China Brief, July 6, 2012). This tussle involves not only a bureaucratic turf wars but also a series of forceful and clashing personalities, and reflects a far deeper division within Chinese society between a narrow Han-defined racism and a more cosmopolitan and pluralistic vision of the Chinese nation.
This split goes all the way to the top of the Party. On one side, there is a group of assimilationists, headed by Zhu Weiqun, the Director of the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), who warns that hostile forces are using religious and ethnic divisions to undermine Party rule and derail China’s rise. The solution is a major rethink of current policies in order to weaken ethnic and religious identities while strengthening a shared sense of belonging through increased interethnic fusion. Zhu served as the Executive Deputy Director of the United Front Work Department (UFWD) for over a decade before moving to the CPPCC in 2012 under the patronage of Politburo Standing Committee member Yu Zhengsheng. He has been a forceful advocate of secularism and a frequent critic of the Dalai Lama, who he recently labelled an Islamic State sympathizer (Huanqiuwang, December 9, 2015).
On the other side, there is a group of multiculturalists who were led until recently by the Hui Director of the SEAC Wang Zhengwei. In April 2015, Wang became a double deputy-minister when he was named the vice-head of the UFWD. Wang is a vocal defender of the system of regional ethnic autonomy and has long promoted the benefits of China’s ethnic diversity for the Party’s OBOR and “going out” strategy. Xi Jinping’s intervention into the ethnic policy debate at the September 2014 Central Ethnic Work Forum not only failed to bridge this ideological rupture but inadvertently added fuel to the debate (see China Brief, November 7, 2014; China Brief, October 19, 2015).
Zhu and Wang clashed publically throughout 2015. The Hong Kong-based Phoenix media outlet published a wide-ranging dialogue between Zhu and the Tibetan novelist Alai, where the pair argued for a new focus on interethnic blending and fusion in order to confront the altering domestic and international situation. Alai ended the dialogue by declaring that in line with other large-scale reform efforts: “some of our ethnic policies have entered a period of rethink and improvement” (Phoenix New, May 31, 2015).
In response, the SEAC’s official newspaper, China Ethnic Daily, published a series of articles refuting point-by-point the issues raised in the dialogue, and insinuating that Zhu and Ali were advocating the sort of assimilationist and exclusionary “one nation, one culture” policies adopted by former Nationalist Party leader Chiang Kai-shek (Duowei, July 17, 2015). In reply to this “slap in the face,” Zhu Weiqun accused his detractors of employing Cultural Revolution-style attacks aimed at distorting his views and distracting the public from the important issues at stake (Phoenix News, July 17, 2015).
Later in the year, another row broke out over alleged abuses in the system for appointing tulkus (living buddhas), with claims that fake titles could be purchased for 200,000 yuan each ($30,500). In a remarkable public rebuke, the Tibetan scholar Jamphel Gyatso (降边嘉措), a respected researcher at CASS and former SEAC translator for the Dalai and Panchen lamas, accused Ye Xiaowen and Zhu Weiqun of corruption on his Weibo account, asserting they abused their positions of authority over the appointment and recognition of tulkus. He asked how much money they pocketed, and accused them of “shirking responsibilities,” “diverting attention,” and even “harboring ill intent” (Invisible Tibet, December 15, 2015).
Yet with the surprising dismissal of Wang Zhengwei from both the SEAC and UFWD in April, Zhu Weiqun seems to have come out on top, at least in the short term. No official reason was given for the sacking, yet the overseas Chinese media claims Wang was removed for being too soft on Islam. Unnamed sources claim he actively promoted the halal food industry and the construction of mosques across the country (Singtao, April 12). The new head of SEAC, the Mongol Bagatur (巴特尔), was quick to stress that all Party members and cadres “must closely observe political discipline, uphold Marxist beliefs and atheism….and must absolutely not seek one’s own values and beliefs in religion” (SEAC, April 28).
Unleashing the Genie of Ethnic Hatred?
The end game is unclear at present. Wang Zhengwei retains his position as Deputy Chair of the CPPCC and is working hard to maintain a public profile despite a scathing indictment on the SEAC under his leadership issued by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (Guangming, May 11; Xinhua, June 8). Meanwhile speculative accusations link his name, and that of other top political leaders, to overseas bank accounts managed by the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca (Mingjin youbao, March 12). Zhu Weiqun is also under attack. He recently dismissed corruption allegations as baseless and despicable—the dirty work of splittist forces—in an unprecedented interview with the Global Times (Huanqiuwang, March 27).
Regardless, Zhu Weiqun is slated for full retirement at the 19th Party Congress in 2017, and it is unclear who will take up the mantel of the assimilationist position. Meanwhile Wang Zhengwei’s successor, Bagatur, is an ally of Hu Jintao and Hu Chunhua, and despite the recent weakening of their Youth League (CYL) faction (团派), they remain a formidable force with continued control over the extensive ethnic bureaucracy (China Brief, May 11).
These divisions at the top of the Party open up space for ethnic entrepreneurs to inflame racist and anti-religious sentiment online. At present, interethnic tensions are largely bottled up through the tight controls of the security and propaganda apparatuses. Yet if this discord continues to fester, cyber-hatred could spill over into the streets of ethnically divided communities as it did during the deadly July 5, 2009 race riots in Ürümqi.
To date, Xi Jinping has been largely powerless to rein in agitators on both sides of the ethnic and religious policy debate. Personnel changes at the 19th Party Congress will be his last chance to assert his authority over this contentious policy area. The stakes are high. If unchecked, anti-Muslim sentiment will not only damage China’s image across the Islamic world and undermine the OBOR strategy but also deepen the divide between the Han majority and China’s 120 million ethnic minorities.
James Leibold is an Associate Professor in Politics and Asian Studies at La Trobe University in Melbourne Australia. He is the author of Ethnic Policy in China: Is Reform Inevitable? (Honolulu: East West Center, 2013).