This post is part of a series prepared for an April 2019 workshop on “Religion, Reverence and Tolerance” organized by the Baker Institute Center for the Middle East and the Boniuk Institute for Religious Tolerance, both at Rice University. The workshop is sponsored by the June B. and Bryan J. Zwan Endowment. The views expressed here are those of individual researcher(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the Boniuk Institute.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officially permits five religions: Daoism, Buddhism, Protestantism, Catholicism, and Islam. The CCP tolerates each in the sense that individual citizens may engage in religious practices. The degree to which the state tolerates them, however, varies. A clear example is the Chinese party-state’s relationship with the Uyghur population in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). During his tenure as China’s leader, Xi Jinping’s policies toward Islam have ranged from limits, as seen at holiday celebrations, to outright elimination of any identity associated with Islam, as evidenced by the recent internment of Uyghurs and other Muslims in re-education camps. Ultimately, however, the CCP’s policy in XUAR is one that must take the repression-concession dilemma more seriously, defined as the trade-off between how strictly it can repress and how many concessions it can grant all in the name of remaining in power. This memo will address the CCP’s relationship with Islam, considering the experiences of the Uyghur minority. It will consider the limits placed on Islam through ethnographic fieldwork at the 2015 Eid al-Fitr celebration in southern XUAR. It will then place this celebration in a broader context, examining the ways in which the party-state has attempted to eliminate religious influence. Finally, it will suggest some policy implications.
Holiday Celebrations and Religion in the PRC
The 2015 Eid al-Fitr celebration in a small town illustrates the limits of party-state tolerance toward Islam. July 17, 2015 was the last day of Ramadan, and the Uyghurs living in this small town experienced difficulties observing the fast. A walk down a main road during the lunch hour revealed that restaurants remained open. In particular, a young Uyghur man in his late 20s named Ablikim had an illuminating exchange with a plain-clothes police officer regarding his choice to fast. As Ablikim resolutely sat at a table in the restaurant without a meal, a group of police officers walked by to a private room off the main dining room. As they passed the table, one stopped and said, “What are you not eating? If you need money, I can help you.” While the exchange might have appeared friendly on the surface, this police officer was clearly putting Ablikim on notice, indicating that his choice to fast had attracted attention. Ablikim then remarked that full restaurants during Ramadan in small towns were typical: it is easier to monitor smaller populations, and police take full advantage of these circumstances.
The first day of Eid also demonstrated the party-state’s limits on religious practice. While mosques were open that day, Ablikim stated that neither he nor anyone in his family would attend services. Earlier that week, the family had received a letter from the local government informing them that they should not go to the mosque on the morning of July 18th. Ablikim explained that his mother, as a middle school mathematics teacher and school principal, was not to participate in any overt religious activities. While it is the case that government officials are not permitted any religious beliefs, other Chinese citizens do not face similar restrictions. The fact that the CCP has placed these limits on other Chinese civil servants indicates a more serious crackdown on Muslims. Thus, in the case of the 2015 Eid al-Fitr celebration, there were limitations on the tolerance the CCP was willing to show. While there were no restrictions on customary home visits, overtly religious portions of the holiday came under suspicion.
The above description speaks to the larger campaign against Islam. As part of “Project Beauty,” women are not permitted to wear hijab or jilbab. Rather, they may wear multi-colored scarves that cover some of the hair, but not the entirety of the head and the neck. Women who conform to Islamic standards of modesty associated with the Middle East are considered “backward” and “traditional” rather than part of a progressive society. Recently, government officials who have deemed women’s skirts and tunics too long have cut them shorter to accord with what they deem “modern” standards of dress.
In addition, young men are barred from growing a mustache and beard, a traditional symbol of Uyghur masculinity. Men who are found with such facial hair have difficulty finding employment. Finally, parents are restricted in the names they may give their children and have had to change names that sound too Islamic.
Recently, these measures have been taken to the extreme with the establishment of internment camps. While the camps are portrayed as vocational training facilities, imprisoned Uyghurs have committed no crimes and have been involuntarily incarcerated. In addition, members of other Muslim minorities, including Kyrgyz and Kazakhs, have also been sent to the internment camps. Reports suggest that religious activity, designation as a cultural leader, travel abroad, and connections with the outside world are all reasons for sending Muslim ethnic minorities to camps.
This mass incarceration, beginning in earnest at the start of 2017, is the latest development in a series of crackdowns that began in the late 1990s. Xi views the circumstances in XUAR differently than his predecessors. Specifically, he believes that focusing on the instability in the region is more important than continued focus on diversity. Uyghurs are often blamed for violent incidents that occur in XUAR and other parts of China, with activists suggesting that repression of cultural and religious freedom is the impetus for these attacks. Other resistance efforts are subtle and rely on talk, making use of grumbling, songs, and jokes to claim their own reality.
Academics and policymakers have asked why the regime engages in these atrocities. One hypothesis is that XUAR serves as a laboratory, and Xi’s administration plans to use artificial intelligence to bring the entire country under similar surveillance. Still others have suggested that the mass internment relates to ensuring that the Belt and Road initiative is successful. For China to connect with Eurasia, any obstacles, including the Uyghurs, must be eliminated. Specifically, the CCP views Islam as a significant threat, particularly due to the impression that it is linked to separatism and nationalist aspirations. The party-state does not accord other religions this same level of threat. Buddhism, for example, receives a high degree of tolerance partially due to monks, particularly those that were born in the 1950s and 1960s, who are supportive of commercialism and share local leaders’ prioritization of economic development.
Xi’s strategy, however, is too oriented toward the short-term. One key policy implication is that they may incite even more violence later, as released prisoners will have a great deal of animosity toward the state. A more serious implication is that Xi is missing the importance of the repression-concession dilemma. When an authoritarian regime tolerates resistance, the possibility for more resistance exists. However, if it becomes too repressive, there is the possibility of a strong backlash and loss of legitimacy. In this sense, Xi’s policy choice suggests too much repression rather than too many concessions. His administration should consider this possibility and redress the balance if it is going to endure.
Allison L. Quatrini, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Eckerd College.
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 Names of all participants have been changed to protect their privacy.
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 It is difficult to say that these violent incidents are specific strategies for resistance, as confirming reports as to what transpires in XUAR is quite difficult. “Four Sentenced in China Over Kunming Station Attack,” BBC, September 12, 2014, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-29170238.
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