The mass human rights atrocities in Xinjiang—the region in China’s far west, where Chinese Communist authorities have imprisoned upwards of one million Uyghur Muslims in “political reeducation” camps—are worsening, and this demands a far greater international response. Meantime, Beijing’s sweeping crackdown against the Uyghurs and its modern day gulags have been accompanied by an alarming resurgence in China’s hostility toward religious minorities, and toward Islam and Muslims in particular. The anti-Muslim movement in China can be directly attributed to the ruling Communist Party’s atheism, ideology of Han Chinese supremacism, and “national rejuvenation.” At the same time, contemporary Chinese anti-Muslim sentiments and harsh policies are not simply the byproduct of communism. They can be traced historically to Han Chinese chauvinism, which first appeared during the early Qing Dynasty, when China came to be ruled by an ethnic minority, the Manchus.
Throughout China’s imperial history, the term “Hui” was used at different times to refer to and also to derogate the adherents of monotheistic faiths like Islam, Judaism, and even Christianity. During the Manchu/Qing Dynasty’s (1644-1911) westward territorial expansion into the heart of Eurasia, large numbers of Han Chinese migrated into territories previously dominated by non-Han peoples, including Hui Muslims. This led to ethnic and religious tensions which frequently became violent in the empire’s interior regions and along its frontiers in Central Asia. It also gave rise to popular anti-Muslim and chauvinistic attitudes among Han Chinese, which included efforts to forcibly assimilate the Hui into Chinese society. It even led to calls to eliminate Muslims and Islam from the empire altogether.
This historical pattern of Han Chinese chauvinism and “Hui-phobia” has continued into the modern era. In recent times, the spread of the Internet and social media in China has contributed to a marked popular resurgence of anti-Muslim sentiment, actions and policies.
This paper explores the evolution of anti-Islamic stereotyping and bigotry in China from the Hui-phobia of the early Qing to the blatant hostility toward Islam and Muslims nowadays. The first part looks at the 17th Century Ming-Qing transition period and the unique aversion toward the Hui Muslim minority that arose then. The second part of the paper discusses anti-Islamic ideology in contemporary China, and particularly non-official “self media” (or independently operated social media accounts on platforms such as WeChat and Weibo).
In Western societies that have been struggling with Islamist terrorism, “Islamophobia”—the irrational, ideological fear and bigotry toward Islam—is a controversial concept. However, bigotry and hate of Muslims as a whole remains a marginal movement in the West. It is publicly opposed as an offense to basic human decency, and limited in its expression by legal and political institutions.
In Communist China, by contrast, few such institutions and regulations exist. Instead, the state’s brutal policies in Xinjiang, carried out through the Urumqi offices of “eradicating pornography and illegal publication,” have directly endorsed and fomented a popular, China-wide fear of and xenophobic animosity toward Islam and Muslims. As a result, the People’s Republic of China has become the world’s foremost purveyor of anti-Islamic ideology and hate. This, in turn, has translated into broad public support for the Beijing government’s intensifying oppression of Muslims in the Xinjiang region and elsewhere in the country.
“Hui-phobia” in Imperial China
To understand the resurgence of anti-Islamic sentiment in contemporary China, it is useful to look at the emergence of Han Chinese chauvinism and related negative stereotypes of Muslims during late Imperial China. A uniquely Han Chinese form of “Hui-phobia” first began to appear in the 17th Century, during the transitional period between the end of the Ming Dynasty and the rise, in 1644, of the Manchu-led Qing Dynasty. During the Ming era, the Han Chinese-dominated state was generally tolerant of Muslims and protected Islam, which had diverse origins in Chinese history and had established deep roots in China.1
In the Qing era, however, China came to be dominated by the Manchus, who themselves were a minority people from Inner Asia. The Manchu rulers undertook to extend their imperial control far beyond the former domains of Ming China. Through military conquest and political alliances with other non-Han minorities (including Mongols, Muslims, Tibetans, and others), the Manchu empire-builders established their control over not just the majority Han and Chinese-speaking territories of what historians called “China Proper,” but also over the largely Hui or Muslim areas that traditionally existed to the West of China. During the Qing dynasty, these newly annexed territories in Central Eurasia came to be known in Chinese as “Xinjiang,” or China’s “New Frontier.”
The Han Confucian officials who served the Manchu/Qing state, and who implemented its policy of westward imperial expansion, frequently clashed with the indigenous Muslims and other peoples that they sought to subject to their authority. This gave rise to a new discourse among Han Confucian scholars that was suspicious about Islam and the Hui in particular. In the course of the early Qing’s territorial expansionism and administrative reforms, Han Confucian officials started to equate the dominant Han Chinese majority in Manchu-ruled China as the foremost political and legal subjects (min) of the Qing. At the same time, Han Chinese scholars and officials began to denigrate the non-Han subject peoples of the Qing, describing the Hui peoples as “foreigners” and their cultural practices as “heterodox,” while denying them equal legal and political status with the Han Chinese.
In his Records of Knowledge Gained Day by Day, the Han Confucian philologist and geographer Gu Yanwu (1613-1682) claimed that the Hui people had first become marginalized (much like today’s Uyghurs) during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Gu criticized the Hui people for forming their own closed communities that were segregated from the majority Han Chinese. He also ridiculed Hui cultural traditions that were different from the Han Chinese, such as the consumption of beef, a practice which was outlawed in agrarian Chinese society.2 Gu Yanwu further presented a critique of Islamic rituals and rites, which came to be seen as a threat to the cultural dominance of Han Chinese and the larger imperial order. As a well-known Confucian ideologue during the Ming-Qing transition period, Gu’s criticisms of Hui Muslims had an important influence on Han Chinese stereotyping about Islam and growing misperceptions of the Hui. In subsequent years, Gu’s views became increasingly prominent politically, with important effects on Han Chinese discourses about Islam and the treatment of Muslims.
Chen Shiguan (1680-1758), the governor of Confucius’ home province of Shandong, became a prominent Qing-era critic of Hui Muslims. As a guardian of the Han Confucian order, Chen deemed Islam an “abnormality” and a threat to social harmony. He attacked Qing officials for supporting and tolerating the Hui, and proposed that the Manchu imperial court outlaw Islam and compel Hui officials and religious scholars to renounce their Muslim faith. In his indictment of Islam in 1724, Chen complained the Hui Muslims neither venerated heaven and earth as Confucians did, nor did they offer rituals to gods and ghosts, or follow the orthodox calendar as were the customs of Han Chinese. Instead, the Hui Muslims segregated themselves from Chinese society on the basis of religion and followed their own calendar.3
Chen moreover complained the Hui Muslims monopolized the economies of key cities and trading routes in the empire, which he felt should be controlled by Han Chinese. This added an economic dimension to the already existing cultural and ideological grievances frequently raised by Han Confucian imperial officials against Islam.
Building on this, some Han Confucian officials sought to turn their growing Hui-phobia into imperial law. In the northwest frontiers of Xinjiang, and elsewhere in the empire’s interior regions where Muslims resided, the commander Yue Zhongqi (1686-1754)—a descendent of the famous Han patriot Yue Fei (1103-1142)—tried to institute legal codes which discriminated against Hui Muslims.4 Lu Guohua, a provincial inspector of Anhui, proposed that since Hui Muslims were now common subjects of the prosperous Qing Empire, legal statutes against “luring the population into heterodoxy” and on “violating institutions” should be used to punish Muslim believers, along with any imperial officials who tolerated Islamic practices.5 In one of the most ferocious Han Chinese Confucian attacks on Hui Muslims, the xenophobic Wei Shu from Shandong province compared Hui Muslims to the five barbarian tribes which beleaguered the early Jin Dynasty (266-420). He openly advocated for forcefully expelling Muslims from China on the grounds that they—and their religion—were foreign.6
This rising Han chauvinism and anti-Islamic sentiment in the early Qing period, and the patterns of Han Chinese abuse it inspired against the Hui, began to lessen as China’s Manchu rulers acted to suppress it. Indeed, the Manchus did not endorse the ideological, religious, political, and legal manifestations of Han supremacism, nor did they promote the Hui-phobia spread by many Han Confucian scholars and officials.7 Instead, the Manchu rulers adopted a cultural-legal approach to the governance of their various subject populations.
For the Manchus, each subject population in the interior regions of Qing China—regardless of their size, ethnicity, culture, or religion—were to be regarded and treated as equal subjects. The various settled populations in the Qing China’s interior (the “frontiers” in Xinjiang and Tibet were a different matter) were sub-grouped as Han/Chinese-min, Hui/Muslim-min, Miao/Hmong-min, and the Zang/Tibetan-min (who, for the Manchus, were distinct from nomadic Tibetans). On the basis of these population-oriented policies, China’s Manchu rulers attempted to suppress Han supremacism and its related Hui-phobia. Both were deemed threats to the order and harmony of their multi-ethnic empire.
In fact, the Manchu/Qing emperors such as Kangxi (1654-1722), Yongzheng (1678-1735), and Qianlong (1711-1799) consistently condemned Han Hui-phobia. For example, in 1694, during the Kangxi Emperor’s reign, a tablet was erected on Beijing’s Oxen Street that read: “The Han are not on par with Muslims, for Muslims worship the Creator five times a day even without receiving stipend or benefits (from the empire).”8 Through this, the emperor praised Muslim piety and fealty to the Manchus, while admonishing Han Confucian officials for their self-importance and maltreatment of Muslims. For the Manchus, the legitimacy of Islam in the heartlands of Qing China should remain unquestionable, and they instructed the Han Chinese to respect Muslims and their customs. In the eyes of the Manchu Court, Muslims were co-equal with Han subjects.
The Manchus subsequently punished Han Chinese officials who expressed xenophobic prejudice and hostility against Muslims. The Yongzheng Emperor, for instance, suspected that Lu Guohua’s Han chauvinism and attacks on Islam were motivated by a desire either for Han Chinese revenge against Muslims, or to create disorder within Qing China—or perhaps both. The emperor duly ordered Lu’s removal from his position.9 The emperor also issued an edict prohibiting discrimination against Muslims, ordering that the routine and regular laws which applied to the Han Chinese should be equally and fairly applied to Hui Muslims.10
The Qianlong Emperor had even more to say about Han Chinese chauvinism and anti-Hui sentiments. Through his study of Confucian literature from the Ming era (ming shi), Qianlong discovered an insulting character referring to Hui Muslims that contained a dog radical (quan).11 The emperor publicly criticized the petty Han Confucian officials responsible for this vulgar literary practice, and in 1775 he commanded that this humiliating character be corrected.12
The Qianlong Emperor further condemned the “ridiculous comments” of Han Confucian ideologues like Wei Shu, deeming it “absurd and unlawful” to associate Hui Muslims with the five barbarian tribes of the ancient Jin Era.13 For the emperor, Wei Shu’s Han supremacism and calls to expel Muslims from Qing China was a serious crime. Wei Shu was sentenced to “death by slicing.”14 This punishment indicated that the Manchu Court considered his brand of Han Chinese supremacism as an affront not just to Hui Muslims, but also tantamount to rebellion against the Manchus, and thus a danger to imperial stability and sovereignty.
The Resurgence of Anti-Muslim Hate in Modern China
With the end of the Manchu Empire and establishment of the Republic of China (ROC) in 1912, ethnic and religious politics within China were dramatically transformed. In the new republic, the former subjects of the Qing Empire, including Muslims, were meant to be treated as equal nationals especially under the Beiyang government from 1913 to 1928. With the rise of Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975) and Han nationalism in the 1930s, some Han Chinese suspicion of Muslims, along with cultural misconceptions and misrepresentations of Islam resurfaced, often associated with pigs or pork. However, during the nation-building efforts of the 1930s, Chinese political or legal attacks against Muslim nationals were rare. In fact, Muslims actively participated in the Chinese nationalist movement, and many earned prominent political positions in the new republic before it collapsed in 1949.
The creation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949 (and the PRC’s subsequent military re-conquest of Xinjiang and Tibet) effectively ended the ROC’s treatment of Muslims as equal nationals. Instead, the Chinese Communist regime implemented the Soviet “minority nationalities” (or minzu) model throughout the new PRC Empire. Under this paradigm, the PRC’s diverse subject peoples were classified into 56 distinct ethnic nationalities, with the largest group by far being Han Chinese.
For China’s Communists, the Han Chinese were generally seen as a socially and culturally more advanced “big brother” to the fifty-five other non-Han minority nationalities. Ten of the recognized minority nationalities are officially classified as Muslim, including the Turkic Uyghurs, the ethnic Chinese Hui, and others. These Muslim minorities are located throughout China, but the majority of Turkic Muslims are found in the Uyghur homeland of Xinjiang. Other Hui Muslims are spread throughout the Western provinces of Gansu, Qinghai, Yunnan, Ningxia, and Henan.
Since 1949, the diverse cultures and religions of China have been increasingly subordinated to and incorporated into this PRC framework of minority nationalities. In communist ideology, the different nationality groupings were in principle meant to be equal to one another, although Han Chinese (over 91 percent of the total population) always were, and still remain, the PRC’s clearly dominant ethnic group.
During the Mao era, the revolutionary Communist Party committed large-scale violence and repression against all of the PRC’s indigenous cultures and traditions, including both Han Chinese and minority traditions. While many Muslims suffered, it would be fair to say that from the 1950s to the 1970s, Islam and Muslims were not singled out as a regime or Han majority target. This was perhaps because China’s Confucian Tradition had been wiped out by the communist revolution, and along with it, the minority Confucian tradition of Hui-phobia was suppressed, too. Moreover, at the time, many of the PRC’s closest friends, in what was then called the “Third World,” were majority Muslim countries.
However, in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the formation of Central Asian Muslim republics, overtly anti-Islamic attitudes started to resurface in China. By the late 1990s, new geopolitical dynamics in Central Asia began to translate into hostile Chinese discourses and policies towards Turkic Muslims, particularly in Xinjiang. Soon the Chinese started to make an explicit link between the Islamic religion and the so-called “three evil forces” of separatism, extremism and terrorism.
In a 2018 analysis that examined 10-years of news reporting in China, journalists Luwei Rose Luqiu and Fan Yang at the SUNY-Albany documented how the views of Islam and Muslims in state-controlled Chinese news coverage steadily worsened. In official PRC media, negative stereotyping of Islam became increasingly commonplace. Moreover, the lack of knowledge among Chinese journalists and editors about Islam and Muslims made them reliant on Western news coverage. This coverage, particularly since 9/11, has heavily focused on the rising threat of international Islamist terrorism.15
The PRC state media published “positive” propaganda about Islam, including stories that focused on how Muslims have benefited from the Communist Party’s rule. But that failed to explain the destitute conditions facing Muslim ethnic groups, or the other reasons why the state was providing special benefits to them. As a result, many Han Chinese, particularly in recent years, have tended to regard the Party’s policies of preferential treatment toward Muslims as grossly unnecessary and unfair. This has helped to stoke Han Chinese anger against Muslim ethnic groups.16
While the Party-state’s coverage of Islam in the 1990s and early 2000s was clearly misinformed and politically motivated, it was not especially hostile to Muslims or to Islam as such. This changed in the 2000s thanks to the burgeoning Internet and social media scene in China. Since then, non-official social media has emerged as a major platform for fomenting and spreading accusations about the Muslims and their loyalty to China. In particular, Islam increasingly came to be regarded as a threat to PRC sovereignty and territorial integrity. Han supremacism and outright hostility toward Islam and Muslims has since flourished in particular on two major Chinese social media platforms: since 2009, on the micro-blogging site Sina Weibo and since 2011, on the multi-purpose messaging application WeChat (Weixin).17
This surge in anti-Muslim hostility was partly triggered by ethnic rioting and attacks on Party police in Xinjiang in 2009, and a subsequently harsh government crackdown on Uyghurs. But it was also driven by rising levels of grassroots Han Chinese chauvinism both online and off. Wang Jing, who studies anthropology and has conducted field work in China’s Hui communities, points out that the development of social media and online anti-Islamic activism in China has combined with other factors—like misinformed and selectively censored state media, and the import of ultra-right ideologies from abroad—to generate a broad-based, popular Han Chinese anti-Muslim movement.18 Indeed, the spread of social media has increasingly diminished the Party-State’s monopoly over broadcasting and propaganda on ethnic and religious issues.
Today, “unofficial” social media not only crowds out official Party media, but it also generates, fabricates, and broadcasts its own coverage of Islam and Muslims. This, to some degree, also influences the Party-State’s policy. This is especially true at local levels in the western regions, where officials appear to be unable to distinguish between the Party line on Islam and online hate speech. This may be due to Party officials’ ignorance. It could also be the result of the Party’s failure to prevent misperceptions about Islam and to limit growing populist anti-Muslim hostility. Simultaneously, provincial officials are increasingly feeling pressure from grassroots Han supremacists and anti-Muslim activists, and are likely fearful of running afoul of their demands.
The spread of anti-Muslim propaganda on Chinese social media is driven by a large and growing network of activists and radicals. These include a retired researcher of Marxism and professed expert on “atheism,” Xi Wuyi; a Ministry of Commerce analyst Mei Xinyu; a self-described Daoist and online retailer, Liang Xingyang; an unemployed vagrant Hu Cheng (Weibo ID: Fulüfuwei); and the so-called “Chinese Voice of America” and “Home of North American Chinese,” to name a few. These Chinese “cyber-warriors” against Islam habitually spread rumors and otherwise exaggerate or wholly fabricate news which discredits Muslims, and frightens non-Muslims about the threat posed to PRC by Islam.
Virtually around the clock, hundreds of Chinese Weibo users post a steady stream of news stories and opinion articles with an avowedly anti-Muslim bent. For instance, Xi Wuyi alone has posted over 9,244 news, comments, and “selected submissions” about Muslims and Islam on Sina Weibo.19 Among other things, Islam, which is offensively and derogatorily described as the “green religion” (lu jiao) or the foreign “green green” (lu lu) faith, is attacked as an “evil religion” (xie jiao). Likewise, Muslims are described as “Muslim animals” (mu chu) who worship a God that is referred to as a “true pig” (zhen zhu)20 (which in Chinese phonetically and purposefully replaces God with the homophone of pig.)
In addition to insulting Muslims and their beliefs, online anti-Islam radicals also offer their own version of “news and analysis.” Their reports mock Muslims and depict them as duplicitous and dangerous to society. False rumors abound, for example allegations that consumers of halal food pay a special “religious tax” that goes to ethnic-religious organizations and benefits and strengthens Muslims, or that masses of refugees from Muslim countries are surging toward China, intending to “Islamicize” the entire country. One anti-Muslim nurse from Chengdu Hospital went to the extreme of scattering blood-soaked bits of cotton into a plate of halal noodles, then posting photos of this bizarre concoction online, hoping to stir up panic.21
Not surprisingly, anti-Muslim commentary has become something of a money-maker for some entrepreneurial bloggers and posters.22 Others, however, truly see themselves as faithful Han Chinese “patriots,” struggling against the threat they believe Islam, Muslims, and other minority groups pose to the integrity of PRC and the Party-State’s ideology. Taken together, their anti-Islamic vitriol unmistakably resembles the Hui-phobia of the early Qing period. Some contemporary Han Chinese activists actually share the radical goal of eradicating Islam and Muslims altogether from Chinese society.
This panoply of anti-Islam social media raises a significant question: to what extent is China’s online activism tolerated or even supported by PRC authorities?
Some researchers have concluded that the diverse tactics brandished by on-line activists are not as random or spontaneous as they may appear. The campaign is, instead, the handiwork of a carefully coordinated group—which is not opposed by the Party and its legion of censors, and may even be tacitly backed by it. Indeed, a groundbreaking study has exposed interwoven relationships between various anti-Muslim commentators, indicating that both on- and off-line, many of them remain in regular contact, encouraging and seeking to supplement one another’s efforts.23
Through this coordination, a sort of “division of labor” on social media has strengthened the assault against Islam. Individual posters are backed up by teams of supportive responders, approving and applauding their messages. Meanwhile, well-known anti-Muslim writers are assisted by a clique of followers who repost their articles, contributing to the impression that the original authors have countless constituents and are genuinely influential.
To further amplify the anti-Muslim propaganda to Weibo users, popular on-line posters sometimes develop close relationships with those who manage social media. For example, the CEO of Sina Weibo (ID: laiquzhijian) has frequently promoted well-known anti-Islam ideologues, sharing their speeches with over four hundred millions followers.24 In other words, China’s premier social media platforms and their staff, such as Sina Weibo, are directly involved in spreading anti-Muslim propaganda.
At times, the goals of Chinese anti-Muslim advocates do seem to differ with the Party’s line and with what PRC officials have to say. In fact, activists appear to be intentionally pressuring Party authorities and institutions to take ever more extreme positions on Islam and against Muslims. In one instance, Xi Wuyi falsely accused the Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture in Gansu of spending billions of Chinese Yuan to build mosques and other buildings featuring Arab-style architecture.25 And yet, because of governmental cowardice or complicity, no Party official has taken action against these fabricated anti-Muslim stories.
Ostensibly to avoid censure, Chinese cyber-warriors against Islam sometimes attempt to build connections with traditional media, seeking to be quoted as experts on Islamic affairs in such news outlets as the English version of The Global Times (Huanqiu Shibao).26 This pretense introduces various anti-Muslim agitators to the public, as if they were actually experts. Others create a façade of official recognition by name-dropping, or claiming personal connections—whether true or false—to Party authority figures. For instance, Xi Wuyi’s Weibo proudly mentions her special relationship with Zhu Weiqun, former head of the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Committee of the National Committee of the People’s Political Consultative Conference.27 Meanwhile, Mei Xinyu’s Weibo and WeChat posts frequently proclaim that he has been consulted by the Communist Party on Muslim affairs. Mei uses his apparent proximity to state agencies in order to legitimize the political correctness of his anti-Islamic stance and thereby advance his agenda.
Conceivably, the Party could see such anti-Islamic ideology as useful for strengthening its power over China, including by promoting its overall program of Han Chinese “national rejuvenation.” But if this is the case, there is a feasible risk that the Party is unleashing forces that it will not be able to control.
Some activists, for instance, have portrayed the Han Chinese majority as being victimized by the PRC’s longstanding preferential treatment of minority nationalities, and they criticize leadership for being purportedly too lenient toward Islam. In one fiery article, Mei Xinyu has stressed that if the Communist Party establishment does not implement populist measures on behalf of the Han, the Party risks being abandoned by the Han majority. Indeed, if the Party does not stand for the Han majority against Islam, Mei claims the Party’s fate could be the same as the Soviet establishment when people abandoned it en masse in 1991. Or, he points out that in the U.S. and Britain, populist democratic forces defeated the existing establishments, elected President Donald Trump and voted for Brexit.28
In this same article, Mei even duplicitously claims—with evil intent—that some African Americans have fallen under the influence of ISIS and adopted a separatist agenda. He uses the “black Islamic movement and separatism” to characterize the “Black Lives Matter” civil rights movement. Meanwhile, Mei Xinyu praises the revitalized power of Han Supremacism. He calls for radical changes in the Party-state’s ethno-religious policies, and advocates for a Chinese regime and nation of the majority, by the majority, and for the majority.
Effects on Communist Government Policy
The rise of the anti-Islam movement in China needs to be understood in the context of the Communist Party’s decades-long failure to assimilate non-Han populations. As Hu Angang, an economist at China’s Tsinghua University,29 and Hu Lianhe, another Tsinghua researcher and officer of the United Front Work Department (the Party’s propaganda unit)30 have argued, China’s current ethnic policy is outdated and needs to be updated to emphasize full integration in the context of China’s rejuvenation and “rise.”31 Such thinking clearly has driven the Party’s decision to redouble its efforts to “Sinify” Islam in China—including the present effort to construct camps for the “political re-education” of Muslims. At the same time, the Party’s “Sinification” policies, and the accompanying deterioration of ethno-religious relations in the PRC, has become a convenient pretext for Party officials to coordinate their assertions, along with the growing cohort of anti-Muslim activists, that Islam is a primary source of disorder in the West, and obstruction in China’s national rejuvenation.
Consider the evolution of the PRC’s official policies: in 1989, China’s State Administration of Radio, Film and Television established an office to “eradicate pornography and illegal publication,” which oversees publishing in print and audio-visual media.32 Then, in 2009, under the tutelage of that administrative office, the government of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region formed a regional mechanism, the “Eradicate Pornography and Illegal Publication Tianshan Project,” which aimed to establish harsher policies toward Islam ,not only in Xinjiang but also in the Hui Muslim areas located in Qinghai, Gansu, Ningxia, and Shaanxi provinces.
In the view of the authorities in Xinjiang, tolerant policies in adjacent Chinese provinces have emboldened Muslims, while impeding efforts to create stability and security inside Xinjiang. The stated goal of the Tianshan Project is to combat illegal publications that drive the “three evil forces:” extremism, separatism, and terrorism.33 By legally encompassing the other four western provinces and their large non-Turkic/Hui Chinese Islamic populations, the Communist Party policy is clearly targeting Islam and Muslims through their repressive policies.
Nowadays, the power and influence of Xinjiang’s anti-Muslim officials routinely reach far beyond the region’s borders. For instance, an officially-appointed Hui imam in Gansu Province—who was praised in 2015 by the state-controlled Xinhua News as a “model” imam—was arrested in 2016.34 He was detained following his return to Xinjiang, after it was discovered that he had given a lecture to students, including Uyghurs, on Islam at a university in neighboring Gansu province.35
Along similar lines, a Beijing bookstore owner, who had operated his store specializing on Islam, Muslims, and the Middle East for more than ten years in the Haidian District, was arrested by Xinjiang authorities and placed in a re-education camp. He was charged with “terrorism” for selling books about Islam.36 More recently, members of provincial party organizations in West China including the Commission of Political and Legal Affairs from Ningxia, Qinghai, traveled to Xinjiang to learn lessons about “anti-terrorism and stability-maintenance.” This, among other things, indicates that Xinjiang’s repressive policing practices are being expanded to other Muslim-populated areas of West China.37
Nowadays, many Xinjiang Party officials openly speak of the urgent need to banish all Islamic practices, including the observance of a halal diet.38 Mocking these religious restrictions, Cui Zijian, an anti-Muslim propaganda official in Xinjiang, nearly ignited a large-scale conflict when he called for Han residents to bury a pig’s head in a mosque building site located in Hefei, Anwei.39
Other Party restrictions on Islam in Xinjiang include ordering Muslim restaurants to sell alcohol,40 shortening the dresses of Uyghur Muslim women that are deemed too conservative or long, and forcing Muslims to eat pork and drink alcohol while celebrating Han Chinese festivals.41,42 Xinjiang’s Communist authorities have also banned newborn babies from being given Muslim names.43 Even more disturbing, Uyghurs who have studied in Muslim countries, or fulfilled their hajj pilgrimage duty, or who have traveled abroad to the 26 Muslim countries that PRC has officially designated as “sensitive,” have been rounded up and placed in prison camps.44
Xinjiang’s so-called “de-extremification” campaign clearly has become a struggle against Islam itself, which is meant to de-Islamicize the daily lives of Uyghur Muslims by criminalizing their normal religious practices.45 As a result, in large parts of western China, the Communist government’s policies toward Islam have become virtually indistinguishable from the demands made by Chinese anti-Muslim activists online. This toxic amalgam has led to some of the most egregious human rights abuses in today’s world.
While Western societies may be dealing with populist anti-Muslim fears and concerns, their expression is generally constrained by public morality, basic human decency, and legal institutions that protect freedom of religion and other essential human rights. No such limitations exist in Communist China. Instead, anti-Muslim rhetoric has become deeply entangled with Han supremacism, and prospers alongside the Communist Party’s imperative to maintain absolute control over people’s lives. As a result, the Chinese state’s repression of Muslims is now hardwired to grow even more severe, with ever more devastating consequences for Uyghurs and other Muslims in the PRC—and likely elsewhere. The Chinese people—and every nation of conscience and good will—must oppose these developments in China.