A Tale of Two Chinese Muslim Minorities
Image Credit: REUTERS/Stringer

A Tale of Two Chinese Muslim Minorities


There are two major Muslim ethnic groups in China: the Hui and the Uyghurs. While these two ethnic communities may share the same god, their respective positions within Chinese society remain radically different.

The Uyghurs, who speak a Turkic language written with an Arabic script, are as distinct in appearance from the Han Chinese as Native Americans are from their Caucasian counterparts. Their population of around 8 million mostly resides in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, a vast province situated along the borders of several Central Asian countries in China’s northwestern frontier.

The Hui, estimated at around 11 million, can be found throughout China. Most, however, are concentrated within the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. They are unique in China as they represent the only one of the 56 officially designated nationality groups in China “for which religion…is the sole unifying criterion of identity.” In skin and blood, the Hui are little different from their Han brethren. For the vast majority of the Hui, Mandarin is a mother tongue, and besides refraining from pork and alcohol, they have much the same dietary preferences as the Han.

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The most striking difference between the two groups though is their respective positions in relation to the Chinese government. Unlike the Hui, the Uyghurs face an alarming amount of state discrimination. “Under the guise of counterterrorism and ‘anti-separatism’ efforts, the government maintains a pervasive system of ethnic discrimination against Uighurs…and sharply curbs religious and cultural expression,” notes a 2013 Human Rights Watch report on China. It cites an “omnipresence of the secret police,” a “history of disappearances” and an “overtly politicized judiciary” as common components of the “atmosphere of fear among the Uighur population.” The Hui are not mentioned in the full-country report. The cause behind the gap in government treatment is twofold.

One reason is culture. Like the majority Han Chinese, the Uyghurs also have a strong attachment to their cultural practices and are deeply prideful of their culture’s long history. They have little desire to assimilate into Han society. Their reluctance to do so is met with reactions ranging from chauvinism to claims of ingratitude by the Han elite. Reciprocally, the Han inclination to patronize and discount the Uyghurs – referred to as “the barbarians” in dynastic times – as culturally inferior breeds resentment and frustration among Uyghurs.

The Hui on the other hand are the ideal religious minority for the Chinese government. They have largely assimilated into Han society, having adapted their Islamic practices to fit into the Confucian-influenced macroculture. Their mosques, a harmonious blend of traditional Chinese dynastic architecture with Islamic motifs, are the perfect manifestation of the Hui’s fluid assimilation.

Another aspect of the cultural dimension that affects the Uyghurs’ societal positioning is race. Racial discrimination pervades the Uyghur-Han relationship in China. Many of the Han feel uneasy towards the Uyghurs, believing them to be thieves and hotheads and in more recent years, religious fanatics. Part of this is because the Han are poor at distinguishing the differences between the Turkic minority groups. As a consequence, when crimes are committed by Tajiks, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks or Tatars, Han will likely describe the wrongdoers to authorities as Uyghurs; suddenly nearly every non-Han crime taking place in China is committed by Uyghurs.

The effects of this stereotyping is evident in Urumqi, where Han and Uyghur numbers are nearly equal. Xinjiang’s provincial capital is a city divided. While the Han Chinese reside in the wealthier north, most of the Uyghurs stay in the less developed south. “The Han don’t come down here,” an American expat living in Urumqi tells me as we stroll through a Uyghur neighborhood. “They are too afraid.”

The Hui, however, mingle freely within both communities. Their command of Mandarin lends them legitimacy with the Han, while their Islamic faith makes them okay with the Uyghurs (though this isn’t to say that there haven’t been clashes). In contrast, many Uyghurs struggle with Mandarin, which only adds to the Han perception that they are an uncivilized, benighted people.

Language plays a role in the income divide between the two groups as well. To be fair, the government is directing much effort towards addressing this problem with bilingual schooling and affirmative action programs (though both policies have had mixed results). Affirmative action programs notwithstanding, a mastery of Mandarin is essential for employment within the government or a state-owned enterprise (SOE), two of the best paying sectors in Xinjiang’s extraction-heavy economy. But while conducting research on income disparity in Xinjiang, University of California PhD candidate Anthony Howell found “a noticeable increase in Hui who were employed by SOEs” in comparison to his Uyghur control group. Furthermore, almost all of the Hui involved in his study were “conversationally fluent in Mandarin,” while only 73.8 percent of Uyghur respondents could be said to possess the same competency.

“[The Hui] are better than us,” says a young Uyghur man in Urumqi who wishes to be called Askgar. He does not wish to share his name due to a fear of state retaliation. “Sometimes I feel like there is no future for us, like we are refugees. We’re not welcome anywhere. [The media] made us famous for some bad things,” he laments. “Now people are afraid of us.”

Race impacts how the state-run media depicts Uyghurs. Since the start of the Global War on Terror, authorities have been quick to label instances of violence or crime committed by Uyghurs as acts of terrorism. Liang Zheng, a researcher of Chinese media at Xinjiang University in Urumqi, analyzed several state newspapers as part of his doctoral dissertation, hoping to shine a light on the media’s portrayal of Uyghurs. In his research he found that “Uyghurs [were] represented in China’s state media in a partial and biased way,” and that depictions of Uyghurs as terrorists and a threat to China greatly increased following 9/11. As a result of the media’s excessive use of the T-word, the impression that all Uyghurs are religious radicals has gained traction in the public sphere. When legitimate acts of Islamic terrorism do occur (and they may be on the rise) it only legitimizes that stereotype among the public. The Hui don’t experience these types of problems associated with bad press. But for the vast majority of peaceful, moderate Uyghurs, this public labeling has become a major burden.

The second and most important reason for the government treatment gap is territoriality. The Uyghurs, who as recently as the 20th century experienced two separate periods of independence, generally believe Xinjiang is occupied unjustly by the Chinese. Many believe that the province – which Uyghur nationalists make a point of calling East Turkistan and not its Mandarin name – should be a sovereign nation ruled by ethnic Uyghurs, similar to the Stan states of Central Asia.

The Hui meanwhile almost never challenge the territorial authority of the Party. They have historically shown little interest in politics. Nor have they had much experience in governance. Rather, they have existed within different Chinese polities throughout the centuries mostly as a minority group within a larger Han society. They care that they are able to practice their religion freely and not much else. Though they have experienced significant discrimination and hardship throughout the centuries under the ruling classes – and have fought back under the leadership of various figures – this experience hasn’t bred a serious desire for statehood. Thus the Chinese party-state today, perpetually obsessed with matters of territoriality and ethnic unity, harbors little ill will towards the Hui, who have challenged neither issue. This confidence holds true even when the Hui delve into religious fanaticism.

In 2006, a religious leader of a Sufi sect in Ningxia established what the South China Morning Post described as a “virtual religious state,” with one and a half million followers and a network of mosques and madrasas. He spoke openly of his time seeing Osama Bin Laden speak and his meetings with several radical clerics while studying in Pakistan. But because he expressed unwavering loyalty to the Communist Party, he went unbothered by the authorities. Given the strict regulations enforced upon even the most moderate Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, such an example suggests that the difference in government treatment of the two Muslim groups rests not within religion but within the political realm.

Much analysis of Beijing’s repression in Xinjiang attributes the state’s oppressive policies to something akin to Islamophobia or an animosity towards the sacred in general. Seeing the great lengths that the government goes to in its attempts to dilute the religiosity of Xinjiang, this wouldn’t be an illogical deduction. Besides, the Communist Party is an outwardly atheist regime. But a look into the degree of religious and political freedom experienced by Xinjiang’s Hui Muslims in comparison to their Uyghur neighbors illuminates a different explanation. What Beijing is motivated by in its oppression of Uyghurs is not a distaste for Islam as such, but it is an absolute neurosis towards the threat – serious or not – of territory loss, and with no small degree of xenophobia thrown in there as well.

Brent Crane is a Beijing-based writer. Follow him on [email protected]

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