Chinese social media is quite different from traditional media in many ways; netizens, for instance, express their support or criticism of certain social groups more aggressively, with much less reserve. This is due partially to the government’s tight control of television broadcasters and newspapers, which does not allow any deviation from the official line. Conversely, China’s Internet is relatively open – government’s control notwithstanding, a netizen can post angry comments from time to time with impunity.
Discussions on Muslims and Islam has been a taboo for China’s traditional media for several decades. I do not know the exact time when this began, but according to conventional wisdom and experience in the media, it dates back to the Mao Zedong era. When metropolitan newspapers and television programs flourished during the 1990s, it became even more difficult to report on Muslim issues.
Some foreign observers tend to forget that China has 56 ethnic groups and quite a few of them are predominantly Muslims, most notably the Hui and the Uyghurs. China is home to 20 million Muslims. That number may seem insignificant compared to 1.4 billion, but the government cannot afford to treat Muslims lightly. As a result, Beijing — and thus state-controlled media — has been careful in maintaining good relations between different ethnic groups and their religions. Official propaganda on ethnic issues seeks to strengthen minority groups’ identification with China and to avoid separatist tendencies due to ethnic and religious conflicts. For example, the popular song “56 Nationalities and 56 Flowers” ends with the line “love our China.”
To that end, traditional media tightly restricts the way ethnic issues — particularly Muslim issues — are represented. When I was working at a media agency years ago, there was a ban on running anything related to pork or pigs along with stories about Muslims. As another example, I remember reading an interview with then Israeli President Shimon Peres, and right next to it there was another interview about Arab countries, despite the fact the Peres did not mention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but only talked about Israel’s relations with China. Such arrangements by the media were intended to serve the national interest, fostering a positive environment both for solidarity among China’s different ethnic groups and religions and China’s relations with Muslim countries around the world.
The emergence of social media has changed everything. Recently, some netizens have been expressing dissatisfaction, in some cases quite aggressively, with China’s supposedly “soft” policy toward its Muslim population. Some netizens even took to humiliating and insulting Muslims in China and the Middle East. This anti-Muslim sentiment found on social media poses new challenges for China’s regulators tackling ethnic and religious issues.
Plenty of examples indicate there is a surge of hostility on China’s social media toward Muslims. Netizens have invented a new phrase – “Green Religion” — to refer to Islam, due to the color’s significance in the religion (including the color’s inclusion in most national flags of Muslim countries). Muslims, then, are referred to be the invested phrase “the Greens” — an openly derogatory term. Each time an attack occurs in the West, for instance when news came out about the attacks in Paris or Brussels, it sparked heated discussions on China’s social media, and some would suggest that “this must have been done by the Greens.”
Such attacks are the first reason why China’s netizens have turned against Muslims. An increase in terrorist attacks has awakened the Chinese to the threat of terrorism. Since most of these attacks were carried out by Muslims, netizens’ attitude toward Muslims in general has deteriorated.
China has suffered fewer terrorist attacks compared to the West, but the number of attacks has been increasing, especially in the western part of China, for example in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region. The suicide bombing of the Chinese embassy in Kyrgyzstan is another case in point. The interesting thing is, while China told its people to support Arab countries, especially the Palestinian cause, during Mao and Deng’s time, China’s netizens now are overwhelmingly supportive of Israel taking military action against Arab countries.
As an example, the head of Al Jazeera’s Beijing office has a Weibo account and almost every post is subject to attacks. Some comments are extremely hostile – “Pack up and go back to the Middle East” — or even violent — “We support Israel’s killing of you all.”
The refugee crisis has also contributed to negative views toward Muslims among the Chinese. Chinese pride themselves on their hardworking image, and many of them look down upon refugees from the Middle East, especially physically strong men who smuggled their way to Europe. Most of China’s netizens dismiss the refugees as mobs, or agents working for Islamic State; the refugees are labeled “lazy” and a security liability to the world. This dynamic also feeds into Chinese netizen’s growing anti-Muslim sentiment.
China’s netizens are now making fun of Europe’s policy on refugees, especially German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to accept refugees. Many netizens say in a mocking tone that Germany will turn “Green” one day and Europe will become “Europestan.” When some leaders in the West suggested that China should also accept some refugees from the Middle East, it was rejected flat out on China’s social media. Some netizens even suggested China should let the refugees stay in the West to bring more disasters on Western countries.
In addition to events overseas, however, China’s domestic policy has also been responsible for the hostility toward Muslims online. As was mentioned earlier, China has been trying to maintain the cohesion between different ethnic groups and religions over several decades, but this has now sparked a backlash on the social media.
For example, China is building large numbers of mosques in its western region, and construction has even extended to Shenzhen, a developed city on the east coast. Some Muslim communities in the western region have started learning Arabic at school, and road signs now have Arabic along with Chinese. Some Muslim women in China have adopted the wearing of the hijab or even black burqas. The spread of visually identifiable signs of Muslim identity has led to criticism online. Some netizens blame these changes on China’s misguided ethnic and religious policy; some even went so far as to compare Beijing’s policy toward Muslims to the appeasement of the Nazis before World War II. They believe if this tendency is not curbed, the Han Chinese position as China’s dominant ethnic group will be at stake.
These comments stem from a deep-seated fear that China may also “turn Green” one day. The hostility toward Muslims is in fact also an objection toward what they consider as China’s misguided ethnic and religious policy, which is viewed as too soft on Muslims. Since such sentiments could never appear on television and newspapers controlled by the government, the Internet has become their battlefield.
The dominant ethnic group in China is the Han, making up around 90 percent of the total population; unsurprisingly, then, most Chinese netizens also happen to be Han Chinese. This is why anti-Muslim views that espouse a sense of superiority of the Han Chinese are able to gather considerable support. Adding to this is the obtrusive presence of Muslims in some parts of the country, which leads to further animosity among the Han Chinese.
During Ramadan several months ago, one major street in China’s biggest city Shanghai was sealed off to allow tens of thousands of Muslims to line up to pray toward Mecca. Photos of the scene deeply unnerved the “Han nationalists” and increased their anxiety about the prospect of “China’s fall into Muslim hands,” following the example of Europe.
China’s social media also regularly churn out stories about conflicts between the country’s Muslim and non-Muslim communities. For example, some Muslims demand that there should be no smell of pork in their neighborhood. In other incidents, some Muslims, believing the trucks carrying Halal food are not clean, have forced their way onto the trucks for inspections. Once these small-scale conflicts are labeled as a Muslim issue, they immediately go viral on social media, which further antagonizes China’s netizens against Muslims.
In the most recent case, the tragic murder-suicide of a mother and her four children in Gansu province has also been given an anti-Muslim context by netizens. Media reports have blamed extreme poverty for the grisly case. Some netizens, however, blame ethnic policy — they argue that the government should not spend money on mosques when people are living in poverty.
Only rational debate can lead to a more secure China. The rise of aggressive anti-Muslim sentiments on social media is a worrisome step in the wrong direction.