In the past three years, over 1 million Uyghurs in the People’s Republic of China have been enduring a systemic, state-run campaign of incarceration and internment in “re-education camps” in one of the world’s worst human rights abuses. The story has begun to receive the coverage it deserves in major media outlets, like in this investigative report updated last month by The New York Times, which shows satellite images of an expansion of these internment camps despite China’s claim that the camps had been shrinking as “reformed” Uyghurs rejoined society.
But what is less known is that the Uyghurs, a Turkic Muslim minority who live in Western China, are not the only targets. Muslims living all over the country find themselves enduring egregious violations of their rights, including draconian measures such as being forced to eat pork and drink alcohol and to shave their beards or remove their headscarves. They are persecuted for having connections — real or perceived — to Muslim intellectuals abroad, and many are denied passports and the right to travel, including to hajj pilgrimages. State authorities have also been prohibiting the adhan (call to prayers) and removing minarets, even bulldozing some mosques in their entirety.
While there have been repressive campaigns that target minorities in China’s history, the current systemic violations are far more sinister, thanks to sophisticated surveillance and fast-evolving AI technology. That, combined with the growing role China plays in the world economy and the ongoing ripple effect of the “global war on terror,” western China has become a dystopian experiment where the Uyghurs are among several test subjects. There is little reason to expect this experiment will stop in the near future, or remain confined to just one part of a sprawling nation.
At the heart of these repressive policies is China’s aim of the “de-Islamization” of Muslims or, as some call it, the “Sinicization” of Islam.
Sinicization describes the process through which groups — be they Mongolians, Muslims, or Tibetans — are absorbed into the Sinosphere through acculturation, policies of assimilation, or more direct policies of cultural imperialism. A case in point is China’s recent move to forbid religious teachings in Arabic, remove Arabic signage on restaurants and shops, and shutter Islamic bookstores, often detaining owners.
In essence, Muslims are being assimilated into the dominant Han Chinese culture through the erasure of Islamic practices in China. These are intentional policies implemented by the state to reduce the visibility of Islamic practices in daily life. Observers fear that the increasing restrictions in Ningxia and Gansu, where the majority of the population is Hui, could mean that the Xinjiang-style internment camps might make their way to other parts of China where Muslims make up the majority of the population.
China’s population comprises 92 percent ethnic Han, leaving 130 million Chinese people to fall into one of 56 separate ethnic groups, as designated by the Communist Party. Of those ethnic groups, 10 are Muslim, totaling around 40 million people — less than 2% of the country’s population. These Muslim minority groups include, in descending order by size, the Hui, who account for nearly half of China’s Muslims, followed by the Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Salars, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Bonan, and Tatars, who currently number around 5,000.
China’s repressive policies have led to resistance from local communities who resent the long arm of the state interfering in their private religious affairs. At least one protest, against the demolition of the Weizhou Grand Mosque, has been successful. But if that was a rare sign of concession on behalf of the Chinese state, it seems likely to come to an abrupt end.
Islam was introduced to China by envoys from the Middle East who traveled to meet Emperor Gaozong of the Tang Dynasty in the 7th century. Shortly after this visit, the first mosque was built in the southern trading port of Guangzhou for Arabs and Persians who traveled around the Indian Ocean and the South China Seas working as traders. During this time, Muslim merchants established themselves in Chinese ports and in trading posts along what we now call the Silk Roads. During this time, Muslims lived segregated from the Han Chinese populations for almost five centuries.
It was not until the Mongol Yuan Dynasty came to power in the 13th century that Muslims came to China in unprecedented numbers to serve as administrators for the new rulers who were descendants of Genghis Khan, founder of the Mongol Empire.
The Mongols had little experience running a bureaucracy as large as the one in China, so they turned to the capable administrators from important Silk Road cities like Bukhara and Samarkand in Central Asia. They recruited and forcibly relocated hundreds of thousands of Central Asians and Persians to the Yuan court to help them govern the expanding empire.
During this time, wealthy officials continued to bring their wives with them, while lower-ranking officials took local Chinese wives who converted to Islam.
For the next 300 years or so — throughout the Ming Dynasty — Muslims continued to be influential in court politics. Zheng He, the admiral who led Chinese fleets on exploratory and diplomatic journeys throughout Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, was a Muslim eunuch. His familiarity with Arabic—the lingua franca of the Indian Ocean—and his knowledge of the social and cultural graces associated with Islam made him an ideal choice to lead these massive expeditions.
Throughout this time, Islamic practices and Muslims adapted to China. Many Muslims could read Arabic and/or Persian, although they could not speak the language. They also wrote extensively about Islam in Chinese. In part, these were efforts to make Islam understandable to the non-Muslim majority who lived around them. However, the corpus of writing that Chinese Muslim intellectuals developed — known as the Han Kitab (Han for “Han” Chinese, and kitab is Arabic for “book”) — dealt with issues that were particular to Muslims living in the Sinosphere, such as how to reconcile Confucianism with Islam.
In the 18th century, the relationship between Muslims and the state in China started to change. The Manchu Qing Dynasty, which lasted from 1644-1911, was China’s last dynasty. They were also not Han Chinese. The Manchus had great territorial aspirations to bring far-flung lands — like Tibet, parts of Mongolia, and what is now called the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region — more directly under their imperial purview.
This territorial expansion led to clashes with Muslim populations, and throughout the 19th century there were a number of Muslim-led revolts against Qing rule. These revolts were staged in opposition to more direct control from Beijing over regions where Muslim powerbrokers had generally governed with relative autonomy. But the state violently suppressed these revolts, thus ending a long period of accommodation for Muslims in China.
By the late 19th century, Beijing was sending Han Chinese bureaucrats to govern western China. Xinjiang, which literally translates as “the new territories” was officially made a province of the Qing empire in 1884.
During the tumultuous years after the fall of the last dynasty, Muslims, once again, were able to act with relative autonomy from Beijing. They looked to different powers, like the Japanese or the Soviets, to help them back reform plans.
These communities were also actively involved in the global circulation of ideas of what it meant to be both modern and Muslim, and they tried to implement changes within their own communities. But then the empire fractured, and China entered a constant state of war — both civil and international — throughout the first half of the 20th century, until the Communist Party of China reinstated most of the territorial integrity of the defunct Qing empire.
After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, ethnographers and anthropologists divided the people who lived within the borders of the new state into 56 ethnic groups based on relatively ambiguous criteria such as shared language, territory, history, and traditions.
In the first years after the establishment of the PRC, Muslims once again enjoyed relative religious freedom while the new state tended to other priorities. However, during the most chaotic years of the Cultural Revolution, between 1966 and 1969, mosques were yet again defaced, Qurans and religious texts burned, and Muslims were prohibited from performing hajj. The revolutionary Communist Red Guards banned expression of religion, though after Chairman Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, the Communists adopted more relaxed policies toward Muslims.
History often repeats itself, but what is unfolding today in China regarding its Muslim minority is in fact more organized, more efficient, and much more alarming than the dynamics of the past
Many older Muslims living today remember the bleak days of the Cultural Revolution. Some might even recount the tumultuous period as a mirror for what is currently taking place in China. History often repeats itself, but what is unfolding today in China regarding its Muslim minority is in fact more organized, more efficient, and much more alarming than the dynamics of the past.
With the onset of the war on terror, led by the United States in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, the Chinese government seized the opportunity to cast Uyghurs in Xinjiang as “terrorists” and “extremists.” Islam was presented as a threat to the state and to stability throughout the region, giving officials a justification for crackdowns on Muslim communities. These state-driven campaigns have been successful, and Islamophobia has become rampant among the Han Chinese majority.
During this time, the Hui were touted as a model minority. After all, they speak Chinese and are seen as valuable assets to help smooth diplomatic relations between the Chinese state and Muslim nation-states around the world, all while the Uyghurs were being corralled into concentration camps. But in 2019, the state’s Islamophobia finally caught up with the Hui. Observers began noticing crackdowns on Islam and Islamic practices in the predominantly Hui communities in the Chinese provinces of Gansu and Ningxia in ways that are more lasting and profound than the sanctioning of Islam during the Cultural Revolution.
These policies are organized and centralized. They rely on an aggressive surveillance state developed by China’s sophisticated high-tech sector and overseen by the security apparatus in Beijing. Last month, a report published by The Washington Post detailed ways in which China’s tech giant Huawei had been testing facial recognition software that could send automated “Uyghur alarms” to government authorities when its cameras identified someone as belonging to the oppressed minority. Another report, first discovered by the surveillance industry publication IPVM, also showed how the tech giant Alibaba, long touted as “China’s Amazon”, showed clients how to use its software to detect the faces of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities within images and videos. A report published by The New York Times last summer further unveiled how China’s hackers built malware to spy on Uyghurs through smart phones since as far back as 2013, suggesting that the campaign was an early cornerstone in China’s wide dragnet of Uyghur surveillance that extends to collecting DNA, voice prints, facial scans, and surveillance of exiled Uyghurs in as many as 15 countries.
These policies, unprecedented in their high-tech reach, are being extended to other minority groups, including Tibetans and Mongolians. If the end goal is the complete assimilation of all minority groups — be they Muslim or not — into the dominant Han Chinese culture, the plan seems to be working, at least for now.
China’s growing economy plays a pivotal role in facilitating these practices or, at least, in encouraging the international community to turn a blind eye. Through the Belt and Road Initiative, a long-term plan to generate trade through infrastructure and energy sectors through investments in and loans to developing countries across Eurasia and the Indian Ocean, China has essentially bought the silence of Muslim-majority states like Indonesia and Pakistan that might otherwise have objected to the treatment of their Muslim brethren.
Indeed, the global economy has become so entwined with the labor camps in Xinjiang that the US recently planned to ban imports of cotton and tomatoes from China because of the high probability that these commodities were cultivated by indentured Muslim laborers. For many Uyghurs, this step comes too late. And there is little reason to believe that it will force a reckoning in China. As the world remains complacent about these abuses, Chinese President Xi Jinping and his regime will only grow more emboldened to extend these campaigns to minorities who are also citizens of China.