Since 1978 Islam has gone through a modest revival in China. Muslims have generally been allowed more freedoms to express their religious beliefs. Nevertheless it is important to note that the level of religious freedom accorded by the State varies amongst the different Muslim ethnic groups. There are two main ethnic Muslim groups in China. The Uighurs who predominantly hail from the Xinjiang province and the Hui, who are spread disparately over the whole of China.
While Muslim Uighurs face harsh religious restrictions and repression, the Hui have been afforded much more political and religious freedom by Beijing. Observers say it is their friendly historical relations with the ethnic majority Han that is the difference.
Situated along the borders of several central Asian countries on china’s northwestern frontier, the Xinjiang province is Chinas largest administrative region and also the home of China’s Uighur population. The Uighurs speak a language related to Turkish. Culturally, ethnically as well as linguistically they are closer with the central Asian countries than with Beijing. The region has had some autonomy and occasional independence in the past, but what is now known as Xinjiang came under Chinese rule in the 18th Century.
An East Turkestan state was briefly declared in 1949, but independence was short-lived – later that year Xinjiang officially became part of Communist China. In the 1990s, open support for separatist groups increased after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of independent Muslim states in Central Asia. Beijing managed to suppress these demonstrations.
Due to this history, the Xinjiang province has had constant separatist struggles with Beijing. Uighur activists claim that their rights and religious freedoms are being curtailed by Beijing. In a report published by Amnesty international in 2013, it is said that authorities prohibited “what they labelled ‘illegal religious’ and ‘separatist’ activities” repressed “peaceful expressions of cultural identity”.
In July 2014, some Xinjiang government departments banned Muslim civil servants from fasting during Ramadan. On the other hand there has been incidence of armed separatist movements carrying out attacks both from within and out the Xinjiang province. China has often blamed ETIM – the East Turkestan Islamic Movement – or people inspired by ETIM for violent incidents both in Xinjiang and beyond the region’s borders.
The picture couldn’t be more different concerning China’s Muslim Hui community. They enjoy the freedom to practice their religion. They are integrated into larger Han society, having adapted their Islamic practices to fit into the dominant Chinese culture. The Hui have rarely been documented in history to have challenged the territorial authority of the State. They have very little political aspirations. In this sense they are no threat to the territorial integrity of the Chinese state.
Consequently, while Hui Muslims enjoy the freedom to practice their religion, Muslim Uighurs face strict government repression in far-western Xinjiang province. Part of the problem is language differences. While the Hui and Han both speak Mandarin, the Uighurs speak their own Turkic dialect and write in Arabic script.
This differential treatment has also resulted in a sort of rivalry between these two Muslim ethnic groups. In July 2009 riots erupted in Xinjiang’s regional capital Urumqi, leaving about 200 Han and Uighurs dead.
While Beijing supports the Muslim religion in Ningxia which is predominantly populated by the Hui, that is far from the case in Xinjiang. In Xinjiang, minors under the age of 18 are forbidden from participating in Islamic practices, and thousands are detained every year for “illegal religious activity”, according to a report by Human Right Watch.
Beijing perceives Xinjiang seperatist ambitions as a concern in the same way it does Taiwan and Tibet. However one may wonder whether the repressive approach adopted by the Chinese state is not merely fueling Xinjiangs seperatist ambitions. It could be argued that these repressive measures lend legitimacy to Xinjiangs claim to the right to self determination.