IN 2015, AUTHORITIES in Karamay, the oil town in the far north of Xinjiang, China’s troubled far-west province, temporarily banned men with big beards or anyone wearing Islamic clothing such as hijabs, niqabs and burqa from travelling on the city’s buses.
The restriction came a week after an attack in which nearly 100 people, including 59 of the attackers, branded terrorists by authorities, had died, and in the midst of a year-long anti-terrorism crackdown announced in the wake of a deadly bombing attack in the provincial capital, Urumqi, in May earlier that year.
Now, following a futile attempt to discourage beards and veils, Beijing has announced blanket ban across Xinjiang on “abnormal” beards, the wearing of veils in public places and, incongruously, the refusal to watch state television.
The 15 specific measures introduced categorise as ‘extremism’ what could be as easily described as religious observance as proselytising. State media describe them as drawing a clear line between legal religion and illegal religion, providing legal support for protecting the former and purging the latter.
China is far from alone in taking this tack towards its domestic Islamic extremists. France, Belgium the Netherlands, Bulgaria and Egypt are all countries that have imposed varying degrees of prohibitions on face-covering dress. However, as measures to counter religious extremism, China’s latest regulations seem more likely to alienate further the Uighur Muslim population that already feels their culture is under attack from Han Chinese settlers than to reduce the threat levels perceived or actual.
Beijing has been fighting a low-level but increasingly violent insurgency in its natural-resources-rich western reaches for decades. The 8.4 million-strong Uighur minority in Xinjiang, mostly Turkic Sunni Muslims, though far from universally supportive of the tiny separatist groups that would like to re-establish the republic of East Turkestan, resent the growing Han dominance of the province, which was once more four-fifths Uighur but is now dominated by Han Chinese.
Uighurs feels their culture and economic prospects being increasingly diminished, and especially since the anti-Han riots in Urumqi in 2009 that left some 200 dead, initiating the current cycle of crackdowns. That sense of marginalisation has increased since not just by the paramilitary policing that has become part of everyday life but also by the squeezing of the native population out of Party and government jobs, where Islamic observance can be most effectively banned.
In what appears to be a visible defiance of Chinese control, Uighur women have taken to wearing veils, although Uighurs have traditionally not practised strict forms of Sunni Islam that demand them.
However, the same trend is also being seen among women from China’a largest Muslim group, the Hui, who are treated much differently by authorities than Uighurs. Hui are not concentrated in one region but spread out across the country; though of Arab-Persian-central Asian descent they are Chinese-, not Turkic-speaking and are often physically indistinct from Han Chinese. Crucially, they do have any separatist ambitions.
The contrast between the freedom of religious expression for Muslims in central and eastern China and the tight strictures on Uighurs in Xinjiang is striking, and a marker of the difference of treatment for those groups that assimilate and those that do not.
This Bystander has noted before that China’s anti-terrorism policies are based on the same techniques as Beijing uses to crackdown on political dissent, which may betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the problem being faced.
We have also noted the shortcomings of such an approach when it comes to winning hearts and minds. Religious restrictions only serve to feed a vicious cycle of repression and violence. If the aim of counter-terrorism policy is to alleviate the conditions and reduce the underlying factors that give rise to radicalization and recruitment among the domestic population, then characterising all Uighurs as being somewhere on the terrorist/separatist spectrum is not going to achieve that.
Violence has flared up in recent months in Xinjiang’s southern Uighur heartland after a relatively quiet period. Amplified by a fear of the return of battle-hardened fighters from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, this has brought a large tightening of security, epitomised by President Xi Jinping’s call for Xinjiang to be surrounded by a “great wall of iron”.
However, while the Party maintains tight controls over foreign religious influences in the country, there is growing physical evidence of more conservative Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia funding the construction of mosques and schools in China, particularly those in the Salafist tradition, which might turn even China’s assimilated Hui Muslims more religiously conservative with unknown consequences.
China has somewhere between 20 million and 40 million Muslims. The official census figures veer towards the lower end of that range, but even that would put China in the top 20 of Islamic countries, though as a proportion of the total population it is tiny, less than 2%. In future, Beijing may have a different Islamic issue to confront, but for now, it frames the one it has in Xinjiang in the same context as Tibet and Taiwan — and that may render it unsolvable in the only way it knows how, a combination of coercion, bribery and absorption.