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There are more than 20 million Muslims in China. For some, piety is a dangerous political act.

Chinese riot police watch a Muslim ethnic Uighur woman protest in Urumqi in China's far west Xinjiang province on July 7, 2009.
Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images

For devout Muslims, Ramadan, the lunar month when they fast from dawn to dusk, is a time for self-discipline, reflection, and deepening their relationship with God and others. But for the Chinese authorities in the Xinjiang autonomous ethnic region, the far-western Chinese province governed tightly by Beijing, the fast isn’t a devotion but a political weapon.

As in previous years, there are numerous reports that Muslims in Xinjiang have been forced to eat during the day. Restaurants have been forbidden from closing, mosques are closely monitored or shut, and government workers and students have been expressly banned from fasting. Not showing up to a midday college meal or village feast can get your name put on the kind of list you don’t want to be on.

In other parts of China, though, fasting Muslims face little more than the thoughtless questions from colleagues that Muslims in the West frequently encounter. So why, then, is an act that’s private and religious in Xi’an or Beijing viewed in Xinjiang as public, political, and dangerous?

The answer is that for Xinjiang’s Muslim residents, who are deeply resentful about rule from Beijing, religious piety is increasingly a signal of resistance to Chinese domination. And even when it isn’t, local Chinese officials will treat it as if it is anyway.

Wait, China has Muslims?

A lot of people might be surprised to learn that China has any Muslims, let alone a substantial Muslim population. But in fact, Muslims have been settling in China since the foundation of the faith more than 1,400 years ago. Many came during the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), when whole populations shifted across the vast Mongol Empire.

Muslim worshipers attend Friday prayers at a mosque in Beijing on November 1, 2013.
Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

Today there are more than 20 million Muslims in China. (For comparison, there are an estimated 3.3 million Muslims in the United States, and the entire population of Saudi Arabia is around 29 million, nearly all of whom are Muslim). Ten out of China’s 55 officially recognized ethnic minorities are Sunni Muslims.

One such group is the Uighur (pronounced WEE-gur), a Turkic-speaking ethnic group native to China’s vast far western Xinjiang region (officially called the Xinjiang autonomous ethnic region).

Javier Zarracina, Vox

Although Chinese empires have often ruled parts of Xinjiang throughout history, their control over it was only ever shaky at best: Even when claimed by Chinese rulers, it was often independent in practice. The Qing Empire changed its name to Xinjiang (“New Frontier”) when it annexed the region as an official Chinese province in 1884, after reconquering the territory from local warlords and rebels.

The idea of a distinct ethnic group that identifies as "Uighur" is also relatively new, dating back to 1921 when locals adopted the term from Russia. The Russian government had itself borrowed the term from a medieval Turkic empire that had once seriously threatened Chinese power — a connection that appealed to the modern Uighur.

But while the Uighur name is new, the people’s sense of themselves as a separate ethnic group different from their neighbors — and determinedly non-Chinese — is much, much older.

The “three evil forces”: terrorism, religious extremism, and separatism

For this reason, many Uighur today passionately believe their region should be its own independent country, like their Central Asian neighbors. The proposed name for this country is East Turkestan,” which harks back to ideas of pan-Turkic unity that were popular in the 1920s. Like many aspiring countries, it even has a flag, left over from a short-lived and unrecognized republic formed by rebels in 1933–’34.

Demonstrators hold up East Turkestan flags in support of China's Uighur minority during a rally in Istanbul on July 12, 2009, to protest the deadly riots in China's northwestern region of Xinjiang.
Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images

Many Uighur still keep the flags — secretly. That's because for Beijing, talk of East Turkestan is criminal sedition: an attempt to break up China and throw the country into chaos. (The concept of a single, unified China with unchanging borders is historical nonsense, but it has a powerful grip on Chinese.) Indeed, separatism is grouped in Chinese propaganda with terrorism and religious extremism as the “three evil forces” that threaten the region.

Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, any ideas of independence, especially in border areas such as Tibet, Mongolia, and Xinjiang, have been rigorously suppressed. Uighur have been encouraged to think of themselves as one ethnicity among many in China, all contributing to the nation. But with language, culture, and politics dominated by the Han Chinese majority, that’s a hard pill for the Uighur to swallow.

Ethnic tensions in Xinjiang between the Uighur, who are the majority population in Xinjiang, and the Han Chinese, who are China’s majority ethnicity but are in the minority in Xinjiang — have grown in recent decades as more and more newcomers (mostly Han) have begun settling in the oil-rich province since the beginning of China’s economic reforms in 1979. Energy has created new jobs, but most of these are limited to Mandarin speakers, which excludes the majority of Uighur.

Uighur woman protests in front of policemen and riot vehicles on July 7, 2009, in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang.
Guang Niu/Getty Images

In 2009, those tensions exploded in a vicious pogrom by young Uighur men against Han, in which at least 197 people were killed. (Though the violence was primarily directed against Han, other Muslim groups and ethnic minorities were also targets, since they were seen as intruders threatening Uighur businesses and culture.)

The pogrom, crushed by China’s paramilitary units, kicked off a wave of counter-violence from Han communities. Beijing reined in the Han communal violence but instituted a new wave of repression that further fueled Uighur resentment.

As a result, Xinjiang today is essentially locked in a low-level insurgency, with dozens dying every month. However, the immense scale of the territory (the province is approximately 635,900 square miles — for comparison, the state of Texas is just 268,596 square miles), coupled with the inability of journalists to visit many areas, makes it hard to tell who’s killing whom. What the Chinese authorities call a terrorist attack, exiled Uighur groups will describe as a massacre of protesters by the police.

A Uighur woman begs as armed Chinese paramilitary police march past on a street in Urumqi on July 5, 2010, the first anniversary of deadly unrest that laid bare deep-seated ethnic tensions in the far-western Xinjiang region.
Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images

China blames every incidence of violence on the East Turkestan Islamic Movement,” a supposed Islamist terrorist group founded by militant Uighur separatists with ties to global Islamic terrorist networks.

However, much of what is known about the group comes from the Chinese authorities and press, who are eager to label any opposition to Beijing as terrorism. Indeed, many analysts think it’s more likely there are a number of splinter groups operating in the region, with different agendas and varying degrees of ties to global Islamist terrorism.

But there is growing evidence of jihadist propaganda spreading among an angry Uighur population, mixed in among the hugely popular Turkish and Central Asian music and videos exchanged on DVDs and memory sticks.

There have also been verifiable terrorist attacks, as the violence — which had previously been largely confined to Xinjiang — has begun to spill over into the rest of China. In 2014, a small Uighur group armed with knives attacked a crowd at a railway station in Kunming, hundreds of miles from Xinjiang, killing 29 innocent victims and sparking widespread horror and rage.

For many Uighur, especially young men, the cycle of violence and repression has caused them to become more anti-Chinese than ever.

Why is the Ramadan fast so important?

In this heated context, Ramadan fasting, as well as many other outward expressions of Islamic piety and identity, has become a potent political symbol. Uighur observance of Ramadan has sometimes been spotty in the past, especially outside of Xinjiang, but many Uighur have become more religiously observant in recent years.

Starting around the 1990s, displays of public piety became more common, historian Rian Thum, an assistant professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, told me, as many Uighur began reasserting their Islamic identities in deliberate opposition to the Chinese state.

A Uighur family gathers for a meal to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan, on July 29, 2014, in old Kashgar, Xinjiang.
Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

The official Chinese position is that Muslims in Xinjiang enjoy “greater religious freedom than at any time in history,” according to a white paper the Chinese government released just before Ramadan this year. The paper claims that any restrictions are the result of existing regulations against Chinese Communist Party members, who must voluntarily pledge atheism, or because of regulations that forbid the religious indoctrination of minors.

In practice, however, while private fasting is possible, attempts at communal piety are strictly restricted in Xinjiang. Mosques are closed during the day, while restaurants are forced to remain open. Students’ and government workers’ names are checked for attendance at mandated daytime meals, and the individuals are called in for questioning if they fail to eat. Repeated offenses can mean being expelled from school or fired from a government job.

According to one Chinese expert who interpreted the white paper, the policy is essentially that Muslims “without political obligations” are welcome to fast. But what these "political obligations" actually are is kept deliberately vague, allowing the state the flexibility to punish as it pleases. And in Xinjiang, even the course of the sun can be political.

Officially, the region is in the same single, Beijing-centered time zone that every other part of China is in. Even though the country spans roughly as much territory as the continental US, which has four different time zones, the whole of China sticks to the same clock, thanks to a 1949 policy implemented by Mao Zedong in an effort to promote national unity.

In reality, though, Xinjiang is so far west that it’s two hours behind the capital. Since Muslims determine when to begin and end their fasts each day based on the position of the sun, this means that Uighur keep local time whenever possible. But as far as the Chinese state authorities in Beijing are concerned, letting the sun, rather than Beijing, decide when you eat implies defiance.

The fasting restrictions are just one aspect of a raft of religious constraints applied tightly in Xinjiang, although the details vary from area to area. Schoolchildren are forced to recite atheistic pledges. Public prayer is often forbidden, and even parents teaching the Quran to their children at home can be punished by authorities claiming this constitutes “illegal religious schools.”

Uighur are often harassed for visible symbols of faith, with long beards and the veil singled out as signs of the “three evil forces” of separatism, terrorism, and extremism. Propaganda posters throughout the region extol the virtues of ditching religious symbols. In some regions, street patrols harass veil-wearing women, while businesses are “asked” to sign pledges that they won’t allow the hirsute or veiled onto their premises. Refusing to shave can mean prison time.

This photo taken on April 17, 2015, shows a propaganda poster that reads, “Participating in extremist activities is playing with fire,” on a street in Awat, in Xinjiang.
Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images

Good Muslims, bad Uighur

It might be tempting to attribute this to Chinese state policy aimed at suppressing religious sentiment in general and promoting communist-style atheism. And indeed, that’s how the Communist Party defends the policy: It claims that Uighur simply have to follow the same rules that apply to everyone, such as requiring Communist Party members to be atheists and forbidding the religious education of minors.

But while religious groups are often squeezed tightly in China, the restrictions on the Uighur are far tighter than for anyone else. It’s not just party members who can’t fast, but all government workers. It’s not just minors who are forced to eat in the daytime, but college students too.

And it’s not religion by itself that worries Beijing most, but the potential religion offers for resistance — especially among a fiercely independent people sitting on a critical strategic border region.

The restrictions placed on Uighur are not generally applied to members of other religions, especially those seen as indigenously Chinese, such as (accurately) Daoism and (inaccurately) Buddhism. Buddhist monasteries regularly run schools, and temples in Beijing fill up every year with party members praying for their children’s examination success.

And, perhaps even more telling, the restrictions aren’t even applied to most other Muslims in China. Outside of Xinjiang, restrictions on Ramadan fasting or other Islamic religious practices are relatively uncommon. And when they do occur, they're more on a scale with the occasional persecutions of Christian or Buddhist sects — nothing close to the concerted repression campaign against the Uighur.

For the Chinese authorities, forcing Uighur to publicly deny their own traditions serves multiple purposes, as asking Christians to trample the cross once did in Japan or pushing Catholics to attend Protestant mass did in Elizabethan England. It directly asserts the authority of Beijing over everyday life. It allows potential dissidents and militants to be singled out and monitored or arrested. And it puts pressure on young Uighur, in particular, to accept the official Chinese Communist Party narrative.

A Uighur woman walks past a statue of Chairman Mao Zedong in the city of Kashgar in Xinjiang.
Andia/UIG via Getty Images

The pressure is exceptionally harsh when it acts as a gate closing off potential education and future possibilities. Since access to good jobs, especially outside of Xinjiang, depends on receiving a Chinese-language education, adhering to even the most basic Islamic religious practices requires a huge personal sacrifice by young Uighur enrolled in the state education system, as they risk being kicked out if they disobeying restrictions.

By pushing them to deny their own practices, officials hope that young Uighur will internalize the party’s values in order to justify their own submission.

Anti-Muslim sentiment is on the rise in China — but the government has an incentive to keep it in check

The past decade has seen distrust of Muslims spread beyond Xinjiang to a much wider swath of China, as James Leibold, a political scientist and senior lecturer at Australia’s La Trobe University, recently noted in a paper for the Jamestown Foundation.

Online commentators are agitating against “Islamization” and “Arabization,” and government policies on issues such as halal butchers — that is, butchers who follow Islamic religious laws regarding the slaughter of animals and food preparation — are becoming increasingly contentious.

Paranoid critics argue that laws regulating the halal meat trade or allowing the building of new mosques are, in fact, cover for a wider campaign of infiltration and “Islamization” of a vulnerable China. Public opinion has turned hostile toward Muslims, with anti-Islamic memes often picked up from far-right European and US media and repackaged on social media for a Chinese audience.

Yet China’s Muslims are unlikely to face wide-scale persecution — at least from the government. Even as the authorities cracked down in Xinjiang over Ramadan, Leibold noted to me in an email that the central government had issued notices calling for officials to “respect and uphold the cultural customs and legal rights of ethnic minorities” and redoubled propaganda efforts (such as the white paper) to preach China’s tolerance of religious freedom.

Unsurprisingly, Beijing is doing this not out of concern for religious rights but for political ends. Beijing is currently pursuing an ambitious geopolitical plan known as the “One Belt, One Road” initiative. Here's a really good basic description of it from Scott Kennedy and David A. Parker, two experts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (a DC-based think tank) who have studied the policy:

Often referred to jointly as the “One Belt, One Road,” details released so far by China’s official media outlets show the “Belt” as a planned network of overland road and rail routes, oil and natural gas pipelines, and other infrastructure projects that will stretch from Xi’an in central China, through Central Asia, and ultimately reach as far as Moscow, Rotterdam, and Venice.

Perhaps awkwardly named, the “Road” is its maritime equivalent: a network of planned port and other coastal infrastructure projects that dot the map from South and Southeast Asia to East Africa and the northern Mediterranean Sea.

It’s a massive project, and one on which China’s president, Xi Jinping, has effectively staked his own political legacy. Showing support for the project is mandatory for Chinese academics and officials trying to prove their loyalty to Xi or advance their own careers.

To make it happen, China needs the cooperation of a whole bunch of countries — including a substantial number of Muslim ones. This means the central government in Beijing has a pretty strong incentive to make sure it's not perceived as persecuting Muslims all over China, as that would almost certainly infuriate many of its Islamic partner nations.

Indeed, right after scathing reports about the Ramadan restrictions on Uighur in Xinjiang began making headlines in Pakistan and Indonesia, the Chinese government invited officials from both countries to come visit the region and then took them on very carefully controlled, government-guided tours to convince them that Uighur have religious freedom.

Pakistani laborers arrange a welcome billboard featuring the Chinese and Pakistani national flags ahead of a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Islamabad on April 18, 2015.
(Farooq Naeem/AFP/Getty Images)

On the other hand, though, many of these Muslim countries also have strong incentives to keep up political and trade relations with a powerful neighbor like China, even if that means looking the other way at its repression of their Muslim brethren. For instance, following their Potemkin tours, those Pakistani and Indonesian officials seemed eager to parrot the official Chinese government line about religious freedom in Xinjiang.

There are a lot of Muslims in the world, and China doesn’t want to piss them off; unfortunately, there just aren’t very many Uighur.

James Palmer is a writer and historian living in Beijing.

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