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Islamophobia in China

A ChinaFile Conversation

Roughly 20 million Muslims live in China today; many of them live in the northwest region of Xinjiang, where the government is incarcerating an estimated one million Uighur Muslims. In recent weeks, news reports have emerged of the razing of mosques and other religious buildings across the region. In March, when 50 people were massacred at two mosques in New Zealand, many Chinese people voiced support for the shooter—in the words of one commentator—for his “heroic revenge.” What are the roots of popular fear of Islam in China today, and how is it connected to the actions of the Chinese government in Xinjiang? —The Editors

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Islam and China have a long history of largely peaceful interaction, but today’s rulers seem to have lost track of that and are implementing Islamophobic policies that are not only morally wrong but self-defeating.

Islam came to China over one thousand years ago, and for much of that time was fairly insignificant in the Chinese world. As I’ve argued elsewhere, China’s rulers often weren’t sure how to deal with a monotheistic religion—China’s religious world was syncretic and communal—but this didn’t matter too much because the Muslim population was always quite small. That changed when the last empire, the Qing, blew out China’s historic borders. Suddenly, for the first time in its history, a Chinese state was faced with permanently controlling vast areas where Islam predominated. The Qing fitfully tried to incorporate Islam into its multiethnic empire but largely failed.

Today’s China largely inherited the Qing’s bloated borders, meaning that it, too, has had to devise policies to incorporate Islam. During the communists’ Long March, they traversed many Muslim territories and relied on Muslim support, for example in the territories controlled by Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongxun. The Party’s policy imitated the Soviet Union setting up “autonomous regions” for Muslims and other minorities.

This was a wise policy even if it seems born more of necessity than a true belief in multiculturalism. But autonomy eroded as the Party began a fitful policy of Sinification, allowing or encouraging ethnic Chinese to settle. Officially, however, minorities were still allowed to maintain their own culture, language, and economic structures, even if they were undermined.

More recently, the government has embarked on a policy of explicit assimilation, basically demanding that Muslims and other minorities become ethnic Chinese. In the past, communism was pushed as the ideology to hold China together. Now it is ethnic Chinese culture, which is being defined as the country’s national culture, from national holidays to ethnic Chinese mythical figures, such as the Yellow Emperor or Yu the Great, who are being defined now as national icons of relevance to the 55 non-Chinese ethnicities inside China’s borders. The government’s view seems to be that minorities can still wear their colorful dress (especially if they are in tourist areas) but must otherwise become Chinese.

This policy is part of a broader gloves-off attitude by the Xi government. It seems mainly motivated by a contempt for the moderation of past administrations and an overall feeling that now it’s time to get serious and buckle down—whether it’s fighting corruption, spreading Party propaganda, or bringing religions to heel.

Given the state’s unconstrained power, this means it can enforce its will. But in the long run it is making enemies. When one sees Muslims being held in camps, one can only wonder how many will come out truly radicalized. The Chinese state’s policies, bred of fear and contempt for other cultures, will likely result in generations of angry minorities, especially among its 20 million Muslims.

Islamophobia is rampant in China. Stereotypes about Muslims as violent outsiders in China have long existed. And since 9/11, the Party-state has amplified long-held antagonisms and stereotypes toward Muslims. The result is a pacification campaign against people presented by the Party-state—both to domestic and international audiences—as terrorists. Although attention is currently focused on Uighurs, there is mounting evidence that the Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.) is taking aim at all Muslims. By bulldozing mosques, shuttering Islamic bookstores, and removing Arabic script from storefronts and restaurants in an effort to “Sinicize” Islam, the Party’s goal seems to be the complete assimilation of Muslims and the eradication of Islamic practices in China. Most concerning, there is fear that the “re-education campaigns” will continue to spread to other Muslim ethnic minorities, like Kazakhs and Hui.

Muslims in China are already particularly marginalized. They make up a small fraction of the overall population, and a majority of Han Chinese citizens have internalized state-driven narratives about Muslims posing a threat to state stability. This is possible because of Islamophobia in China, but Islamophobia in North America and Europe abets it. Moreover, Muslim governments like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, which rely on economic linkages to the People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.), conveniently forget Muslims in China.

There are a number of vocal proponents within the international community attempting to expose the human rights crisis among Uighurs. Yet, the unwillingness of world leaders—both Muslim and non-Muslim—to commit to Magnitsky sanctions, or to even do more than reprimand China privately, highlights two things. First, Islamophobia is institutional and deeply embedded in global flows of capital. Second, Uighurs and their Muslim brethren in China are not considered the “right” kind of Muslims by the Saudi establishment and other Middle Eastern powerbrokers.

This is the genius of the C.C.P. By harnessing global Islamophobia, the C.C.P. has created a laboratory of authoritarianism in Xinjiang. As they quietly rounded up their Muslim citizens, Muslims and non-Muslims around the world turned a blind eye. It is our responsibility as global citizens to dismantle these state-driven narratives, and to boycott international companies that are embroiled in business dealings in Xinjiang and provide new technologies and facilities used by China’s security apparatus while continuing to pretend that everything is business as usual.

Perhaps even ardent Islamophobes will begin to take notice when they realize that this issue goes far beyond China’s Muslim citizens. While the P.R.C. works to perfect its AI and facial recognition technology, and merges technology and the security state in ways we have never seen before, perhaps people will start to pay attention. Not because their views about Islam have changed, but because they fear becoming the next victims of these new repressive technologies.

Unlike Islamophobia in the U.S., which exploded after 9/11, Islamophobia in China grew from the othering of non-Han ethnic minorities, especially Uighurs. The casual, normalized hostility Uighurs face in China saps the Han population of their empathy towards an increasingly marginalized group.

I lived in Beijing until I left for the U.S. at age nine, in 1995. My Han, middle-class, and university-educated family had no special connection to Xinjiang to warrant strong distrust of Uighurs. But it was the popular opinion. From a young age, the adults in my life instilled in me fear and distrust for all Uighurs.

On my way to and from school, my grandmother and I often walked by Uighur food vendors, instantly recognizable by their dark complexion and doppas (traditional hats). In the summer, they would deftly cut sweet cantaloupe into slices that were sold on sticks, and in colder weather they pedaled large, fragrant blocks of sokmak (similar to halva) thickly studded with raisins, dried apricots, walnuts, and sesame.

My grandmother used to tighten her grip on my arm and pick up her pace when I dragged my feet and let my eyes linger on the sumptuous snacks. “Those people don’t understand hygiene,” she’d hiss at me. “Stay away from them!”

Looking back, the source of her agitation was not the food, but rather the non-Han faces of the vendors and, to her, their threatening foreignness. I recall being “educated” numerous times about China’s ethnic minorities, who make up roughly 8 percent of the population: that they were exotic, uncivilized people, whose nature was passionate and unrefined, resembling wild animals. Positive portrayals included mentions of their warmth and hospitability, and negative portrayals highlighted violence, greed, and an immoral nature.

The belief in the base nature of minorities was even reflected in legislation. The “two restraints and one leniency” policy, implemented in 1984, encouraged lighter sentences for minorities, apparently to accommodate for their criminally inclined nature. One popular view I’ve heard on the effects of that absurd policy is that it encouraged Uighur criminality in Xinjiang, and thus contributed to the 2009 Urumqi riots and the 2014 knifing attack in Kunming. Even though individuals committed those violent acts, many Han Chinese see them reflected in the face of all Uighurs—each one a potential terrorist.

The prolonged othering of Uighurs has made it the norm, so that Han now effortlessly regard any Uighur person with suspicion. Unfortunately, this renders the Han public largely unsympathetic to the plights of Uighurs in Xinjiang, as any narrative involving “anti-radicalization” and “reeducation” sounds both plausible and sensible.

The transnational flow of disinformation fuels Chinese Islamophobia, though it remains rooted in local contexts and problems.

Chinese netizens import most of the fake stories about Muslims that circulate in China from alt-right websites and online communities in the U.S. and Europe. For example, after the New Zealand massacre, anti-Muslim users on Weibo and WeChat circulated the story that around the time of the New Zealand attack, Muslims killed 120 Christians in Nigeria. Breitbart and other Western alt-right sites originally covered that story, which the journalism fact-checking website Snopes wrote failed to “properly explain the complexity of the conflict”—which was “primarily a dispute over natural resources and land usage,” not about religion.

The anti-Muslim community on the Chinese Internet regularly translating and circulating alt-right articles from the English-speaking world—following the explosion of such content from the Western alt-right since 2016—helps explain the rapid development of Islamophobia in China over the last few years. There is an active online community of volunteers who download Prager University alt-right explainer videos, Jordan Peterson’s videos, and other alt-right materials from YouTube, translate and add Chinese subtitles, and upload them to Weibo.

While rising Islamophobia in China can be seen as part of a global trend, it does have local roots. After the New Zealand massacre, Chinese social media users frequently mentioned the terrorist attacks in Kunming and Urumqi. Perhaps far fewer people would be interested in Western anti-Muslim stories if China did not suffer from Islamic radicalism.

Moreover, the lack of diversity education and the pervasive social Darwinism in contemporary China provide a hotbed for alt-right thoughts including Islamophobia and racism. Understanding and appreciating other cultures, especially those cultures that seem lower in socio-economic status, is largely absent from China’s education system. Chinese people are far too familiar with the Law of the Jungle, because that is largely how Chinese society operates. Thus, they are also easily attracted to the “clash of civilization” theory, which establishes an existential conflict in the jungle of the world. In comparison, the ideology of coexistence and mutual aid among civilizations, countries, religions, races, and ethnicities is much weaker in China.

Websites like 8chan, while nothing to be celebrated, are nevertheless a product of the great but always troubling experiment with freedom of speech in “the West.” People remain free to make hateful and misinformed comments, while others remain free to rebut them. And we can only hope that the latter are more influential. As a free speech absolutist, I think the best way to counter misguided speech is through further speech, rather than silencing.

The People’s Republic of China government tends to take a very different approach. Tens of thousands of Internet police monitor online comments in real time, blocking content from being posted, deleting comments after they are posted, and even cancelling accounts or detaining those who repeatedly or gravely violate “the relevant regulations”—whatever these are. These expansive efforts are done in the name of maintaining a “healthy online environment.” “Healthy,” however, would not be the first word that I would use to describe the Internet environment in China. Entirely reasonable comments can be deleted arbitrarily while, within this tightly monitored and censored system, horrifically violent and racist commentaries exist undisturbed, to be read by millions.

For example, in June 2018, @Anran55401099, a Han student from Xinjiang studying at the Australian National University, revealed political study classes in her high school back in Xinjiang, commenting that “The concentration camp model is expanding into schools, ensuring that people are brainwashed before they graduate.” When the Party wants something deleted, they are very proactive. Anran’s family called her that day to tell her that the authorities wanted her to delete this post and return to Xinjiang for political education. She went back to China and has not been heard from since. English language media in Australia has been considerably less proactive than the Party-state, as this shocking story has received almost no coverage.

In contrast to Anran’s quickly deleted thoughts, a series of violent Islamophobic and xenophobic posts in support of the Christchurch mosque shooter have remained on the Chinese Internet over the past week. Most commentators have rightly been quick to point out that such hateful comments are not representative of the entire Chinese population, and I would agree. However, anyone who is engaged with China today needs to recognize that the non-deletion of these comments does indeed mean they represent the Chinese Party-state and its sympathies. This may seem like a shocking statement, but anyone who has noticed the Party-state’s decision to arbitrarily and indefinitely detain millions of Uighurs and Kazakhs in concentration camps will not be surprised that the Party is far less than proactive in fighting Islamophobic rhetoric than in persecuting those who speak honestly or envision a more open future for China.

Unless the Party steps back and abandons its distorting effect on Internet speech, the Islamophobes will have more influence in Chinese society than the Anrans. Such state-enforced 8chan-ization of the Internet will have deep, lasting, and troubling effects on Chinese culture, politics, and ethnic relations.

I’ve come across numerous examples of hate speech on China’s Internet. At one point, I even wrote an article to express my anger, titled with a vicious quote I had read on the Chinese social media platform Zhihu: “If France killed all its Muslim residents, would that be a good thing or a bad thing for the majority of French people?” I received many triumphant comments, including one that read “Finally, a Muslim is starting to feel afraid, too.”

Upon reflection, I realized “too” was the important word in the comment. The person writing it believed that anti-Muslim hate speech had “made a Muslim afraid.” A kind of retaliation for the fear bred of the terrorism perpetrated by Muslims. “We finally got them back,” they thought.

We all know “If France killed all its Muslim residents, would that be a good thing or a bad thing for the majority of French people?” should never be posed as a question, and is worthless to discuss. But I also disagree that we should just tag the responses with “discrimination” and “enmity” and leave it at that.

Too many racist, homophobic, misogynistic, and Islamophobic conversations stop at the moment when we think they are too wrong to even be debated, when we think the people who hold opinions contrary to our own are no longer worth communicating with. I don’t think that’s the right thing to do. These people won’t disappear just because we ignore them. If we don’t talk to them when we disagree, they will gather in the corners of the Internet and radicalize, and a terrorist like the one who attacked the mosque in New Zealand will be born.

Another comment on my article read, “It is indeed a good thing to kill them all, but once we open Pandora’s Box, I’m afraid it will be hard to stop. We’d have to massacre other annoying ethnic groups too.”

Following the shocking “kill them all” were fluent and seemingly logical arguments.

I didn’t see, as popular Chinese parlance puts it, “brainless Muslim-smearing” here, I saw someone who had limited channels to see the bigger picture. Someone facing a complex, giant, and uncertain outside world, who felt terrified and helpless.

Even though it was silly and ignorant hate speech, I think it expressed more fear than hate.

I, who might seem like the victim here, could actually write out my thoughts and complaints and let go, whereas they didn’t have any means to dissolve their fear other than shouting “kill them all,” a very unhealthy practice.

It is not my desire to see my fellow Chinese citizens living such an unhealthy life. It is not my desire to see them feeling conflicted while passing a Lanzhou hand-pulled noodle restaurant. It is not my desire to see them frown when confronted with a “halal” tag on a bag of food in a supermarket.

Life is valuable, don’t waste it this way.