On May 17, 2004, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China held a roundtable discussion titled “Practicing Islam in Today’s China: Differing Realities for the Uighurs and the Hui” (http://www.cecc.gov/pages/roundtables/051704/index.php). The purpose of this roundtable was to identify how the CCP made separate and unequal allowances for religious freedom as practiced by the Uyghurs of Xinjiang and the Hui of Ningxia. The Commission concluded that “the Uighurs and the Hui, China’s dominant Muslim groups, have distinct ethnic, cultural, and historical backgrounds, and Chinese authorities treat the two groups differently. The Uighurs, who are of Turkic descent, face harsh religious restrictions and repression, since Chinese authorities associate the group with separatism and terrorism in western China. The Hui, who are related ethnically to the Han Chinese majority, enjoy greater freedom to practice Islam than Uighur Muslims.”
This article offers a comparison of Islamic building projects in the “autonomous” regions presided over by Wang Zhengwei, the Chairman of Ningxia, and Zhang Chunxian, the Party Sectary of Xinjiang. The trend in Islamic building projects in these regions can be interpreted as an indication of CCP (in)tolerance toward Islam as practiced by the Hui and Uyghur Muslim communities.
The World Muslim City (http://www.mslcity.com/) in Ningxia has been developed as a “cooperation platform” and “open-trade area” for Muslim countries. (This Islamic center is situated in one of the four Muslim communities where Dru Gladney conducted fieldwork two decades ago. See Gladney’s Muslim Chinese: Ethnic Nationalism in the People’s Republic.) Since construction began in 2009, more than ten Islamic nations have donated more than ¥50 to defray building costs. The objective of this project is to promote Ningxia as the Chinese center of commerce for the Islamic world. ¥13.7 billion has been invested thus far, with ¥2 billion spent on infrastructure. Associated projects include the Islamic History Museum (Quran Mosque), the Ningxia Muslim Orphanage, the Ningxia Muslim International Language College, the World Muslim Country Expo Hall, Folk Culture Street and Friendship Square. An Arabian Nights theme park will display “the world” of Arab customs, culture and artistic achievements. A number of less ambitious, albeit privately-funded, structures have recently been built in Ningxia including Sufi tomb complexes and mosques.
The Chairman of Ningxia Wang Zhengwei, a Hui, was born in Tongxin, Ningxia in 1957. He holds a PhD in Ethnic Economy and has researched the intersection of Hui culture and economy. This knowledge is an asset because China’s ethnic minority regions, including Ningxia, are economically underdeveloped and face difficult social problems. When elected in 2008 as the chairman of Ningxia, Wang Zhengwei launched a series of projects aimed at invigorating the economy of Zingxia and establishing this region as the center of Muslim China.
There has been no such government support of Islamic projects in Xinjiang. Nor can one find privately funded mosques being built.
The Xinjiang Party Sectary Zhang Chunxian was born in Henan province, adjacent to Wang Lequan’s Shandong province. (The Henan/Shandong region has a long history of religious intolerance and ignorance, from Qianlong’s reign during the Qing Dynasty (compare the anti-Hui commentary by Wei Shu (魏塾)) through the contemporary era (Recall the Yangxin incident http://www.webstar.co.uk/~musnews/news/news.php?article=255).) Zhang, a Han Chinese, cannot identify with the Uyghurs of Xinjiang. He could have no personal interest in developing a vast Islamic structure resembling Ningxia’s World Muslim City, although such a project would spur the local economy and validate Uyghur cultural practices, including the practice of Islam.
Uyghurs are treated with suspicion because the CCP has propagated the idea that Uyghurs – particularly rural, non-Mandarin speaking, or religious Uyghurs – embody the “three evil forces” of terrorism, extremism, and separatism. The “three evil forces” are one element of a propaganda campaign to force Uyghurs to abandon the cultural practices (including religious and linguistic) of their parents or grandparents and to accept Sinicization. However, given the CCP’s desire to assert itself as a prominent player in the international arena, and to satisfy its energy needs, China has ample reason to justify its military, political, and economic presence in Central Asia and even mid-south Asia (a term now used by the Chinese media when speaking of China’s initiative to develop Kashgar). What happens in Xinjiang is consequential for China proper.
It is well-known that religious freedom does not exist in Xinjiang. Uyghurs under the age of eighteen are not permitted to attend mosque. Uyghurs above the age of eighteen, but still attending college or university, are prohibited from attending mosque or even praying in their dormitories or fasting during Ramadan. Besides small Uyghur and Hui-run restaurants, there are numerous so-called Halal or Qingzhen restaurants operated by Sichuanese, Hunanese and Shandong migrants. This condition does not exist in the Hui-dominated region of Gansu-Qinghai-Ningxia.
From daily practices to political perceptions, CCP policies in Xinjiang and Ningxia seem to indicate two different approaches to the relationship between Islam/Muslims and China in one regard, and between China and the rest of the world on another. The Ningxia approach celebrates Muslim culture and history, will improve community welfare and living standards, and promote China’s reputation and economy by engaging with the Islamic world. But the Xinjiang approach functions to sensitize and exaggerate social problems. Uyghur Sinicization is in violation of human rights because the state has no right to interfere with the intergenerational transmission of Uyghur culture, again including religious and linguistic practices. These two approaches reflect the backgrounds and perspectives of their regional leaders and ultimately that of the CCP.