by HAIYUN MA and I-WEI JENNIFER CHANG for ISLAMiCommentary on JULY 15, 2014:
The common saying that “you are what you eat” suggests that food is closely tied to one’s social identity—and what one eats and when can often be key indicators of particular ethnic and/or religious traditions. Therefore, the gradual erosion of a group’s food traditions, coupled with the adoption of new ones, is tantamount to erasing a central component of social identity. In terms of policy measures, one way that majoritarian governments,have sought to assimilate its ethnic minority groups, has been to change the latter’s eating habits in order to make them resemble the food traditions of the dominant ruling group. Such cultural assimilation tactics seek to facilitate the state’s ability to govern and control these ethnic minorities, and to create loyal, obedient citizens for the country and majority ethnicity dominated government.
The Han Chinese-led government in northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is one such government that has instituted food policies in its approach to dealing with its restive Uyghur population, who are Turkic-speaking and predominately Muslim. This year the Xinjiang government has continued Wang Lequan’s (the former party secretary of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region) anti-religion policy and has instructed Muslim students, teachers, and civil servants in public institutions to forgo Ramadan fasting, and instead eat free meals monitored or provided by the government during daylight hours.
Since the dominant Han Chinese population does not fast during Ramadan (they are not Muslim), such measures in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region appear to be a direct attempt to re-socialize the Uyghurs (the largest Muslim ethnic group in Xinjiang) to be less culturally Muslim and more Han Chinese. The ban aims to weaken Uyghurs’ religious and cultural affiliations by assimilating them first into Han food customs and later into Han society. (The Han make up more than 90 percent of China’s population)
During the holy month of Ramadan, which began on June 28 and lasts until July 28 of this year, pious Muslims around the world are expected to abstain from food and water from sunrise to sunset — often reaching more than 15 hours a day without eating or drinking. Fasting during Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam that is required by Islamic teachings for all healthy and able Muslims. The Uyghurs are thus expected, according to their religion, to observe fasting during Ramadan, just like their Muslim brethren elsewhere.
But Ramadan fasting has now become a domestic political issue. China’s harsh response appears to be in reaction to rising Han-Uyghur tensions and violent acts committed this year by Uyghurs in both Xinjiang and other Chinese provinces and cities including Beijing and Kunming.
This year, with China’s announcement on May 25 of a one-year anti-terror campaign in Xinjiang, local government agencies, state run companies, and public schools in Xinjiang are taking more stringent measures to impose and enforce the ban on Ramadan fasting among Muslim civil servants, teachers, and students than in previous years.
They are provided free meals for breakfast and lunch, while officials monitor them for compliance, namely, observing whether they ate their meals and thus broke their fast. These government measures claim to protect their health, especially students’ growing bodies. The local government also organizes parties and celebrations offering food during the daylight hours throughout Ramadan.
In many parts of Xinjiang, local officials have mobilized all resources necessary to prevent them from fasting. Pishan (Guma nahiyisi in Uyghur) County’s Industry and Commerce Department went so far as to hold “sincere conversations” — meetings to ask its employees not to fast. Ethnic-religious offices and *United Front officials in Hami (Qumul in Uyghur) have held meetings on how to strengthen its control over fasting during Ramadan. (The *United Front is a political consultative unit trying to unite all non-Communist influential individuals to embrace communism)
To add insult to injury, Muslim business owners in Xinjiang are punished if they close their shops or restaurants during the day, as is customary in many parts of the Muslim world during Ramadan.
There is no specific unified all-China policy on Ramadan. Local government policies on Ramadan fasting by Muslims in other regions of China, while varied, is thought to be more liberal.
From Assimilation to Alienation
Assimilation measures have long been justified by the Xinjiang government and government scholars who have run a huge “identity” industry since the 1990s.
In 2004, Xinjiang local government and official scholars developed patriotism education withthe so-called “four identities study campaign” that clearly targeted the Uyghurs. These murky identities include:  the great Chinese motherland;  the Chinese people/nation;  Chinese culture; and  Chinese socialism. Since Han Chinese people eat every day and night in the Chinese motherland, the Xinjiang government perceives Ramadan as being at odds with the Chinese nation, culture, and political system. From this perspective, Uyghurs who do eat during the fasting hours of Ramadan are seen as open to cultivating a more Chinese (Han) identity.
The contentious relationship between Uyghurs, on the one hand, and the Han and the Chinese government, on the other hand, is rooted in the historical territorial conquest of Xinjiang (since 1949 known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region), and the subsequent administrative policies toward the Uyghurs by the Chinese state.
The Xinjiang region, which Uyghurs consider their historical homeland, and which they call “East Turkestan,” was incorporated into Chinese territory and administration under the Qing Dynasty in the 1750s. Successive Republican and Communist governments in China strengthened their control of the region and its peoples. In response, Uyghurs have engaged in rebellions and revolutions, even establishing two short-lived independent republics in southern and northern Xinjiang in the 1930s and 1940s. Following the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Chinese Communists created the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in 1955 in an attempt to both dilute the Uyghurs’ aspirations for self-determination and ease tensions between the Uyghurs and the Chinese state by offering a semblance of ethnic autonomy. There was relative peace for three decades.
However, since the 1990s, in the context of China’s ‘Great Power Diplomacy’ — a policy shift from supporting developing countries (under Mao) to developed countries (an economic development focus that began with Deng Xiaoping) — first the former Soviet Union and then the U.S have had an unprecedented influence on China’s domestic policies.
The collapse of the Soviet Union (a major ally of China after 1989) and the subsequent formation of the Central Asian Turkic republics into their own countries hit too close to home for the Chinese government, which was already keeping a watchful eye over possible Uyghur separatism. It is not surprising that hardliner leader Wang Lequan was appointed as the Xinjiang party secretary in 1990s and harsh policies were implemented in Xinjiang, in hopes of suppressing spreading Turkic ethnic-nationalism in Central Asia.
Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S., the Chinese government embraced the U.S. War on Terror and declared its own war on Uyghur “terrorism” and “religious extremism,” thus changing the focus from Uyghur nationalism to Uyghurs’ religion.
The Xinjiang government started imposing numerous invasive measures against Uyghur religious behaviors. All Uyghur and other Muslim youth are now prohibited from attending all mosques, and the Xinjiang government has not given a reason. Older Uyghur villagers are only allowed to pray at a mosque of their own village and cannot go to other villages’ mosques to pray. (Note that all mosques are state-controlled and administered) Unofficial publications of Islamic texts are labeled and targeted as “pornography.” Local police uncover Uyghur women’s heads and remove their veils, and force Uyghur men to shave their long beards. Last, but not least, Uyghur families are routinely subjected to surprise, warrantless, searches of their homes (akin to break-ins) by the local police.
An unintended consequence of the Ramadan fasting ban, and other assimilation measures, is the further alienation of some Uyghurs who have worked for the government and have already have been integrated into Chinese officialdom and Chinese elite culture.
As many Xinjiang observers have noticed, the local government’s repression of religious behaviors has helped revive Islam among secularized Uyghurs, not only as a religious identity, but more importantly as a political symbol of anti-Chinese resistance. As the Xinjiang government’s intrusive measures against Uyghurs continue, the ban on Ramadan fasting for Uyghur civil servants, teachers and students is doomed to drive Uyghurs farther from Chinese culture and identity, not closer to assimilation. More seriously, this policy that originally targeted only the Uyghurs now has wider ramifications and has affected other Muslim groups as well.