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Challenging Uyghur Muslim Identity: More Enforcement, Worse Results

Publication: China Brief Volume: 14 Issue: 17September 10, 2014 04:39 PM Age: 26 min
By: Haiyun Ma, I-wei Jennifer Chang

Uyghurs fasting while observing Ramadan. (Credit: Al Jazeera)
Following deadly attacks in Beijing, Kunming and Urumqi over the last year, the Xinjiang government has intensified its efforts to regulate Uyghur religious activities. The provincial government has once again reinforced its ban on Ramadan fasting for Uyghur civil servants and students in 2014, as it has frequently done since at least 2001. Xinjiang has been developing its own policies to discourage Uyghur religious activities and decrease their observance of Islam since 1994, with the promotion of Wang Lequan to provincial Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Secretary. However, these policies have become increasingly counterproductive, as Uyghurs have reinforced their religious identity as a way of resistance, either peacefully or violently.

Ramadan Ban

During this year’s holy month of Ramadan in June and July, the fasting ban focused mainly on Uyghur elites, such as civil servants, Party members and students, as local government agencies, state-run companies and public schools required or encouraged Uyghurs to break their fast by eating during the day. At the beginning of the holy month, ethnic-religious and United Front officials in Hami (Qumul in Uyghur) held meetings on how to strengthen control over fasting during Ramadan (Hami Government, June 30). Leveraging their control over Uyghur Party cadres, local governments provided free meals for lunch, while cadres monitored them for compliance, namely, observing whether the Uyghurs ate their meals and thus broke their fast. Furthermore, these government institutions organized parties and celebrations offering food during the daylight hours throughout Ramadan. For example, the Tarim River Basin Management Bureau celebrated the anniversary of the founding of the CCP by holding a dinner party for its predominantly Uyghur employees on June 28, the first day of Ramadan this year (Tarim Basin Management Bureau, June 30). Similarly, the Pishan County (Guma nahiyisi in Uyghur) Industry and Commerce Bureau held “sincere conversation” meetings to prevent its Uyghur employees from fasting during Ramadan Xinjiang Administrative Bureau for Industry and Commerce, July 3). Additionally, Uyghur business owners were punished if they closed their shops or restaurants during the day, as is customary in many parts of the Muslim world during Ramadan.

Prior Crackdowns

Over the last 20 years, the Xinjiang provincial government has taken a leading role in regulating Chinese Uyghur citizens’ religious activities, especially under hard-line Party Secretary Wang Lequan. This year’s ban on fasting is a first, but rather is a continuation and intensification of long-standing efforts to regulate Islamic practices and identity among Uyghurs. Since the early 1990s, the Xinjiang provincial government has sought to dampen Uyghur observance of Islam by imposing various restrictions on religious activities. The Xinjiang government has instituted a series of laws, regulations and campaigns aimed at restricting Islamic practices and behaviors among Uyghurs, including the aforementioned bans on fasting during Ramadan.

The ascendance of hardliner Wang Lequan to power as Party Secretary in Xinjiang in 1994 was accompanied by targeted attacks against Uyghur Muslim identity, as the local government instituted a series of restrictive policies on religion, directly attacking Islam and focusing on Uyghurs working for the government. In 1991, Wang stated that the major task of his government was to “manage religion and guide it in being subordinate to…unification of the motherland, and the objective of national unity” (Outlook, June 25, 2001, no.26, pp.52-53). In a similar statement in 2002, Wang repeated this stance when he called on his government to “oppose illegal religious activities that use religion to harm the socialist motherland and the people’s interests” (Editorial, Xinjiang Daily, October 13, 2002). Local laws and regulations affecting religion enacted under Wang’s leadership include, but are not limited to: The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Religious Affairs Regulations (effective in 1994), which tightened control over religion; Document 7 (1996) that mandates state leadership over religion; Instructions (1998), which called for cadres to fight against non-governmental religious activities; and the Interim Provisions on Disciplinary Punishments for Party Members and Organs That Violate Political Disciplines in Fighting Separatism and Safeguarding Unity (2000), which directly targeted ethnic Uyghur members of the Chinese Communist Party preventing prayer, Ramadan fasting and religious studies. These measures were aimed at opposing Uyghur separatism and preventing a Central Asian-inspired independence movement following the collapse of the former Soviet Union.

Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Xinjiang appears to have intensified its “anti-terror” campaign. Beijing labeled some Uyghur groups terrorists and justified further crackdowns on Uyghur activities as part of its counter-terrorism efforts. The September 11 attacks came shortly after the Chinese government unveiled its own campaign against the “three evils” of separatism, extremism and terrorism in April of that year. As China supported the U.S. War on Terror internationally, Xinjiang’s local policies towards Uyghurs became more aggressive and restrictive. According to Uyghur rights activists, Uyghur youths were prohibited from entering mosques, which are all state-controlled and administered. Uyghur villagers were also forbidden to pray outside of their village mosques. Local police forcefully removed veils from Uyghur women’s heads and forced Uyghur men to shave their long beards, which caused family and communal anger and conflicts with the local law enforcement offices. Uyghur families were routinely subjected to surprise break-in searches by the local police (“Sacred Rights Defiled, China’s Iron-Fisted Repression of Uyghur Religious Freedom,” The Uyghur Human Rights Project, April 2013, pp.29-72). Unofficial publications of Islamic texts were deemed “pornography” by the Xinjiang government and thus targeted for confiscation and elimination.

In response to increased fear of terrorism, the provincial government discouraged Islam in general and specifically attempted to differentiate local Uyghur religious practices from that of more conservative sects, which it defines as Arab or Wahhabi. The Xinjiang government has officially designated full-body garments for woman and long beards on men as symbols of Wahhabism and the Ghulja city government, among others, have initiated several anti-Wahhabi campaigns (Yining Government, December 15, 2011). In April 2013, the government of Ili Kazak Autonomous Prefecture launched a training program to teach cadres how to resist the penetration of Wahhabism into Uyghur society (Guancha News, April 21, 2013).

More recently, the Xinjiang government has instituted a unique suite of religious policies aimed at Uyghurs, in contrast to the softer approaches to religion in other provinces of China. In March 2012, Uyghur civil servants and retired teachers were forced to sign agreements that they would not practice Islam (Radio Free Asia, March 21, 2012). More recently, the Xinjiang government issued a special identification card in Xinjiang to control domestic travel.

Further, Xinjiang officials appear to have taken a leading role in the development of policies towards Muslims minorities, especially under the rule of Wang Lequan from 1990s to 2010. These provincial leaders have not only made more efforts to control and confront Islam than China’s national government, but have exported these provocative policies to Muslim-populated neighboring provinces. In November 2009, the Xinjiang government announced a campaign targeting un-official and un-censored Islamic publications, called the “Tianshan Project,” spanning China’s entire northwest region including Qinghai, Gansu, Ningxia and Shaanxi (Xinhua, November 21, 2009).

Counter-Productive Results

Since the Xinjiang government has targeted Uyghur religious activities, Uyghurs unhappy with government restrictions on religion are likely to unify behind their Islamic identity, which serves as a political symbol of anti-Chinese resistance. As recent violent attacks indicate, the repressive religious policies have led Uyghur attackers to aggressively assert their Islamic religion by using religious symbols in their recent attacks, likely in the hopes of mobilizing their fellows Uyghurs to resist Xinjiang’s repressive religious policies. According to Chinese media, perpetrators of major attacks at Tiananmen Square and the Kunming railway station carried Shahada-bearing flags, a symbol of Islamic faith not previously seen during violent incidents involving Uyghurs. Xinjiang’s repressive policies towards Uyghur religion have produced counter-productive results for the government by contributing to the political and social alienation of elite Ughurs, religious revitalization among secular Uyghurs, and even radicalization of some Uyghurs.

These events appear to reflect a growing trend of Uyghur resistance that is likely exacerbated by current Xinjiang local provincial policies. More importantly, since Uyghur cadres bear the brunt of the religious regulations, they are forced to choose between their religious identity as Muslims and their occupation as CCP officials. This complicates their role as a bridge between the atheist CCP and the larger Uyghur population. The restrictions on religious expression among Uyghur elites have pushed them far from the state and closer to their own group, which will likely further polarize Xinjiang societal relations between the Uyghurs and the Han.





发言人: 张海洋中央民族大学教授,博士生导师,中央民族大学中国少数民族研究中心主任







还有历史,中国的历史本来就很丰富,但用汉人王朝的历史,你就只能说明东面沿海这一块地方。西部边疆地方,你就是要多用满、蒙、维、藏的语言文字才能说得更全面。现在主流社会不鼓励各民族自己编写历史,怕他们把族源的根子追到国境外面去。这是“南京南库” (编者注:张海洋讲南京国民政府的思想源流简称为“南库”,与北京北洋政府的思想源流“北库”相对)“小中华”的思路。其实你换用唐、元、清的思路,再用上“新丝绸之路”的思路,少数民族的历史文化追得再远,也不过就是我们正要拓展的“欧亚新丝路”包括“西南丝路”和“草原丝路”和“海上丝路”的范围。这些都是中国各民族祖先去过,子孙后代还要去去的地方。这有什么不好?你非要把大家的脑袋都锁定在中原和东南沿海又有什么好呢?















实践操作中需要这些折中,否则国家就维持不了团结和统一了。顺便问一句,大家谁能记得就是在这样“两少一宽”和“优惠政策”的背景下,马戎教师分析“六普”期间的新疆少数民族干部、农业人口和就业人口比例?又有谁敢说现在监狱里维吾尔族人口比例比汉人低了多少呢?那你喊了半天“两少一宽”和优惠政策是不是无的放矢?再说你看当今中国,两少一宽、正向行动affirmative action和民族区域自治,它是不是一个方向,是不是可欲的东西?你自己是不是也缺这个东西?如果是这样,那就先帮助别人实现这些享受,然后你自己也能跟着享受。但现在中国汉人,特别是读书人,脑袋好像进水不少,只知道“不明觉厉”而不肯“见贤思齐”,不是想法儿把自己提升到好的境界上去,而是要把好的拉下来,让它沉沦到自己的境界里。







发言人:张海洋  中央民族大学教授,博士生导师,中央民族大学中国少数民族研究中心主任



























它的最大荒唐就是这么大个国家非要学新加坡,网上说现在英语一个字典里把汉语里的“不作死就不会死”翻译成一个词叫“no zuo,no die”。现在老要学新加坡建设城邦国家,就是“作”得太厉害了。






















































BEIJING // Shortly before sundown the forecourt of Beijing’s Niujie mosque starts to fill with people.

The mosque’s staff carry in platters of watermelon and large kettles full of Vimto and the congregation wanders in to leaf through the day’s Ramadan teaching materials.

At 7.38pm an electric bell sounds and the faithful approach two long trestle tables covered in sugary treats to recite the maghrib prayer and break their fast.

“It’s easy to observe Ramadan in China,” says Sha Yanfeng, a 35-year-old metro worker. “No one bothers us.”

Yet, the same is not true for all Chinese Muslims, especially after a series of deadly attacks that the Chinese government blames on separatists from the north-western region of Xinjinag, home to the mostly Muslim Uighur ethnic minority.

Mr Sha and his mosque belong to the Hui community – a group of some 10 million Muslims who are descended from Persian and Arab traders who first came to China in the 7th century BC.

Of the 10 ethnic groups that practise Islam in China, the Hui, say experts, are given the most religious freedom.

At the other end of the spectrum is China’s second-largest Muslim community, the Uighurs – Turkic-speaking people who mainly live in Xinjiang.

There, mosques have been plastered with posters detailing “illegal religious practices” such as holding private Quranic study sessions and sending children to religious schools, and Uighur students and government employees were banned from observing the Ramadan fast.

“There is huge discrepancy in how China’s Muslim minorities are treated even though the law is the same throughout the county,” says Ma Haiyun, a professor of history at Maryland’s Frostburg University and an expert on minorities and Islam in China.

“The local government in Xinjiang targets Islam as symbol of Uighur identity. They know it is the only thing that can unite the Uighurs,” he adds.

So why are the two groups treated so differently?

Firstly, the Hui are now almost indistinguishable from the Han – China’s ethnic majority – aside from their clothes and religious practices.

Physically, they look almost the same and they speak Mandarin as their mother tongue, albeit peppered with the odd Persian or Arabic word or phrase.

Another reason is that the Hui have never shown any secessionist tendencies – partly because they were never concentrated in one area.

The Uighur on the other hand share little genetic overlap with Han Chinese and in many cases do not speak Mandarin.

Xinjiang’s historical relations with China have also been chequered – with the region sometimes comprising part of China, sometimes partly independent and sometimes ruled by other empires.

At least twice in the last century, chunks of Xinjiang broke away from Chinese rule.

All of this has made for an uneasy relationship between Beijing and Muslims in Xinjinag.

Many Uighurs accuse the Chinese government of restricting religious freedom and flooding Xinjiang with Han migrants who get preferential access to jobs and services.

“We are made to feel like criminals in our own home,” says a man from the desert city of Tupran, who wanted to be identified only as Ismail.

The Chinese government denies circumscribing Uighurs’ religious freedom, saying that the state protects “all normal religious activities” .

It is a line that Ma Tong, the imam at Niujie mosque, repeats when asked about the relative freedom the Hui enjoy.

He explains that when Muslims live in non-Islamic countries – China is officially an atheist state – some practices might bump up against local laws.

“The situation in China, or in any non-Islamic country in the world, is slightly different to that in Arabic countries where they have Islamic law. You have to behave according to the law of where you live,” he said.

Nonetheless, the Hui and other Muslim communities in China – the Kazakh, Kirgiz, Bao’an, Tatar, Salar, Dongxiang, Uzbek and Tajik – are also subject to observation and limitations.

“Strong restrictions are imposed on the movement of Muslim religious and intellectual leaders and on the dissemination of their ideas. The result is a relatively immature and fragmented religious culture, with limited capacity to foster considered critiques of contemporary social and political problems,” says Anthony Garnaut an expert on Chinese Islam at Oxford University.

Dr Garnaut and others say that efforts to exclude and suppress Uighur culture, as well as a recent crackdown on anti-state and illegal religious actives, could lead to an intensification of violence in Xinjiang.

If it does, the Hui at Niujie would have little sympathy for the perpetrators.

“Islam is a peaceful religion,” says Li Tou, a 35-year-old antiques dealer. “The people who carried out the attacks on Tiananmen and in Kunming are not Muslims.”


On April 30, 2014, an attack at a train station in the capital of China’s Xinjiang region killed three people and injured 79 others. Haiyun Ma, a former task force leader on minority welfare in China, argues that the only way to prevent more violence is to revise the current repressive policies on the Uyghur minority.

China’s ethnic policies are largely to blame for the state of Uyghur–China relations. In the 1930s and 1940s, Communist China developed its own minzu (ethnicity) politics, which were borrowed from, and modeled on, the former Soviet Union’s nationality politics.

Chinese minzu policies after 1949 identified 55 ethnic minority ethnic nationalities, such as the Uyghur, as different minzu, and established ethnic autonomous regions, ethnic autonomous laws, and minzu-related agencies and apparatus at national and local levels.

China’s ethnic policy aims to provide services for socially and economically disadvantaged ethnic minorities. Minority groups’ rights are largely defined and generally realized through special ethnic policies, such as food stipends, lower requirements for college entrance, and liberal family planning. The minzu policy is thus supplementary to China’s constitution and basic laws.

In reality, the practice of the minzu policy by local officials in ethnic autonomous regions to some extent ignores China’s basic laws. On the other hand, China’s basic laws and institutions, no matter how imperfect, have protected Han citizen rights in Han regions.

The juxtaposition of ethnic autonomous laws in ethnic regions and basic laws in Han regions has resulted in bifurcated law enforcement on the ground, and has strengthened the divide between Han and non-Han.

The majority Han culture is seen to represent China as a political entity: The state, officials, and scholars have officially and publicly promoted Han language, clothing, culture, cults, and fashion. Meanwhile, due to their distinct cultural and ethnic features, the Uyghurs and other non-Han groups are perceived as less Chinese, or even un-Chinese, and are pushed towards nationalization (i.e., Hanification) through clothing, cultural, and language reforms.

The bifurcated law enforcement is most evident in Xinjiang, where the Uyghurs have been deprived of their constitutionally guaranteed rights as Chinese citizens, such as practicing their religion and obtaining passports.

This already suggests the danger of alienating non-Han peoples in China. Since the 1990s, when Wang Lequan came to power as party secretary, the legal status of Xinjiang Uyghurs has deteriorated.

Instead of enforcing China’s basic laws and ethnic autonomous laws in Xinjiang, Wang’s Urumqi government instituted a series of local laws restricting Uyghur religious practices from publication, prayer, and public gatherings.

These local laws are in opposition to China’s basic national laws and deprive the Uyghurs of their rights as Chinese citizens. More seriously, they have not been discussed or passed by China’s National Congress. Here we see an official separatism supported by various local policies and regulations in the name of maintaining stability and sovereignty.

Wang Lequan is not the first to try to instate military rule in Xinjiang. His warlord predecessors endeavored to make themselves king of Xinjiang by creating tensions and conflicts in this borderland region when China was in turmoil from 1911 to 1949.

It is not coincidental that during Wang Lequan’s tenure as king of Xinjiang, relations between the Uyghur and the government have quickly worsened, as represented by the open conflict in Gulja in 1997.

Even China’s national campaign (the so-called “strike hard” campaign), whose goal in other provinces is to reduce ordinary crimes, has been twisted and manipulated by the Urumqi government, and positioned as a political campaign against the “evil forces” of separatism, extremism, and terrorism.

The bifurcated law enforcement in China, warlord legacy in Xinjiang, and lack of a national-level agency (such as the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, or CIA in the United States) indicate that Urumqi – not Beijing – has exercised sovereignty since the 1990s with regard to China’s Uyghur policy and anti-terror campaign. It is clear that China is not a complete and regular modern nation, not to mention a complete global power.

The 9/11 attacks on the United States provided a timely justification for Urumqi’s policies towards the Uyghurs. China’s opportunistic siding with the United States on anti-terror was a victory for the Urumqi government’s ongoing repressive Uyghur policy.

Beijing and Washington’s joint designation of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) as a terrorist group substantialized Urumqi’s long-held campaign against separatism, extremism, and terrorism. When China established an Anti-Terror Coordination Team and set up an anti-terror bureau in the Ministry of Public Security, Urumqi’s policy was promoted to a national level.

China’s opportunism, however, proved to be nearsighted. The new administration in Washington quickly corrected the previous administration’s “anti-Islamic fascism” campaign, clarifying that it was targeting terrorists represented by Osama Bin Laden. Later, the ETIM was removed from the terrorist organizations list, which to some extent embarrassed Beijing.

Beijing changed its Anti-Terror Coordination Team (with the United States) to an Anti-Terror Leadership Team in 2013, and it is now focused on the unrest in Xinjiang.

From the perspective of Uyghurs and other Muslims in Central and South Asia, this anti-terror war is the Chinese translation of a mujahideen movement. A prolonged regional guerilla conflict with the goal of revenging China’s Uyghur policy will likely develop in Xinjiang and elsewhere (as recent deadly attacks in Kunming, Beijing, and Urumqi suggest) if China continues to allow the Urumqi government to implement its repressive policies.

Photo Credit: Uyghur Turkistan via Compfight cc

Haiyun MaHaiyun Ma is a former task force leader on minority welfare in China, and currently teaches in the history department at Frostburg State University in Maryland. His teaching and research interests are Chinese History, Islam and Muslims of China (including Xinjiang), China-Middle East relations, and China-Central Asian Relations.