Wai Ling Yeung | China Change
This article was first published on ChinaChange.org web site on May 13, 2016
Recently a video of a 5-year-old Hui Muslim kindergarten pupil from Gansu province reciting verses from the Qur’an went viral on China’s social media, attracting almost unanimous condemnation from presumably Han Chinese netizens. At a discussion forum, for example, several comments labelled the preaching of religion to children as “evil cult” behavior. They called for netizens to “say no to evil cults and to stop evil cults from invading schools.” Others questioned why schools allowed children to “wear black head scarves and black robes as if they’re adults.” They also expressed support for legislation that “set an age limit to religious freedom.” One comment went as far as asking all Hui Muslims to move to the Middle East. “ In my opinion, their religion has no part in Chinese civilization. It belongs somewhere else. I hope they will all leave.”
It was subsequently discovered that the aforementioned video was initially posted on YouTube in 2014. It makes one wonder why the video has suddenly emerged and become popular, and whether the “public anger” it has generated is indeed genuine and spontaneous.
Provincial education authorities subsequently ordered a strict adherence to a ban on religion in schools. On Twitter, when Ismael, a Hui Muslim poet and blogger from Shandong, a coastal province, defended Hui Muslims’ right to freedom of religion, his Twitter account was invaded by a torrent of abusive responses to his recent tweets (here for just an example). As someone who re-posted Ismael’s tweets, I bore witness to this unfortunate episode of cyberbullying on Twitter; I later learnt that Ismael had sustained even more serious abuses at other Chinese online fora.
Ismael worries about the implications of what he describes as coordinated campaigns to ramp up racial tension against Hui Muslims. His suspicion is not groundless.
Australian researcher James Leibold notes some important changes to China’s ethnic policy since the appointing of Zhu Weiqun in 2013 as the Chair of the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Zhu, the former executive deputy head of the United Front Work Department of the CCP, was well known for his controversial vilification campaign against the 14th Dalai Lama. Little less known, however, was Zhu’s advocacy of an overt assimilationist policy to promote ethnic fusion through government intervention.
When commenting on the Central Work Forum on Xinjiang held in May 2014, Leibold notes how the Forum framed its policy proposals “around a new strategic intent: the erosion of ethnic differences, the removal of obstacles to the free ‘mingling’ (jiaorong) of Chinese citizens and the forging of a shared national identity.” He attributes this change of policy orientation to the “burgeoning influence” that Zhu and his allies may have had on top Party leaders.
Back at the time of the 2014 Xinjiang Forum, it was still uncertain how far the Chinese government would pursue this contentious agenda. Recent events targeting Hui Muslims, however, suggest advocates of this agenda have gone a step further to forge public opinion against ethnic-based rights to religion, challenging directly the traditional policy of regional ethnic autonomy.
In addition to the video of the 5-year-old reciting the Qur’an, two other events in particular have caught the attention of many observers:
- Unspecified allegations of ‘Arabization,’ in rather hysterical language, were made against Xinjiang, as well as the Hui autonomous region of Ningxia and Linxia, Gansu, during a high profile religious conference held in April 2016.
- Rumours surrounding the sudden dismissal of Wang Zhengwei in April as the Chair of State Ethnic Affairs Commission contain allegations of his unspecified involvement in new mosque building projects, promoting Arabic language education, and in regulating the preparation of Halal food. Wang is of Hui ethnic heritage.
Ethnic-based religious persecution against Uighurs has been a long-standing issue and worsening, but its possible expansion to the Hui Muslims is noteworthy. For a very long time, this fourth largest national minority group has been the poster child of China’s ethnic policy. It epitomises the benefits of ethnic autonomy as an arrangement that promotes social stability. It highlights the success of a policy that allows ethnic minorities the freedom to maintain their language, customs, and religion. Most importantly, it helps negate the negative publicity that the Chinese government is receiving due to its draconian policies in Tibet and Xinjiang.
Indeed, a recent report in New York Times provided us a closer look at the religious life of Hui Muslims in Ningxia. China’s Hui Muslims have assimilated rather thoroughly with the Han Chinese majority over the course of 1,000 years with Hui Muslim streets or districts in many cities across China, and co-exist remarkably well with the Communist Party. They have been allowed space to openly practice their religion with minimal government hostility and intervention, in stark contrast to restrictions imposed on Uighurs in Xinjiang.
According to Ismael, anti-Muslim sentiment is fast spreading among mainstream bloggers as censors at Weibo are working overtime deleting accounts of known Hui Muslims, in an attempt to prevent them from defending their religion.
“This is not London, where a Muslim can become a human rights lawyer. Here in China, human rights lawyers are in jail. We don’t have media that will speak for us,” Ismael wrote to me. “When anti-Muslim hooligans smear our religion on the internet, and if we dare to defend ourselves, our accounts will be deleted. Sometimes the police will turn up at our doorsteps.”
Wai Ling Yeung is a researcher based in Australia. Her research focuses on China’s internet culture. Follow her on Twitter @WLYeung.