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In Depth: Chinese Muslims

Between Revitalization and Assimilation

Since September 11th, with the Western world increasingly attuned to Muslim communities around the world, China's Muslim population is more and more the subject of scrutiny and debate both in and outside China. What exactly is China's official policy toward its 20 million Muslims in this era of burgeoning contact with the West? How does the Communist Party control Islam but still support minority culture? What are the risks for Chinese Muslims who speak out against repression? We asked Dr. Nicholas Bequelin, a research associate at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who specializes in Chinese politics and Xinjiang affairs.

Long isolated by China's closed-door policy, Chinese Muslim communities are once more connecting with the rest of the world through commerce, diplomatic exchanges and the globalized flow of information. Faced with the monumental changes brought about by the rapid economic growth shaking the country, Chinese Islam is also entering a period of intense refashioning of its forms and practices, and of its position vis-á-vis the larger national community.
Two men seated outside Kashgar Market

Turkic Muslims are still in the majority in the city of Kashgar, but barely in Xinjiang as a whole, given state-encouraged internal migration.

In this changing context, Chinese Muslims are employing a dual strategy of resistance and adaptation, which is resulting in a flourishing revitalization of Islam in China and a growing assimilation into the general Chinese population.

Islam in China

Islam, as one of the five religions officially recognized by the Chinese communist State, comes under close supervision of the authorities, who do not wish to let any kind of religious devotion go unchecked and challenge the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) monopoly on power.

The relationship between China and Islam is an ancient one: the first Muslims to reach Chinese shores arrived at the end of the 7th century, along what would later be called the "Southern Silk Road," a maritime route that brought an intense exchange in ideas, goods and people. Further north, along the Central Asian Silk Road, a similar exchange took place, bringing an increasing number of Turkic and Persian populations to convert to the new religion from the Middle East.

The vast size of China is the product of a multi-secular expansion that brought the original inhabitants of the central plains in contact with the peoples populating the surrounding areas. Through a slow, sometimes peaceful, often belligerent, process of conquest and assimilation, the country reached its current dimensions under the last dynasty, that of the Manchu emperors, who ruled from 1644 to 1911. Many of the Muslim peoples, as well as the vast area known as the Tibetan plateau, had first been integrated at this time, but during the turbulent years that followed the collapse of Imperial China, most of them tried hard to shake off the Chinese yoke. Since the inception of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, the State has sought to revive the classic colonial argument that the Chinese presence in areas such as Tibet and Xinjiang is necessary for these backward regions' development.

Areas that display a prominent cultural, linguistic and religious difference from the central plains have been given the status of "autonomous regions," a largely symbolic appellation that does not signify any meaningful surrender of political power to the indigenous populations.

According to government figures, there are today about 20 million Chinese Muslims, 1.4% of the total population of China; 35 thousand Islamic places of worship throughout the country; and 45 thousand imams. The main ethnic groups of Islamic faith are the Hui, 9.8 million people; the Uighurs, 8.4 million; the Kazakhs, 1.2 million; the Dongxiangs, 500,000; and about half a million more comprising Tajiks, Salas, Kyrgyzs, Uzbeks, Tatars, and others. Although Muslim communities are found almost everywhere in China, from the major urban centers of Beijing and Guangzhou to cities and market places of the Tibetan plateau, the biggest concentrations are in the northwestern regions of Gansu, Ningxia and Xinjiang.

The Huis, highly assimilated in many Chinese regions, are mainly Mandarin speakers, and the one Muslim group that can claim the highest integration with the larger Han (Chinese) community. Economic and cultural brokers between China proper and its indigenous peripheries since imperial times,
statue of Chairman Mao

A huge statue of Chairman Mao still dominates in Kashgar -- a symbol of Chinese authority in this Muslim region.
the Huis have vastly benefited from the opening up of China and its booming economy in recent years, becoming an unexpected diplomatic bonus for the Chinese authorities as China tries to expand its influence in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

The Uighurs, on the other hand, a markedly different group with very few cultural links with China proper, are a Turkic-speaking people of Central Asian kinship, concentrated in the westernmost region of the country, known today as Xinjiang. Their homeland, larger than Alaska, is rich in natural resources (such as oil and minerals) vital for the continued development of the Chinese economy, but here ethnic tensions often run high. Since September 11, the worldwide campaign against terrorism has given Beijing the perfect excuse to crack down harder than ever in Xinjiang, where the Chinese government has directed a crushing campaign of religious repression against Uighurs in the name of anti-separatism and counterterrorism.

State-Sanctioned Islam

Even though China's religious policies remain highly restrictive (only state-controlled religion is officially permitted and all activities are subject to the supervision of the government's religious bureaus), the general trend since the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 has been one of gradual relaxation. On the whole, Chinese Muslims, just like the great majority of the Chinese people, have gone along with the terms of the straightforward social contract offered by Deng: modernization and the granting of more economic and private freedoms in exchange for keeping away from politics and not challenging the one-party system.
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The Chinese Constitution guarantees that "The state protects normal religious activities", without specifying further what is considered "normal" and what may be deemed "illegal". In practice the essence of current Chinese policy is to tolerate only those religious beliefs and practices that do not threaten the monopoly on power of the CCP, but to closely regulate and, where it is deemed necessary, aggressively repress beliefs and practices perceived as a threat. The cardinal principle of "separation of politics from religion" effectively prohibits critical commentary by religious figures or followers and frequently is invoked to justify government crackdowns on religious expression or dissent. For the present time, though, Islamic communities across China are still in the process of reinstating themselves in society: restoring mosques returned by the authorities, reviving domestic and cross-border networks, and publishing and research about Chinese Islamic scholarship -- while staying within the parameters of what the Chinese political system allows.

The "Great Opening Up of the West" Since the late 1990s, hand in hand with the portentous drive to modernize and further open up the country's economy, China has also launched a new initiative, called the "Go West" campaign. Its declared aims are to bring economic development to the restive Westernmost regions of the country -- home of the vast majority of Muslims in China -- and let the poorer agricultural "middle belt" share in the economic advantages enjoyed by China's coastal regions.

The most spectacular realization of the "Go West" campaign, so far, has been the railway to Lhasa, opened in 2006. It has also brought significant top-down development, slowly introducing modernity to Muslim communities in the poor rural areas of central and western China. But, in the bargain, much of the traditional culture that far-off communities had been able to preserve across the centuries has been doomed to a fast disappearance.

The construction frenzy that characterizes most of China is also sweeping away the architectural and cultural heritage of communities judged backward and underdeveloped. Across the country, countless centuries-old mosques and traditional Muslim neighborhoods are being either aggressively "renovated" or simply destroyed and replaced by modern-looking buildings. This fosters a perceptible resentment among communities that have made efforts to preserve their separate identity under the political dominion of the Chinese juggernaut.

To this, one must add the massive internal migrations, strongly encouraged, although in a covert manner, by the central authorities, that have made the Uighurs become a minority in their own land, and diluted local ethnic homogeneity to the point of threatening the cultural survival of this ancient population.

Education, Identity and Repression

It is no coincidence that the forces of modernization hit with such a sweeping force. The Chinese state tends to perceive the existence of a separate ethnic identity as a political hazard, fearing that it can become a platform for expressing political demands for autonomy or self-determination. Much effort is therefore being put into an attempt to refashion the identity of ethnic groups through education and language policies, allowing only the transmission of a sanitized version of history whereby ethnic people such as Uighurs or Tibetans have always been "an inseparable part of the unitary multi-ethnic Chinese nation" -- all toward the goal of instilling a higher sense of loyalty to the Chinese state.
Xinjiang mountains as seen from a plane

Xinjiang Autonomous Region in North-West China is bigger than Alaska. Xinjiang borders eight countries, including Russia, Pakistan and Kazakhstan.

The threat to the cultural heritage of Chinese Muslims coming from China's tightly-controlled education system is real. China's restrictive religious laws prohibit religious education for minors as well as in state schools and universities. Even though in many areas of Ningxia, Gansu and Xinjiang provinces mosques are often allowed to run after-school classes, their existence is only a tribute to the direct control that the Chinese authorities have managed to impose. Islamic institutes are all operated by the State and hand out the official, state-endorsed version of Islam. Anything that strays from this orthodoxy is labeled as "illegal religious activity" and is subject to suppression. While these laws are implemented throughout the country and for all religions, they are applied with particular severity in Xinjiang, where there are strict controls to prevent minors from accessing mosques or religious festivities.

What is more, in recent years the state has been steadily shifting toward a monolingual Mandarin Chinese system of education, which has meant that entire national minorities such as the Uighurs, the Kazhak or the Dongxiang are being progressively cut off from their mother culture, accelerating the process of assimilation. Once more, the alleged "backwardness" of these non-Mandarin languages is the official reason why mother tongue education of many ethnic minorities is being phased out. Cultural identity has thus become the new battleground.

Also, any attempt to deviate from the historical orthodoxy established by the Party censors is considered seditious and met with the full force of the police state. Although often invisible to the glance of visitors and tourists, political surveillance and repression remain an integral part of the daily existence of China's ethnic minorities, as attested by the scores of religious and political prisoners from these areas documented by human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

The Nobel Peace Prize nominee Rebiya Kadeer is a case in point: long hailed by the Chinese authorities as the most prominent successful Muslim businesswoman, she fell out of favor once she became an advocate for greater autonomy for Uighurs. After a secret trial on trumped-up charges, she was condemned to seven years in prison in 1999 for "leaking state secrets," and was exiled in 2005 on medical parole only thanks to international pressure. Despite her international stature, the Chinese authorities continue to label her a "terrorist" and a "separatist." Thousands of people who remain anonymous are sent to prisons or labor camps every year, under vague charges of "illegal religious activities" or "separatism."

Trade interests vs. pan-Islamic solidarity

Despite ongoing repression, Islamic countries remain unwilling to challenge China on the treatment of its Muslim minorities. One reason is of course the powerful trade interests that China nurtures with the Middle East countries (from where it imports more and more oil to fuel its rapid economic development). But this silence also reflects China's dexterous showcasing of its Muslim minorities to advance its diplomatic interests, as well as its successful self-portrayal as the champion of the developing world against Western, and particularly U.S., hegemony.

As China emerges as a major power of the 21st century, Chinese Islam is undergoing a process that will probably see it revitalized, but hollowed out, and deprived of the rich and diverse traditions that had been its mark for centuries.


Online references:
Human Rights Watch, Devastating Blows: Religious Repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang (on
Arienne M. Dwyer, The Xinjiang Conflict: Uyghur Identity, Language Policy, and Political Discourse (on
Elisabeth Allēs, "Muslim Religious Education in China" China Perspectives (on

Additional Sources:
Dru C. Gladney, Muslim Chinese: Ethnic Nationalism in the People's Republic. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, Council on East Asian Studies (on
David S. G. Goodman (ed.), China's Campaign to 'Open up the West': National, Provincial and Local Perspectives
Raphael Israeli, Islam in China: Religion, Ethnicity, Culture, and Politics
Jonathan N. Lipman, Familiar Strangers: A History of Muslims in Northwest China
Michael Dillon, Xinjiang-China's Muslim Far North West

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