Stephen Chan: As we speak today, the Chinese author­i­ties are crack­ing up a very very large-scale and what promis­es to be an inces­sant secu­ri­ty dri­ve in Xinjian Province in north­west China against what the Chinese gov­ern­ment calls Islamic extrem­ists. What in fact the Chinese gov­ern­ment means is it’s launch­ing a dri­ve against dis­sent from the Uighur peo­ple who’ve lived there for cen­turies. Who although being part of the Chinese state for sev­er­al hun­dreds of years share of all kinds of eth­nic and oth­er char­ac­ter­is­tics with sur­round­ing coun­tries such as Uzbekistan. Their lan­guage is a Turkic lan­guage and they use a Persian crossover Arabic script. They are Islamic but what is real­ly at stake here is not so much an Islamic prob­lem, although there are ele­ments of that. What is going on is a sep­a­ratist prob­lem, which to a very large extent the Chinese gov­ern­ment through its lack of sym­pa­thy for the process­es of engage­ment have helped to cause in the first instance.

Insofar as we’re look­ing at an Islamic prob­lem, then what you have by way of Islam in China, as in all of Southeast Asia, is some­thing which spread very grad­u­al­ly. In terms of out­ly­ing Southeast Asian nations such as Malaysia and Indonesia, you’re prob­a­bly look­ing at some­thing which dates only from the 14th to the 15th cen­tu­ry. And it was part of a glob­al com­pe­ti­tion for trade involv­ing Islamic traders and mer­chants on the one hand and Portuguese traders and mer­chants on the oth­er. In the first instance, these mar­itime Islamic traders were prob­a­bly more Sufi than Sunni. Their bridge­heads were fol­lowed by Sunni mis­sion­ar­ies. But in the first instance what you had was the prob­lem of con­fronting, accom­mo­dat­ing, and mix­ing with the local cul­tures that had long, urban forms of orga­ni­za­tion and tem­ple orga­ni­za­tion of their own.

The same thing hap­pened in China. You had a mar­itime expan­sion into China as ear­ly as the 7th century—again by Sufi traders. And they man­aged to set up shop in what is now Guangzhou, Canton. A bridge­head there, a dis­crete com­mu­ni­ty there. But it was the over­land Silk Road influ­ence of traders and then of mis­sion­ar­ies com­ing into China via Xinjian Province that real­ly laid the ground roots for the con­fes­sion­al affil­i­a­tions of today’s Uighur people. 

The Uighurs are of mixed ori­gin them­selves. They’re cer­tain­ly not Han Chinese. Part Turkic, part Russian, part Transcaucasian, part Mongolian, they only formed them­selves into a nation­al and coher­ent con­scious­ness in the last three or four hun­dred years. But that con­scious­ness, hav­ing tak­en hold, has been rein­forced by per­se­cu­tion of them as a peo­ple. And the Chinese author­i­ties in imme­di­ate­ly con­flat­ing unrest against Chinese rule with Islamic unrest have cracked down on the Uighur com­mu­ni­ty in the name of a fight against terrorism.

Now in fact there may, because of this, be ter­ror­ism in the future. Such ter­ror­ism as has hap­pened in the past has been rel­a­tive­ly minor. Isolated attacks, knife attacks, no mass atroc­i­ties of the sort that has been seen in North America and par­tic­u­lar­ly in recent days in Europe. It’s been low-level and real­ly express­es oppor­tunis­tic polit­i­cal dis­sat­is­fac­tion that spills over into vio­lence with the near­est weapon at hand. So noth­ing planned by way of weapon­ry of mass destruc­tion, or even of minor destruc­tion, beyond indi­vid­ual and oppor­tunis­tic killings.

Mobilizing the armed forces, the secu­ri­ty forces, putting into place all kinds of sur­veil­lance tech­niques, uti­liz­ing drones, reg­is­ter­ing all vehi­cles, satel­lite track­ing all vehi­cles, ban­ning head­scarves in pub­lic, ban­ning beards, all of these sup­pres­sions of ele­ments of the out­ward affil­i­a­tion to Islam only increas­es dis­sat­is­fac­tion by virtue of impos­ing a police state of high tech­no­log­i­cal capac­i­ty and inten­si­ty in the 21st cen­tu­ry. So if there was not an Islamic prob­lem in the past there soon will be, as dis­sat­is­fied Uighurs go out to places like Iraq and Syria to take train­ing of a mil­i­tary nature. And the response of Islamic State to the Chinese mobi­liza­tion was to declare its affil­i­a­tion with the Uighur rebels.

So the bat­tle lines are now being drawn, where­as nego­ti­a­tions at an ear­li­er stage could prob­a­bly have pre­vent­ed them from being drawn. What is at stake here in Xinjiang Province is very very much a threat to a tra­di­tion­al way of life and a tra­di­tion­al iden­ti­ty, even though its coher­ence has been rel­a­tive­ly recent. And this is being caused in the chiefest instance by mass migra­tion of Han Chinese into Xinjiang Province. It’s a tech­nique that the Chinese have employed in Tibet, for instance. So that the local pop­u­la­tion at some key stage in the future will be over­whelmed and turned into a minor­i­ty with­in their own tra­di­tion­al habi­tat. The com­ing of Han Chinese with their cus­toms, their affil­i­a­tions to cer­tain polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al (as it were) items of faith and loy­al­ty, seem to threat­en local forms of coop­er­a­tion, local forms of orga­ni­za­tion, and cer­tain­ly local belief systems.

It’s not that there is this mass migra­tion. It’s also the lack of sym­pa­thy of the new migrants, and cer­tain­ly the lack of sym­pa­thy of the Chinese author­i­ties toward some prop­er kind of mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism. Such mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism as there is is expressed very very much in a cel­e­bra­tion of fes­ti­vals. Things that are col­or­ful, things that are essen­tial­ly harm­less. In terms of autonomies, in terms of autonomies of belief sys­tems, cul­tur­al as well as reli­gious, this is where the line is drawn and this is where dis­sat­is­fac­tion begins. So that Islam in China, cer­tain­ly as far as the Uighur pop­u­la­tion in the north­west­ern Xinjiang Province is con­cerned, is in fact a project under construction.

Further Reference

Religion and World Politics course infor­ma­tion