The mostly Muslim Uighur population of China’s far-western province of Xinjiang has never had it particularly easy when it comes to practicing its faith. Under Mao Zedong, when religion was essentially forbidden throughout China, the state would go to extremes to suppress Islam—like force-feeding candy to Muslim school children to make them break their Ramadan fasts.
The bad old days of repression may now be coming back strong. Concerned about ethnic “splittism”, Beijing is increasingly resorting to tactics—some new, some old—to make it difficult for Uighurs to live out their faith:
Last year, the authorities started forcing low-income families to agree to abandon some Muslim traditions in exchange for social security payments. Forms posted on the internet show that some women signed a pledge not to wear the veil and not to receive veil-wearing guests in their homes, in exchange for receiving low-income subsidies for their families.
One middle school in Aksu, a city on the northern rim of the Taklamakan desert which has seen deadly sectarian violence in recent years, said it would step up propaganda for national unity and against “ethnic splittism” and ensure that “no teachers or students attend any religious activities” during Ramadan.
This is not a sign that China knows what it’s doing in Xinjiang.
Banning fasting and other Islamic practices is not going to build much support for Beijing’s rule in this restive province, which as recently as July 2009 saw racial riots that claimed almost 200 lives.
The free exercise of religion is among the most fundamental of human rights. For its own sake, and in the interests of simple justice, China needs to find a way to reconcile the needs of its government with the rights of its people. Suppressing Islam is not the way.
Students of international relations can learn something else from this policy. China is deeply worried about large, resource rich and thinly populated Xinjang. It sees the spread of radical Islam as the most worrying feature of a difficult situation. This has implications for China-Pakistan relations. If China thought Pakistan could or would provide serious help at smashing the networks that support Islamist opposition, there would be more interest in Beijing in developing a deep strategic relationship with Islamabad.
But China seems to believe that Pakistan is either unwilling or unable to provide these guarantees, and it notes that Pakistani support for anti-American terrorists like the Haqqani network shows Islamabad to be an unreliable ally. A Taliban dominated Afghanistan would similarly be, from the Chinese (and Russian) point of view a petri dish in which dangerous movements would breed.
For China as for Russia, the struggle against radical Islamic terrorism is a domestic as well as a foreign policy issue. Unfortunately, the kind of crude suppression that China is currently trying against all forms of Islam, however moderate and peaceful, will strengthen the radicals in China and abroad.