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Targeting Uighur Islamic customs

Interview: Gabriel DomínguezMay 11, 2015

Chinese authorities have reportedly ordered Muslim shopkeepers in a Xinjiang village to sell alcohol and cigarettes in a bid to undermine Islam's hold on local residents. But will this work? DW speaks to James Millward.

China Xinjiang Uiguren Bärte
Image: Getty Images

Authorities in China's northwestern Xinjiang region have ordered shop owners and restaurateurs in a mainly Muslim Uighur village to sell alcohol and cigarettes or face closure of their establishments, despite a public backlash against the products discouraged by followers of Islam, an official source was quoted by Radio Free Asia (RFA) as saying.

In addition to directing owners to create "eye-catching displays" to promote the products, the April 29 announcement stated that "anybody who neglects this notice and fails to act will see their shops sealed off, their business suspended, and legal action pursued against them," said the report.

It comes after a series of violent episodes at transport hubs throughout China last year which Beijing blamed on Islamists and separatists from the restive region where Muslim Uighurs (also spelled Uyghur) make up around 45 percent of the population. Chinese President Xi Jinping has vowed to follow a "strike-first approach against terrorists in the region," stating that long-term stability was "vital to the whole country's reform."

In a DW interview, China expert and historian James Millward says that Beijing's policies targeting peaceful aspects of Islamic practice are counter-productive, not only because they anger the broad population of Uighurs, but also potentially undermine China's vaunted new foreign policy initiative, the New Silk Road Economic Belt, which involves enhanced economic and diplomatic relations with South and Central Asia, the Middle East and East Africa - regions comprised of several Muslim-majority nations.

DW: How likely is it that the Chinese authorities have adopted such measures?

James Millward: The RFA report includes a document in Uighur that tells supermarkets and restaurants in Aktash village, Laskuy township of the region around the city of Hotan (also spelled Hetian or Khotan), that they are required to sell at least five brands each of cigarettes and alcoholic beverages. This document seems to have been photographed and put out on Twitter by someone in the area.

USA James Millward Geschichtsprofessor von der Georgetown University in Washington DC
Millward: 'These policies make it easier for critics to say that the Chinese state and Communist Party are anti-Islam'Image: privat

RFA has been able to get confirmation from a local party secretary that the document is real and that such a policy has been implemented in this small area of Xinjiang. RFA reports that the local party secretary himself said - remarkably - that the explicit purpose of the alcohol / tobacco policy is to weaken religion in the region.

This fits with what seems to be the general thrust of a range of rules and prohibitions introduced in Xinjiang over recent years: against full veils and sometimes even headscarves on women; against beards on younger men; against "Islamic" clothing or religious symbols on clothing; against fasting during Ramadan for students and government employees; and of course long-term and general prohibitions on religious meetings, prayer meetings or other ceremonies not sanctioned and controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.

These policies seem to be somewhat inconsistently imposed in different parts of Xinjiang, as the local nature of these alcohol and tobacco rules show. This may be because of different ways local officials interpret a broader Party directive - sometimes excessively - or may represent a program of first experimenting in some places with particular policies before applying them, or not, to the region as a whole.

What is the general purpose of such measures?

Though I personally have not seen an explicit Chinese official statement to this effect, it seems clear that these policies about customs associated with Islam are related to Party and Government efforts to counter what they see as increasing influence by Jihadi or violent Islamist ideology from outside Xinjiang and China.

There is independent evidence that such propaganda in Uighur language media has become increasingly available in recent years. There have been a few prominent incidents of random attacks on civilians by Uighurs with apparent political purpose - i.e. terrorist attacks - in recent years.

However, there have also been many other kinds of violent incidents, especially confrontations of police and Uighur civilians, which Chinese media and authorities call "terrorism" but many outside of China might disagree as to their sources and nature.

In addition to security measures, the CCP has ordered, and the Xinjiang authorities are implementing, a raft of cultural measures directed at religious practice, no doubt in the belief that such measures can reduce Uighur people's religiosity and thus dampen their discontent with Chinese government and Party rule in Xinjiang.

What impact are Beijing's "strike hard" campaigns having on the population in Xinjiang?

It is difficult for an outsider without direct access to Xinjiang to comment on the impact of either "strike hard" security measures or the policies against "Islamic" customs. Certainly I and many other observers outside China - and some in China - feel that policies targeting peaceful aspects of Islamic practice such as fasts, beards, veils, food taboos etc, are counter-productive because they will anger the broad population of Uighurs, the vast majority of whom are not engaged in and don't support terrorism or even political Islam.

These policies make it easier for critics - such as al Qaeda or "Islamic State" - to say that the Chinese state and Communist Party are anti-Islam, and this could even help with such groups' recruiting efforts. Other countries have tried policies that target Islamic symbols - one thinks of France's bans on the veil for Muslim women, for example - and few would see those policies as successes, given continually worsening tensions in those countries.

Are the Chinese authorities going about these issues the wrong way?

The Chinese policies targeting Islamic customs seem to reflect a misdiagnosis of the problem of Uighur discontent and separatism as entirely due to outside ideology sneaking in, like a contagion. It is clear to many outside observers, and stated resoundingly by Uighur exile groups, that extremist religion is only one element in Uighur discontent.

What other aspects come into play?

Other causes are historical, relating to Xinjiang's and the Uighurs' status in the People's Republic of China (PRC); or they are ethno-nationalist, arising from a sense of Uighur identity that the Communist Party has not been able to convincingly incorporate beneath an umbrella Chinese identity; or they are owing to discontent with real and perceived anti-Uighur discrimination by government and businesses that makes economic development efforts seem to help only Han Chinese.

Other reasons include the discontent with recent or current policies such as increased Han migration into Xinjiang, the tearing down of old and treasured Uighur architecture, the environmental legacies of nuclear testing in the near-by Lop Nor desert, excessive water use that has exhausted water tables, continued poverty and under-development of Uighur rural areas - and so on.

The Chinese Communist Party does try to address some of these concerns, especially economic ones. However, without direct polling of Uighur people we don't know with any precision the extent of their good- or ill-will to the Party after decades of economic development and the recent campaign against Islamic customs.

Is this likely to have an impact on how China is viewed by Muslim-majority countries?

My guess is that ham-fisted in-your-face policies, such as requiring devout Muslims to sell alcohol when they don't want to, or de-veiling women, would tend to dissipate whatever good will the Chinese state and Party earn from raising Uighurs' standards of living.

Xi Jinping in Südkorea 03.07.2014 Seoul
Xi has vowed to follow a 'strike-first approach against terrorists in the region'Image: Reuters

Bans on religious expression, especially the gratuitously insulting bans on beards, veils, fasting, and the requirement to sell alcohol, also hurt China's foreign policy efforts, not only attracting criticism from the US and EU, but potentially undermining China's vaunted new foreign initiative, the New Silk Road Economic Belt, which involves enhanced economic and diplomatic relations with South and Central Asia, the Middle East and East Africa.

Most of the countries in these regions have large Muslim populations or are explicit Islamic states themselves. China cannot call Islamic customs "evil" at home, and not expect word to get out. Such rules erode China's soft power potential in Islamic lands.

Violent conflicts in and out of Xinjiang between Han and Uighur in recent years are far more frequent and brutal than before and in other parts of China e.g. Tibet. Who do you think is behind the violence?

It is important to distinguish among these violent incidents. There was a vehicular assault by a family in Tian'anmen square, an attack on the Kunming railway station, an attack on the Urumqi railway station, and a bombing and vehicular assault in an Urumqi market. These appalling incidents fit a model that resembles in some ways terrorist acts by Islamist groups outside of China - and as such, they were an alarming new development starting in the fall of 2013.

There has also been an on-going series of clashes between Uighur citizens and police or military in Xinjiang, apparently sparked by local issues. In some of the most serious of these, Uighur villages have taken up agricultural tools as weapons, so they are technically "armed" attacks.

But the high casualty numbers result from Chinese authorities' use of guns against demonstrators and rioters. It is worth noting that in local areas of southern Xinjiang, police forces and even local chiefs are often Uighurs themselves, though higher responsible officials are Han.

Thus there are multiple sources behind the violence. Extremist and violent ideology seems to have inspired a small number of people to commit terrorist acts. A larger number of people have come into conflict with the authorities for reasons that are not always clear, but may involve discontent with those authorities, with the implementation of prohibitions on Islamic customs, possibly with corruption and collusion between authorities and business interests.

However, most protests in China do not lead to terrorism charges or violent crackdowns. How come this has been the case in Xinjiang?

There are, by Chinese official admission, tens of thousands of disturbances across China every year, including demonstrations, riots, attacks on authorities, kidnappings of government or business leaders, and expulsions of authorities from whole townships.

This has become a standard means by which people expose the malfeasance of local officials and get the attention of the central government to address the problems. For Uighurs and Tibetans, however, this safety valve is unavailable: their demonstrations are met with deadly force, and not by delegations of sympathetic central government officials.

China Soldaten in der Xinjiang Provinz
'Currently, the one-size-fits-all response to any unrest is that it is terrorism and is to be put down with force'Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo

How do you expect the situation to evolve in Xinjiang in the coming months? Can the two sides compromise?

There does not seem to have been a terrorist attack for a year or so, and this is a good thing. But the question of whether any of the two sides are willing to compromise raises an issue: there are not two "sides" in this. Though there are exile Uighur groups, they do not really speak for the Uighur people in Xinjiang, and the PRC certainly does not speak with them. There is no organization behind the anti-state violence in Xinjiang, no one that the Chinese "side" could talk to.

When incidents arise, it would be good to see more discussion and less repression between local, Xinjiang regional and national authorities, on the one hand, and local people with grievances on the other. Currently, the one-size-fits-all response to any unrest is that it is terrorism, inspired by evil ideology from outside, and is to be put down with force.

This blanket explanation potentially allows local officials to get away with all sorts of things, and blame popular unrest on terrorists.

I wonder if the government in Beijing has really good information about what happens at the local level in Xinjiang. It certainly lacks that in many places in the rest of China, and admits that corruption is a widespread problem. Is there no corruption or mis-governance causing trouble in Xinjiang, just as elsewhere in China?

James Millward is Professor of History in the School of Foreign Service, at Georgetown University in Washington DC. He is the author of "Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang."

The interview was conducted by Gabriel Domínguez.