Often, when a political analysis of Islam in China is carried out, one thinks first of all of the complicated relationship between the Beijing Executive and the Uyghur ethnic group. In fact, members of this human group, mainly Muslim and related to other communities from Central Asia, have been subjected to a very intense repression campaign by the authorities for decades. However, neither the interpretations of Islam are monolithic among those who profess it in China nor the treatment given to them by Beijing is the same for all.
The case of the Uyghurs, of course, is the most bloody and also the most well-known outside the borders of the Asian giant. A recent leak has put black on white the reality that many Uyghur rights activists have been condemning for a long time: the Chinese Communist Party has installed a ubiquitous surveillance system in the region of Xinjiang, in the north-western end of the country, where most Uyghurs live, which, in practice, eliminates any right to privacy. The lives of millions of people have been closely monitored for years by Beijing's power, as evidenced by the documents that became known as the 'China cables'.
Approximately 11 million Uighurs reside in Xinjiang. They constitute a rather important ethnic minority. Generally speaking, on a religious level, they belong to the most tolerant Sunni Islam currents; schools of thought that derive from the Sufi transition are deeply rooted in the region's society. However, there are also more rigorous minority sectors.
At the political level, precisely among these more radical factions, a secessionist movement has certainly been cultivated that seeks to achieve more autonomy from the central Executive or, directly, the independence of the region. Occasionally, this has led to isolated episodes of violence which, in the long run, have ended up being used to their advantage by the Government.
Consequently, when the Chinese Government has been accused of committing repeated human rights violations against the Uighurs, the regime's spokespersons have defended themselves by referring to the fact that such measures are part of a campaign against jihadist terrorism. Although it is true that some Uyghur armed organisations have been qualified, indeed, as terrorists by the United Nations or the United States, the truth is that the official policy towards the whole members of this ethnic group seems quite disproportionate.
Surveillance mechanisms revealed in the 'China cables' represent only one leg of the actions taken by the Government to, as far as possible, eliminate any trace of Uyghur identity from its territory. Therefore, from official bodies, the immigration of Han ethnic people, the predominant one in China, to the Xinjiang region has been continuously encouraged.
What is the aim of this colonisation process? Basically, they are trying to confine Uyghur population in more and more reduced areas, so that they have no other choice but to adapt to living in a mainly Han society. This social assimilation is being accompanied by a cultural assimilation that is making identity features of its members disappear little by little.
For those who are still not willing to jump through hoops, China has opened a network of re-education camps for political prisoners in Xinjiang. In that gulag archipelago designed ad hoc by the authorities to keep the most recalcitrant Uighurs under control, organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented acts of torture.
The abuses committed against members of this ethnic group have been reflected relatively widely in the international media scene. This is because the Uighurs include prominent activists among their members, including the writer Ilham Tohti, the latest winner of the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize. However, the Uighurs are not the only Muslims permanently settled in China. Within the Sunni branch, there is a large community which, on the contrary, generally enjoys the favour of the authorities: the Hui.
Who are the Hui? Like the Uyghurs, they are an ethnic group with a Muslim majority whose centre is in the regions of Gansu and Ningxia, neighbours of Xinjiang, but whose members are scattered all over China. Unlike their co-religionists, the Hui are quite assimilated, both ethnically and culturally, to the dominant Han. They are fully integrated into Chinese society and do not harbour political ambitions that are of great concern to the powers-that-be.
As a result, their relationship with the authorities in Beijing is much more cordial than that of the Uyghurs. According to a report published by Time magazine, "the Hui are considered good Muslims and the Uyghurs are considered bad Muslims", in the words of one expert in the field who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The fact of being seen in a different way by authorities has led, sometimes, to the Hui being the target of violent campaigns supported from time to time by the most radical sectors of the Uyghur population.
The religious issue does not seem to be a problem for Chinese Shiite Muslim citizens either. According to a report published by The Washington Institute, one in ten Chinese Muslims is Shiite. The majority come from the Ishmaelite school and belong to Tajik or Kyrgyz minorities in the Xinjiang region, such as the Uighurs. Others, members of diasporas from Middle Eastern countries such as Iraq and Lebanon, live in the southern provinces, according to a November 2019 report by the Middle East Institute.
Beijing's relationship with them is mediated by a rather powerful external player whose influence should not be ignored: Iran. In all fields, the ties between China and the Ayatollahs' regime are quite strong. Grosso modo', Beijing and Tehran share a geopolitical bloc and their governments have shared for decades an almost seamless opposition to the United States and its allies. Despite China's opening up to the rest of the world, including the American giant, its relations with the Islamic Republic have remained good, for example in the commercial sphere, where Iran exports oil in exchange for manufactured products.
As far as the religious question is concerned, China has not been particularly harsh in repressing the Shiite minorities in its territory either; at least, no more so than the rest of its fellow citizens. The government has launched a diplomatic campaign with religious authorities in Iran and also in neighbouring Iraq.
In fact, the al-Mustafa International University founded by Ayatollah Khomeini, located in the holy city of Qom, hosts some 700 seminarians of Chinese nationality. Often, this institution financed with money from the public coffers has been considered one of the most powerful instruments of the regime for spreading the most fundamentalist version of Shiite Islam; an example of the 'soft power' that Tehran has put into practice in the last decades to try and obtain support in as many countries as possible.
What does China stand to gain from sending its theology students there? It could be one more attempt to undermine the Uyghur people. If they return to their places of origin, in the far west of China, they would start preaching an alternative vision of Islam.
As a result, the Beijing government would gain both inside and outside its borders. Outside, a strategic ally like Iran would gain some influence, although controlled from positions of power. Inside, the Uyghurs' influence would be significantly reduced.
Religion or politics?
So, it can be seen that the treatment given by the Chinese Government to Muslims living in its territory, whether Sunni or Shiite, is not uniform. The key variable seems simple: the difference lies in whether the person in question is a Uighur or not. For this reason, it is logical to ask the following question: to what extent does the religious factor weigh in the wave of repression by the authorities towards Uyghurs?
First, most Uyghurs observe a cult totally opposite to the Salafist one, so they should not be a concern from the security point of view. In spite of that, they are subjected to surveillance and re-education campaigns. Secondly, if the differential issue was the beliefs of their members, the Hui or the Tajik and Kyrgyz Shiites should also be subjected to similar pressure. However, this is not the case.
Professor Dru Gladney, a renowned sinologist and one of the greatest scholars of Islam in China, analyzed the situation in Time magazine as follows: "It is not a question of religious freedom. Clearly, there are many possibilities for religious expression that are not restricted in China, but when you cross the often nebulous and shifting boundaries of what the state considers political, then you are on dangerous ground”.