Responsive Image

Chinese Muslims and The ‘Arab Spring’

The Diplomat, 24 July 2012

Extensive areas of Muslim communities can be found in Xinjiang, Qinghai, Gansu, and Ningxia provinces. Many of my friends come from these beautiful lands. My younger friends perform poorly at Han schools and come from poor families. However, they have the ability to study abroad in Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other Islamic countries. They have told me that schools in these countries offer favorable conditions to attract Muslim students from China.

One of my friends explained he was offered the chance to study in a religious school in Pakistan after graduating from high school. Upon returning to China from his studies, he found no place to practice what he had learned and moved to Saudi Arabia to work. Although a Chinese national, his religious conviction is so deeply entrenched that he harbors strong feelings against Chinese authorities due to their ethnic and religious policies. Yet he reacted enthusiastically to the Muslim Brotherhood taking power in Egypt. Young Chinese Muslims like him believe that the electoral success of the Muslim Brotherhood is an indication of an Islamic awakening among the Egyptian people.

I once asked him in jest which side he would support if a conflict broke out between Egypt and China.

He remained silent.

This intriguing silence has caused me great concern. If religious interest is put above national interest, China’s security will be at risk. What’s more, this is a challenge that originates from some invisible force.

For many years, China has been investing heavily in infrastructure, education, and other areas to boost productivity in the western regions where many ethnic and religious minorities reside. No one can deny that a lot has been accomplished. Despite these successes, an election thousands of miles away in Egypt can quickly negate Chinese patriotism that the government has been instilling for decade. Why?

Last February the Muslim Brotherhood was among the fiercest critics of China and Russia’s decision to veto a UN Security Council resolution calling for an end to government-sanctioned violence in Syria. Branches of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan and Syria, for instance, branded China and Russia as “accomplices of [Assad’s] massacre,” and even claimed Beijing and Moscow bore full responsibility for the violence in Syria.This rare criticism coming from the Muslim world, which has usually been on friendly terms with China, is not something that can be easily dismissed. If this is any indication, China’s “tightrope walking” foreign policy may find it hard to navigate a Middle East with newly empowered publics.

For several decades the Hosni Mubarak regime in Egypt followed its predecessors’ lead in outlawing the Muslim Brotherhood. Mubarak was lauded in China as “an old friend of the Chinese people.” During his rule, Mubarak visited China on nine separate occasions. One could argue that China’s Egypt policy was built entirely on its relationship with Mubarak and therefore was bound to change once he was ousted.

Now that the Muslim Brotherhood has taken over Egypt, in what way will they view China given Beijing’s past friendship with their sworn enemy?

Chinese Muslims cheered for the Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral victory, not just out of support for their religious brethren, but also because of their own dissatisfaction with their own government’s domestic, ethnic, religious and foreign policies.This dissatisfaction is weaved together with the larger Chinese public’s frustration at the lack of political and economic reforms in their country.

What happened in Xinjiang is also a persuasive case.

After the plane-hijacking incident in Xinjiang, quiet whispers could be heard from all corners bashing China’s authorities. Indeed, some Muslims in western China did not believe the official government account of what happened, and noted on Weibo, a Chinese micro-blogging website, that the passengers’ stories often contradicted each other. Although the bloggers did not directly support the hijackers or their actions, it’s clear from their effort to read between the lines that they despise government propaganda. Some even quoted foreign Muslim organizations to imply the entire hijacking had been fabricated by Beijing.

China’s ethnic and religious policies in its western regions face a peculiar dilemma. If China tries to push economic development and Chinese nationalism too strongly, it inevitably provokes a religious-oriented backlash. Yet if China fails to invest enough resources in areas like development and education, this could give Sunnis and Shias abroad opportunities to exploit, as Chinese Muslims seek opportunities in those countries. China’s west has already become the battleground of overt and covert struggles among various political and religious forces.

China may therefore need to modify its religious and ethnic policies in order to keep up with changing times. If China fails to adjust its policies, the silence or murmurs heard among its Muslim population might gradually begin manifesting themselves in angry protests in the model of the Arab Spring. But another issue arises. Namely, if China carries out large-scale reforms and weakens its authoritarian rule, conflicts in these border regions might escalate with the ensuing instability undermining economic development.

Finding a happy medium is a challenge that the government and indeed every Chinese citizen who puts their nation before other affiliations must grapple with. Happiness cannot just be measured in material goods but should also have a spiritual dimension as well. Perhaps to some extent, and for certain people living in certain regions, spirituality is of paramount importance.