The China Exception: Keeping Uighurs Well Fed for Ramadan
A few months ago, Freedom at Issue published a post entitled “The Great China Exception.” The article pointed out that China had succeeded in evading serious and comprehensive condemnation for acts of repression that, if committed by other governments, would provoke global opprobrium. It noted, “The separate category that China has carved out for itself goes beyond the usual double standard that has historically been applied to “progressive” dictatorships—to Cuba, or Nicaragua under the Sandinistas, for example. Instead there is a kind of stand-alone China Exception, under which repression and autocracy are quietly acknowledged but actual objections are seldom voiced.
The article focused on two repressive Chinese government policies that are especially serious and sustained: the one-child policy and the systematic mistreatment of the Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking, primarily Muslim people who live mostly in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.
One of these policies, the persecution of the Uighurs, is again in the news, at least momentarily. As the Financial Times and a few news agencies have reported, the officially atheist Communist Party regime in Beijing is reasserting its power to set the rules for religious observance, this time in connection with Islam’s holy month of Ramadan.
The following are among the measures taken by the Communist authorities:
- “Security and stability work plans” have been established, under which government officials in Uighur areas take names at mosques to ascertain whether civil servants, teachers, or students are attending prayers during Ramadan.
- Restaurants have been ordered to remain open during Ramadan, in violation of the traditional Muslim fast during daylight hours.
- In some locales, officials have published directives forbidding government officials or students to participate in Ramadan celebrations.
- According to Kathrin Hille of the Financial Times, local officials were asked to “make sure that the students eat well.”
- A Xinjiang government website posted a notice urging officials to bring “gifts” of food to village leaders to ensure that they were eating during Ramadan.
- Education officials were instructed to dissuade students from entering mosques during the month.
- Local officials undertook searches for “illegal” religious publications, meaning those not produced and approved by the state.
As the list above makes clear, Chinese authorities are especially concerned, to the point of obsession, with ensuring that Muslims eat during Ramadan. Here is a clear difference from past practice. Under Mao, enemies of the state—not to mention ordinary citizens—were starved. Today Beijing is intent on seeing that its adversaries eat their fill.
The proposition that the Chinese government has the right to regulate how Ramadan is to be observed, and to intimidate (and presumably punish) students and public employees for expressions of piety, may strike outsiders as an outrageous use of state power. In fact, government directives that spell out what is to be tolerated or forbidden during Ramadan is an annual affair in the People’s Republic. The only difference is that, as the few media outlets that pay attention to this issue have reported, state controls over Muslim practices are becoming stricter. The Financial Times reported that last year, the state initiated a campaign to persuade low-income families to give up certain Muslim traditions in exchange for welfare payments. Forms signed by some women, in which they agree not to wear a veil or even receive veiled women in their homes, have circulated online. To describe this policy as “troubling” is an understatement.
In the earlier article on the China Exception, we observed that the restrictions on Uighur religious practices are not being imposed in secret. The authorities are very open about their intention to control Ramadan observance, with many of the directives and instructions to local officials placed on the internet for the world to see. Yet these attacks on private religious practice have triggered little more than a faint murmur of protest outside of Uighur advocacy organizations and a few human rights groups. Especially noteworthy is the deafening silence from the world’s most powerful Muslim voices: international organizations like the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC); major countries like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Pakistan; and political groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.
The OIC forms a potent bloc of countries at the United Nations, and especially at the UN Human Rights Council. It periodically lobbies for the adoption of international covenants that ban blasphemy against religions and demands that action be taken against the press for publishing cartoons that mock Islam. It has sent at least one fact-finding mission to China in response to reports of discrimination, but its statements of concern over Beijing’s policies have employed the most polite and courteous of diplomatic language.
Indeed, the Uighurs have not been treated well by the world, largely due to pressure from China. The United States held a group of Uighurs at Guantanamo for years despite a lack of evidence that they harbored any ill-will toward Americans. They have been resettled in third countries only with great difficulty, as potential host nations were wary of angering Beijing. Governments across Asia and even places like Sweden have returned Uighur activists and asylum seekers to China, where they face trumped-up charges and likely mistreatment in custody.
The Communist Party leadership feels that the Uighurs—with their distinct beliefs, language, and geographical roots—pose a threat to its project of building a “harmonious” and prosperous China. But Uighurs, like Tibetans, see that their very identity is under assault by the central authorities, who actively encourage in-migration by ethnic Chinese and vigorously suppress any independent form of cultural expression. While Uighurs have pushed back, and there have been occasional instances of violence, strict media censorship has obscured the details of such cases. And even when violence does occur, the arbitrary, politicized nature of China’s justice system offers few assurances that nonviolent activists, artists, religious scholars, and unlucky bystanders will not be jailed or executed along with actual rioters and militants.
Almost assuredly, the Communist regime’s crude attempts to stamp out citizens’ most treasured beliefs by manipulating their outward expression are doomed to fail. If anything they are counterproductive, fueling a spiral of repression and resistance. The world may not know much about the Uighurs’ plight now. But unless Beijing charts a new course, we will soon become more familiar with their perilous condition, in ways that will please no one.
Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.