An Arab Spring in Beijing? Islam, the Middle East, and China

With recent political turmoil raging throughout northern Africa, many wonder if what has become known as the "Arab Spring" will spread to other countries. When people think of China today, they think of economic development, Confucius Institutes, aircraft carriers, manufacturing, Olympic athletes, and even air pollution. What they do not usually think about is Islam. Dr. Dru Gladney addressed race, religion and ethnicity as issues even more sensitive than China's environmental calamities and rising nationalism. The issues are so sensitive that he was banned from entering China for contributing to a comprehensive, academic survey of Xinjiang in English. During his talk, in addition to providing historical context for the issue, he also outlined the decisions necessary for China to maintain the social harmony it trumpets today.

Dr. Gladney began by focusing on changes in China’s policies toward the Middle East. China's dependence on oil has been increasing since its earliest economic reforms and in 1993, China began consuming more oil than it could produce. After this date, a new era of international diplomacy began for China as it officially recognized Israel and Saudi Arabia in a quest for energy security. With the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and China's energy independence lost, then-ruler Jiang Zemin on September 12, 2001 pledged cooperation with the United States in what would become known as the War on Terror. According to a 2009 report published by the Congressional Research Service, what followed was also harsher policies toward China’s ethnic minority Muslims. In the 1990s, separatist Uyghur (also spelled Uighur, Uygur, Uigur and sounds approximately like "wee-gur") groups protesting for greater political autonomy had begun to use sporadic violence to convey their message. Worried about potential "terrorist attacks" by these radical Uyghur separatist groups, China utilized the opportunity provided by 9/11 to increase security at its borders and crack down on various Muslim groups. This provided security for expanding oil and natural gas pipelines seeking a link to the Caspian Sea and would help to prevent a refugee problem should a war erupt in Afghanistan or between India and Pakistan.

The policy shift  had great implications for one of China's regions in particular: Xinjiang, officially known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, located in the westernmost reaches of China. Many centuries earlier home to a once-great empire of its own, Xinjiang was until recently almost exclusively inhabited by nomadic or semi-sedentary herders of Turkic descent now known as the Uyghurs, whose language shares the same name. Today however, through new economic opportunities, Xinjiang is home to an increasing number of highly developed urban centers, the most striking being its capital, Urumqi.

These economic opportunities were primarily brought about not only by China's increasing connections to Central Asian countries, but also China's exploitation of abundant rare metal, coal, oil, and other natural resource deposits throughout Xinjiang. As a result, Xinjiang's population has expanded and changed to the point that it is composed of almost equal parts Han and Uyghur, with a smattering of other ethnic groups. China frequently asserts that Uyghur and other minority populations benefit from new economic opportunities and the corresponding gains in education and healthcare. While these claims are reflected in in places like Urumqi by the new hospitals, schools, and other real public services, the benefits are not spread evenly. There is widespread discrimination against non-Han peoples that prevent them from taking advantage of the many of the well-paying opportunities economic development created. Also, mining and other natural resource extraction has taken place on the land where many traditional herders and other small-scale agricultural enterprises previously operated. The capital of Xinjiang, Urumqi, is is now more than 75% ethnic Han, and receives most of the local benefits of Xinjiang's explosive economic growth, while the province’s rural populations are neglected, especially in the social services they receive. Dissatisfaction with the lack of economic mobility increases the likelihood of social uprisings by Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

The worst such uprising occurred on July 5, 2009. Almost 200 people died in what is arguably China's worst race-related riot of all time. Incited by rumors of Uyghur men raping a Han woman in distant Guangdong province several Uyghurs were killed in a violent Han-led response. What ensued in Xinjiang became a national event as almost 200 people were killed and more than 1000 injured in a clash between Han and Uyghurs, all with widespread coverage by national television and newspapers. The violence eventually extended beyond Xinjiang as Uyghur migrant workers in other provinces rioted in response to the negative portrayal of Uyghurs on state television. As a result, the Uyghur ethnic group, which primarily identifies with Sunni Islam, was profiled as producing terrorists. Much in the same way that many American Muslims have been profiled since 9/11, Uyghurs and other predominantly Islamic ethnic minority groups, such as the Hui, have suffered degrading treatment. 

With the 2008 Olympic event, minorities were a celebrated part of China's cultural heritage under the "One World One Dream" slogan. However, it seems that at least in Xinjiang, some minorities do not share the dream that the Han-dominated ruling authority has. While a few scholars, such as Ma Rong, advocate for completely dismantling China's policies of officially recognized minority groups and depoliticizing ethnicity, such changes are not likely to occur.  Dr. Gladney suggested that China should embrace its ethnic minorities but cease employing a Stalinist social framework to determine which are legitimate and which are not. The United States does not grant greater legitimacy to one ethnic group over another, but it does provide harsh consequences for employers who discriminate based on ethnicity, race, or religion. China's legal recourse for victims of ethnic-related crimes and discrimination is wanting. While China enjoys steady economic growth, it is able to minimize these problems. If its economy continues to slow down, however, it may find itself with more widespread problems linked with ethnic unrest. Unless it can resolve these ethnic issues in the coming years, race-related conflicts may become the galvanizing force behind broader, grievance-based unrest. While Gladney argued that there would not likely be a "Beijing Arab Spring," he suggested that China will face greater problems unless it reforms its minority policies. 

Dr. Dru Gladney is Professor of Anthropology and President of the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Washington and has conducted fieldwork throughout East and Central Asia, most recently in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Malaysia, Turkey, and of course China. This event was sponsored by the Center for the Study of Contemporary China (CSCC) at the University of Pennsylvania. For more information about upcoming CSCC events, please visit our website.



CSCC, China, Islam, Arab Spring, Xinjiang, Uyghur, ethnic minority





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