On 8 January 2023, a delegation of 30 Islamic scholars from 14 countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Syria, Egypt, Bahrain, Tunisia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, visited Northwest China’s restive Xinjiang province. The delegation, headed by the chairman of the World Muslim Communities Council (TWMCC), was taken on a guided tour of Museum of Combatting Terrorism and Extremism in Xinjiang. It also held meetings with Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials in the region. The chairman of TWMCC praised the historical relationship between China and Islam based on cooperation and alliance and “hailed the efforts of the Chinese authorities in combating terrorism in Xinjiang”. He also praised the “interest and determination of the Chinese leadership to serve all people in the region”. The guided tour of the TWMCC comes at a time when Beijing disallowed the Turkish ambassador to visit Xinjiang, and Ankara’s renewed support to Uyghurs has discomforted the relationship between China and Turkey.
Chinese policy towards Uyghurs Muslims
At the time of the 1949 Revolution, Xinjiang was under the independent rule of the East Turkestan Republic, with a contested history and centrifugal tendencies. After getting control over the vast Muslim-dominated region of Xinjiang, the CCP, through its cadres, attacked the customs, ideas, and habits of Xinjiang natives and considered Uyghurs as “foreign invaders and aliens”. During the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, CCP shut down mosques, banned religious associations, abolished religious education and debarred people from circumcisions and interfaith marriages. As a result, only 1,400 mosques remained functional out of 29,545 limited to far-flung areas.
China supplemented its targeted attack on the region’s cultural ethos and religious fabric with its strategy of creating demographic imbalance. CCP migrated millions of Hans to Xinjiang to ensure the subjugation of the Uyghur Muslims and secure the province from external influences. This internal colonialism led to the economic exploitation of the resource-rich province and systematic demographic change in the region. For example, the population of Hans increased from 5 percent to 40 percent between 1949 to 1980. During the same period, the population of Muslim minorities fell from 80 percent to 45 percent. The economic reforms of 1978 led to the increased estrangement of the Uyghur Muslims and other Muslim minorities.
This increased estrangement triggered sporadic agitations against the CCP rule, which increased its economic, social, and psychological influence under the pretext of curbing regional separatism, extremism, and terrorism after 1990. Beijing took to gross human rights violations of the Muslim minorities to counter, what it claimed, as “thousands of terror attacks between 1990 and 2016”. China also used the war on terror in the aftermath of the September 2001 attacks to suppress the Muslims of Xinjiang. The heightened economic exploitation, demographic changes and suppression of Islamic culture within Xinjiang led to the widespread ethnic riots in 2009. Sinicisation gained traction with Beijing’s support, and thousands of Uyghurs were jailed.
Given the geostrategic location of Xinjiang and China’s global ambitions to become the world’s dominant economic power by 2049, Chinese President Xi Jinping unveiled the much-hyped Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013. The BRI was designed to dump China’s capital and excess production to expand its “developmental strategy” abroad and as a foreign policy tool. However, three of six mega BRI projects run through restive Xinjiang, including the controversial and sensitive China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Under Xi’s guidance, CCP started its second Strike Hard Campaign in Xinjiang in 2014 to secure the “project of the century”. Xi stressed building a “Great Wall of Iron” to protect China’s national interests in the region.
The CCP incarcerated more than one-and-a-half million Muslims from different ethnic groups in concentration camps for offences like wearing a veil, growing a long beard and violating family planning norms. Uyghur women were torched, systematically raped and subjected to forced contraceptive device implantation. Muslims of the region were banned from performing Namaz (prayers) in 2017 and fined for violating the ban. Those in the concentration camps were exploited for forced labour and illegal organ harvesting. More than 440 Uyghur intellectuals were arrested to erode the cultural reminiscence of the Uyghurs.
Fading Chinese perception management of the Islamic World
As the reports of concentration camps and atrocities of the CCP on Uyghur Muslims appeared in western media, democracies became anxious about the fate of Uyghurs under Xi’s rule. They disapproved of CCP’s policy of cultural aggression. Some western democracies even imposed sanctions on some CCP officials and banned cotton imports from Xinjiang—made by forced labour. A United Nations Human Rights Commission report termed China’s actions as a genocide.
On the other hand, China used its economic and political clout over the Islamic world to help Beijing consolidate its voice on the Uyghur issue on global fora, such as the United Nations (UN). A recent example was on 6 October 2022, when most Muslim countries voted against the UN resolution to discuss human rights in Xinjiang in 2023. Out of 47 UN Human Rights Council members , 19 voted against, 17 in favour, and 11 abstained. Beijing has also used Islam as a foreign policy tool and a domestic security strategy. Domestically, Beijing used the Chinese Islamic Association (CIA) to supervise Islamic discourse and religious activity and to promote Islamic soft power for relations with Muslim countries. CIA remained omnipresent after 2009 to manage the perception of the Muslim delegations during the guided tour to the troubled region of Xinjiang. During the recent delegation visit, the CIA took the opportunity to showcase the Xinjiang Islamic Institute, covering 50,000 square meters including teaching buildings, canteens and a prayer hall. The CCP has developed this showpiece at an investment of US$41.1 Million.
The WWMCC delegation’s statements on their guided tour have already come under scrutiny. The Islamic community of Bosnia and Herzegovina has distanced itself from the statements of the former Reisu-l-ulema Mustafa Ceric. According to some observers, TWMCC is a fake NGO of bureaucrats of Arab governments who endorsed China for their petty benefits. Hundreds of Uyghur organisations in exile criticised the delegation and asked TWMCC to visit 50 camp survivors before giving favourable political statements about China and CCP.
As China’s perception management of the Islamic world through these guided tours came under scrutiny from several Islamic quarters, Türkiye has become more vocal on the issue. Türkiye, where most Uyghur exiles live, has already strongly communicated to Beijing concerns about the treatment of the Uyghurs in China. On 12 January, Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said, “We conveyed our views, expectations, and sensitivities regarding the issues on our agenda, especially the Uyghur Turks”. Türkiye has already stopped the extradition of Uyghurs to China, and China has retaliated by restricting visits by the Turkish ambassador to Xinjiang. The Uyghur issue has already made relations between China and Türkiye fraught. The growing concern in Türkiye may help more Muslim countries to oppose the Chinese genocide of Uyghurs openly on regional and global fora. The protests in Bangladesh on November 2022 against the Chinese oppression of Uyghur Muslims are a case in point.
Ayjaz Wani is a research fellow at ORF Mumbai. Views are personal. This article originally appeared on ORF website.