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What does China's white paper offer Xinjiang's Muslims?

Atheist advocates in China's political structure are only willing to regard religion as a governing tool

Shih Chien-yu and Enver Tohti Bughda

Shih Chien-yu and Enver Tohti Bughda

Updated: July 06, 2016 11:04 AM GMT
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What does China's white paper offer Xinjiang's Muslims?

Uyghur men making their way to the Id Kah mosque for afternoon prayers in Kashgar on April 19, 2015 in China's western Xinjiang region. (Photo by AFP)

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Days before Ramadan began on June 6, the Chinese government released a white paper titled "Freedom of Religious Belief in Xinjiang," which reaffirmed the "separation of religion and state" or more appropriately how the "state leads religion."

The white paper also attempted to define the extent of freedom for religious practice. However, facing consistent provocation by conservative atheists within the Communist Party and the government, how effective the white paper is, remains to be seen.

In the past few years a large number of Uyghurs have fled the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and reached Southeast Asia through illegal channels. There they used refugee status or fabricated ID cards to get to Turkey. Some — discontented with the suppression of religious freedom in Xinjiang — even went to fight in Syria or Iraq.

Given this backdrop the Chinese government implemented a series of related policies this year.

In February, a Xinjiang court reduced the sentences of "some offenders who endangered national security." Among them, some who had joined "extremist religious organizations," including the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which is connected to al-Qaeda's late leader Osama bin Laden.

In March, the Xinjiang provincial government announced 27 policies, such as the cancellation of the "convenient service card" (used to control migration) and the training of officials responsible for assisting ethnic minorities and cultural conservation. As a whole, it was a deliberate measure to slightly loosen the government's heavy-handed policies.

Importantly the Beijing government's National Conference of Religious Work, that was held in April, said religions needed to be managed "to maximize the unity between the vast number of believers and non-believers" and "to guide mutual adaptation of religions to socialist society."

However, the conference also stressed the principles of religious management are "rule of law" and zhong guo hua or "sinicization" (adding Chinese characteristics into religion), which implies to impede the penetration of religious practices from foreign countries.

These policies show that the authorities are willing to extend certain freedoms in religious belief while strongly insisting on the principle of the "state leading religion" under the communist regime.


'Imams trained by the communists'

The Xinjiang Islamic Institute was officially opened in the regional capital Urumqi in 1987. Its objective is to train younger generations to become "patriotic" religious people who are led by the government. Ultimately the government's goal is to have a "patriotic" generation fill all clerical posts in Xinjiang's mosques. For many Uyghur Muslims, this generation is nothing more than "imams trained by the communists."

With increasing numbers of Uyghur Muslims making pilgrimages to Mecca or visiting the Middle East and Turkey, theses travelers see different Islamic religious practices and another version of Muslim life. Subsequently they realize that Islam's situation in Xinjiang and the idea having "patriotic" religious personnel differs greatly from how their faith is practiced elsewhere. Many of them return and bring back to Xinjiang these foreign religious practices.

The Chinese government's religious management is not open to include or incorporate anyone who may actually have religious knowledge. Islamic preachers not recognized by the state or who are not registered become "wild imams," a phenomenon created because China does not have a fair and open religious administration system that allows believers to discuss their doctrine freely.

Moreover, different religious personnel often have different interpretations on the understanding and avocation of Islamic doctrines and rules. Disputes thus arise.

Sometimes, the Chinese government-recognized imams are not as influential as the "wild imams" because these non-state approved imams have studied abroad in the Middle East or Southeast Asia.

The government's propaganda, however, often describes them as "those who have extreme religious thoughts, and accuse them of being leading instigators of illegal religious activities."

In addition to this, there are a number of atheist advocates in China's political structure who are in charge of religious management. They uphold Marxism to justify the political correctness of Communist Party rule. They are willing to regard religion only as a governing tool.

So whenever there are proposals to "mildly loosen" religious management, it will constantly encounter resistance. An example could be seen during the plenary sessions of the Chinese National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in March where some party officials and elites opposed legislation on halal (Muslim food). In April, the government dropped plans to introduce a national law regulating halal.

Likewise some groups with vested interests in Xinjiang vigorously echoed any criticism of the state's loosening of its religious management. They insist that any relaxing on religions will allow "sharia [Islamic law] to infiltrate into the law of the state", and will allow "foreign powers" from the Islamic Middle East to penetrate China. With a loosening of controls, they believe it may let Islam override the government's ideology on "separation of religion and state" and endanger the communist regime.


Removal of Wang Zhengwei

In the same month that the National Conference of Religious Work was held this year, Wang Zhengwei, director of the State Ethnic Affairs Commission who is also from the Muslim Hui ethnic minority, was suddenly "removed from office."

Wang is seen as a top cadre, willing to continuously introduce a rather relaxed management policy on Islam. He also supported the halal legislation within the Communist Party.

While he was the head of the Ningxia Hui Ethnic Autonomous Region, Wang was attacked by atheists for being too lenient about Islamic development.

The removal of Wang certainly signals that the Chinese government seeks to strike a balance between conservative atheists and the more open-minded cadres who support a rather relaxed religious management policy.

The issue is that central government cannot permit one to overwhelm the other within religious policy circles.



Given such a setting, the white paper certainly follows the same line of political manipulation. It appears to offer some space for religious practice but it cannot avoid its own contradictions during the process of policy making and implementation.

For example, the white paper claims that people's religious beliefs cannot be discriminated against but at the same time it does not recognize the rights of Muslim civil servants to observe fasting during Ramadan.

Taking another example, the white paper claims that the halal restaurants have the right to determine whether they would be open during the daytime for Ramadan, but in this year's Ramadan the local government demanded that Xinjiang's restaurants remain open.

The words manifested in the white paper obviously contradict policies that are implemented and what occurs in reality. The white paper is also unable to clearly define "public and private domains" where people could profess their religious belief.

Much of the problem is being driven by certain political factions who use an interpretation of Islam to provoke a "friend or foe struggle." Through that they grasp and consolidate their own political resources within the Communist Party. This results in there being no real discernment or discussion about Islamic doctrine or religious concepts beyond what is being politicized.

Under such circumstances, it is hard to be optimistic that meaningful dialogue about religious autonomy will be allowed in China, something that the overseas Uyghur Muslim community has been demanding.

This commentary article was co-authored by Shih Chien-yu and Enver Tohti Bughda. Shih Chien-yu is the secretary general of the Central Asian Studies Association in Taiwan, and a lecturer at the Department of Journalism and Communication in Hong Kong Chu Hai College of Higher Education. Enver Tohti Bughda is a former surgeon from Urumqi Railway Central Hospital.

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