Although the government keeps denying the un-humanitarian treatments in the re-education camps in Xinjiang for the Uyghurs, people still could confirm their existence. However, too few sources could describe what is happening in these camps and the government’s action in the whole Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, no matter inside or outside the Great Fire Wall. Nevertheless, not only the government is building the re-education camps, other Chinese citizens also try to ignore, normalize, and even support the government’s action on the Uyghur people in Xinjiang Province. In this essay, I would present the difference between the hate of Muslims in China and Islamophobia in other countries, and the reasons for the hostility of other Chinese to the Uighurs from the perspective of nationalism with Chinese characteristics and the envy of the particular policies to the Uyghurs.
Islamophobia has been discussed by western countries as well as some Asian countries for decades. After 9/11, Muslims and Islam are often linked with the word “terrorism” due to some political concerns, such as finding proper reasons for the invasion of the Middle East countries. Because of the governmental policies and media exaggeration, people start to think that all Muslims are related to terrorists, who killed their friends by shooting at the crowd or hiding bombs in their jackets. Some blame the religion and the Kuran as the cult organization which teaches its members to kill. For the countries that had previous religious conflicts hundreds of years ago, and for the individuals who committed to a religion that had conflicts with Muslims throughout history, they might take the chance that some terrorists are Muslims to attribute that terrorism is caused by Islam the religion, and thus lead to the fear and anger towards the Muslims. Another common explanation of Islamophobia would be the general Xenophobia. The ongoing wars in the Middle East caused a massive amount of refugees to enter other countries, and the citizens of these countries might worry that the new-coming labor forces would take over their jobs and resources, and thus lead to Islamophobia ( Pratt 30).
The three explanations above are the most common explanations of Islamophobia in most countries, including western countries like France, Germany, and the United States, and Asian countries like India and Myanmar. Nevertheless, when talking about Islamophobia in China, none of these explanations could fit in. Firstly, the Chinese have no reason to be hostile and fear their religion because there is no official religion in Mainland China after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, and religion is not allowed for CCP members. Admittedly, Chinese culture was lasting for at least 2000 years, and the traditions could influence the citizens’ opinion on religions. Buddhism was the national religion of China for the Qing dynasty, which lasted for almost 300 years before the last emperor abdicated in 1912. However, other religions did remain in China, such as Tao. Therefore, China has no historical reasons to persecute Muslims. Although the party members of CCP are required to follow the Marxists’ atheism and prohibited to taking part in any religious group or activities by the constitution, it, the constitution, also makes clear that Chinese citizens have religious freedom.
Islamophobia Western countries could also be seen as Xenophobia, which also could not make sense in China. Historically speaking, European countries like France, Germany, and Spain were hostile to the “foreign ethic groups” such as the Cintas and Romas. Also, anti-Semitism was widespread in these areas, while Jewdisim could be seen as an ethnic group. Therefore, Islamophobia in western countries could also be explained as Xenophobia, the fear of other ethnic groups. However, Xenophobia could not explain Islamophobia in mainland China. People quickly conclude that the Islamophobia in China is because the majority does not see the Hui and Uyghur people as part of them, or as part of the nation. Thus the government set up re-education camps to simulate those who are defined as “outsiders.” However, as I mentioned at the very beginning, the situation in China is not as simple as the exclusion of other ethnic groups.
According to the official report, China has 56 ethnic groups, and 55 of them are minorities. Hui, Muslims in middle and east China, and Uyghur, Muslims mostly in Xinjiang (which is also called East Turkestan by non-Chinese), are just two of the 55 minority groups. If one wants to explain the fear and hate towards Muslims are because of Xenophobia, one should also find proves of the Han, the majority, excluding the other 53 ethnic groups. The Chinese government not only does not exclude the minority groups, but it also provides them with policies that give them more benefits than the Han people. For example, several relatively large ethnic groups ensured their autonomy in the place most of them lived historically, such as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Province. To be clear, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Province is not an area that only Urguhr people live in. Uyghur people are the main components of this area, with other 18 ethnic groups.
Another popular explanation is that Muslims are seen as terrorists, and thus are feared and hated by people. However, this also makes little sense in Mainland China. Unlike other countries where people can easily get access to weapons and materials of explosives, China has one of the strictest and tightest security checks in the world. Terrorism attacks are sporadic in Mainland China. Moreover, even though it happened, the government is likely to limit and hide the information, and thus could not explain the rising hostility to the Uyghurs. Admittedly, terrorists with Uyghur ethnic identity executed several attacks in Mainland China, such as the Kunming Train Station attack on March 1, 2014, which caused 29 deaths and around 130 injuries (news.sohu.com). And the attacker of it was ten uniformed Uyghurs. However, according to the China Central Television News, until December 8, 2019, no terrorist attack happened in Xinjiang for three years (cctn.com).
Furthermore, many Chinese citizens would consider Mainland China as one of the safest places in the world. Even though there were terrorist attacks happened, people in Mainland China are likely to have little possibility to be informed due to the information control. Therefore the media have no chance to shape Muslims as the figure of terror. As the demonstrations listed above, none of the three simplified explanations of Islamophobia, religious hostility, Xenophobia, and fear of terrorism, could explain the animosity of public opinion to Muslims in Mainland China.
One might notice that there were several times in Chinese history that the minorities ruled the dynasties, and the Han people were treated as the “under et al,” and this might lead to the mistreatment of minorities when Han people are in charge. However, on the one hand, neither the Hui nor Uyghur people were ever in charge of any of the dynasties. On the other hand, none of the minority groups was treated the way the Uyghur is treated right now, and the public opinion is not hostile to any other ethnic groups who are Chinese nationals other than Muslims.
To begin with, one of the reasons the Han Chinese citizens have a prejudice against Uyghur people is that the Chinese government gives all the minority ethnic groups particular policies in many fields such as education and economic plans. Historically speaking, the Han group mainly stayed in the middle of mainland China, which is the area between around 28N to 40N and 108E to 120E, and other regions were mainly the habitants of other ethnic groups. In the Qing dynasty, some of these regions were conquered by the empire, but the emperor just collected taxes from them instead of directly ruling them. After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, the government planned five minority autonomous regions, and Uyghurs inhabitants, Xinjiang Uyghur minority autonomous region is one of them.
The concept of a minority autonomous region was created by the Soviets to maintain peace status in a multi-ethnic country. And the Chinese government published the Minority Autonomy Law and a series of laws that benefit only the minority group economically. For example, No. 59 of Minority Autonomy Law stipulates that the government should establish a fund to support the culture and economic development in autonomous regions. No. 60, 61 of Minority Autonomy Law ensures the government helps the corporations in autonomy regions on investments and tax, and makes special policies to benefit them from foreign trading (gov.cn). Until 2008, the central government had supported the Uyghur’s autonomy region 375.202 billion (gov.cn).
From a bystander’s perspective, these policies are understandable since all of the minority autonomous regions are located in places that are hard to develop the economy, industry, and trade. For example, the Guangxi Zhuang minority autonomy region is mostly composed of mountains and hills. The karst landscape makes it hard to set up facilities such as public transportation and 4G base stations. The other four autonomy regions have similar geological problems. Therefore, it is appropriate for the central government to give these regions particular policies in a planned economy. In most developed countries, these policies are easy to understand.
However, most of the Chinese citizens could not count the geological disadvantages of these regions. One of the most obvious reasons is that for a country that just overcame hunger and poverty for less than 30 years, the exclusive economic policies to a region are likely to lead to the jealousy and indigenousness of other people. And the majority ethnic group of that region is likely to become the target because Chinese citizens view policy equality slowly. However, this is not the only Islamophobia factor caused by economic policies in China. What Western researchers often ignore is that Chinese culture is very different from Western culture.
For thousands of years, China was never a welfare country nor a welfare society. Citizens there believe in working hard and living on their own. To be clear, on one’s own does not mean one individual all depends on himself or herself; instead, “one” here means a large family or a group of friends. Chinese culture depends on interpersonal relationships much more than western societies. However, the government is not what Chinese people would like to depend on. They believe in working hard, and then they would get paid in return. Therefore, when Chinese citizens noticed that the economy in autonomy regions is so weak that the government aids are necessary without any natural disaster, they would belittle the minorities who live in the autonomy regions, see them as a whole unity though this region might consist with dozens of ethnic groups, and define them as people who are not working hard enough.
In addition to the around 3000 years of cultural influence, to explain why getting particular economic policies from the government would lead to the hate to Muslims even though the majority does not ask for the same policy but belittle the minority autonomy region due to the thoughts that they are not working or trying hard enough, one must also understand the Chinese nationalism and patriotism first. The universal idea of nationalism could be described as the idea or actions that exclusively benefit one’s nation and are hostile to other nations. However, nationalism in China is more similar to the Soviet patriotism before the cold war, which is “a ‘healthy’ feeling of love of one’s native country” and “attains its highest development in Soviet ‘socialist’ society” (Barghoorn 4). The point is not to belittle other countries or ethics; instead, the progress of the country is the main focus. China, like the Soviet Union, has little separation between politics, economy, and social culture (Barghoorn 7); therefore every policy is linked to the construction of the country.
When the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, this land needed to be built from the very fundamental level since the war status that continued for nearly 100 years destroyed almost everything: social structure, industry, and economy. After 1949, Chinese citizens thought they were facing a hostile world not only due to the communist propaganda and the anti-communism atmosphere among western countries which had a history of invading and colonizing China. And the deterioration of the relationship with the Soviet Union and wars with neighboring countries such as Vietnam worsened it. Therefore, the idea of developing the country is rooted in the mind of most Chinese born before the 1980s. When Chinese citizens give an average of 45% of income tax, they expect it would be used for the construction of the country, such as scientific research, public facilities, or the army (tradingeconomics.com). When they find out that the 20th highest income tax of the world they paid is used by the autonomy regions, where the people are not elders and minors nor have serious diseases, other Chinese citizens belittle them because of the cultural reason that they are not working hard enough. People might also consider that this group slows down or prevents the development of the country, thus defining them as the enemy of the people.
The particular domestic economic policy is not the only factor that arouses nationalism, which produces hate to Muslims, the economic aid to foreign countries also has a significant influence on raising hate throughout the history of the People’s Republic of China. After winning the civil war in 1949, the newly-born country that was led by the CCP was not recognized by many countries. In fact, only nine countries established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China in 1949, including the Soviet Union, North Korea, Mongolia, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Albania, while other countries remained their diplomatic relations with the Republic of China, the Taiwan government (fmprc.gov.cn). Based on international law, under the 1933 Convention on Rights and Duties of States Article 1, a legal state should include “the capacity to enter into relations with the other states” (cambridge.org). The CCP tried to create more diplomatic relations with more countries in order to be recognized as a legal state and have a seat in the United Nations and other organizations. And the way the government chose was to provide food, financial as well as military aid to other countries.
Albania, known as the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania, was and still is, the receptor of Chinese aid. Before the 1970s, China had given the Albanian government about $900 million in aid, plus other beneficial policies on trading (countrystudies.us). $900 million is not a large number from the 21st century’s perspective. However, compared with the national GDP per capita in 1970 (the GDP was even lower in 1949-1970), which was $113.16 (World Bank), $900 million was a lot. When Chinese delegates visited Albania in the 1970s, they found out that the rice they provided was rotten in the bag because of the oversupply of food. At the same period that the Chinese government gave aid to Albanians, millions of Chinese were starved to death or lived in hunger. It is understandable to the citizens to send out aid to other socialist countries if they are starving or fighting to build up a socialist society under the Cold War background because supporting the whole communism and socialism world was a way to protect the country from invaders. Again, Chinese nationalism is about building the country and protecting it from intruders. However, when the aid was wasted, the Chinese were not only angry because they were starved but also because the aid that was wasted could be used to improve China. Therefore, Chinese citizens see Albania as “the enemy of the country.”
One might argue that the relationship with Albania has little to do with the hate for Muslims in Mainland China. Nevertheless, besides the example of Albania, China also lent billions of dollars to countries like Pakistan, Tajikistan, and other Global South countries. For example, China lent $6.6 billion to Pakistan in 10 months in 2018-2019 (conomictimes.com). Albania, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and most of the middle Asia countries have Muslims as their majority population or religion. Since these countries are taking away the resources that they wanted to be used domestically, the Chinese are hostile to them. However, they are not seen in every single country but as Muslims in general. And Uyghur people are the relatively more abundant and the most noticeable Muslim group in China (another Muslim group like Hui is hard to distinguish from Han). Therefore, they are targeted by the nationalists and so-called patriots, which could be most of the Chinese population. Admittedly, Muslim countries are not the only group that receives loans and aid from China. Most countries in Africa and some Global North countries do too. Similarly, Blacks are experiencing similar conditions as Muslims. Nevertheless, Mainland China does not have Black native residents, and only a few Black foreigners live in China. Therefore, they do not receive the same amount of hostel treatment caused by rising nationalism due to the aid to countries with black as the majority population as the Muslims.
Additionally, the domestic and foreign economic policies are not the only factors that cause the rising nationalism, which leads to hatred of Muslims. Another reason would be that many Uyghurs want independence from the Chinese government. Starting in the late Qing Dynasty, multiple countries invaded and occupied certain areas as their colonies. For example, Hong Kong was occupied by the British, and Shandong was governed by Germany and later by Russia. The history of being colonized by other countries reminds the Chinese that the result of territorial segregation could lead to the collapse of the country as well as the Chinese identity and culture, which is more severe than the disintegration of the USSR since many parts of it were individual countries before the union formed. Chinese citizens are incredibly hostile to anyone, or any part of the territory that wants to be independent of the People’s Republic of China.
Under this circumstance, not only Uyghurs are targeted, but also Hong Kong and Tibet. However, Hong Kong was under the British administration until 1997 and always had autonomy as a Special Administrative Region. As for Tibet, even though the Dalai Lama gives lectures on the independence of Tibet around the world, the Zang minority ethnic group, the majority inhabitants in Tibet, is relatively quiet in Mainland China after the crackdown and massacre by president Hu in 1989 (who was the Chairman of the military commission of Tibet then). However, even the military crackdown in Xinjiang also happened several times (and still happens now), some Uyghur people still seek independence, and crossfire happened during the conflicts. Therefore, the hostility to Uyghurs is more prominent.
Although the hostility to the Uyghurs due to the domestic and foreign economic policies and independent movements that are related to nationalism, envy also contributed to the raising hates of the Uyghurs due to the unique policies on education. The special education policies to minority ethnic groups not only include the increase in salary and political rank of the teachers who are willing to teach in an unenlightened minority autonomy area (The reasons for the poor economic condition of the minority are already explained above). Moreover, minorities have extra points in Gaokao, the Chinese college entrance exam. The extra-point policy varies between provinces, and the same ethnic group could get different extra points in different provinces. For example, the ethnic group Bai, a minority ethnic group based in Yunnan Province, does not have the additional points. For most of the Provinces, minority ethnic groups have extra 5-10 points. However, for students in the Uyghur autonomous region, one could get ten extra points if one part of the parents is a minority, and 50 extra points if both are minorities.
People in the United States may not understand why 10 points could be that influential in China. Statistically speaking, 0.96 million people took part in the college entrance exam in 2015 (Gaokao.com). In between the score range of the level I and level II college in China, one extra point means one could generally surpass 2000-3000 students, depending on the region. In Jiangsu Province, the number between 1 point could reach 6000 students. The Chinese College entrance example is the opportunity once per year. Unlike the SAT and ACT, most people in China only take this exam once in their life. Getting an extra 50 points only because of ethnic group identity seems unfair to Han people, especially on the exam, which was once described as the only fair thing that could happen in one’s life. One might argue that the extra point policy does not contribute to the reasons for the rising hate on Muslims since Uyghur people are not the only ethnic group that is receiving the extra points in the college entrance exam. Admittedly, 54 out of 56 ethnic groups indeed receive extra points. However, 50 points are far different from 10 points, which is the usual extra points a minority gets.
Not only can the Uyghur get the most extra points because of their minority identity, but the score of admission in Xinjiang Province is also way lower than in other provinces. In Mainland China, the same university has a different score of admission in every province, based on the number of students taking the exam that has the HuKou of the province. It is possible and frequently happens; the score difference in one class in a Chinese university could come up to 400 points. For example, in the Class of 2022 in the audit major of Qingdao Institute of Technology, a level 3 (the lowest level) university, one student from Shandong Province has a score of 570, while the student from Xinjiang only got 200 points in the college entrance exam. To be clear, the only thing that will be taken into consideration in the general college entrance exam is the score. If one gets 570 points in Xinjiang Province, he or she would be able to enter a level 1-C (the third level) university, such as Haerbin Engineer University or Northwestern University, according to the official data (Gaokao.com).
Although the lower admission score seems to provide the Uyghur more privileges since the score difference could be around 400, Chinese students are mainly upset because of the extra points the Uyghurs got because of their identity. “But the education in Xinjiang falls relatively behind compared with us.” Jialin, a student of Qingdao Institute of Technology who comes from a working-class family in Liaoning, explained immediately after helping me to collect the score of admission in her school. She continues: “None of the students that I am aware of is willing to move to Xinjiang after graduation, and of course, the best teachers would not either.” Opinions like hers are quite common in the younger generation, regardless of their family background or political stands. “In the long term, this is a way to slow down the fixation of the economic class in China.” Libro, a design-major student from a relatively wealthy family, has a deeper understanding of the policy on the admission score. However, she holds a different opinion to the “extra points policy” because “It is not fair when the Uyghurs sit in the same classroom with the Hans but could have extra 50 points just because of their parents’ identity”. Many people have similar arguments like Libro because they believe in equal social status when one is born. The lower admission line works like compensation to the region, while the extra points to the minority ethnic groups reflect the inequality of the identity to the Han people. Therefore, the exclusive policies of the college entrance exam lead to hostility to the minority ethnic groups, especially to the Uyghurs, because they have the largest increase.
In the era in which Muslims are targeted all over the world, people, especially western scholars, think that the fear of terrorism and Xenophobia causes Islamophobia. It might be true in Western European countries and the United States. However, things are more complicated in China, a country that has received massive attention recently because of the re-education camps in Xinjiang. The Chinese citizens are not only ignoring what happened to the Uyghur people but also rising hostility to them. Unlike the reasons western scholars conclude, it is more likely caused by the Chinese nationalism to build up a better country, the territorial sensitivity, and the unfair policies on economy and education.
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Special thanks to Zhao Jialin and Li Libro.