China’s Muslim crackdown spreads

China’s crackdown on Muslims in Xinjiang province has spread to Ningxia, signalling a hardening in Beijing’s management of ethnic and religious groups.

Authorities began a security clampdown in Xinjiang last year, detaining at least 1m Muslim Uighurs in internment centres, a move that has drawn international condemnation.

Background

The Hui people are an East Asian ethnoreligious group predominantly composed of Han Chinese adherents of the Muslim faith found throughout China, mainly in the northwestern provinces of the country and the Zhongyuan region. According to the 2011 census, China is home to approximately 10.5 million Hui people, the majority of whom are Chinese-speaking practitioners of Islam, though some may practise other religions. The 110,000 Dungan people of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are also considered part of the Hui ethnicity.

Their culture has distinct differences that developed from the practice of Islam. For example, as Muslims, they follow Islamic dietary laws and reject the consumption of pork, the most common meat consumed in China.

The Hui people are one of 56 ethnic groups recognized by China. The government defines the Hui people to include all historically Muslim communities not included in China's other ethnic groups. The Hui predominantly speak Chinese, while maintaining some Persian and Arabic phrases. In fact, the Hui ethnic group is unique among Chinese ethnic minorities in that it associates with no non-Sinitic language.

The Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region (NHAR), is an autonomous region of the People's Republic of China located in the northwest part of the country. Ningxia was incorporated into Gansu in 1954 but was separated from Gansu in 1958 and was reconstituted as an autonomous region for the Hui people, one of the 56 officially recognized nationalities of China. Twenty per cent of China's Hui population lives in Ningxia.

Analysis

Beijing’s efforts to broaden its control over China’s ethnic minorities were highlighted when Ningxia signed a counter-terrorism co-operation agreement with Xinjiang in November 2018.

Zhang Yunsheng, a senior Ningxia party official, has praised Xinjiang’s counter-terrorism efforts, calling on his province to “better integrate with Xinjiang” and to “strengthen the deep co-operation between the two places in antiterrorism, social stability, and ethnic religion”.

Mr Zhang’s entourage last month visited an internment centre in Urumqi, the provincial capital, as well as two Xinjiang prisons, according to the Legal Daily, a newspaper managed by the Communist party’s political and legal commission.

The high-level exchange has paved the way for the export of Xinjiang’s techniques to Ningxia, home to the largest concentration of the Muslim Huis, one of China’s largest ethnic minority groups numbering more than 10m.

Even before the agreement, there had been tight religious restrictions in Ningxia. This summer, residents in Weizhou gathered in a rare protest over the planned demolition of the city’s recently completed Grand Mosque. Religious classes for children have been suspended region-wide since February while Islamic symbols and halal signs have been removed as part of a campaign to “Sinocise” Islam.

Beijing’s hardening religious approach also amounts to a tacit admission that its decades-old ethnic policy, aimed at replicating the country's economic success among ethnic minorities, has failed.

In the early days of Communist party rule, the largest ethnic groups, including Muslim Huis and Uighurs, were allocated “autonomous regions” where they were promised a higher degree of independence in governing religious and cultural affairs.

Minority groups were also exempted from the country’s former one-child policy and continue to receive preferential access to certain social welfare benefits, particularly in education.

However, under Chen Quanguo, the party secretary of Xinjiang who formerly governed Tibet, China’s two largest autonomous regions have been heavily policed.

Assessment

Our assessment is that while Xinjiang faces mild threats from Islamist militants, the Hui-populated Ningxia region is peaceful with low Islamic militancy. We believe that the larger reason for this new agreement is the curtailment of freedom for the Hui, like the Uyghurs, in their religious, commercial and cultural activities by the ethnic Han Chinese majority.