The Crisis in Xinjiang—A Historical Perspective on Muslims in China | Kelly Hammond


China’s Uyghurs have rightly been the center of news coverage recently. In China, the ongoing efforts to suppress Islam and Uyghur culture have led to the terrible and illegal incarceration of over one million Uyghurs and forced labor conditions. Recently governments in Canada, the United States and the EU have condemned these actions as genocide. The Chinese Communist Party has been quick to retaliate with propaganda smear campaigns against prominent individuals and corporations.

Thanks to sophisticated surveillance and AI technology, economic pressures of globalization which drive the need for cheap goods, and the ongoing rippling effect of the War on Terror, western China has become a dystopian experiment where the Uyghurs are the test subjects. These policies of “de-Islamization” are also sometimes referred to as the “Sinicization” of Islam. Sinicization describes the process through which groups—be they Mongolians, Muslims or Tibetans—are absorbed into the Sinosphere through acculturation over time, through policies of assimilation, or through much more direct policies of cultural imperialism.

In essence, these efforts aim to assimilate Muslims into the dominant Han Chinese culture through the erasure of Islamic practices in China. These are intentional policies implemented by the state to eradicate culture, reduce the visibility of Islamic practices in daily life, and attempt to integrate Uyghurs through an erasure of their pasts and present.

These campaigns are not limited to the Uyghurs and are now extending into regions beyond Xinjiang into the lives of other Muslims who are citizens of the People’s Republic of China, such as the Hui. There are visible signs of de-Islamization campaigns in the daily lives of Muslims. For example, recently the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, was prohibited. Minarets have been removed from mosques, and some mosques have even been bulldozed completely. Arabic signage on restaurants and shops is being removed, and restrictions on halal certifications lifted. Religious teaching in Arabic is forbidden or severely limited, always heavily monitored. 

Some Muslims have reported being forced to eat pork, drink alcohol, shave their beards (a supposed sign of piety), or even remove their headscarves. Muslims throughout China are scrutinized for connections to Muslim intellectuals abroad. Many are denied passports to travel and hajj pilgrimages are highly restricted. Islamic bookstores have been shuttered and their owners detained.  

The Origins of Islam in China

Islam was introduced to China by envoys from the Middle East who traveled to meet Emperor Gaozong of the Tang Dynasty in the seventh century. Shortly after this visit, the first mosque was built in the southern trading port of Guangzhou for Arabs and Persians who traveled around the Indian Ocean and the South China Seas working as traders. During this time, Muslim merchants established themselves in Chinese ports and trading posts along what we now call the Silk Roads. 

However, during this time, Muslims lived segregated from the Han Chinese populations for almost five centuries.

It was not until the Mongol Yuan Dynasty came to power in the 13th century that Muslims came to China in unprecedented numbers to serve as administrators for the new rulers, who were descendants of Genghis Khan, the founder of the Mongol Empire. 

The Mongols had little experience running a bureaucracy as large as the one in China, so they turned to the capable administrators from important Silk Road cities like Bukhara and Samarkand in Central Asia. They recruited and forcibly relocated hundreds of thousands of Central Asians and Persians to the Yuan court to help them govern the expanding empire. 

During this time, wealthy officials continued to bring their wives with them, while lower-ranking officials took local Chinese wives who converted to Islam. 

For the next 300 years or so—throughout the Ming Dynasty—Muslims continued to be influential in court politics. Zheng He, the admiral who led Chinese fleets on exploratory and diplomatic journeys throughout Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, was a Muslim eunuch. His familiarity with Arabic—the lingua franca of the Indian Ocean—and his knowledge of the social and cultural graces associated with Islam made him an ideal choice to lead these massive expeditions. 

Throughout this time, Islamic practices and Muslims adapted to China. Many Muslims could read Arabic and/or Persian, although they could not speak the language. They also wrote extensively about Islam in Chinese. In part, these were efforts to make Islam understandable to the non-Muslim majority who lived around them. However, the corpus of writing that Chinese Muslim intellectuals developed—known as the Han Kitab (Han for “Han” Chinese, and Kitab is the word for book in Arabic)—dealt with issues that were particular to Muslims living in the Sinosphere, such as how to reconcile Confucianism with Islam. 

Moving between accommodation and persecution—from the Qing Dynasty to the Present

In the 18th century, the relationship between Muslims and the state in China started to change. The Manchu Qing Dynasty, which lasted from 1644-1911, was China’s last dynasty. They were also not Han Chinese. The Manchus had great territorial aspirations to bring far-flung lands—like Tibet, parts of Mongolia, and what is now called the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region—more directly under their imperial purview. 

This territorial expansion led to clashes with Muslim populations, and throughout the nineteenth century, there were a number of Muslim-led revolts against Qing rule. These revolts were staged in opposition to Beijing’s more direct control over regions where Muslim power-brokers had generally governed with relative autonomy. Their revolts were violently suppressed by the state, ending a long period of accommodation for Muslims in China. 

By the late nineteenth century, Beijing was sending Han Chinese bureaucrats to govern western China. Xinjiang—which literally translates as “the new territories”—was officially made a province of the Qing Empire in 1884. 

During the tumultuous years after the fall of the last dynasty, Muslims, once again, were able to act with relative autonomy from Beijing. As I examined in my recent book, China’s Muslims and Japan’s Empire: Centering Islam in World War II, Muslims looked to different powers—like the Japanese Empire or the Soviets—to help them back reform plans. 

These communities were also actively involved in the global circulation of ideas of what it meant to be both modern and Muslim and tried to implement changes within their own communities. The empire fractured, and China was in a constant state of war—both civil and international—throughout the first half of the twentieth century.

It would take the Communist Party of China to almost reinstate the territorial integrity of the defunct Qing empire back together. 

In the first years after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, Muslims enjoyed relative religious freedom as the new state had many other issues to handle. However, during the most chaotic years of the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1969, mosques were defaced, Qurans and religious texts were burned, Muslims were prohibited from performing hajj, and expressions of religious belief were banned by the revolutionary Communist Red Guards. After Mao’s death in 1976, the Communists adopted more relaxed policies towards Muslims.

Many older Muslims remember these oppressive and bleak days of the Cultural Revolution. Some even recount the tumultuous period as a mirror for what is currently taking place in China. Though history sometimes repeats itself, what is unfolding today in China with regards to its Muslim minority is, in fact, quite different from the dynamics of the past. 

Is the past repeating itself?

After the War on Terror started, led by the United States in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the Chinese government seized the opportunity to cast Uyghurs in Xinjiang as “terrorists” and “extremists.” Islam has been presented as a threat to the state and stability in the region, giving officials a justification for the crackdowns on Muslim communities. These state-driven campaigns have been quite successful, and Islamophobia is rampant among the Han Chinese majority. 

For one, these policies are much more organized and coordinated than they have been in the past. They rely on a highly sophisticated surveillance state and are directed from Beijing. If the end goal is the complete assimilation of all Muslims into the dominant Han Chinese culture, the plan seems to be working for now. 

China’s place in the global economy is also vastly different than it used to be in the 1960s. The global economy is so deeply entwined with the labor camps in Xinjiang that the United States recently planned to ban imports of cotton and tomatoes from China because of the high probability that these commodities were cultivated by indentured Muslim laborers.

Companies like Nike are issuing statements ensuring consumers that they are not using supply lines that involved forced Uyghur labor. In China, these same companies, such as H&M and Nike, are being boycotted by Chinese consumers who buy into state propaganda that these factories are not coercive and that the Chinese government is promoting development in the region to help lift Uyghurs out of poverty.

As the world begins to sanction China and pay more attention to the plight of the Uyghurs, it is important to understand that these draconian policies are severely limiting the ways that Islam is practiced in China and could irreparably change the cultural landscape of Muslim life in the PRC. As of now, it seems clear that President Xi and his regime are emboldened to extend these campaigns to other non-Han minorities beyond the Uyghurs.


Kelly Hammond is an Assistant Professor of East Asian History at the University of Arkansas. Her first book, China’s Muslims and Japan’s Empire: Centering Islam in World War II, was released in November 2020 by the University of North Carolina Press. Follow her on Twitter at @KellyAHammond

Photo Credit: Dilmurat Turgun from 500PX
The publication of this essay is supported by Goldstein Center for Human Rights at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The views and opinions expressed in the articles on this website are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Goldstein Center for Human Rights. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s