CCP policies towards China's Hui and Uyghur Muslim minorities


1 Feb. 2021

By Hacer Z. Gonul


This is the transcript of a speech delivered at the webinar 'Han-Nationalism and Ethnic Minorities in China' held on 28 Jan 2021 and organised by Salima Yenbou and Reinhard Buetikhofer

I will talk to you about the CCP’s treatment of China’s two largest Muslim minorities: The Hui and the Uyghurs. Historically, the Hui’s ethnic proximity makes them sympathetic toward the CCP, who view them as the type of Muslim that it need not worry about. Uyghurs are understood as a dual threat: Their ethnic and cultural differences give rise to concerns over separatism. At the same time, their religious practice is considered deviant, foreign and dangerous.

I identify a shift over several decades in the focus of security related policies from ethnic identity to religious practice. Now, under Xi Jinping, the CCP claims that foreign Islam poses an existential security threat to the Chinese state. At the same time the CCP’s minority policies have become increasingly Han assimilationist since 2012. the CCP has started to categorize all Muslim minorities, including the Hui, as potential threats.

Concerns about Islam are rooted in demands for more autonomy from Beijing by the Uyghur population as well as perceived links between Chinese Muslims and Islamic fundamentalist terrorist groups in the Middle East.

Relatively speaking, the strong understanding and navigating the system of Hui Muslims into Han society has led the CCP to portray them as a “model minority,” especially when compared to the Uyghurs. Even in Xinjiang, this reputation allowed the Hui to obtain economic and political advantages over the Uyghurs. The Hui’s spread across- and reputation of loyalty to China previously allowed them more freedom from CCP control. Unlike Uyghurs, they have until recently rarely been victims of anti-Muslim sentiment. Until the advent of the Xi Jinping administration, the Hui people could even advocate a variant of Salafism in Ningxia, whereas, for Uyghurs, these forms of religious practice have long been unimaginable.

Religious practice in China is always limited by the requirements of compatibility with- and subordination to CCP ideology. Nonetheless, in the 1990s and early 2000s a degree of religious freedom existed, Uyghur unrest in Xinjiang was framed primarily as an issue of separatism. Following 9/11, President Hu Jintao appropriated the framing of the Global “War on Terror” to demark violent incidents and political protest in Xinjiang as “Islamic terrorism.” Initially, Hui Muslims were largely unaffected by the increased securitization of the Uyghurs. Xi Jinping’s presidency brought a significant shift in the CCP’s approach towards its two most significant Muslim minority groups: he launched the “Sinicization of religion” campaign which sought to erase foreign influence and unapproved religion by bringing the religion under full state control. All acts of Islamic religious practice became potentially subversive behavior linked to terrorism by the CCP’s security apparatus. The Uyghurs remain the primary target of this campaign. Nonetheless, in this climate of persistent anti-Muslim sentiment, the Hui people are also becoming a target.

Hui are now seen as more Muslim and less Chinese: They now begin to face the consequences of the CCP’s demonization of Islam. While previously Hui were used as an example of Chinese Muslims-compatible with state priorities- now the CCP seeks to discourage all religious practice even among the Hui people. We observe a shift from Hui being legitimate Chinese Muslim to demands that Hui be less Muslim and more Chinese.

Let me quickly introduce some examples: The Hui mosques have become an important tool for Sinification. Their domes and minarets were replaced with Chinese-style roofs meant to promote a more “Sinicized” version of Islam. Arabic Halal signs in Hui restaurants are increasingly replaced with Mandarin to combat Arabization and halalification. Arabic schools once attended by many Hui are banned. The CCP also restricts further mosque-building and participation in pilgrimage to Mecca.