This year’s Ramadan opened on the 29th of June. Until the 27th of July, Muslims worldwide are to refrain from, amongst other activities, eating or drinking between sunrise and sunset. The benefits of fasting are multiplied during this holy period according to the Quran, and observance of the practice is one of the faith’s five pillars.
Despite this, on the onset of the month-long period, Beijing has imposed a region-wide ban on fasting for students in Xinjiang, a Muslim-majority province. Arguing that the ban is for health-related reasons, the Communist Party has also called on retired teachers to guard mosque entrances and refuse entry to any students. In the name of separating State and religion, officials were also ordered to continue their eating schedules.
Amid festivities celebrating the anniversary of the ruling party’s foundation on the 1st, Muslims guests were reportedly monitored to verify whether they were respecting the ban.
Curiously, while Xinjiang is not the only Muslim-majority province, it is the
only area affected by the ban. Others, notably the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region (while it is impossible to provide an exact number for believers of a given faith within the population, given that the atheist government gathers no such statistics, Muslims are considered to boast a heavy majority in Ningxia Hui), have been exempted.
While this difference could be explained by the population difference—Xinjiang is home to almost 22 million people, while Ningxia Hui counts just over 6 million—, other factors are often mentioned when debating restrictions placed on Xinjiang by Beijing.
The first is an ethnic divergence; much of China is inhabited by an ethnic group dubbed the Han, while the majority of Xinjiang’s population are ethnically Turkic, identifying as Uyghur. One may point to the massive demographic swamping, given the Han went from 6% of the population in 1949 to over 40% today, as proof that Beijing is attempting to assimilate the Uyghurs by sheer numbers. However, due to the fact that the Han immigrants had been directed by the government to largely uninhabited territories, the statistics hide the fact that Xinjiang is now divided into twenty prefectures roughly respecting ethnic majorities.
However, in the discriminatory line of thought, it is interesting to notice that while the Muslim Uyghurs have been targeted, Muslim Hui—found mostly in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, the Hui are similar to the mainland majority Han both ethnically and linguistically, with the main exception being religion—are not affected by any such restrictions on their practice of Islam.
The second is a nationalist movement which, since the conquest of Xinjiang—which translates roughly into new frontier—by the Manchu Empire in 1876, has twice managed to establish a distinct republic. While the East Turkestan Republic (1933-1934) and the Second East Turkestan Republic (1944-1949) had a combined lifespan of under a decade, they nevertheless sustain nationalist hopes amongst parts of the Uyghur population.
Today, reasons listed by separatist movements include: the reconstruction, ‘’literally brick by brick’’, of a 2000-year-old Uyghur quarter by migrant Han, amongst other imposed modernizations; widespread political imprisonment, torture, disappearances, executions and compulsory unpaid labor; a ban on minors attending mosques; growing Han-Uyghur and urban-rural (respectively) economic inequalities; restrictions on what copies of the Quran can be preached; criminalization of teaching the Quran to a child; and the aforementioned banning of Ramadan fasting for schoolchildren.
By increasing restrictions and security in Xinjiang, they, perhaps in a counterproductive manner, seek to pacify or cow Uyghur separatist movements into abandoning their violent campaigns. While Uyghurs are banned from owning firearms, there has been a recent surge in knife and bomb attacks. The most common targets used to be state-operated facilities such as police stations and road checkpoints, but the latest attacks have taken place in train stations or vegetable markets. The local population blames radicals streaming over the Pakistani and Afghan frontiers, bemoaning the collective punishment inflicted, while Beijing explains the phenomenon as a Talibanization of the Uyghurs.
The ban on fasting, believed to have been published—as opposed to being spread by word—for the first time in 2008, is a periodic restriction, and hence is unlikely to be due to a new push for assimilation. However, the constant effort to ‘’politically, economically and culturally integrate Xinjiang and its non-Han populations into the ‘’unitary and multi-ethnic’’ Chinese state […] through a three-pronged strategy of repression, restriction and investment’’ has apparently been ongoing since its incorporation into China (in the words of, and according to, BBC).
Beijing’s interests in having solid access to Xinjiang are many.
Accounting for almost 17% of China’s landmass, Xinjiang—despite the fact that under 5% of it is habitable—is rich in natural resources such as oil and natural gas. Especially given the upcoming Manila-Beijing trial at The Hague (the Philippines has accused China of violating international law with its nine-dash map and has asked The Hague to review not only the area where Filipino and Chinese claims clash, but the 90% of the South China Sea included in the nine-dash map)—which China has refused to participate in or recognize—, China may face a united international front against its harvesting of the vast resources within the South China Sea, hence forcing it to turn to other sources. One of these sources is Russia, with which China signed a 400 billion dollar deal for natural gas in May 2014, but the difficult negotiations preceding the agreement may have underscored the advantage of using national resources. By reducing its dependency on oil, coal, and external energies, the increased use of alternative resources will both fulfill China’s growing energy needs while supporting the ‘’war on pollution’’ declared in 2014 by Premier Li Keqiang.
As well, Xinjiang is a strategic gateway for commerce, sharing a frontier with India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Mongolia in a clockwise order. Russia and India are China’s ninth and tenth most important trade partners, with Mongolia (89.0% of imports originate from China) and Kyrgyzstan (55.2% of exports are to China) being relatively important commercial alliances. Xinjiang’s position as westernmost province may also facilitate transport of merchandise to and from the European Union (China’s largest partner) and from Turkmenistan (China’s most important supplier of natural gas), with the construction of a multi-billion dollar pipeline from Turkmenistan to Xinjiang being approved in 2011.
Politically, the possession of Xinjiang also allows easier access to Pakistan—China’s closest ally in the region—and Afghanistan, where Beijing has vowed to combat terrorism, simultaneously serving as a buffer zone against the ex-USSR states (parallels can be drawn between China’s insistence to keep Xinjiang and Russia’s response to Ukraine’s attempt to leave the ex-Soviet buffer belt). The diplomatic downside is that, combined with separatist movements in Tibet, Taiwan and Hong Kong, China has found itself pressured to support loyalist movements around the globe—a factor likely to explain China’s abstaining from, instead of opposing, a UNSC vote condemning its Russian ally for Moscow’s actions in Crimea.
While we can hence associate the periodic Ramadan student-fasting ban per se with a long-term assimilation effort being slowly ramped up, other religious groups have reported increased governmental pressure. While these include Taiwan’s Falun Gong and Tibetan Buddhism, the faith that will be my focus is the growing Christian community along China’s eastern coast.
Persecution of various religions has been observable in certain Communist nations. Mongolia, for example, during its Communist phase (1924-1990), murdered at least 18 000 Buddhist lamas and brought the number of Buddhist monks down to 110 from over 100 000, while North Korea routinely crushes religious rights. According to Yeo-sang Yoon (of the North Korean Human Rights Archives) and Sun-young Han (of the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights), who jointly interviewed 2000 refugees and defectors, 99.7% of the North Koreans believed they could not ‘’freely conduct religious activities’’ in their homeland. Furthermore, 98.6% said they knew of no legal churches in North Korea (an alleged three churches operate with governmental consent in the capital, and Pyongyang claims that legal house churches can be found in the provinces), but 99.1% of the respondents said citizens witnessing underground religious meetings risked heavy persecution: ‘’political prison camps, the harshest level of punishment in North Korean society, […] detention, death, disappearance, restriction on movement, or deportation.’’
According to Doug Bandow, a specialist in foreign policy and civil liberties at the Cato Institute, this is because the Kim dynasty ‘’does not recognize individual liberty of any sort’’, in part because Pyongyang ‘’understands the threat posed by belief in God’’. Communism and Christianity, as stated by a judge from the Third Reich’s People’s Court, resemble each other on only one count: for an individual to truly be faithful to the system, it requires their entire soul. If both Communism and Christianity—or any other religion—truly require a person’s full dedication, it is reasonable to understand that a person cannot be considered fully loyal to both simultaneously. It would hence be logical for a devout Communist regime to crush religious beliefs in order to strengthen their own ideological hold on the population.
While international humanitarian norms oppose such an operation, China can, given its permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, block any concerted sanctions targeting it or North Korea. China also has a history of avoiding pointed accusations, reducing the chance that a serious condemnation could survive the UNSC.
The Christian community of China is underscoring these fears, especially given the 2012 leaking of a Communist Party document detailing methods to halt religious infiltration of educational institutions. In a country where the number of Christians is expected to bypass that of Communist Party members, the ruling party has turned on its regulated ally. Some pastors believe this backstabbing to be a revival of historic discrimination, while others associate it to a return to traditional values, citing a presidential visit to Confucius’s birthplace in February of this year and offering a rare endorsement when President Xi Jinping stated he ‘’need[ed] to read these books [about Confucianism] very carefully’’. As well, indigenous practices such as fortunetelling and funerary rites are now protected as ‘intangible cultural heritage’, having been referred to as ‘feudal superstition’ as little as a decade ago.
The unknown variable associated to this policy shift is ‘why’. In
Canada, following England’s conquest of Quebec in 1763, the Catholic Church complied with English rulings, seeking to maintain their place—and indeed safeguard their existence—in a now-Protestant colony. On the other hand, the authorities had little choice but to weaken their assimilation attempts, given how outnumbered the English forces were by the French-Canadian habitants. The strength of both parties thus forced a compromise. While China is not yet at this proportion, the Communist nation is nonetheless predicted to hold more Christians, be they Protestant or Catholic, than the United States. Already today, in absolute terms, China is more Christian than either South Africa or Brazil.
The goal could be to slow, or even reverse, the rate of religious conversion. In a nine-page policy document obtained and reviewed by the New York Times, Beijing allegedly states it is attempting to camouflage ‘’excessive religious sites’’ and limit participation in ‘’overly popular’’ religious activities, but as examples names only Christianity and crosses. ‘’The priority is to remove crosses at religious activity sites on both sides of expressways, national highways and provincial highways,’’ the decree continues. ‘’Over time and in batches, bring down the crosses from the rooftops to the facade of the buildings.’’
This cross-stripping campaign has already begun, with between May and March 2014 over a dozen churches in Zheijiang Province being told to either conceal their crosses or face demolition orders. Over sixty churches had suffered various interventions between January and June 2014, according to a list compiled by a Catholic news agency (Asia News). Many of these were in a port city by the name of Wenzhou, which has such a high Christian and church population that it has earned the nickname of ‘Jerusalem of the East’. Churches have also been demolished, with some reports stating between 1 000 and 1 200 buildings had been destroyed. Amongst these is the Sanjiang church, described as a symbol of resistance in the face of Communist oppression. Its destruction shocked many due to the church’s classification as a registered and approved place of worship.
An undated provincial policy paper, titled Working Document Concerning the Realization of Handling of Illegal Religious Buildings, stated that, due to the international scrutiny that would be mustered because of the targets’ nature, government officials should accuse the buildings of violating building codes. ‘’Be particular about tactics, be particular about methods. [It] is crucial to investigate and prosecute from the perspective of laws and regulations to avoid inviting heavy criticism.’’ This conspiracy gains credibility when one hears that a campaign allegedly verifying building permits, Three Rectifications and One Demolition, has only struck down churches. Some have indeed been illegal—house churches, clergy having sought blessings from the Vatican, preaching of unapproved versions of the Bible—but the Sanjiang demolition proves those are not the only targets.
This nation-wide prosecution (as opposed to the Ramadan ban, which targeted only Xinjiang), as well as Christianity being referred to as yang jiao (foreign teaching), point to fears of a ‘’cultural NATO’’, a concept advanced by IRGC Political Department Chief Javani. The 2012 document on campus evangelization states that the United States and American allies were the sole forces backing this religious expansion, suggesting Beijing deal with the problem by harnessing it: build churches, anoint priests, and create a Communized doctrine (Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Movement). By controlling both the spread and the doctrine of yang jiao, Beijing appears to be seeking to eradicate this new influence.
Previously, I’d stated the unknown was: why is Beijing backstabbing Christians, both friend and foe? The answer to that first question is ostensibly a purging of foreign influences in Chinese culture. The follow-up question, given that the betrayal is on too large a scale to be extemporaneous, is the cause behind this shift.
According to BBC, over seven million Chinese became university graduates in this month alone. Fifteen years ago, that number was seven times smaller. This is due to the explosive economic growth China has seen in recent years—a growth that will see it surpass the United States as economic superpower somewhere between 2016 and 2022—, combined with the rapid set-up of universitarian networks across the country.
While the economic bulge has granted citizens access to higher levels of education, the same bulge is not prepared to absorb all the graduates. Officially, the unemployment rate for those having left their place of study six months ago is of 15%. A China Household Finance survey from 2012 confirms these numbers: citizens between the age of 21 and 25 having reached the graduate school level have an unemployment rate of just over 16%, identical within a percent to the United States.
Joseph Cheng, a professor of political science at Hong Kong’s City University believes the actual numbers could be twice as high, meaning 2.3 million students from this cohort alone will be added to the country’s unemployed pool. However, to avoid dramatization of the situation, this article will use the 16% statistic.
The overall Chinese unemployment rate is estimated to be 9.6%. The group responsible for equilibrating the statistics are the blue-collar workers: those who have only primary education to their name have
an unemployment rate of only 4.2%. In fact, according to the same 2012 survey, the more years one has spent in educational institutions, the more likely one is to end up unemployed. This is likely due to the sectors that have powered China’s economic miracle: manufacturing, construction, and heavy industries are not prime sectors for white-collar university graduates.
Countries have, in recent history, collapsed because of a rapid educational and demotic expansion without the necessary economic boom to employ the inactive educated. Sami Aoun, author of Le Printemps arabe: mirage ou virage? (roughly translated as The Arab Spring: Illusion or Miracle?), puts the theoretical economic growth rate that may have averted the Arab Spring at approximately 10%. China’s growth rate for the first quarter of 2014 was below that, at 7.4% , with growth expected to slump to roughly 5% per year past the end of the decade. China is also placed amongst the countries most likely to suffer a banking crisis, further darkening the economic forecast.
While China’s unemployment rate is almost three times lower than the Middle East’s, the government has already started preparations to minimize the fallout. Over 600 universities have been marked for transformation into polytechnics, presumably reducing the number of unemployed white-collars by steering students towards blue-collar paths.
Combined with the unusually passive character of the unemployed, this policy shift may avoid a Chinese Spring, with uprisings similar to 1989’s Tiananmen Square. Remaining calm despite their limited options, the idle graduates are described as lowering their expectations instead of raising their voices. However, Professor Cheng warns that a sudden economic downturn—perhaps a banking crisis—could trigger the transformation of these youth, for whom waiting has become their sole profession, into a united anti-government force.
Given the potential or veridical enmity and challenges rising from many sides (a Uyghur separatist movement growing more violent; pro-democracy petitions in both Hong Kong and Macau (the latter more half-heartedly); legal challenges from the Philippines over China’s expansionist policies; the now-independent spread of historically Western and Western-funded Christian doctrine; the creation of a growing unemployable class similar to the Arab Spring youth), Beijing may be tightening its grip on China, fearing a second counterrevolution that will topple the Communist regime.
Further restrictions being placed on perceived opposition groups and stronger, more threatening reactions to international incidents may hence be expected.