China’s government has managed the impressive authoritarian feat of oppressing both Muslims and people critical of Islam at the same time, jailing a blogger for criticizing Islam while simultaneously silencing the Muslim Uighur minority of Xinjiang province.
This seeming contradiction is easily explained by the state-run Xinhua news agency’s report on Li Zhidong, a Han Chinese blogger sentenced to two and a half years in prison for “inciting ethnic hatred”: in a nutshell, Beijing demands national unity and is prepared detain anyone who jeopardizes it. China’s 2016 Cybersecurity Law criminalizes anything contrary to national unity, including “ethnic hatred, discrimination, and spreading violent and obscene content online.”
According to the Communist Party newspaper Global Times, Li was “first detained in September 2009 for inciting ethnic hatred, but was later released on bail, and was arrested again in June 2016, on the same charge.” He was also the subject of a petition complaining about his “negative social influence.”
A rash of stories in English-language Asian media and Western newspapers last spring warned about the growing problem of “Islamophobia” in China. The South China Morning Post, for example, reported on concerns that since China’s famously censorious government was not cracking down hard on anti-Muslim sentiment, a message was being sent that attacking Islam was tacitly acceptable.
The Chinese Communist Party’s traditional hostility to religion, in general, was also cited as one reason many Han Chinese went overboard with online criticism of Islam, some of which includes calls for killing Muslims. For example, a proposal to establish nationwide regulations for halal food (i.e. the Islamic diet) was criticized as an example of a particular religion was exercising undue influence over the atheist Chinese state. Conversely, there were reports of Muslims attacking halal restaurants opened by Han Chinese entrepreneurs.
The Washington Post found in May that some Chinese Internet users hold negative views of the Uighur Muslims due to continuing unrest in Xinjiang province, while others complain about special privileges extended by the Chinese government to Uighurs, including economic benefits and exemptions from China’s strict family planning policies. Chinese communities are generally nervous about the idea of allowing mosques to open nearby, or permitting instruction on Islam to be offered in their schools.
The Chinese government was as heavy-handed and one-sided as ever when dealing with Xinjiang separatist forces over the past few years, creating a strongly negative impression of Uighur Muslims in the public mind, and it also went predictably over the top in congratulating itself for all the wonderful benefit Beijing was extending to the poor folk of Xinjiang.
The result of all this government propaganda was a nasty brew of contempt and envy for the Uighurs in the imagination of many citizens, few of whom have any direct contact with actual Muslims. “It’s let the genie out of the bottle,” professor James Leibold of La Trobe University in Australia said of the Chinese government’s role in fomenting anti-Muslim sentiment.
Of course, like everything else in China, the crusade against “incitements to racial hatred” has been corrupted for crass political purposes, such as accusing pesky activists of incitement in order to silence them.
Even as Chinese authorities crack down on hate speech, they are still heavy-handed in dealing with Uighur unrest. Uighurs complain of a “digital police state” taking shape in Xinjiang province, combining pervasive electronic surveillance with sudden arrests and incommunicado detention camps.
Ironically, even as the government makes a show of cracking down on “Islamophobia,” Uighurs say they are all treated as de facto terrorism suspects, a policy of official suspicion that grew with reports of Uighurs heading to Syria and linking up with extremist groups, and the decision of countries like Egypt to deport large numbers of Uighurs back to China.
Those suspected of incipient terrorism are tossed into “vocational training” programs that look an awful lot like re-education camps. Skyrocketing spending on public security has been employed to construct a maze of law enforcement depots and checkpoints. Some observers describe it as dystopia on par with Soviet-era East Germany, complete with networks of secret informers that are tearing families apart.
Official discrimination is so crude in Xinjiang that activists showed the Associated Press a government evaluation that form that knocks 10 percent off a citizen’s score simply for being a Uighur, and another 10 percent for praying daily. It probably comes as little comfort to the Uighurs that China’s thought police are also cracking down on people who say mean things about them on the Internet.