Sino-Islamic Relations Tested By Xinjiang Crackdown
One of the consequences of China’s crackdown on the Uighurs of Xinjiang Autonomous Region is that it could tarnish the country’s standing in the eyes of Muslim nations (and other countries for that matter, but the key point here is that Uighurs are Muslims). This would be a setback for Beijing’s hopes of emerging as a respected global power, differentiated from the US, whose reputation has been undermined by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Most notably, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated last week that genocide was being committed in Xinjiang. His comments were all the more surprising, given that Abdullah Gul last month became the first Turkish president to visit China in 15 years. The Chinese rebuttal was swift, pointing out that more Han Chinese had died in the recent Xinjiang riots, and that the region’s Uighur population has increased over the past few decades. Nonetheless, China feels sufficiently concerned about a backlash that it has warned its citizens working in Algeria about possible attacks against them by al-Qaeda operatives in North Africa.
For now, most Muslim countries’ governments will choose to stay quiet about Xinjiang, keeping in mind Beijing’s sensitivity to external interference in its domestic affairs and lucrative trade deals and commercial relations with China. Indeed, China has many allies or otherwise friendly nations in the Muslim world, such as Bangladesh, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan, who will not jeopardise their ties with it. As for the general public’s attitude in those countries, the truth is that the Uighurs do not carry the same emotional appeal as the Palestinians. Nor are tens of thousands dying as they were in Bosnia and Chechnya, which galvanised Muslim opinion against Serbia and Russia, respectively.
Nonetheless, with Muslims in China said to number between 20 million and 100 million (the government probably wishes to play down the number, while Muslim groups tend to play it up – if the latter is true then China is one of the world’s biggest Muslim countries), I suspect that we will hear a lot more about Sino-Islamic relations (both within China and outside) over the coming years. Indeed, let us suppose that China’s rising power prompts a shift towards an activist and interventionist foreign policy that entails active support for repressive governments (perceived or otherwise) and deploying troops in Muslim countries (as the US has done over the past few decades). There would be a risk that some of the anti-Americanism seen in the Middle East and elsewhere could one day be re-directed towards China.