Islam has existed in China for thousand of years and currently, there are Muslims living in every region across the country. The presence of several Muslim organisations and representative bodies further demonstrates the integration of Islam in the greater Chinese society. However, in some regions, the social and political oppression of Muslims pervade.
In the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, there has been a longstanding discord between the Muslim Uighurs and government authorities. As a backgrounder, the Uighurs are part of the recognised ethnic minorities in China and they have occupied Xinjiang for most of their history. They identify themselves as Muslims and further trace their ethnicity back to Central Asian nations. After all, the far west Chinese region of Xinjiang borders with Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.
There have been several instances when the Uighurs had tried to secede from China. In 1949 for example, the region was briefly declared as the East Turkestan state but the rise of the Chinese Communist Party resulted in reintegration of Xinjiang in the country. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of independent Islamic states in Central Asia, separatist groups in Xinjiang, especially from the Uighur, community emerged. But the Chinese national government was effective in supressing separatism and demonstrations.
Developments and government projects in Xinjiang have resulted in migration of Han Chinese coming from eastern provinces. However, in order to assimilate these migrants, the Chinese national government rolled out several policies that affected the Muslim Uighurs. According to activists and nationalists, these policies have gradually reduced religious, cultural, and even commercial activities of the Uighurs.
Following the 9/11 Attack in the United States and the American armed operation in Afghanistan that resulted in the arrest of several Uighurs, the Chinese government has rolled out policies aimed at supressing extremism and separatism. These government actions have intensified beginning the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
However, these policies have bordered to oppression. The government has banned several religious activities and expression of cultural identity as part of policy enforcement. In 2014 and 2015 for example, the government banned Muslim civil servants, party members, teachers, and students from fasting during the Holy Month of Ramadan.
Wearing headscarves in public and public transportation is also banned. Even religious marriage ceremony has been prohibited. Following Islamic tenets such as not drinking alcohol, not smoking, and refusal to eat non-halal food are considered by authorities as radical behaviour.
There have been alleged attempts by authorities to force Uighurs to behave contrary to their religious beliefs. Shops and restaurants owned by Muslims have been forced to sell cigarettes and alcohol or risk being shut down. The government has also rolled out propaganda films that warn about the dangers of fasting. To take things to the extreme, the local government organised a beer festival in the Niya village in Xinjiang in June 2015, two days before Ramadan started.
But the Chinese national government has several reasons. Apart from separatist movements in the 1990s, there have been recent criminal and violent incidents carried out under the traditional jihadist fashion—often targeting public places and government offices. In June 2012 for example, six Uighurs tried to hijack a domestic plane but was eventually curbed by passengers and crew. A knife-wielding mob attacked local government buildings in the Shanshan county in April and June 2013 that compelled police to open fire resulting in the death of 27 people.
Two cars that crashed through a market in Urumqi coupled with explosives thrown into the crowd in May 2014 resulted in 31 people death and 90 people injured. Three deaths and 97 injured resulted from bomb and knife attacks in the south railway station of Urumqi in April 2014. 96 died when a knife-wielding gang attacked a police station and government offices in Yarkant in July 2014. Blasts outside the police stations, a market, and a shop in Luntai county in September 2014 killed 50.
While some are quick to blame separatists from the Uighur community, activists doubt the claims. Because the government controls the media, details of the aforementioned incidents are often incomplete and some information are inaccessible from the public. Furthermore, this state ownership also stirs doubt due to probable bias in news reporting. Some claims that the reports might be an exaggeration or a mere propaganda.
Nevertheless, the government has cited the aforementioned incidents as reasons to enforce policies it deems as essential in maintaining law and order, and protecting national security. Furthermore, the government maintained that these policies are aimed at cracking down the East Turkestan Islamic Movement—an Islamic terrorist and separatist organisation founded by Uighur militants.
There are still little evidences pointing to the involvement of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement or any organisations founded by Uighur militants. In fact, the exact situation within Xinjiang and the Uighur community remains unclear to the public and the international media due to lack of verifiable information from local media organisations.
The general community of Muslim Uighurs and non-Muslims are nonetheless suffering from all of these violence and subsequent crackdowns. According to a report furnished by the Uighur Human Rights Project, 700 people were killed due to political activities last year. The number of those arrests increased 95 percent compared to the previous year, reaching 27,000.