Muslims in China and their Relations with the State

The article explains why the Uyghurs are under China's harsh restriction and analyzes the future policies the PRC will adopt and possible reactions from the Uyghur side. The recent rise of violent incidents in Xinjiang entailed Beijing to adopt austere regulation on Uyghur's religious right.


The article explains why the Uyghurs (sometimes spelt Uighur) are under China's harsh restriction and analyzes the future policies the People’s Republic of China (PRC) will adopt and possible reactions from the Uyghur side. The recent rise of violent incidents in Xinjiang further entailed Beijing to adopt austere regulation on Uyghur's religious right, which causes great concern in the global Muslim community. As is well known, Muslims in China account for less than two percent of the population, and most of them belong to the two ethnic groups: Hui and Uyghur. The context of the analysis is the two ethnic groups’ responses to assimilation policies. Hui people exhibit a greater level of assimilation to the majority Han people in language and culture, and such Sinification is reflected in greater degrees of indigenization of the Islamic faith. By contrast, the Uyghur people resist assimilation to the majority Han people and submission of their Islamic identity to China’s state nationalism.


According to the 2010 official census data (as shown in Table 1),(1) among 1.3 billion population, China's fifteen-five minorities altogether are composed of only 8.4 percent population, in which the number of Muslims accounts merely for 1.7 percent.(2) The ten Muslim minorities include Hui, Uyghur, Kazak, Dongxiang, Kirgiz, Salar, Tajik, Uzbek, Bonan, and Tatar. Except for Hui and Uyghur, both of which have a significant population of over ten million, each of the other eight minorities have only 0.1 percent or fewer in the total population. However, those Muslims are concentrated in the vast Northwestern region (30% percent of the overall territory), including three provinces (Shaanxi, Gansu, Qinghai) and two autonomous regions (Ningxia, Xinjiang).(3) Hui people are distributed widely in the Northwestern region and some of them also reside in China's inland provinces. Uyghur people mostly live in Xinjiang, especially the southern area. Kazak, Kirgiz, Tajik, Uzbek, and Tatar are all minority groups who live in Xinjiang's border areas and share the same ethnicity to the people of neighboring countries, such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Russia, and Afghanistan. Dongxiang, Salar, and Bonan are all Muslim peoples with their own ethnic identity, but they are usually conceived as part of the Hui people. Donxiang and Bonan mostly reside in Gansu Province and Salar concentrates in Qinghai. Other ethnic groups, including Han Chinese, also have a small number of the Muslim population. They are distributed all over China, relatively more in some provinces like Yunan and Henan, together having around one million Muslims.(4)

Table 1 Muslim Population in China

Total Population






Non-Han (55 Minorities Combined)

















Less than 0.1%



Less than 0.1%



Less than 0.1%



Less than 0.1%



Less than 0.1%



Less than 0.1%



Less than 0.1%

Data Source: China's 2010 Census Data, National Bureau of Statistics of China

To understand the current state of the Muslim minorities and their relations with the PRC governing elite, China's policy towards ethnic minorities and religious faiths must be explained. This is an important dynamic since Muslims account for only 20% of the minority population and that Han Chinese and the other forty-five minorities also have Muslims. The difference between the ethnic groups with Muslim majority populations and those who follow the religion of Islam regardless of their ethnicity must be distinguished. While China's official ideology by communist tenets is atheism,(5) many religious faiths have attracted followers, including the traditional five religions (Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism) – in addition to new religious creeds.(6) In view of the large number of ethnic groups and religious faiths, the PRC central government has stipulated a set of general guidelines for managing minority and religious affairs.

China's Minority and Religious Affairs Policy

Since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) established the PRC power structure in 1950, its minorities policy can be characterized by three principles: (1) All ethnic groups belong to the great Chinese nation, which includes 56 peoples, and its political unity is inseparable. (2) Under the grand Chinese nation, all ethnic groups have equal status. The ‘equal status’ refers to all kinds of rights and obligations regardless of ethnic difference, language, religion, customs, etc... (3) Due to different historical, geographic, climatic, and other conditions, the central government should adopt preferential measures in economic, cultural, social, educational, and other arenas to increase the well-being of those underprivileged minorities.(7)

China's general policy in religious affairs, on the other hand, can be summarized into the following five principles: (1) CCP party members and PRC government officials should stick to Marxism-Leninism and adhere to atheism (2) All PRC citizens have the right to believe or not believe in organized religion (3) All legal religions have equal status, and their purposes should all promote national unity. (4) All religious organizations and activities should be domestically organized under state regulation, and any form of foreign influence in religious activities is strictly forbidden. (5) Religions should be separate from education and politics. Under no circumstance should anyone use religious causes to influence education and politics.(8)

State regulation is carried out by the specific authority in all levels of government, central/federal, provincial, and local. At the level of the central government, the State Ethnic Affairs Commission and the State Administration of Religious Affairs, under the command of the PRC State Council, are the highest agencies in the running of minority and religious affairs, respectively. At the provincial level and below, the administrative units of minority and religious affairs are combined, which indicates that the PRC central government keeps the two administrative areas closely related, and hence, executes minority and religious policies with the same administrative unit.

Under the above principles, China claims to embrace all-encompassing religious freedom for all citizens but stresses that state regulation must be strictly enforced to secure law compliance, particularly to prevent challenges against state authority the regime or threats to national unity. This inevitably constrains the way organized religion evolves. That is, a religion should not develop a political identity competitive to the grand-Chinese identity; all religious organizations and activities should be under state regulation; and religious leaders should not build transnational religious and political networks; religion becomes a privatized matter because the state authority ensures all citizens' freedom to practice religion or reject it, regardless of ethnic background. Finally, religious traditions or activities are subject to suspension if they contradict the higher national goals, for instance. This policy is designed to maintain political stability and suppress secessionist activities.(9)

Ethnic Groups under Austere Regulation

Among the fifty-five minorities in China, the Uyghurs and the Tibetans are the two minorities who constantly face austere state regulation that disturbs their daily life, including the religious sphere. In fact, the PRC authorities seem to remain on alert in their governing of Xinjiang and Tibet for their history of independence movements. This must be understood against the background of ongoing political unrest since 2009. Violent attacks in Xinjiang and self-immolation protests in Tibet have resulted in Chinese authorities crackdown, in the form of intensified security measures in both regions and imposition of significant constraints on religious activities(10) (e.g. restriction on Ramadan Fasting(11)). The crackdown aims to prevent the rise of any forms of political opposition, specifically those that could potentially develop through religious networks.(12) This contrasts the accommodative policy China applies to other religions (Protestantism, Buddhism, and even Islam in Hui residential areas).The key reason for such policy difference is that the authorities flagged no significant security concerns in these areas.

A deeper reason for restriction of the Uyghurs' and Tibetans' religious autonomy stems from the central government’s lack of political trust and confidence. This associates with a distinguishing phenomenon which the state authorities never encounter in other parts of China. Both the CCP and the state failed to embed their intelligence apparatus in the Uyghur and Tibetan societies. Thus, the party and the state seem to be unable to fully penetrate deep into the social fabric and exert total control. This is largely due to the lack of social integration between Han Chinese and the two minority peoples, so the state adopts peremptory security measures to maintain political order. In a nutshell, it is not only religious faith that determines China’s austere and draconian regulation of religious minorities, but it is also the history of independence movement along with the failure of social control that seem to dictate the state’s reliance on military strategies. In other places where ethnic minorities are adherents of Islam or Tibetan Buddhism,(13) China does not resort to such restrictive policies as it does in Xinjiang and Tibet, for none of the two security concerns are flagged by the authorities.

How do Muslims and the State View Each Other?

The Mulslim community in China is not coherent, and in fact, even within the Hui people, there are conflicts between different sects.(14) However, we can categorize the ten Muslim minorities into four groups: Hui, Uyghur, the minorities sharing the same ethnicity with the main group in neighboring countries, and other Muslims who have their own identity. Among these four groups, the relation between the former two and the state is more consequential because they account for 89.2% Muslim population and both form the largest minority in the Norwestern region. Therefore, the following discussion focuses only on Hui and Uyghur.(15)

The Hui people is the largest Muslim group, whose ancesters immigrated into China between Tang and Yuan Dynasty (between the 7th and 13th century) from the Arab and Persian Empires.(16) As a result of lengthy acculturation, the Hui people use Chinese language. Today they practice Islam with translated materials in Chinese. Such Sinification is equally reflected in the ‘indigenization’ of the Islamic faith. While most Hui people are Sunni Muslims, their Islamic faith shows a distinct feature of Sufism. Old mosques are usually Sufi mausoleums, which have strong Chinese architectural characters. Due to the greater level of Sinification, the Hui people view their Islamic identity mostly in a cultural rather than political sense, and they have experienced numerous changes of dynasties or governments.(17) The PRC central authorities do not view their Islamic faith as a potential hazard to the government because most of them primarily identify themselves as Chinese. That is the reason why fewer religious constraints are imposed on the Hui people.

The Uyghurs is another large group, whose ancesters were ancient Xinjiang residents, a mixture of Turks, Mongols, and indigenous tribes.(18) Although the Uyghurs lived in Xinjiang for a long time, they were not under Chinese rule until the mid-eighteenth century. None of the Chinese rulers,(19) during more than 250 years, have succeeded in their bid to assimilate the Uyghur people. That is, to turn them into Chinese. Most of the Uyghurs do not speak Chinese and this is a major difference between them and the Hui people.. Unlike their fellow-Muslims the Hui, the Uyghur seldom intermarry with Han Chinese. The tension between the Uyghurs and Han peoples often runs high. Friction between the two is not limited to ethinc difference.(20) History has shown that Han Chinese, who make up the PRC’s leadership and dominant governing group at the provincial level, usually apply repressive means to secure their supremacy in Xinjiang, for instance.(21) This further alienate the Uyghurs from the idea of belonging to a grand Chinese nation. From the Uyghur people’s perspective, the recent conflict in Xinjiang is a reaction to continuous infringement on their religious rights, and more or less punishment against their protest of Han chauvinism. From the Han leadership's viewpoint, those violent attacks associated with religious extremism are the greatest threat to the national interest and have to be stopped. Lack of trust between the two peoples intensifies existing ethnic antagonism not just between Uyghur activists and the Han officials, but also between ordinary Uyghur and Han publics, more generally.

The Rise of Religous Extremism?

It is undenible that the scale and the number of violent incidents have been on the rise after 2009. Many of these incidents involve terrorist attacks by Uyghurs.(22) They differ from extremist attacks in the 1990s and early 2000s, many of which were not planned and executed directly by well-known pro-independence organizations such as East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). Rather, they were carried out by voluntary groups associated with underground religious networks.(23) While the Chinese government alleged that pro-independence organizations masterminded those violent attacks, the evidence showed those incidents were largely spontaneous acts, initiated by religious preachers and followers of ‘underground’ Islamic schools.(24) There was a lot of evidence from extremist video footage that promoted Jihad against the Han rule,(25) but much less proof about any direct relationship between those attacks and terrorist organizations. This indicates that religious extremism does exert certain influence at the grassroots level of the Uyghur community, and that it is not about foreign terrorist organizations (e.g. Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or Al-Qaeda) or pro-indepedent organizations (e.g. ETIM ). It is primarily about Uyghur's opposition to the regime.

In this context, Beijing tends to choose more suppression of the Uyghurs, specifically of religious activities, in the name of China’s anti-terrorist campaign as well as the quest for stability. However, this policy only inflames matter, provoking anger among the Uyghur people, and creating fertile soil for further religious extremism. A more compelling argument to make is that most opposition groups in the Uyghur community is a direct response to Beijing's inability to improve Uyghur's living standards, respect Uyghur