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Radicalisation of Chinese Muslims

Is the jihadi ideology spreading in the Muslim community of China —- geographically as well as ethnically? Has it started infecting Muslims in provinces other than the Xinjiang Autonomous Region? Has it started affecting the Huis and other non-Uighur segements of the Chinese Muslim community? Is the Uighur separatist movement becoming part of the global jihadi movement? What has been the influence of Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban on the Chinese Muslims? What role has the Internet, which has spread spectacularly in China, been playing in facilitating the self-radicalisation of sections of the Chinese Muslim community?

2. These are questions which China analysts will be increasingly confronted with as they study the scanty information coming out of Xinjiang and other areas where there is a Muslim community. This is a sensitive subject for the Chinese. Their analysts rarely pose these questions and seek answers for them. The Chinese media merely repeats the Government propaganda—- the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) is the source of all evil; it operates from the Af-Pak region; it is associated with Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban; it exploits the economic grievances of the UIghurs for achieving religious objectives; there is no religious anger in Xinjiang; people are happy as Muslims; the Government gives them all the facilities they need as Muslims; their grievances are mainly because they are economically not as advanced as the Chinese in the other provinces; the Government has decided to pour money into Xinjiang for its economic development; once that happens the Uighur splittist problem will be over. So the people in the rest of China and the international community are told. These are not lies, but these are not the whole truth either.

3. There has always been religious anger in Xinjiang over issues such as restrictions on people going on Haj pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. curbs on the observance of the holy fasting period, ban on private Koranic schools and classes, the requirement of Government’s prior approval for religious sermons in mosques, the alleged imposition of Islam in Chinese colours etc.New religious issues have come up after the violent riots of July last year. One such issue is the alleged practice by the Chinese police of cremating the dead bodies of Muslims whose relatives cannot be traced. Another is the on-going replacement of exclusively Uighur quartiers in Urumqi by mixed quartiers where the Uighurs are forced to live side by side with Han Chinese in order to break their religious solidarity.

4. These grievances are keeping the anger against the Government alive. Is the anger also showing a tendency to spread—geographically and ethnically? It is difficult to answer this question definitively in the absence of data, But one occasionally finds tits-bits of information here and there as one monitors the Chinese media for information regarding the Chinese Muslim community. One such bit of information was found in an article published by the “China Daily” on July 3 on the joint Sino-Pakistani counter-terrorism exercise. It quoted Mr. Li Wei, a Beijing-based anti-terrorism researcher, as saying that besides the Xinjiang Region, the ETIM has also made its presence felt in central-eastern China, including in the Henan and Shanxi provinces. He said: “After the July 5 riot last year, China beefed up border security checks in Xinjiang, so instead of getting out of China through that region, more ETIM terrorists are now fleeing to the southwestern parts of China and getting out of the country there.” He added that another new challenge for all countries is that terrorists have turned to the Internet where they recruit and brainwash new members. “This kind of prevention is even harder to do.” He spoke generally about the problem faced by the rest of the world due to dangers of radicalisation through the Internet, but he did not say specifically whether there have been such instances in the Muslim community in China itself.



Muslims live in every region in China. The highest concentrations are found in the northwest provinces of Xinjiang, Gansu, and Ningxia, with significant populations also found throughout Yunnan province in southwest China and Henan province in central China. Of China’s 55 officially recognized minority peoples, ten groups are predominately Muslim. The largest groups in descending order are Hui (9.8 million in year 2000 census, or 48% of the officially tabulated number of Muslims), Uyghur (8.4 million, 41%), Kazakh (1.25 million , 6.1%), Dongxiang (514,000, 2.5%), Kyrgyz (161,000), Salar (105,000), Tajik (41,000), Uzbeks, Bonan (17,000), and Tatar (5,000). However, individual members of traditionally Muslim ethnic groups may profess other religions or none at all. Additionally, Tibetan Muslims are officially classified along with the Tibetan people, unlike the Hui who are classified as a separate people, even though they are indistinguishable from the Han. Muslims live predominantly in the areas that border Central Asia, Tibet and Mongolia, i.e. Xinjiang, Ningxia, Gansu and Qinghai, which is known as the “Quran Belt”.

China is home to a large population of adherents of Islam. According to the CIA World Factbook, about 1 to 2% of the total population in China are Muslims, while the US Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report shows that Muslims constitute about 1.5% of the Chinese population. Recent census counts imply that there may be up to 20 million Muslims in China. However, the last three national censuses (1982, 1990, and 2000) did not include questions about religion. The number of religious believers can be inferred indirectly from census counts of the number of people who identify themselves as belonging to particular ethnic groups, some of whom are known to be predominantly members of certain religious groups. A 2009 study done by the Pew Research Center, based on China’s census, concluded there are 21,667,000 Muslims in China, accounting for 1.6% of the total population. According to data provided by the San Diego State University’s International Population Center to U.S. News & World Report, China has 65.3 million Muslims. The BBC’s “Religion and Ethics” website gave a range of 20 million to 100 million (1.5% to 7.5% of the total) Muslims in China.

( The writer, Mr B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: )

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