China and the Uighurs

Chinese Uighur

The situation about the Uighur Muslims has attracted widespread media coverage in the past year.  In light of the West after 9-11 and India under Modi, it may be easy for observers to assume that this is a case of Islamophobia in China.

China’s human rights abuses, while they should be condemned unequivocally, do not constitute a case of Islamophobia as they do in the case of India and China.

First of all, Islam in China has a very different history compared to its history in the West and in India.

In China, Islam came through trade. During the cosmopolitan empire of the Tang Dynasty (618-906 CE). Arab and Central Asian merchants brought Islam to Turkestan (now north-western China) and to Chinese cities like Chang’an, Kaifeng and Luoyan.[1] Islam has long been associated with trade in China’s history and the most famous Muslim in China’s history, Zheng He (1371-1433), was a mariner and explorer.

Turkic migrations

China’s Han majority population also accepted Islam through conversion. Although a minority within the larger Han population, Han Chinese Muslims (known as the ‘Hui’) are virtually indistinguishable from their Han brethren except in their avoidance of pork.

Islam thus has a comparatively peaceful history in China. Compare this to the West where Islam was branded a Christian heresy from its inception and associated with the Crusades or in India where Islam has been associated (especially by Hindu Nationalists) with the looting of Hindu temples by Turkish mercenaries like Mahmud of Ghazni.

Secondly, the human rights abuses suffered by China’s Muslims have been confined to Xinjiang. They do not envelop the entire Chinese Muslim population the way they have Muslims in the West after 9-11 or in India under Modi.

China is home to over 20 million Muslims.[2] Of these, 41% are Uighur while 48% are Han Chinese (Hui) and the remaining 11% belonging to Kazakh, Uzbek, Tajik, Tatar and other ethnic groups.[3]

If Islamophobia were rampant in China, it would’ve been all over the Western media by now.  Instead, what has been making cover stories in the West (besides the Corona Virus scare and the crackdown on the Uighurs) is China’s ability to digitally monitor the activities of its citizens, Uighur, Han or otherwise.

Third, and most crucially, the crackdown on Muslims in Xinjiang should be understood in light of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) obsession with maintaining state power and control. This obsession extends to suppressing any religious fervour which threatens or is suspected of threatening the CCP’s grip on power.[4]

The CCP has a long history of penetrating and monitoring religious establishments, ensuring they are subordinate to the party-state.[5]  This is due in part to the official atheism of the CCP, but it owes far more to a long history in China of regulating religion and suppressing religious fervour as a political threat.

There’s plenty of historical precedents to make the CCP nervous. A Daoist sect called the Yellow Turbans undermined the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD).[6] The Red Turbans, a Buddhist sect, led to the fall of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368). The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) had to contend with the White Lotus Rebellion (1794-1804), another Buddhist sect. The Taiping rebellion (1850-1864), a Christian millenarian movement, fatally wounded the Qing and killed upwards of twenty million people.[7]

The CCP most notoriously suppressed the Falun Gong sect in the late 1990s and into the new millennium. Besides branding it an “evil cult,” the National People’s Congress amended article 300 of the Criminal Code on October 30, 1999, enabling the CCP to suppress spiritual groups deemed “dangerous to the state” (the Falun Gong claimed millions of members across China).

The oppression of China’s Uighurs is about the Chinese state maintaining its state power and control over the country and its citizens. It should be understood in light of China’s long history of regulating and suppressing any religious fervour (real or imagined) and not as a projection of the West’s own Islamophobia on to other societies.


Darren Byler, “China’s hi-tech war on its Muslim minority,” The Guardian, April 11, 2019 (online):

André Laliberté, The Legal-Formal Status of Religions in China in In  Dirk Ehlers and Henning Glaser, ed.,  Political and Religious Communities: Partners, Competitors, or  Aliens? Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2019 (forthcoming).

Lipman, Jonathan Newman (1997), Familiar Strangers, a history of Muslims in Northwest China, Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.



[1] Lipman, Jonathan Newman (1997), Familiar Strangers, a history of Muslims in Northwest China, Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 25.


[3] Armijo, Jackie (2006), “Islamic Education in China”, Harvard Asia Quarterly, 10 (1), archived from the original on 2007-09-28

[4] Darren Byler, “China’s hi-tech war on its Muslim minority,” The Guardian, April 11, 2019 (online): Byler reports how the Chinese state has grown anxious over the growing sense of Uighur religious and cultural identity (fostered and disseminated through social media including Uighur Muslims praying five times a day, Muslim women veiling themselves and the import of food, movies, music and clothing from Turkey and Dubai) and in growing Uighur social and political activism.

[5] André Laliberté, The Legal-Formal Status of Religions in China in In  Dirk Ehlers and Henning Glaser, ed.,  Political and Religious Communities: Partners, Competitors, or  Aliens? Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2019 (forthcoming).

[6] The following historical examples are cited by Laliberté in The Legal-Formal Status of Religions in China.

[7] The Qing Dynasty also suppressed Muslim rebellions in the north-west during its expansion into Turkestan in the 18th century.



“India’s Principal Challenge”…An Interview with Christopher Jaffrelot

Serge: India is a democracy unlike China, so why compare it to Beijing?

Christopher Jaffrelot: I never make such a comparison in terms of their political systems. For we have effectively on the one hand, a country which combines economic liberalism and political authoritarianism, and on the other hand, despite its imperfections, the biggest democracy in the world.  The comparison suffers from Occidentalism: since we perceive these countries as threats, we put them into the same category without sufficiently seeing their differences.

Guest: In the ongoing economic competition between China and India, do you think the fact that India is democratic is an asset, a hindrance or that political system has no impact?

Christopher Jaffrelot: It’s a hindrance in the short term and an asset in the long-term. That’s to say that India today struggles to develop its infrastructure (roads as well as its railway network) due to the long legal process involved in acquiring land (there’s a respect for private property that frustrates the state’s actions).

On the other hand, India will not be split like China. Again, political authoritarianism and economic liberalism can’t coexist in the long-term. One has today, a debate in India which puts democracy on the hot seat. The middle class is exasperated over the slowness of economic development, tempted by some form of authoritarianism. But, in the end, the Indian trajectory could prove to be more positive than China’s.

Marc : Isn’t there a chance that India could become the leading world power, to China’s detriment when one considers the numerous challenges facing the latter?

Christopher Jaffrelot : From the Indian point of view, the prospect of becoming a major power is located in a far off time. If one looks at indicators, certainly crude but nevertheless important, such as Gross National Product, India’s is two and half times less that of China’s.

Moreover, India cannot stem the growth in its population which could see it surpass China between 2030 to 2040. This means that the GNP per capita will have a long ways to go in catching up to that of China’s.

But if looks ahead to the twenty-first century, one can effectively imagine that sometime this century, India benefits from political stability to catch up with China.

André : Is India, being a democracy and an English-speaking country, not better equipped to adapt to globalization than the communist and non-English speaking China?

Christopher Jaffrelot: English is definitely an asset in an age of globalization. It is moreover possible, that sometime this century, India becomes the biggest English-speaking country in the world. But one shouldn’t underestimate the capacity of the Chinese to achieve an English-speaking education (Chinese constitute the largest foreign-student community on American university campuses), and also, India has not devoted enough resources to mass education. Only seven percent of any given class go on to higher education.

It’s largely in terms of soft power that India takes advantage of its linguistic ability: it “monopolizes” the literary prizes in the United States and in England and this has a lot to do with English’s cultural influence.

Benjamin : What is India’s major asset in the face of Chinese economic power?

Christopher Jaffrelot : The major Indian asset, it’s the small ten percent of its population which comprises the elite, which we can call the middle class as a misnomer. A very well educated elite, skilled in science and engineering, globalized, enterprising, entrepreneurial that has no equivalent in China.  The question is whether knowledge is sufficient to pull the country upwards.  One can worry about the entrenching of inequalities that the blossoming of this elite generates.

Eleuth : What’s the reality of the caste system today in India? To what extent does this system weaken India’s development?

Christopher Jaffrelot: Caste is an extremely complex issue. One can, to simplify, say that caste system rests on a very strict hierarchy, so in terms of status (and even of purity) that of profession. This system has been undermined with the mobilization of the lower castes in favour of greater equality, including through political parties which finally took power in many regions.

In fact, castes, today, are groups of interest in competition more than static elements in a vertical hierarchy.  This contributes to lending a social dimension to Indian democracy. Where class especially hampers social modernization, is in the sphere of education. The untouchables, notably, do not have full access there.

Wolf:  In your opinion, what will India do in the globalization of the 21st century: play its card as the biggest democracy of the world, and so of Asia? Draw closer to China in an Asian partnership? Come to terms with the United States against China in a new “cold war?” Rediscover the paths of power through a traditional alliance with Russia? Or something else?

Christopher Jaffrelot: Something even different, but in the sense that will be a little of each all at once. In the sense that India remained fundamentally a non-aligned country, a country very attached to its sovereignty, to its independence. On the one hand, India did not break with Russia which remains its biggest weapons supplier. On the other hand, India has drawn closer to the United States which has become India’s biggest investor.

But India does not want to enter into a rivalry with China, which is India’s largest trading partner and with which a conflict could be very costly at a time when the credo of these two powers is “let’s get rich!” In any case, India will not enter not into a network of alliances, it will work more through ad hoc coalitions. The most durable one could be the one already informally formed since 2003 with Brazil and South Africa.

Abhwer:  To what extent is India ready to cooperate with Afghanistan to weaken Pakistan?

Christopher Jaffrelot : It’s a question to which there’s no specific response but which is the current question in the region.  In two years, at the latest, NATO forces will have withdrawn from Afghanistan.  India fears that Pakistan will put back not one but two feet in Afghanistan while reviving its support for the Taliban.

The theory that India considers consists of supporting Karzai’s government. Beyond the simple economic and social domain, the two countries already signed a strategic partnership last summer.  One could add to it a strong military dimension but that would come back to wave the red flag in front of the Pakistanis which could cost India dearly in terms of attacks in Afghanistan or on its own territory.

New Delhi:  What could stop Indian power? An economic crisis?  Communal tensions? The risk of war?

Christopher Jaffrelot:  I do not think that India can be stopped by domestic factors. These will simply slow it down. Among them, the entrenching of inequalities is detrimental.

Even if only in a limited sense, the fact that India’s large neighbours are nuclear powers would divert foreign investors of this country.

Salam: Do you believe that India has a special role to play in the Iran crisis with Indians close to Iranians but also possessors of nuclear weapons (without signing the NTP) but partners of the West, notably Americans, with on top of everything, a post of permanent member to the security council of the United Nations?

Christopher Jaffrelot: The Iranian landscape shows us just how uncomfortable India’s positioning can be. On the one hand, Indians don’t want to break with the Iranians because they depend on their hydrocarbons and their port to reach Afghanistan. On the other hand, they can’t ignore the western pressures and the risks of instability that a nuclear Iran could bring to the region. But rather than mediate and serve as a bridge between the West and Iran, India takes refuge in abstention, mortgaging her chances in appearing as a responsible power and in attaining a post of permanent member of the Security Council.

Polo:  In all these considerations, which is above all the principal challenge which India must confront?

Christopher Jaffrelot: India’s principal challenge is human development If India falls under the illusions of its elites, it struggles to reduce mass poverty with international rankings ranking India behind several sub-Saharan African countries in terms of malnutrition, infant mortality, literacy etc.

From: “Le principal défi de l’Inde s’énonce en termes de développement humain,” an interview with Christophe Jaffrelot in Le Monde Diplomatique, March 20, 2012,

Translated into English by Randeep Purewall

‘Sexual abuse of children by aid workers and UN peacekeepers’?

A children’s rights organization has released a research report pointing to cases of child sexual abuse by aid workers and UN peacekeepers in Ivory Coast, Southern Sudan and Haiti, and how most remain unreported.

Save the Children UK research titled ‘No One to Turn To’ (The under-reporting of child sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers and peacekeepers, Tuesday 27 May 2008) suggests that the perpetrators can be found in ‘every type of humanitarian, peace and security organisation, at every grade of staff, and among both locally recruited and international staff’. The children interviewed report many types of abuse ‘including trading food for sex, rape, child prostitution, pornography, indecent sexual assault and trafficking of children for sex’.

Save the Children UK has made the following recommendations to the UN Task Force on protection from sexual exploitation and abuse. An effective local complaints mechanisms to be set up by the UN in countries where there is a significant international presence; The establishment of a new global watchdog to monitor and evaluate the efforts of international agencies regarding this issue; An increased investment in tackling the underlying causes of sexual abuse, for example support for legal reforms, public education and awareness raising, and the development of national child protection systems. (Source:

This heart-clenching report involves the most vulnerable young persons growing up in some of the most threatening situations of war, hunger, poverty, homelessness and violence. We, as adults are sending them help that includes such aggregated threats as sexual abuse. It is as if what was happening with our young on the ground was not enough to pervert them away from life.

Though the research references three countries, the universality of its findings is implied. View it here in English and French.

It is hard to stay away from the thoughts of children in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Darfur, Tibet and other areas where populations are at war; in Sichuan province of China, and areas hit by earthquakes and other calamities; in short, in situations of acute vulnerability and need.

As well, we must remind ourselves of sexual, emotional and physical abuse suffered by children growing up in oppressive family and social structure in Pakistan, Iran and many countries under Muslim Laws; of children living in the so-called ‘Polygamy Compounds’, ‘Reservations’ and ‘Ghettoes’ within advanced democratic societies such as the United States and Canada.

And a word of caution perhaps, that the most sexual, physical and emotional abuse suffered by our children may not come from aid workers and UN peacekeepers but from individuals in our own families, communities, schools, religious institutions and other social and economic structures.

I support the recommendations of Save the Children UK to increase vigilance over our children worldwide, to create situation to afford more power and voice to our children within their countries, and to assure that we don’t send wolves to take care of lambs from our privileged overseas human rights positions.

Here is an unexpected Punjabi poem titled Dil ‘Heart’:
Fauzia Rafiq

Uthan behn, jagan sawn
Likhan likhan, paRhan paRhan
Rinnan pinnan, khawan pewan
Ishq muhabtaN
Duftar rozi, mail mulqataN
Eh sarae kam
main Thehr ke kraN gi
dil hali Thaleya nahiN

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