Chinese Muslims: Mounting Tensions between Han and Hui

As I mentioned in the previous column about Meiri Anto’s experience growing up in China, the Chinese government officially recognizes 55 ethnic minorities within its borders in addition to the Han majority. As I said, my parents and I belong to the ethnic Korean minority (Chaoxianzu), the 14th most populous minority in China, while Anto is part Han, part Korean, and part Manchu (Manzu), the third largest ethnic group. The second largest minority are the Hui people, a predominantly Muslim, Chinese-speaking ethnic group defined to encompass all Muslim communities within the country’s borders not included by other ethnicities in China. Numbering approximately 9.8 million, the Hui are scattered more evenly across the geographical landscape of China than most ethnic minorities in the country but are mostly concentrated in the Ningxia, Qinghai, and Gansu provinces. These areas are situated along the transcontinental trading route known as the Silk Road, which resulted in strong influences from Persian and Middle Eastern culture in addition to influences from Han culture.

Last year, I deferred admission to Swarthmore for a year and backpacked through Southeast Asia with my friend Monica Ma. Born in the United States, she was born to a Chinese mother of Han descent and a Hui father from Yunnan province in southwest China. In January of 2012, I travelled from Beijing to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, where much of her extended family lives. Often working in his studio in Kunming, Mr. Ma is a leader in the Hui community in Yunnan as a prominent painter, architect, and multimedia Muslim artist. Although relations with the Chinese state seem relatively peaceable today, he has much to say about the latent tensions between the government and the Hui minority since the Chinese Communist Party assumed control of mainland China in 1949. According to Ma, growing antagonism festers beneath thinly-veiled facade of racial harmony proclaimed by government slogans like “The 56 ethnic groups are one family.”

“On the surface, it seems as if relations are just but in actuality, the Chinese government is very nervous about the Hui minority,” he explained. He expressed both distrust of the Party and its own distrust of the Hui people. Ever since relations between the Party and the ethnic group began, the Chinese government acted on its fear of ethnic unrest and rebellion by placating the Hui. “From the beginning, they were worried about the Hui.  Thus they gave special benefits to the Hui to appease them.” These benefits were important at a time when food and supplies were scarce. “When China was very poor and living conditions were hard, the government rationed meat, oil, fabric, and other supplies,” Mr. Ma recounted. “A male could only eat 25 kilograms of rice a month. You would be lucky to eat meat once a week. We often just ate a few vegetables. Meals would often be vegetarian.” To curry the favor of the Hui in building the country, Chinese government officials gave the Hui slightly larger rations of important necessities such as meat and oil, instigating resentment and backlash from the the Han majority. To this day, the government has even sponsored affirmative action in employment and industrial opportunities such as exclusive government contracts in mining certain areas and construction jobs in large-scale manual labor projects.

Yet the Chinese government’s attitude of suspicion still persists toward Hui communities in China. “They are very nervous. At first glance, the government seems very calm but in fact they are very anxious about this issue,” Ma commented. Perhaps incidents of violent unrest feed the Party’s anxiety over ethnic relations. In November of 2004, for instance, 148 people of Han and Hui descent died in an armed ethnic conflict between Nanren (predominantly Hui) and Weitang (largely Han), two neighboring rural villages that had coexisted for centuries in Henan Province in central China. Beginning as a simple traffic accident between a young Han motorcyclist and a Hui laborer on a tractor, the small incident quickly devolved into an all-out race riot between mobs equipped with shovels, hammers, and Molotov cocktails. Hui across the country rushed into the town to support their Muslim brethren and a local imam even reported finding one of his followers beheaded in a rice paddy ditch. As Ma put it, “they are worried even a small spark could start a big fire.”

Historically considered one of the most moderate and peaceful Muslim minorities in China, the Hui are beginning to become more restless about the Chinese government’s repression of their freedom to practice their religion. Clearly the Communist Party clearly needs to revisit their domestic policies toward civil rights and race relations between the scores of ethnic minorities and the dominant Han majority. Though growing quickly into its new role as a global economic superpower, the People’s Republic of China still has a long way to go by way of social development and political liberalization if it wishes to join the exclusive international club of industrialized, liberal states that it seeks to outcompete. Despite China’s unmatched macroeconomic growth and success, perhaps it behooves the leadership to recognize the nation’s need to “catch up” to the rest of the world in terms of sociological progress and human rights protection. A country with a history as complex and troubled as that of United States may not be the optimal model for such social progress, but China must recognize the importance of prioritizing of expanding what Swarthmore alum Robert Putnam ‘63 terms “social capital” as well as real capital if it is to sustain itself as a healthy polity in the long run.

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