China must get its Uygur policy right if it is to woo the Muslim world

Wai-Yip Ho says Beijing must show regard for its own Muslim citizens if it's not to hurt its relations with Islamic states along the new Silk Road

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 July, 2015, 4:45pm
UPDATED : Monday, 20 July, 2015, 4:45pm

To many, China's rise indicates the global shift of power from the West to Asia. President Xi Jinping's new "one belt, one road" global outreach programme has attracted gradual international support, especially among Muslim-majority states along the ancient Silk Road. The initiative formally symbolises the revival of those ancient connections, once again linking the "Middle Kingdom" with the Muslim world.

In acknowledging the indigenous cultures and forging a multi-polar world order, China has been careful to avoid following the imperial footsteps of the West. To win the hearts and minds of the Muslim world, Beijing has been launching investment and loan programmes that pledge to support the autonomy and modernising paths of the developing countries, through infrastructure projects such as railways, pipelines, hospitals and roads, as well as iconic architecture such as the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Along the new Silk Road, many Muslim-majority states are China's strategic partners and major energy suppliers.

Only by respecting Muslim traditions in Xinjiang can China truly win the hearts and minds of its Uygur citizens.

In recent years, Beijing has become more aware of Islam's importance in formulating foreign policy for the Muslim world. Though the China Railway Construction Corporation suffered huge losses in building the Mecca Metro for Saudi Arabia, China prided itself on building a light railway to transport faithful Muslims from all over the world for the annual hajj. In Algiers, Algeria, China is going to build a new mosque, which will be the world's third largest, following the Grand Mosque of Mecca and the Prophet Mosque in Medina.

Such impressive soft-power projects and cultural and diplomatic programmes in the Muslim world, however, have been recently overshadowed by the reports of poor treatment of Uygur Muslims in Xinjiang. International reports of a ban on Uygur boys accessing mosques, prohibiting women in Xinjiang from wearing veils and discouraging Muslims from fasting only provoke the Uygurs.

China's mistreatment of its Uygurs makes international headlines and sparks anti-China protests abroad, such as the one in Istanbul recently. Only by respecting Muslim traditions in Xinjiang can China truly win the hearts and minds of its Uygur citizens and reconnect with the wider Muslim world. Otherwise, the "transnationalisation" of local Uygur-related disputes will not only upset China's stability, but will also hurt its international image and the outreach of its "belt and road" initiative.

Dr Wai-Yip Ho is an associate professor at the Hong Kong Institute of Education's department of social sciences, and author of Islam and China's Hong Kong: Ethnic Identity, Muslim Networks and the New Silk Road. [email protected]