China’s attitude to Muslims might be hard to ignore

Sholto Byrnes looks forward to the One Belt, One Road conference, to be held next weekend

The Belt and Road meeting is testament to China’s convening power. Ng Han Guan / AP Photo
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It will be a historic gathering by any standards. The Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation this weekend is expected to be attended by 28 heads of state and government, including Russia’s Vladimir Putin. The UN secretary general Antonio Guterres, the IMF’s Christine Lagarde and the World Bank president Jim Yong-kim are due in Beijing too, as well as an army of support staff, from translators to chefs and drivers.

The Belt and Road meeting is testament to China’s convening power. The Chinese president Xi Jinping wants to discuss his great plan for the future of the Eurasian landmass, a future that is all about cooperation and “win-win” outcomes for all the partners, but one that is most clearly led by China.

That assertion of being at least a dominant presence, couched quite carefully and diplomatically on the whole, is accepted as an inescapable reality by most on the continent, but it is accompanied by a wariness on the part of smaller states who fear being steamrollered in disputes, and by a warning that too much assistance, trade and investment from China could lead to over-reliance and, ultimately, a form of clientelism.

But back to the forum. The concept behind it promises much but has been a little vague so far. It has been variously described as the new Silk Route, One Belt One Road, or OBOR, while The Economist noted that this was changed for this summit, “despite the unfortunate acronym it produces for the forum: BARF”.

Progress has been varied, with work on some projects proceeding far more slowly than anticipated and questions asked about whether others are actually commercially viable. Just how many ports can Asia keep busy, some ask, while China itself has dealt a blow to some Chinese-led developments outside its borders with its recent restrictions on capital outflows.

The programme for the forum indicates that a series of cooperation mechanisms, economic corridors and other measures to put flesh on the concept’s bones will be discussed.

Whether all the proposals actually come to pass, only time will tell. But many will, and the multiplier effect from all the construction – so long as China is careful to engage with local workforces, a very sensitive issue – will potentially bring enormous advances to all the countries on the Belt and the Road.

One issue that will almost certainly not be raised at this weekend’s forum, however, is how China deals with its own Muslim population, particularly in Xinjiang – because many of the belt-and-road countries are Muslim majority.

Many of them share with China the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states, and they would also agree with the authorities’ right to crack down on extremism and any form of terrorism. None will evince an ounce of sympathy for the jihadi separatists of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, nor for whatever plight befalls the 5,000 Chinese who are believed to be fighting in Syria (many with ISIL or Al Qaeda) if and when they return home.

But China’s legitimate need to guard against separatism and radicalisation is coming perilously close to the line in its treatment of its Muslim population, if recent reports are to be believed.

There are around 23 million Muslims in China, 10 million of them Uighurs in Xinjiang. There has already been concern about restrictions on the wearing of face veils and entry into mosques in the province. It has now been reported that the “naming of children to exaggerate religious fervour” has been banned. This latter ruling is believed to exclude names such as Mohammed and Islam.

If true, these are measures that most Muslims would find very hard to stomach, and if this trend continues there could come a point when China’s attitude towards the Uighur Muslims becomes a problem OBOR Muslim countries cannot ignore. For Muslims do care about how Muslim minorities in other countries are treated – witness the anger over the tragic situation of the Rohingya in Myanmar, and the fact that the dispossession of the Palestinians will never be forgotten.

It is true that Communist China has not historically been actively tolerant of religion in general. But a perceived shift of tone by Mr Xi may suggest a solution. He has spoken favourably both of Confucianism (not strictly a religion per se, of course) and Buddhism, and under his leadership and that of Pope Francis, China and the Vatican have come close to reunifying the Catholic Church in China and re-establishing diplomatic relations. If Mr Xi can extend the same understanding to Islam, and acknowledge its history within China – the great 15th-century Admiral Zheng He, for instance, was Muslim – he could help remove a possibly nasty, and unnecessary, bump in the belt-and-road. It is, after all, supposed to be paved with good intentions. This would be a good way of proving it.

Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia