China - Land of Diversity

Part 6
Islam in China Under the Communists

The Communists, on assuming power, followed a very cautious policy towards the Muslims. Islam was not a discredited religion, unlike Christianity, which was closely associated with Western imperialism. At the same time Islam was not an officially 'dead' religion like Chinese Buddhism or Taoism, to be praised for its contributions to popular revolts of the past and now relegated to the museum shelf. Rather Islam was a living, 'foreign' religion in the heart of China.

Furthermore the Communist government was anxious to establish good relations with the Muslim governments of the Middle East, South Asia and Africa. The Communists took careful notice of their Muslim minority from their first days of power. The Agrarian Reform Law of the People's Republic of China, promulgated on June 30th 1950, specifically protects the rights of Muslims to mosque land, but also states that Ahungs (and other religious leaders) should be given land to work, unless they have other means of making a living. Communist troops destined for Muslim areas were given specific instructions to respect mosques, refrain from eating pork, and to show respect to Muslim women. Special hospitals serving halal food were established in Beijing and Tianjin. In May 1953 the Chinese Islamic Association was formed, and a Chinese Islamic Seminary was constructed in Beijing. For the first time a translation of the Qu'ran was prepared in the vernacular speech, so that it might be available to the masses of Hui people who spoke no Arabic and could not understand classical Chinese. This translation, by Muhammad Ma Chien, stressed the compatibility between Islam and Marxism. The Chinese Association for the Promotion of the Hui People's Culture was also set up in these early years. Muslim delegations were permitted to go on The Haj (a pilgrimage to Mecca) starting in 1952, but were prevented from entering the Hedjaz by the Saudi Arabian Government.

China's two major Muslim nationalities were given autonomous government in their own national regions, the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, and the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. Cultural diversity is recognised and even promoted, but the position of the autonomous regions in China resembles that of the Soviet Central Asian Republics, and secession from the People's Republic remains unthinkable. Relations between the Hui and the Central government have not always run smoothly. Periods of discord occurred during land reform in the early 1950's, and also during the anti-rightist campaigns of 1958. Many Muslim religious leaders were criticised, and the Chinese Association for the Promotion of the Hui People's Culture was closed down. There have even been cases of armed risings by Muslims, but these have remained small-scale local affairs, and bear no resemblance to the great rebellions which swept the Northwest under the Qing and the Republic. One continued cause of Han-Hui friction has been the massive emigration of non-Muslims from Central China to the Northwest. Communist policy towards Muslim religious freedom is tolerant of individual rights of worship, but frowns on prosyletisation. The important consideration for the Communists is that the Muslim's loyalty to Peking should not be in question. Thus: 'Like all religious people in New China, the Moslems love their free motherland ardently. Only when they have done their best to safeguard their country can they have their own beliefs and practice their religion without discrimination'.

The position of Islam during the Cutural Revolution remains unclear. Information from China during these years was limited to short reports of Muslims celebrating Corban and Bairam. It seems certain that Chinese Muslims did suffer from Red Guard excesses during this period, with an association being formed under the name of 'The Revolutionary Struggle Group for the Abolition of Islam'. The study of Arabic was attacked as being anti-Chinese, and even circumcision was criticised. It is improbable that the Central government initiated these excesses, and they seem to have ceased with the running-down of the Red Guard movement. The Muslims survived the Cultural Revolution better than any other religious group, and at all times some mosques remained open. Since the Cultural Revolution little information has been forthcoming, but it is fair to assume that the position of Chinese Muslims has again improved.

Despite the restricted environment in which Chinese Islam now functions, the government of Deng Xiaoping is more tolerant toward Islam than any in two decades. Institutions concerned with religion in general and Islam in particular were revived as well. In April 1980, the China Islamic Association held its first meeting in 17 years. The more liberal policies of this post-Mao leadership have, however, engendered a good deal of resentment from many quarters. Several areas have reported with obvious distaste the re-emergence of "feudal superstitious practices" associated with religion and, despite massive government efforts to discredit Lin Biao and the Gang of Four's repression of religion, there must be many Chinese who believe that Lin and the Gang were right to do so.

Thus, it is highly unlikely that a change in regime would result in greater freedom of religion. The odds are that any new government would be less, rather than more, tolerant. Any sharp changes away from tolerance of Islam would be tempered by China's need to maintain friendly relations with the Middle East. A Muslim rebellion could also pay into the hands of the former Soviet Union, as had happened in Xinjiang in 1962. Still, as the PRC's behaviour during the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution shows, pragmatic policies may under certain circumstances be abandoned in favour of more ideologically pure policies.

© Copyright 1997
Bethany World Prayer Center
This article (which first appeared in "Frontiers Focus" Vol 4 #3 and 5 #2, and is used by permission)
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