During the National People’s Congress in March, top officials from the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, a Muslim-majority area in northwest China, warned political leaders that terrorist activities threatened to destabilize China.
In February, citing concerns about terrorist activities, authorities implemented new rules in Xinjiang requiring car owners to install GPS devices to ascertain vehicle movements. Xinjiang also implemented a ban on burqas, veils and “abnormal beards” this year, a move officials say is to combat “extremism” among the Uighur ethnic minority, a Muslim group concentrated in the region.
What does this harsh official rhetoric mean for China’s estimated 23 million Muslims — 10 million of whom live in Xinjiang? China’s Muslims make up less than 2 percent of the Chinese population — the Han majority, in contrast, make up about 92 percent of the population, according to China’s 2010 Census.
Anti-Muslim sentiment is on the rise
We analyzed 10 years of news reporting related to Islam on Chinese Central Television (CCTV), the largest of China’s state media outlets. We looked at reporting from 2005 to 2015 to determine how the Chinese government shapes public perception of Muslims in China. To examine the attitude of Chinese non-Muslims toward Islam and Muslims, we also analyzed more than 10,000 posts related to Islam and Muslims on Weibo, a Chinese equivalent of Twitter, before and after Europe’s 2015 refugee crisis.
For decades, government censorship rules have blocked media coverage on many topics related to China’s minority groups, including Muslim groups in Xinjiang and other parts of China. The official government line is that these topics are “sensitive,” and the regulations exist to maintain “social harmony.”
Domestic news coverage of the daily life of Muslims in China tends to be scant. Many of the news stories are government propaganda pieces about how much Chinese Muslims have benefited from the government’s preferential policies toward racial minorities.
This type of journalism effectively undermines relations between the Han and Muslim minority groups in China, as the Han tend to view these preferential policies as unfair. For instance, minorities were exempt from the 38-year One Child Policy that guided family life throughout China until 2016.
Although there is more freedom for the media to report international news, the news media in China relies heavily on Western news agencies, which focus primarily on terrorism and conflicts when reporting on Islam and/or Muslims. International news accounted for 44.2 percent of the total 15,427 CCTV news stories on Islam or Muslims we analyzed, covering about 10 Muslim countries over 10 years. We also found that 84 percent of this coverage involved conflict, terrorism or extremism.
Coverage of domestic terrorism increased
In 2007, the state media began to report on domestic terrorist attacks (which were primarily related to Xinjiang and the Uighur people) and on China’s cooperation with other nations on anti-terrorism activities. This coverage expanded in 2009, when 75 riots took place in Xinjiang. More than 1,000 Uighurs began a protest, which turned into violent attacks mainly targeting Han people. Chinese officials reported that at least 156 people died and more than 800 people were injured.
In 2013, the state media offered intensive reporting on the rewards granted to the military policemen who fought the separatist forces in clashes in Kashgar, a Xinjiang city near China’s border with Kyrgyzstan. The figure below shows how reporting spiked in both 2009 and 2013, concentrating on the violence.
The stories were simple and one-sided, consisting only of official statements; most of these stories contained only basic information, such as the number of suspects or victims and when and where the event occurred. The violence was routinely described as terrorist attacks organized by Xinjiang separatist groups.
How are China’s Muslims finding a voice on social media?
A separate part of our research looked at social media, which offers a significant alternative to mainstream media in China, despite tight government controls over the Internet. After analyzing more than 10,000 posts related to Islam and Muslims on Weibo, we concluded that the sentiment of these posts toward Islam and Muslims is generally negative.
We interviewed 34 active Chinese Muslim Weibo users and found these active posters saw social media as a way to fight Islamophobia in China — and to exert influence on public policies that affect the lives of China’s Muslims. Using social media sites like Weibo, Chinese Muslims discuss their lives and views on an open platform. They receive comments — sometimes with hostile and hateful rhetoric from Han users — and respond to posts that are critical of Muslims.
The pain of ethnic or racial discrimination is not generally well understood among the majority Han population in China, as they never encounter the same treatment by the government. Han-centric culture is deeply rooted in Chinese society.
Our research found that most of these posts blame Uighurs for ethnic unrest and violence in Xinjiang. Posters tend to stereotype Uighurs as lazy, unreasonable and poor — and potential terrorists. Still, some social media posts expressed sympathy for Xinjiang’s Muslims and criticized the government crackdowns, including scrutiny of Xinjiang residents at hotels and airports.
We also noted that Han-Chinese Muslim conflicts on social media engineer nationalism among Han Chinese. Internet trolls who posted hate speeches included anonymous users and some online opinion leaders.
However, there’s another concern: the way Chinese news media report on Islam and Muslim news, and the inflow of international news relating to global terrorism and the controversy over Muslim refugees. Sometimes such news demonstrates to Chinese audiences how to deal with another culture and different people; sometimes it deepens anti-Muslim stereotypes.
Although social media are open platforms for expression and debate among different groups, many of our interviewees expressed their frustrations about the difficulty of communicating with non-Muslim Chinese. Their posts were frequently deleted and blocked when they tried to explain Islam or talk about government ethnic policies and actions on Xinjiang.
The Chinese government monitors social media carefully, as other research has shown. The government also wants to see an “official” interpretation of the Koran spread among China’s Muslims as a way to root out underground or subversive religious practice. Officially recognized imams are allowed to discuss Islam on social media, while other posts are taken down.
Despite China’s online censorship, our research found that social media provided platforms for Chinese Muslims to speak out and interact with out-group members. These platforms also offer scholars and journalists firsthand and anecdotal information. While online anti-Muslim sentiment in China is strong, compared with news reporting of Chinese news media on Islam and Muslims, social media in China serve as an alternative for Han people to obtain information that might help them understand Chinese Muslims.
Rose Luqiu, a PhD candidate at the College of Communications at Pennsylvania State University, researches censorship, propaganda and social movements in authoritarian regimes. She has been a journalist for 20 years and was a 2007 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. Follow her on Twitter @roseluqiu.
Fan Yang is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University at Albany-SUNY. Her research focuses on data analysis of new media and strategic communications, and the effects of new communication technologies on decision-making.