China continues to reject accusations of human rights abuses in the northwestern region of Xinjiang — despite widespread reports of the detention and harsh treatment of more than 1 million Muslims. In 2017, Beijing stepped up efforts to “reeducate” China’s largely Muslim Uyghur ethnic minority group, citing the need to fight domestic terrorism and extremism.
Reported abuses include harsh population-control measures, including forced IUDs, abortions and sterilizations among China’s Muslim population. Mass detention centers reportedly require Muslims to renounce Islam and pledge loyalty to the Communist Party — or face torture or death for not complying.
In recent months, statements from the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and other Western nations — along with reports by experts — have called Beijing’s crackdown against Muslims “genocide.” But what does the rest of the Muslim world say?
The response of Muslim-majority countries may seem surprising
In 2019, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt were among 37 countries that signed a letter to the U.N. Human Rights Council praising China’s “contribution to the international human rights cause” — with claims that China restored “safety and security” after facing “terrorism, separatism and extremism” in Xinjiang.
This wasn’t the only time Arab leaders took China’s side over its repression of its Muslim citizens. When Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited China in 2019, he declared that “China has the right to take anti‐terrorism and de‐extremism measures to safeguard national security.” And a March 2019 statement by the Saudi‐based Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) praised China for “providing care to its Muslim citizens.”
Two years later, the support for Beijing appears strong. Chinese media reported in March that “Saudi Arabia firmly supports China’s legitimate position on affairs related to Xinjiang and Hong Kong … and rejects the attempt by certain parties to sow dissent between China and the Islamic world.”
Beyond simply praising China’s crackdown in Xinjiang, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE have arrested exiled Uyghur Muslims in their countries, deporting them back to China at Beijing’s request. So why are Arab leaders so tolerant of China’s abuses of its own Muslim population?
Economic explanations only go so far
Economic ties explain some of this surprising endorsement of the repression of fellow Muslims. China is an important trade partner and investor and is the primary customer for Middle East oil. And the Middle East is of critical geopolitical significance to China’s ambitious infrastructure and investment plans under the Belt and Road Initiative.
Other regional powers such as Iran, Qatar and Turkey have taken a more indirect approach to China’s repression of its Muslim population. Heavily dependent on China economically, Iran has been reluctant to speak out against Beijing’s policies. In March, Iran and China signed a sweeping 25-year oil-for-investment deal.
Qatar has not directly criticized Beijing but refused to sign the 2019 U.N. letter that other Muslim-majority countries signed in praise of China’s actions in Xinjiang. The Turkish government, which had accused China of genocide in 2009, later softened its stance. As Turkey becomes more economically dependent on China, some officials have denounced U.S. criticism of China’s policies in Xinjiang as “imperialistic.”
My recent research suggests another part of the story has received far less attention: the significant increase in religious engagement between Beijing and these countries, which helps explain the enthusiasm from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt for the crackdown in Xinjiang.
China has been able to align its hostility toward its Muslim population with the antipathy of these countries toward particular forms of political Islamism — ranging from mainstream political groups that want their governments to expand democracy, cut corruption and protect human rights, to more radical Islamist groups that denounce governments as apostates and puppets of the West.
However, China and the Saudi-UAE-Egypt axis don’t share the same concerns about Islam: While Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt fear specific forms of political Islamism that challenge their legitimacy and regional standing, China fears the very “Muslimness” of its Islamic communities.
What does Chinese religious engagement in the Middle East look like?
By aligning its crackdown with the fierce hostility to political Islamism within Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, Beijing appears to be seeking legitimization from an unlikely source. Heavily dependent on Chinese trade, investment and oil purchases, these three countries have not only remained silent about the reported abuses in Xinjiang, but actively praised China’s efforts to control its domestic Muslim population.
Beijing controls Islamic narratives coming into and out of China through the Chinese Islamic Association, the official government body charged with overseeing Islamic discourse and activity. This organization also oversees the religious outreach efforts in the Middle East.
The association has focused on “lauding the uniqueness of Chinese Islam and its compliance with Party ideology, while urging caution against foreign influence.” When heads of state or Islamic figures from the Middle East visit China, officials from the association are always present, an apparent effort to reinforce the Islamic legitimacy of the organization. In 2014, for example, the visit to China by King Salman (then Crown Prince) included Chinese Islamic Association-led tours of different Chinese mosques and resulted in the donation of $3 million for the construction of Islamic and cultural centers in China.
The Association also established and coordinated Islamic exchange programs with Saudi Arabia and Egypt to instruct Chinese Muslims in the narrative of “moderate Islam” as practiced by the Saudi-UAE-Egypt axis. In addition, the association directly controls the travel of Chinese Muslims to Saudi Arabia for the yearly hajj.
Guided religious engagement of this type offers a way for China to deflect international criticism of its internal Muslim crackdown. But these efforts also support China’s broader geostrategic and economic aims, helping Beijing to deepen ties within the Middle East and boost alliances with other autocratic leaders who don’t agree with the U.S. or European stance on human rights or democratization.
Jonathan Hoffman is a political science PhD student at George Mason University, where his research focuses on political Islam and geopolitical competition in the Middle East. Find him on Twitter @Hoffman8Jon.