Students in central Java read the Koran outdoors by oil lamp during Ramadan. Indonesian Muslims have expressed anger over reports that Muslims in China faced restrictions on celebrating Ramadan. (Maulana Surya/Antara Foto via Reuters)

In late April, five senior figures from Indonesia’s largest Muslim civil society organization stepped off the plane in Urumqi, the capital city of Xinjiang, in China’s far west.

They had been invited on an all-expenses-paid trip by the Chinese government as part of a broad effort by Beijing to prove to Indonesian Muslim leaders that China’s Uighur Muslims enjoy complete religious freedom despite news reports to the contrary.

Xinjiang is China’s most restive province, the scene of clashes between the native Uighur Muslim population and settlers from the Han Chinese majority. Reports that China’s Communist government restricts the right of Uighur Muslims to fast during the holy month of Ramadan and places other limits on their freedom to worship have damaged the country’s reputation among Muslims in Indonesia and elsewhere.

Last month, to coincide with the start of Ramadan, two Indonesian Islamic political parties, the Prosperous Justice Party and the United Development Party, issued statements condemning the Chinese government’s restrictions on the religious freedom of Uighurs. The condemnations came amid rising tension between the two countries over a South China Sea dispute that recently resulted in the Indonesian navy firing on Chinese fishing vessels operating in contested waters.

The oppression of Uighurs adds another dimension to the complex relationship between China and Indonesia, the country with the most Muslims in the world and one where spreading communist ideology is illegal. The Chinese government has responded to Indonesian suspicion over its treatment of Muslims by working to convince Indonesian religious figures and journalists that nothing is amiss in Xinjiang. Its strategy offers hints on how it hopes to convince the rest of the Muslim world that it respects Islam.

The five visitors were skeptical of the Chinese state narrative when they arrived. “We asked, for example, whether it’s true that Muslims are forbidden from fasting,” said Bina Suhendra, chief treasurer of Nahdlatul Ulama, an organization that claims 50 million members.

But after a tour that included meetings with senior Uighur mullahs and visits to historic mosques, Suhendra and the others said their hosts had convinced them. “The [Chinese] state guarantees freedom of religion to all religions,” he said.

“I am not surprised at the result of the government-
managed visit — this has a long proven track record of shaping the views of unwitting participants,” wrote Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s regional director for East Asia, in an email.

Bequelin wrote that although the Chinese government does subsidize a state-controlled version of Islam, Chinese law aggressively regulates the Uighur practice of Islam.

“All imams have to be politically vetted, all mosques have to be under the control of the religious affairs bureau, and all scriptures, religious publications and preachers have to abide by strict censorship rules and procedures. These are black-and-white laws and regulations, not hearsay,” he wrote.

The senior leaders of Nahdlatul Ulama had a different impression. They were deeply impressed by the level of infrastructure development in Urumqi as well as what appeared to be a flourishing religious life.

“China is still communist, but it’s very open,” said Eman Suryaman, chairman of the central board of Nahdlatul Ulama and a member of the delegation. He noted the beautiful new mosques that the Chinese government had built for local worshipers. “We saw the attention the Chinese government paid to the religious community,” he said.

In late May, Arie Mega Prastiwi, an editor at Liputan 6, an Indonesian news site, accepted an invitation for a free tour of Xinjiang offered to her by the Chinese Embassy here. She figured she was invited because “they wanted to promote Xinjiang after the riots in 2009,” when hundreds of ethnic Uighurs clashed with Han Chinese in Urumqi.

She visited mosques and schools. She was free to wander the streets of Urumqi on her own, although she doesn’t speak any of the local languages. With the assistance of interpreters provided by the Chinese government, she interviewed state officials and spoke with students and worshipers. She concluded that ethnic tension had subsided and that onerous restrictions on Muslim worship were a thing of the past.

“Since the ethnic clashes of 2009, the central government and the Autonomous Region of Xinjiang have resolved the situation,” she wrote in one report.

In an interview, Prastiwi resisted the idea that her government minders had shown her a particular version of Uighur life.

“It was a very natural setting,” she said. “I saw what I saw and I’m writing what I write.”

According to Alim Seytoff, executive director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project in Washington, the Chinese government is able to convince foreign visitors that Muslims are free to practice their religion because Chinese restrictions are “subtle.” There is no blanket ban on fasting and prayer in Xinjiang, and the government subsidizes state-sanctioned forms of the religion.

However, he said, the local government restricts some segments of Uighur society from fasting, among them government workers and students. And Chinese officials are careful to present cooperative locals to visitors. “The showcasing of the happy Uighur is an old strategy,” Seytoff said.

Arsul Sani, a member of Indonesia’s parliament from the United Development Party, said he was not sure that the delegation of Indonesian Muslim leaders received the full story. “The Chinese government can set up some group to meet with the Indonesian guests and then say, ‘Perfect, everything is okay here,’ ” he said.

Questions surrounding Chinese persecution of Muslims are especially sensitive in Indonesia, which has a significant ethnic Chinese minority that is viewed with skepticism by some hard-line Muslim groups. When Basuki “Ahok” Purnama, the ethnic Chinese governor of Jakarta, issued a regulation banning public schools from requiring female students to wear headscarves, the Islamic Defenders Front, a local hard-line group, linked the issue with Xinjiang, tweeting, “China’s Communist government restricts Muslim worship in Xinjiang. In Jakarta Ahok forbids mandatory head scarf. . . . Draw your own conclusion!”

On June 16, the Chinese ambassador to Indonesia, Xie Feng, attended a Ramadan ceremony at the al-Tsaqafah Islamic boarding school in South Jakarta, making a donation to a scholarship fund for Indonesian orphans at the school and distributing books. Xie attended the event with Said Aqil Siradj, the chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama, who was in the delegation that went to Xinjiang.

In a speech that was covered by numerous local media outlets, Said Aqil said, “China is our friend. Nothing is to be feared from China.”

Xie gave a speech about shared Chinese and Indonesian values, mentioning the 15th-century exploits of Zheng He, China’s legendary Muslim eunuch admiral, who stunned the Ming court by bringing back a giraffe from East Africa and who may have contributed to the development of Indonesian Islam during his multiple visits to what is today Indonesia.

Xie then pivoted to the Uighur issue, saying, “Their religious freedom has all along been valued, respected and protected by the Chinese government.”

Then the Chinese Embassy handed out reports from Prastiwi, the journalist with Liputan 6, to prove the point.