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In Pictures: China’s New Silk Road and a tale of two different Muslim minorities

Channel NewsAsia investigates the different policies applied to different Muslim groups in China. This is the story of the Hui people in Xi’an; and the story of the Uighur people in Xinjiang.

XI’AN, China: There are 23 million Muslims in China. They make up about 1.8 per cent of the population. There are two major Muslim ethnic groups in China: the Huis and the Uighurs.

The Huis, estimated at around 11 million, can be found throughout China. The ancestors of Hui people are mostly Arabian and Persian traders along the ancient Silk Road. They have been living in China for over 2000 years now.

A lot of intermarriages took place between Han people and Hui people. Many Huis look like the Han Chinese. They also enjoy similar food, with the exception of eating pork.

This is the Grand Mosque of Xi’an, one of the holiest Islamic sites inside China, and it does not even look like a mosque. The place used to be a Chinese government building during the Tang Dynasty. It was given to the Muslims after they helped the Chinese emperor in battle.

The Huis have largely assimilated into Han society, having adapted their Islamic practices to fit into the Han macro-culture. Their mosques, a blend of traditional Chinese architecture with Islamic motifs, are the perfect manifestation of this assimilation.

Mandarin is the language of communication amongst most Huis.

Hui leaders told us they enjoy religious freedom. They pray five times a day, their Imams conduct religious lessons, and there has been an increase in the number of Huis going for the Haj. In 2013, 177 Huis in the city of Xi’an went for the Haj. In 2014, this number increased to 276.

Hui children attend mainstream schools, but they also attend religious classes. The Hui people never challenge the territorial authority of the Party. Historically, they have also shown little interest in politics. This is in sharp contrast to the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.

Xinjiang- the Uighur people speak a Turkic language. Many do not speak Mandarin. There has been few Han-Uighur intermarriages, and little assimilation between Uighur culture and the Chinese macro-culture.

This is Kashgar old city- heartland of the Uighurs. There is a separatist movement in Xinjiang, and some Uighurs believe themselves to be part of a distinct Uighur nation, with its own homeland, history, culture and language. There is also a Uighur government in exile, with an office in Washington, USA.

The Uighurs live in their own neighbourhoods. There has been little mixing between Han and Uighurs, each sticking to their own shopping and residential areas.

Here in Xinjiang, the Chinese government practices control over sermons preached in mosques. They have shut down some Islamic schools which they deemed to be promoting separatist ideology. Reports have also emerged of restrictions on fasting for students and civil servants.

The measures have sparked protests in Malaysia, Turkey and Egypt. In 2015, the 57-nation Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) expressed concern and called on Beijing to respect Uighurs’ religious rights. The Qatar-backed International Union of Muslim Scholars put out a similar, more strongly worded statement.

There are also economic factors at play. Uighurs in Xinjiang earn less than their Hui counterparts in other more developed cities like Xi’an. Unemployment used to be a problem here, but now the Chinese government is investing massively to address the issue.

The Chinese government is building a special economic zone in Kashgar. This is part of China’s New Silk Road plan and it is designed to create more employment opportunities for Uighurs.

The Chinese government has also demolished many Uighur farming villages, and plan to move their residents to these high rise blocks.

Following violent attacks and ethnic conflict in recent years, there has been a change in education policies in Xinjiang. Young Uighurs now spend much of their time learning Mandarin, there is also an emphasis on “patriotic education”. President Xi Jinping emphasises this policy as a way to fight what he calls terrorism. Last year he described better education as “essential” to the region’s long-term stability. Some older Uighurs view such education as an erosion of their culture.

Many Uighurs working in farms will soon find work in the factories in Xinjiang’s cities.

But will investment wipe out decades of discontent, and mistrust between the Han and Uighur communities?

For more on the Xinjiang issues, tune in to The New Silk Road, Wednesday Oct 14, 8pm on Channel NewsAsia.

To find out more about the Hui people, watch Episode 1 of The New Silk Road on toggle here.