In recent years, Chinese official policy toward Muslim citizens has firmly shifted to one of active assimilation. In Xinjiang, Muslim public servants have been told to forego fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, headscarves and long beards have been banned, and Mandarin is gradually becoming the only language of instruction in schools populated by Muslim minorities. Who gets to go on the Hajj, not to mention long-term studies and residence in the wider Muslim world, is being strictly controlled by selective granting of passports and other travel documents.
These assimilation policies are accompanied by continued increase in security presence and Internet surveillance, all in the name of stamping out Islamic fundamentalism and resulting threats of domestic terrorism. They have found ever-more vocal support among the non-Muslim majority in China, who has become more openly critical of Muslims within their country. Even Muslim practices long present and familiar with the Chinese public, such as halal restaurants and mosques, have come under attack in online forums and social networks.
As expected, such policies are not going down well with the local Muslim, and in particular, Uyghur populations. Separatist organizations such as East Turkestan Islamic Movement has found solid following among Uyghur exile communities in places like Turkey while more Chinese Muslims, both Uyghur and non-Uyghur, have become more anxious about their ability to practice Islam freely in China without incurring the wrath of the government and the non-Muslim general public. Muslims have already conducted several terror attacks in China, likely to protest restrictive policies.
From the perspective of grand strategy, Chinese government’s policy of diluting Muslim identity within China, and in the process, alienating Chinese Muslims, can be highly counterproductive. To be more specific, if we consider China’s long-term goal of creating a more multilateral world where no one dominant superpower dictate the directions of global affairs, an informal alliance with Muslims, and in particular, Muslim extremists would serve Chinese national interests incredibly well.
After all, in the past decade or so, Islamic fundamentalism has proven itself to be a highly capable adversary of the United States. In front of conventional military might the US brought forth in Iraq and Afghanistan, Islamic fundamentalists not only managed to survive American invasions, but have also been able to quietly strengthen themselves through recruiting disgruntled youths and gather resources in post-invasion chaos. The failure of American nation-building in the two countries, reflected in inability to provide basic public services, much less stable democracy and functioning economy, only helped to strengthen radical Islam.
For China to go against Islamic fundamentalism, both within China and around the world, is to make the exact same mistake that the US made over and over across the Middle East. Opposing radical Muslims through policy-making, inciting populist opposition among non-Muslims, as well as outright attacks on Muslim institutions and individuals will only turn Islamic radicals into an open enemy and strengthen it over time. It is a fight that a China that seeks greater global role can ill-afford.
Instead, China ought to accommodate Islamic fundamentalism and quietly support and even finance Islamic radicals on the condition that they continue their battles against Americans and not against China. So far, Islamic fundamentalism has proven itself to be a low-cost way of draining large amounts of American resources, spent on domestic security, Muslim immigrants/refugees screening, and anti-terror operations around the world. If the scales of Islamist operations can be expanded with state financing from China, bigger American counteractions drain more American resources even as China continues to increase its own resources. In other words, Islamic fundamentalists battling the US can be used as a tool to hasten the relative rise of China vis-à-vis the US.
However, Chinese government and public’s continued suppression of Chinese Muslims mean that today, Islamic fundamentalists seek to target China for the exact same reasons that they would target the US. The fact that the likes of ISIS have declared China as a target for attack has already started putting China in the same Islamic terror quagmire that the US faces today.
To extricate itself from these negative attention of the Islamic fundamentalists, China ought to quickly reverse any assimilation policy targeting Muslim minorities. By being tolerant toward Muslims within and outside its borders, China can, in the long run, ally itself with radical Islam in a common battle against continuing American hegemony.