Uyghurs and Hui: China’s Muslim Minorities

Published on Author Charlie

Two of the largest of China’s fifty-six recognized ethnic minority populations, the Hui and the Uyghur, both largely practice Islam and have both occupied their respective corners of China for centuries. This might lead one to believe that these two groups live similar lives. However, the manner in which the Chinese government treats them could not be more divergent.

The Hui are ethnically distinct from the majority Han, but are quite similar in terms of outward appearance such that it is uncommon to be able to recognize the difference between the two at first glance. Only the white religious garb of the Hui offers any way to distinguish the ethnic groups. The Hui have a large presence in their “home province” (of sorts) in Ningxia, however they also enjoy a presence spread across most of the nation, particularly in the form of concentrated populations in most major Chinese cities. Their ethnic bond with the Han, as well as their relative assimilation into Chinese culture and society, mean that the Hui are essentially allowed free reign to practice their faith. Time off for religious holidays and acceptance of women who wear the veil is widespread. Some practice of sharia law is even permitted, with civil courts stepping in only to resolve those disputes which Islamic law fails to reconcile.

Within the borders of the same country, the story of the Uyghur is very different. Descendants of a mixture of several Central Asian ethnic groups, and speakers of a Turkic language, the Uyghur have long struggled to carry favor from the government in Beijing. In the allegedly independent province of Xinjiang, Uyghur are punished or prohibited from the same practices of their faith that the Hui are encouraged to enjoy. Veils are largely outlawed, open worship is discouraged or even prohibited, and those who speak out against the status quo are quickly labeled “separatists” by provincial authorities.

The reason for this distinction is simple: the Uyghur have consistently resisted government oversight and authority, while the Hui have been largely integrated. It is true that there is a significant Uyghur separatist movement, and that many of its extreme elements have turned to violence to express their outrage. And with each new terror attack, and subsequent government crackdown on Uyghur religious expression, the resentment grows between the two factions. Chinese repression is helping to fuel a vicious cycle wherein each policy they implement in order to punish the Uyghur for the extremist elements in their society pours more fuel on the fire of separatist extremism, and Uyghur extremists do their part to further draw the ire of Beijing by continuing to slaughter innocents in the name of their cause.

While the Hui enjoy tolerant attitudes and occupy many influential positions in Chinese society, strife and violence in Xinjiang continue without cessation. The Chinese government’s strong-arm policies aimed at the Uygur have yet to bear fruition in terms of reduced violence and increased compliance from the people of Xinjiang. Perhaps it is time the government considered a new policy more in line with the treatment of the Hui.

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9 Responses to Uyghurs and Hui: China’s Muslim Minorities

  1. China is so ethnically dominant (90% Han), that it seems like even the average Chinese does not care too much about an issue like this. I could be wrong of course, but it seems that historically, China has always operated more collectively as a people. They tend to be rather hostile towards outside minorities, unless they happen to get conquered by them. In today’s day and age, it seems that whatever group that collaborates efficiently with the government will for the most part stay out of trouble. I personally think the Chinese government is too powerful within the country, and it may be just wise to comply with their standards.

    • I would agree that the Han are dominant and compliance with the government is essential to staying in their good graces. That being said, the true “problem children” of China’s numerous ethnic minorities are few and far between, with the Tibetans and Uyghar being the most prominent exceptions. When taking the breadth of the entire situation into consideration, it is actually quite remarkable to me that China has managed to keep such a diverse and numerous smattering of various ethnic minority interests mostly peaceful and cooperative for so long. 54 out of 56 is a pretty high success rate for such a complex issue as this.

      That being said, I do agree the government has too much power and is behaving irrationally in this situation. The Uyghar need to feel respected and appreciated before they are ever going to consider heeding Beijing’s rule or cracking down internally on separatism and terrorist activity.

  2. I think this issue and others like it (Tibet etc) within China are going to become increasingly important in the years ahead. As these issues are publicized more and more the Chinese government will continue to be pressured to make major changes.

    • I agree and it will further underscore the level of control the government maintains. We see this with the airline industry, tobacco, land ownership and religious freedom. I would assume that as China continues to modernize and develop, the government will have to relinquish some of this control. For the reasons that Alden raised, and because further growth will depend on more of a free market.

  3. This is interesting. For obvious reason China and religion of any sort really don’t seem to go hand in hand. From an economic perspective, does this minority group operate just amongst itself like other religious minorities sometimes do (say the Amish as an extreme example) or does it engage fully, but quietly with the country as a whole?

  4. I would be interested to know how China would be able to handle an influx of immigration if the country ever allows that to happen. The nation is so ethnically homogeneous, I wonder if there would be racial clashes or a rise in ethno-nationalism if there was suddenly more immigration from the Middle East.

  5. I wonder if this is at least partially because of the geographic dispersion of the Hui. Whereas the Uighur occupy their ethnic homeland, which is highly isolated from the rest of China, the Hui are spread out throughout majority Han central and southwest China. Thus, while the idea of Uighur separatism is at least possible, the Hui are irrevocably bound to Chinese culture and the Chinese state.

  6. I don’t know if the divisions between the Hui and Uyghur populations are entirely government-driven. In terms of rural-urban migration, the Hui indeed have a much higher rate of success. This is due to their appearance and ability to speak Mandarin. The Uyghurs do not have the luxury of Mandarin, which clearly poses its barriers. Social networks also play into successful migration: Hui have a far higher rate of friends belonging to another ethnic group than do Uyghurs.

  7. It appears that the Uyghers do operate with at least some economic autonomy. Their commercial interests have largely revolved around agriculture and trade, with towns such as Kashgar finding a niche as a destination off of the Silk Road. As for their resentment for the Han, that could stem from a combination of severe restrictions on Islam and the reality that the Han are known to be given the best jobs and, on average, do well economically.