Islam in China

Ethnic Powder Keg in Henan Province

The reasons for the tensions between China's ethnic majority, the Han, and the Hui minority remain unclear. But an ethnic conflict has been brewing under the surface for some time. By Kerstin Winter

Hui women in Gongmachuang in Henan Province, photo: AP
Hui women in Gongmachuang in Henan Province

​​After being shattered by ethnic unrest, calm has returned to the province of Henan in Central China. Thousands of police continued to cordon off individual villages.

The violent clashes in Central China at the end of October were initially hushed up by the government. Foreign media reported numerous casualties as Han Chinese and the Muslim Hui minorities engaged in street fighting, setting off a chain reaction.

Anti-Muslim Sentiment

An Imam in the affected district of Zhongmou said that "international anti-Muslim sentiment has affected the Han-Chinese." Around 18 million Muslims live in China, approximately 9 million of them belonging to the Hui minority.

Professor Helmolt Vittinghoff, sinologist at the University of Cologne, believes that the conflicts are not religiously motivated. "The Han respect the Hui; they esteem them as merchants and restaurateurs." He does not believe that the incidents will be repeated and feels that the Chinese are too pragmatic to insist on hegemony.

Common Roots

Muslims and the Han Chinese have co-existed since the Tang Dynasty in the 7th Century, when Islam was first introduced to China. The Chinese Hui minority is descended from Arab and Persian traders who came to the area centuries ago and married Chinese. Thus, the Hui minority is ethnically and linguistically identical with the Han Chinese. According to official accounts, conflicts between the two groups have never arisen before.

The Hui are one of 56 officially-recognized minorities in China. At 91 percent of the population, the Han Chinese are by far the largest ethnic group. The other 55 nationalities total only nine percent of the country's 1.3 billion people, which is why they are referred to as national minorities. This includes ethnic Tibetans and Koreans.

The Illusion of Autonomy

Officially, China has upheld a policy of equality, unity and common prosperity for all nationalities ever since the foundation of the People's Republic 55 years ago.

Five of the 34 administrative districts on the provincial level are autonomous regions belonging to the national minorities, with the Mongols, the Uigurs, the Hui, the Zhuang and the Tibetans as the major ethnic groups. But the Han Chinese represent a disproportionate part of the regional governments as well.

Stirring Up Hatred

Due to restrictions on press freedom, little is known about relations between the different ethnic groups. The province of Xinjiang in Northwestern China is home to more than 10 nationalities, including the Uigurs, the second-largest Muslim group in China.

The Uigurs, once the largest ethnic group in the Northwest, make up only 45 percent of the population today. Ever since China incorporated the province there has been a resistance movement against the communists.

At 41 percent, the Han Chinese now make up the second-largest ethnic group in the region. As in Tibet, in Xinjiang tensions between the local population and the immigrants are stirred up by the Chinese authorities and businesses, which give preferential treatment to Han Chinese in all spheres of social life.

China's "Terrorists"

China's government has identified the Uigurs as terrorists; unlike the Hui, the second-largest Muslim ethnic group is a Turkic people with its own culture and language.

Severe human-rights violations are causing a constant rise in tensions between the minorities, the security forces and the Han Chinese immigrants.

The more desperately the minorities struggle for survival, the greater the likelihood of terrorist acts. However, most of the minorities have so far rejected terrorist violence as a means of resistance.

Kerstin Winter

© DEUTSCHE WELLE/DW-WORLD.DE 2004

Translation from German: Isabel Cole

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