Why is the Chinese government trying to get Uighurs to slip up on Ramadan fasts?

Religious freedoms only become worse for Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang during Ramadan.
Religious freedoms only become worse for Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang during Ramadan.
Image: Reuters / Stringer China
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Last week, the state-run China Daily ran a feel-good portrait of a Uighur Muslim family in the Xinjiang region in northwest China celebrating Ramadan, the holy month during which Muslims abstain from food and drink during daylight. “My high school has never made any demands as to whether the students observe the fast or not,” the daughter told the paper.

She said this “in response to some foreign media claims that local governments in Xinjiang ‘intervene’ in religious observances during Ramadan,” as the China Daily put it.

The interviewee’s account differs from what Nicholas Bequelin, researcher at Human Rights Watch, told The Financial Times. According to Bequelin, Uighurs who attend or work in schools have been forbidden from fasting during Ramadan (paywall). Ilham Tohti, an Uighur scholar at Beijing’s Minzu University, told the FT that restrictions against Uighur Chinese Communist Party members and students are only getting stricter.

This is by no means a recent issue. Just two years ago, students at a teaching college in the region were accompanied to lunch by professors, pressured to eat even though they were fasting, as the Los Angeles Time reported. When the time then came to celebrate ‘Id al-Fitr, following Ramadan, students were confined to the campus, making them unable to join their families for the festivities. The government in Xinjiang also forbid restaurants to shut during the month.

Beyond its Ramadan harassment campaigns, the Chinese government has a much broader record of repressing its ethnic Uighur population, even as it lets Hui Muslims, who are much more assimilated into the national culture, exercise their faith freely. For instance, unlike Hui, Uighur women and children under the age of 18 are forbidden from attending mosque functions in Xinjiang, and parents are banned from teaching religion to their children in their homes. Crackdowns against children have been particularly nasty. One Uighur farmer told Radio Free Asia in 2012 that the authorities sentenced six teenaged boys to 8 to 14 years of prison for studying the Qur’an after school.

But as persecution campaigns go, goading people into eating when they’re trying not to has got to be among the pettiest. Why would the Party stoop to such levels?

Perhaps in the hopes of winning a war of attrition against Uighurs hoping to preserve their faith, traditions and languages in a way that prevents them from identifying with the rest of the country. By making it excessively inconvenient and challenging for students to celebrate Ramadan and ‘Id, the Party may hope to weaken the perception of those traditions among future generations. Getting Uighur cadres to abandon fasting might also reflect to the rest of the community that its leaders value Party affiliation over religious rituals.

Or at least, that’s one way of thinking about it. Another is that turning teachers against students and cadres against the Party is probably not the best way to encourage any group of people to assimilate.