As Muslims around the world continue to observe the holy month of Ramadan, the Chinese central government has banned it altogether for the Muslim Uighurs of Xinjiang, China, making it the latest episode of Beijing's crackdown on the ethnic minority.
This religious discrimination is only directed towards the Uighurs in Xinjiang. Ramadan is not banned anywhere else in China. The underlying issue is that Beijing is so paranoid that the Uighurs would unite and demand independence from the Chinese government, that it is prepared to control even the smallest aspects of their daily lives, such as private acts of personal religious devotion.
Yet, ironically, it is this repression that could ultimately turn the government's fears into a reality.
During the month of Ramadan, the Beijing government — indirectly through municipal governments — has sought to impose control over the Uighurs through various means. Muslim members of the government throughout Xinjiang have been forced to sign "letters of responsibility" promising to avoid fasting, evening prayers, or other religious activities. Uighur employees of private companies have been offered lunches during fasting hours, and anyone who refuses to eat could face losing their annual bonus or even their job.
At a teachers college in Kashgar, Xinjiang, professors locked students in the cafeteria, so that the students were unable to celebrate the religious holiday with their families. The municipal government of Aksu also issued a warning that restaurants that closed "without reason during the 'Ramadan period,'" indicating a refusal of the central government to accept the legitimacy of the 2,500-year-old religion, would be "severely dealt with." Those who wish to attend prayers at mosques must also register with their national identity card, and are forbidden to congregate or talk to each other after prayers.
To understand the significance of this discrimination, it is important to first understand a little about the history of China and the Uighurs.
The Uighurs are a Muslim, Turkic-speaking ethnic minority mainly based in the autonomous region of Xinjiang in in northwest China. (In China, an ethnic minority is defined as a non-Han ethnic group; the Han make up 92% of the population, and there are 56 ethnic groups in China.) Xinjiang was brought under complete control of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949, and since then, there has been an increasing number of Han migrants who wish to make use of the region's rich agricultural and trade economy and thriving commercial hubs along the Silk Road.
With mass Han immigration into Xinjiang, the proportion of Uighurs in Xinjiang has decreased while that of the Han Chinese has increased. The number of Uighurs in Xinjiang still remains higher than that of Han Chinese, albeit by a margin. According to government data, Uighurs make up a little under half of Xinjiang's 22 million civilian inhabitants, while Han Chinese account for 40%. Despite this, Uighurs are still treated as a minority in their home region, and have long suffered persecution by the Chinese government.
Apart from religious restriction, Uighurs suffer a blatant lack of access to good employment, as compared to the Han migrants. While Xinjiang's economy grew by 12% in 2012, the Uighurs' standards of living did not, as they complain that better-paying jobs, land, and business opportunities have all gone to the Han Chinese.
As a result, there have been violent clashes between the Uighurs and Han Chinese. In June, Uighur rioters attacked police stations with knives and set fire to police cars, resulting in 35 deaths. A similar clash took place in Urumqi, the region's capital, after the Chinese People's Armed Police was deployed to break up an Uighur protest. This eventually resulted in 197 deaths, over 1,700 injuries, and many disappearances following police sweeps in the days following.
These violent clashes have unsurprisingly caused the Chinese government and state media to label Uighurs as "terrorists." China Daily says that the Uighurs of Xinjiang are a "clear and present danger" in the region. Pan Zhiping, a professor from Xinjiang University, also claims that, “The West has been holding double standards in the definition of terrorism. If the East Turkestan separatists carry out evil deeds in Xinjiang, some Western opinions whitewash them as seeking ‘national self-determination.’”
In light of this, what should be made of the Ramadan ban?
The government may ban congregations or socializing after prayers for now, and it may even go further in the future. But these impositions of control can backfire and serve to unite the oppressed. The more the Chinese government seeks to repress and impose control over the Uighurs, the angrier the Uighers will become; the bloodier and more frequent the clashes will be.
This is a vicious cycle that can only be resolved by communication and compromise from both sides.