Luwei Rose Luqiu & Fan Yang. Chinese Journal of Communication. Volume 13, Issue 3. 2020.
Anti-Muslim discourse in various countries and regions has attracted the interest of scholars (Awan, 2014; Coppock & McGovern, 2014; Weaver, 2013), and, especially since the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, public polls and studies of Western media have documented negative attitudes toward Muslims (Allen, 2010). This rhetoric has been notably vigorous in countries with minority Muslim populations, including not only China but also Russia, Thailand, and India (Esposito, 2011). Online discourse about Muslims in China, however, has been understudied, in part because racist sentiment in China used to be focused on only foreigners, such as Africans. Chinese netizens are now using racial rhetoric, which, of course, reflects their racial thinking, to construct notions of race online (Pfafman, Carpenter, & Tang, 2015). To complement existing research, we provide an original description of the characteristics of anti-Muslim rhetoric voiced by members of the Chinese public. We also explore the complex interactions between Chinese Muslims and their out-group members, particularly concerning the impact of framing strategies on cultural and religious values that the ruling party defines as part of its effort to construct the national community.
This study contributes to the literature by demonstrating the influence of Han-centrism and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s atheistic ideology on the manner in which members of the Chinese public interpret various cultural and religious issues. Thus, we detail the framing of minority and religious groups in the online public sphere and document their efforts to speak out. Our mixed-method approach combined quantitative content analysis of social media posts with qualitative frame analysis of online material and in-depth interviews with Chinese Muslim users of social media. Our results make clear that anti-Muslim frames in China have indeed been rooted in Han-centric interpretations of culture, and they continue to be supported by the ruling party’s nationalist policies and atheistic ideology. We conclude that although various forms of social media have provided a platform for Chinese Muslims to respond to hostility and to attempt to influence public opinion on issues related to their rights as citizens, such users remain extremely vulnerable.
Atheist Ideology and Han-Centrism in China
The Cultural Revolution began on May 16, 1966, under the direction of Mao Zedong, witnessed the oppression of different groups—ranging from intellectuals to religious communities—that the CCP perceived to be real or potential sources of resistance. The CCP targeted religious groups not only because they often maintained foreign connections but also because their faith seemed incompatible with loyalty to Mao Zedong (Grim & Finke, 2011). Open religious practice was allowed to resume in 1970, and the 1978 Constitution provided for freedom of religious belief. However, the definitions of “religion” and “freedom” were established by the CCP rather than in a legal context (Erie, 2016), and studies have shown that freedom of religion depends on an independent judiciary (Finke & Martin, 2014). Thus, despite the discourse of religious freedom, the mindset of the CCP has not substantially changed since Mao’s era. The government has continued to regulate religious practices strictly but inconsistently, permitting some groups and practices but banning and persecuting others. Organized religious groups and practices, thus, remain under state control (Chan & Carlson, 2005), even as religion continues to spread among the Chinese population (Yang, 2006).
Under the leadership of Xi Jinping, the Chinese government has continued to crack down on religion in China: Muslims have been under surveillance, Christian churches have been shutting down, and Buddhist monks have been forced to pledge allegiance to the state. In 2015, the CCP introduced the term “sinicization” in association with a call on Muslim, Buddhist, and Christian leaders to fuse their theologies with Chinese socialist thought (Ma, 2018). An important step in this process came in 2016, when Xi chaired the National Religious Work conference, the first time that a CCP general secretary had done so since 2001. At this conference, Xi described religious affairs as having “special importance” for the work of the CCP and central government, and he declared that religious groups must adhere to the party’s leadership and support the socialist system—specifically, Xi’s socialism with Chinese characteristics. He further asserted that members of the CCP must “be unyielding Marxist atheists, consolidate their faith, and bear in mind the Party’s tenets” (Xinhua, 2016).
The government’s move against Chinese Muslims began in Xinjiang. Its actions have included forcing the Uyghur Muslim minority to forego obligatory fasting and other religious practices, such as the wearing of burqas (Dearden, 2017). According to a recent UN human rights report, approximately one million Uyghurs and other Muslims were being detained in China without any legal process, and extraordinary surveillance technologies have been deployed to track those living in Xinjiang (Nebehay, 2018). Beijing’s tight control of religion in Xinjiang has also extended to the Hui community in other provinces. Local political leaders, for their part, have praised what they characterized as curbs on “religion and terrorism” in Xinjiang as a good model for future attempts to regulate religious expression (Lau, 2018).
There are, in fact, 23 million Muslims in China, most of whom are Huis or Uyghurs inhabiting, respectively, northwest China and the frontier region of Xinjiang, which borders several Central Asian countries. According to the China Islam Association, the People’s Republic of China at its founding in 1949 recognized 56 ethnic groups, 10 of which were identified as consisting largely or entirely of Muslims. In addition to the Hui and Uyghurs, these minority groups are the Kazakh, Dongxing, Kyrgyz, Salar, Tajik, Uzbek, Bonan, and Tatar. Furthermore, most Chinese Muslims are Sunnis.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, the Chinese government reframed domestic separatism in Xinjiang as a form of terrorism (Chung, 2002), and attacks by Muslims in Chinese cities outside Xinjiang in recent years have further raised concerns among Chinese authorities (Zhao & Wang, 2007). In practice, the government has been labeling all ethnic protests as terrorism—a strategy that has helped to foster resentment toward Muslims in the country (Hillman, 2016). Thus, research has shown that Han Chinese and Uyghurs tend to distrust one another, although the former demonstrated stronger out-group distrust than the latter (Zhang et al., 2009). Studies about the reporting on Islam and Muslims by the mainstream Chinese media have revealed similarly negative attitudes and examples of unbalanced coverage (Luqiu & Yang, 2018), including the labeling of Uyghur unrest as terrorism (Chung, 2002). With the country’s top leaders repeatedly warning of the dangers of radical Islam as one of “three evil forces” at work in China, online hate speech has been increasing and fueling Chinese Islamophobia.
The increased prevalence of rights discourse in discussions among Chinese Muslims and in their online activity in general can be seen as reactions to this Islamophobia. Their behavior in this regard demonstrates the truism that when individuals feel excluded from the national rhetoric, they become more aware of and willing to discuss their human rights (Robin, 2016). Since Muslims represent only a small portion of China’s 700 million internet users, they have found it especially difficult to defend their rights, especially for those living in Xinjiang. The mainstream media has not covered, let alone followed up on, issues of concern to Chinese Muslims with anything like the attention it has devoted to issues concerning the Han majority (Luqiu & Yang, 2018). On social media, meanwhile, posts and articles specific to Chinese Muslims’ concerns have been quickly deleted. From the government’s perspective, efforts to defend their rights and those of other ethnic minorities represent a potential source of social instability and conflict.
Two Dimensions of the Anti-Muslim Frame
One approach to understanding how Han-centrism and the CCP’s atheistic ideology influence interpretations of culture and religion by the general public in China is to explore how the ethnic Han frame Muslims as members of an out-group. A frame in this context is “a central organizing idea of story line that provides meaning to an unfolding strip of events” (Gamson & Modigliani, 1987, p. 143). Framing strategies are used to construct a certain meaning for a given phenomenon as part of the processing of information (Dolezal, Helbling, & Hutter, 2010). On Chinese social media sites, both Muslims and Han are using framing strategies to deliver messages emphasizing certain issues so as to command the public’s attention.
Studies of Muslims in Western societies often employ a cultural interpretative frame, according to which Islam is a threat to a nation’s cultural homogeneity and migrant Muslims are an out-group unwilling to assimilate into the majority culture. In China, the hegemony and homogeneity of “Chineseness” is the core value of Han-centrism, whereas non-Han minority communities are not deemed to be authentically Chinese and have positioned themselves on the margin, and not have been positioned there by the Han majority (Shih, 2011). In recent years, Han supremacist discourse on the Chinese Internet has promoted pride and self-identification to the exclusion of non-Han minorities and the Han ethnicity as a spanner of boundaries (Leibold, 2010). With their distinctive way of life, Muslims in China are thought to be unwilling to assimilate into Chinese culture—that is, they are unwilling to become more authentically Chinese. Chinese Muslims, by contrast, consider their way of life to be crucial for the construction of identity as well as group belonging.
Along with ethnicity, the other dimension framing Chinese Muslims is, of course, religion. Although the 1978 Constitution guaranteed freedom of religion and Islam is among the five religions officially recognized by the state, the atheistic, one-party government obviously exerts considerable control over the ways in which Chinese citizens can experience religion (Barker, 2011). The CCP has always feared the power of organized religion. Thus, public education adheres to the principle of the separation of church and state: religious activities are not allowed to interfere with the educational activities of either majority or minority students, although the major world religions are introduced in high school (Nanbu, 2008). State control of religion and the broader pattern of relations between the state and religions are not new in China. In the modern era, the government has selectively applied negative and positive valuations of religion, labeling proscribed religious activities as criminal and unpatriotic (Bays, 2004). Issues relating to Islam are only discussed officially in regions with relatively large Muslim populations (Ashiwa & Wank, 2009). Lack of familiarity with organized religion and prolonged exposure to state propaganda concerning it have fostered an Internet discourse that is ignorant and intolerant of religious individuals, in particular Muslims.
Research Design and Methods
We chose Sina Weibo—the most popular Chinese social platform, which was launched in 2009—for our evaluation of online anti-Muslim sentiment. Although another popular Chinese microblogging site, Tencent Weibo, was launched the following year, Sina Weibo has continued to experience steady growth in its revenue and number of active monthly users and, thus, has remained the dominant platform of its type in China. In 2014, Sina Weibo went public and was traded on the NASDAQ under the stock name of “Weibo” (Barris, 2014). Transcending geographical boundaries through cross-province networking and communications, Weibo provides various kinds of public online forums wherein common concerns are debated (Rauchfleisch & Schafer, 2015) and, accordingly, it has the capacity to catalyze sustained collective action across China (Huang & Sun, 2014). Among its users, the platform has served as a means for individuals and minority groups to speak up and construct their own distinct public personas (DeLuca, Brunner, & Sun, 2016; Leibold, 2011). To be sure, the Chinese government imposes censorship online just as it does on traditional print media, but Chinese netizens have developed coded language through which to express themselves (Sullivan, 2014)
In full awareness of the distorting effects of censorship, we searched a total of 15 keywords related to Islam and Muslims in Chinese cyberspace—including “Islam,” “Muslim,” “green religion,” “Xinjiang,” “Koran,” “mosque,” “Middle East,” and “refugee”—on Weibo’s search engine to locate all relevant posts for the period from September 1, 2015, to October 1, 2015 (N = 12,346). Our analysis used only the original posts; quoted posts were excluded. We chose this period because it corresponded with the worldwide reaction to the death of a three-year-old Syrian refugee, Aylan Kurdi, whose body was found on a Turkish beach—a story that was widely reported by the Chinese media and that gave rise to considerable debate on Chinese social media as well.
The European refugee crisis, especially the death of Aylan Kurdi, marked the first time that Islam and Muslims received significant attention in China, particularly in discussions on Weibo. This level of attention was possible because the European refugee crisis was reported as international news and was, therefore, subject to less censorship and allowed greater latitude. Discussions of domestic issues involving Muslims, in contrast, are almost always quickly censored. The debate after the death of Alyan exacerbated anti-Muslim sentiment in China, and the Chinese Muslim community complained to the government. In fact, the anti-Muslim sentiment was strong enough at that point to attract the attention of international media, and Weibo, in response, censored posts relating to Islam, after which it became impossible to perform further analyses of this sort.
In order to determine how netizens framed their posts, each post was assigned to one or more of the following seven categories: anti-terrorism (that is, focusing on the government’s efforts to counter ideologically motivated attacks), extremism (that is, focusing on terrorist groups and their activities), conflict, crime, livelihood, culture, and religion. The posts were also coded in terms of tone—negative, neutral, or positive. Thus, the posts linking Muslims and Islam to anti-terrorism efforts or to stories or other posts about Muslim extremists and terrorist attacks were coded as negative, as were posts that included inflammatory words or criticism of Muslim culture or religion, or that included stories about crime and other social problems (e.g., discrimination against women) within Muslim communities. Initially, both authors coded around 20% of the data; then, after satisfactory internal reliability was achieved (indicated by Cohen’s k = .87), the first author coded the rest of the data.
In order to examine how Chinese Muslims use social media to respond to and persuade others, we interviewed 34 Chinese Muslim Internet users who were active and well known on various Chinese social media, including microblogs, other blog platforms, and internet forums. We gathered the sample by sending requests for interviewees to five microbloggers on Weibo and then recruiting further participants using snowball sampling to reach our targeted interviewees. These interviewees were based in various provinces, including Xinjiang, Ningxia, and Shanxi, and belonged to various ethnic groups. Interviews were conducted to determine the participants’ assumptions, intentions, and shared constructs of experience (Gubrium & Holstein, 2009). In addition, as a means to observe the interaction between content producers and their audiences, we began following five microbloggers on August 1, 2015. We conducted participant observations to examine how they crafted their experiences, recording their interactions with their followers and commenters in a Chinese virtual social setting (Gans, 1999). The long period of observation using these measures enabled us to experience the social world as it appeared to the participants in the study (Liberman, 1999). Ethnographic interviews were also conducted during the observation period so that questions would arise spontaneously and the resulting conversations with participants would generate data (Patton, 1990). To protect the privacy of our participants, we have used aliases in this paper.
The Anti-Muslim Frame on Weibo
In our sample, the number of Weibo posts related to Muslims increased significantly after the news of the death of Aylan Kurdi, from 3,408 to 8,938, or 162%. Among these posts, the number of negative ones increased 169%, from 805 to 2,167. This result indicates that the media reports had a strong effect on the social media posts; netizens became more engaged in topics related to Islam after the boy’s widely publicized death.
Among these posts, 33.08% were related to religious issues, including quotations from the Koran, Islamic rituals, and introductions to the fundamentals of Islam. Cultural topics—such as Chinese Muslim food, culture, music, and literature—accounted for 24.36% of the posts. Non-Chinese Muslim netizens frequently mentioned or discussed The Muslim’s Funeral, a 1982 novel by the Chinese Muslim female writer Huo Da, about three generations of a Hui family in Beijing, which has sold over 2.5 million copies in China and adapted into film. Among the posts, 10.23% involved descriptions of Muslim daily life, both by Chinese Muslim netizens sharing their lives with their followers and by non-Chinese Muslim netizens sharing their observations about Muslims. Anti-terrorism was the focus of 17.08% of the posts, generally in the form of comments on news stories or expressions of individuals’ own views of various issues. Crime involving Uyghurs in China and refugees in Europe was the subject of 10.48% of the posts, the majority of which consisted of discriminatory and hateful rhetoric. Only relatively small percentages of the posts related to conflicts or extremism, 3.67% and 1.1%, respectively (Table 1).
|Table 1. Percentage of various topics of Weibo posts.|
Participant #24, a Chinese Muslim, reported that he began proactively discussing Islam with non-Muslims in forums because he had read many negative comments about his faith and wanted to explain it. He then established a personal website and has since been granted a business license by the government. The website features news about the Islamic world in general and a blog through which many young Muslims share their views, and it even has even attracted some non-Muslims. Participant #24 said that he spent little time on social media platforms, such as Weibo, because he did not have many followers and was tired of providing the basic information about Islam over and over again. He sometimes struggled over whether he should return to communicating only with fellow Muslims, a comfort zone for him, and focus on how to be a better Muslim or whether he should instead continue his mission to explain Islam to outsiders. He was fully aware that websites and WeChat provide platforms for perspectives that differ from the state media’s Han-centric ideology, but he noted that these platforms lack any real two-way debate. Weibo, with its comment and retweet functions, enables users to engage in dialogue and debate with out-group members in the public sphere, and visibility of this sort is, of course, important. However, discussion with those who are prejudiced against Islam and Muslims is hardly a pleasant task for Muslim Weibo users:
Like us, many non-Muslims are very committed to their beliefs. They just don’t care for us. We live in a non-Muslim country; we are the minority; what can we do? I don’t think they would say those things in real life, but those words are their true thoughts. I don’t think we have a fair debate online. We just don’t have enough people online. And we can’t be angry and aggressive in fighting back because that would be evidence for them to claim that we are extremists, for them to intensify their stereotype. (Participant #12)
The Dimensions of the Anti-Muslim Frame
We also used qualitative research techniques in this study because they enabled us to provide a comprehensive perspective on the phenomena of interest (Flick, 2000). Relying on our extensive experience with and knowledge of Chinese Internet culture, we analyzed the data using crystallization—a methodological and interpretive framework that brings together various forms of data, analysis, and genres and forms of sense-making in order to ensure the consistency of a narrative and the plausibility of research findings (Ellingson, 2009). For the analysis of the interviews and the posts, we used critical discourse analysis (CDA; Fairclough, Mulderrig, & Wodak, 2011) and categorized the posts according to various themes. CDA provided a platform for analyzing texts in terms of their use of the negotiation of language, power, and ideology. This approach was effective because values and identity all manifest in various uses of language (Machin & Mayr, 2012).
Before the Chinese provincial education authorities of Ningxia ordered a ban on religion in schools (Lau, 2018), a video of a five-year-old Hui Muslim girl reciting verses of the Koran in kindergarten went viral on Weibo and prompted a huge number of anti-Muslim comments. The video had first been posted on YouTube in 2014, where it was blocked. Some Chinese Muslims questioned why this video had suddenly emerged and become popular; it raised the possibility that what had been represented as anger on the part of the public had in fact been deliberately fomented in order to garner support for the government’s tightening of restrictions on religion (Osborne, 2016). The accusation is not baseless, for the government as well as companies in China are known to hire members of the so-called Internet Water Army—essentially just paid online ghostwriters—to post comments with specific content on social media. For businesses, this is a means of branding or attacking competitors; for the government, it is a way to create or manipulate public opinion or to distract people from an ongoing discussion Chen, Wu, Srinivasan, & Zhang, 2013).
Cultural Interpretative Frame: Chineseness vs. “The Other”
In many of the posts, Chinese Muslims were regarded not as Chinese but as foreigners or, in scholarly terms, out-group members. Thus many posts included such expressions as “when you will return to Arabia?” or “get out of China.” Historical examples of ethnic conflict served as evidence in these posts; the Qing Dynasty-era Tongzhi Hui Rebellion (1862-1877), for example, was constantly cited as representative of cruelty on the part of the Hui toward the Han and as proof that the Hui cannot be trusted. Other posts depicted the habits of the Hui and of Muslims in general as something other than Chinese, such as halal dietary laws. This ostensible strangeness was represented as evidence of their unwillingness to integrate into Chinese society. Further, ridiculing these habits was a common form of verbal attack against Muslims in the posts.
The policy of the Chinese government toward minority populations was also a common source of complaint about Chinese Muslims in the posts. In the eyes of many Han netizens, Muslims, as a minority, enjoyed a range benefits or preferential treatment. This result shows that existing government policies benefitting ethnic minorities, whatever the claims of state propaganda, have failed to promote harmony among China’s various ethnic groups but have rather have served to isolate minorities. At the same time, these policies have also led part of the Han population to ignore the current structural inequality that ethnic minorities face. Thus, many of the posts found fault with, for example, “minority points for attending universities” or “exemptions to the one-child policy.”
Religion Frame: Atheists vs. Believers
For obvious reasons, atheists often find it difficult to understand the role of belief in the personal life choices of religious people. In China, the understanding of religion is usually based on reports in the mass media, which are, however, relatively rare. Non-Muslims accordingly have a narrow impression of Islam, as can be seen from posts reading “Muslims can marry four wives” and “jihadists get 72 virgins after death.”, sometimes demonstrate the ignorant use of Islam to mean Muslims, as can been seen from posts reading “Islam does not eat pork.”
Atheistic beliefs, then, problematize dialogue between believers and non-believers. Thus, many non-Muslim Chinese netizens refused to listen to Muslims regarding the meaning of religion in their lives, dismissing belief as a weakness, superstition, or even evidence of non-conformity. Many of these posts had an angry and negative tone and accused believers of being intolerant of atheists rather than making any attempt to reflect on the true nature of tolerance for different beliefs.
Chinese Muslims’ Strategies on Weibo
Although social media platforms in China are privately held and the companies are listed overseas, they are in practice regulated by the government, and religious issues, as has been seen, are considered sensitive and are subject to censorship. In order to evade this censorship, netizens often create new words or give new meanings to existing words. Since the color green is a symbol of Islam and was often worn by Chinese Muslims in the past, “green” has come to serve as a derogatory label in anti-Muslim discourse. The pejorative nature of the term is strengthened by the fact that in Mandarin, the curse word “jackass” is a homonym of “green,” making it another popular insult used against Muslims.
Social media provide platforms for individuals, especially those who have little knowledge of Islam or interaction with Muslims in daily life, to break through this information blockade created by government censorship. Conversely, Chinese Muslims are using social media to communicate with non-Muslim Chinese or, at least, to construct a more sympathetic image of themselves as a group than the one presented by those who are openly hostile to Islam. Thus one interviewee observed the following:
I usually introduce how our daily life is regulated by the Koran, very specifically, such as how and why we have rules about hygiene, for example, and what Xiaojing [Wudu] is. It is widely believed among Han Chinese that Muslims don’t wash their hands after using the toilet. They don’t know that Muslims put a strong emphasis on personal hygiene. I also explain why we have halal food and a method of ritual slaughter of halal animals. (Participant #11)
I try to provide accurate information about Islam, especially concerning topics about which the media is misleading. Social media is important in China. It can provide more details and facts. For example, my posts discuss many issues concerning female Muslims in China. I am a female Muslim; I want people to know that we can choose our partner freely, that we can choose our way of life freely, just like them. We are happy, friendly, and peaceful people because we are Muslims. (Participant #6)
Another important use of social media by Chinese Muslims is to circulate of the speeches of imams. Reliable recent statistics are not available, but as of 2005, China was home to over 35,000 mosques and 45,000 imams (SARA, 2005). A privileged group of only seven certified imams have their own social media accounts on which they are permitted to interpret Koranic scripture and present the daily life of a mosque on Weibo. Imam Ma Guangyue, the most popular of the seven, has over 18,000 followers. Born in 1972, he became an imam when he was 20 and received his bachelor’s degree in Egypt in 2004. At the time of this research, he was also the vice president of the state-sponsored Gansu Islam Association. Most of his posts have been devoted to the Friday Jumah speeches that he delivers in the mosque or to short instructional videos about Islam. Ma Guangyue also makes patriotic comments about current affairs, for instance denouncing the United States’ position on the South China Sea and supporting that of the Chinese government. He has attracted followers from various parts of China, including non-Muslims.
The participants in this study expressed more worry about organized, online smear campaigns than about flaming—that is, posting comments with profanity or other offensive language—or trolling—that is, responding to others’ posts in a purposely disruptive fashion. Fake news, false information, and biased stories released by certain popular handles on social media have circulated widely. In 2005, the Chinese government implemented Provisions on the Administration of Internet News Information Services in order to regulate news websites (“Full text of provision,” 2005). One provision defines categories of news portals. Category one websites are authorized to produce news; websites in other categories can only repeat stories from other news outlets. Thanks to social media, however, such as blogs, microblogs, and WeChat (a cross-platform instant messaging service), organizations and individuals can deliver news stories themselves. Moreover, unlike members of the traditional news media—which also has its social media handles—individuals and groups distributing news stories through social media are not subject to the standards of professional journalism. With their sensational topics and narratives, some of them have amassed followings larger than those of traditional media outlets. In the words of one participant in this study,
There are several handles on Weibo that focus on reporting negative news stories about Muslims. For example, one is called “In-depth news official website.” It looks like a professional news outlet, but, actually, it is a personal website. However, it is influential; it has over 100,000 followers. When it translates international news, it always changes the content and usually alters the ideas to suit its version of events. All these stories give the impression that Islam is ignorant and brutal. (Participant #28)
This participant cited two examples to illustrate the point. In the first, when the “In-depth news official website” reported a conflict between Muslims and Buddhist villagers in Myanmar, it claimed that the cause of the conflict was sexual harassment of a Buddhist woman by a Muslim man, when, in fact, the man, after quarreling with the woman, was beaten by other Buddhists. In the second example, a story about a female tourist from Holland being raped by a man in Doha claimed that the Qatari government had charged the victim with public drinking, adultery, and promiscuity under Islamic law while the rapist had not been arrested. In fact, the police arrested both individuals, and both were charged and convicted.
Contesting Han-Centric Public Policy and Censorship
Han-centric nationalism is strong among Han elites, including liberal intellectuals. Historically, ethnic groups living on China’s borderlands, some of them Muslims, have not been included in Chinese culture (Harrell, 1995). An illustrative case of Chinese Muslims standing up to this power structure involves a false news story that circulated on Weibo in early July 2016 and was retweeted by many intellectuals and elites, including Jia Kang, director of the Institute of Research in the Ministry of Finance, who has 140,000 followers, and Dan Bin, a high-profile businessman with over 10,000 followers. The story was that the mayor of Dorval, a suburb of Montreal, Canada, had refused demands by Muslim parents that pork be removed from school cafeteria menus on the grounds that it was his duty to protect the rights of non-Muslims. More than a year earlier, on January 27, 2015, the city of Dorval had issued a statement denouncing this false report circulating on the Internet, and it was found that the original source may have been in the United States, although there was a similar hoax about a mayor in Belgium in 2013. In any case, even after some netizens identified the story as false, many others continued to claim that it was true.
These influential online Han elites and intellectuals have no Chinese Muslim counterparts, although there have been influential Chinese Muslim social media users. The most influential was Participant #29, quoted above. He once had more than 2,000,000 followers on Weibo, but his verified account was deleted, according to him, “because I talked too much about Huis and Uyghurs.” As of the end of July 2016, he had an unverified handle, with only 100,000 followers, which he was using to identify and correct false online news stories and rumors daily and to publish information about anti-Muslim trolls. He also interacted with non-Muslims who sympathized with Chinese Muslims or simply opposed trolling. As he put it,
Most Chinese Muslims don’t have any political demands. The bottom line is having mosques and halal food. But now anti-Muslim people are trying to shake up our basic requirements. This is very dangerous. Meanwhile, the cultural gaps within the Chinese Muslim population are huge. For example, conservatives criticize my style of explaining the Koran, but this is the only way to communicate with Han Chinese. If I use a rigorous narrative, I think most of them will think it’s double Dutch. We are squeezed. (Participant #29)
In an effort to defuse conflicts between Han and Chinese Muslims, it has been the policy of social media censors to delete posts of this sort and, thus, to terminate the dialogue, which places Chinese Muslims in an unfavorable position by depriving them of the opportunity to defend themselves in the public sphere. In the words of two of the participants in this study,
According to official statistics, in 1953, the average income in Xinjiang was 3.5 times higher than the rest of China. The population in Xinjiang was half Uyghur and half Han Chinese. In 2015, the annual income of Han Chinese in Xinjiang was nine times higher than Uyghurs. Meanwhile, urban people made three times more money than rural people. This is the result of 60 years of aiding Xinjiang.” I posted this on Weibo and was reported by a cyber policeman. I was accused of separatist activities online. The post was deleted, and, luckily, they didn’t come for me. (Participant #30)
A troll posted a picture insulting to Muslims on Weibo. I reported it, but the company had no response. So, I took a screenshot and posted it. I wanted more people to be aware of this troll. However, I encountered substantial trouble as a result. This troll is still updating. I was very frustrated. I reported the troll, but they have not been punished; instead, I was the one out of luck. (Participant #28)
As already noted, another risk facing Chinese Muslims when they speak up on the Internet is ideological conflict with the CCP. For conservatives, a debate over halal food legislation has raised concern that the Chinese government may open the door to Islamization. Xi Wuyi, a scholar of Marxism at the state-run Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who is very active on Weibo, was the leading voice to oppose the halal food law. Although Xi has had only 20,000 followers, her anti-Muslim posts have been popular. Thus, during a 2018 dispute among owners of halal beef noodle restaurants in Shanghai, nearly three million netizens read her posts. Her argument has been that, in a socialist state, legislation should not reflect or accommodate religious law, nor should the constitution endorse the tenets of Islamic jurisprudence (Erie, 2016). This view is shared by many Han intellectuals and other elites.
Also during his address at the 2016 religious work conference mentioned earlier, Xi Jinping urged Chinese authorities to oppose the infiltration of the country by foreign forces through religious means and its ideological infiltration by extremists by focusing on religious issues on the Internet and disseminating the Party’s religious policies and theories online (Xinhua, 2016). The orders from the top leader like the imperial sword for people like Xi Wuyi, who regard themselves as propagandists in the service of the CCP’s atheist ideology, defenders of national interests, and opponents of foreign influence. These propagandists are active on social media, often critiquing the growing Islamic influence in China through the rhetoric tactical of “poisoning the well.” Thus, Zhongmu Wang (2muslim.com), one of China’s most popular online portals for Muslims, was shut down after one of its users posted a petition asking President Xi to cease suppressing Chinese activists on a forum; screenshots of the petition had been reposted by Xi Wuyi on Weibo along with accusations that the website supported separatists in Xinjiang (Aljazeera, 2016).
Discussion and Conclusions
This study was designed to explore why Chinese Muslims have remained largely voiceless in the public sphere and how access to social media, as the main alternative to the mainstream media in China, has helped them to forge their own discourse and to raise their visibility in the public sphere. Access to social media, in other words, has enabled Chinese Muslims to circumvent the silence regarding themselves in the mainstream media, although they still face many constraints. Interviews with 34 Chinese Muslims who were active online revealed a nuanced reaction on their part to this state of affairs: these netizens realized that, as things stood, social media was the only channel for them to push back against Islamophobia, to change attitudes toward themselves, and, ultimately, to influence public policies relating to Islam and Muslims. Confronted with heavy censorship and hostile online discourse, they were facing an array of challenges.
The People’s Republic of China is a closed society in which ethnic issues are considered sensitive, which makes it difficult to conduct research there (Leibold, 2016a). The study of Islam and Chinese Muslims is even more complicated because it involves ethnicity as well as religion, an equally sensitive issue. Conflict and mutual distrust between the central government and ethnicities in the provinces is a recurring theme in Chinese history, and today religion is essentially incompatible with the ideology of the ruling CCP. With a two-fold minority identity—both ethnic and religious—Chinese Muslims face discrimination in the cultural and political spheres as well as in government policies and in public discourse.
In China, the Internet has empowered Han nationalism; thus “Hanist views reflect community opinion in the wake of recent episodes of ethnic violence” (Leibold, 2016b, p. 17). At the same time, through social media, Chinese Muslims have also been able to communicate with out-group members. Members of the Han majority tend to have difficulty understanding the pain of discrimination. Although since the government ordered hotel owners outside of Xinjiang to subject prospective guests from the province to additional scrutiny or to refuse to accommodate them, Han from that part of the country have begun complaining of discrimination. Such stories are never covered by the mainstream media, which leaves social media as the only channel for the aggrieved Han to speak out and ask for justice—although discussions of these topics have tended to cast blame on Uyghurs and to exculpate Han involvement in the discrimination. Uyghurs are often stereotyped as lazy, unreasonable, poor, and potential terrorists, even though some non-Uyghur voices have shown sympathy for the group and criticized government policy.
For ethnic and religious minorities in China, then, the construction of a collective identity is the key to bringing about social change. The Chinese government has become fully aware of the power and potential of social media and has been vigilant in policing it. The government has also sought to promote a single, official interpretation of the Koran among Chinese Muslims and to quash any underground practices considered inconsistent with it. Thus, only officially recognized imams have been allowed to discuss Islam on social media. The government’s efforts in this respect have benefitted Chinese Muslims by providing non-Muslims with reliable information about Islam, although the continued existence of this official communication channel is entirely dependent on the state’s policy.
The data for this study were collected in 2016, and the situation for Muslims in China has continued to deteriorate rapidly, beginning with the CCP’s crackdown on Uighurs in Xinjiang in 2017. In 2018, in the Ningxia autonomous region, where most Hui Muslims live, some mosques launched a campaign against pan-Islam or “Arabization” of Islam in China by the government (Liu, 2018). In response, the government tightened censorship of social media so that the discussion of religion of any kind is no longer permitted; for this reason, most of the interviewees for this study had ceased using social media. Some had received warnings from the government in this regard and had had their accounts blocked.
Once, it seemed that social media could play a transformative role in improving the situation of Muslims in China. In fact, this has been their only channel for speaking out in the public arena. Under the current circumstances, however, this unique channel has become greatly limited. As a consequence, Islam will continue to be misunderstood in China, and Chinese Muslims will continue to be treated as second-class citizens by the Han majority.
While we strived to obtain as complete a sample of Weibo posts as possible, we acknowledge that our findings may not be representative of the entire population of posts, in particular because the censorship of Weibo by the government makes it impossible to determine the actual portion of posts that mention Islam and Muslims. Future research, therefore, could involve replicating our study using random sampling methods in order to generate findings that are more generalizable. In addition, greater academic attention should be directed toward Chinese Muslims in the aftermath of the recent tightening of controls on social media by the government. Despite these caveats, the findings presented here offer significant insight into the experiences of an under examined group—Chinese Muslims—and shed light on public opinion about them in relation to their use of social media in the construction of their identities.