Matt James, Intern, Uyghur Human Rights Project
Dr. Pan Guang is Vice Chairman of Shanghai’s Center for International Studies. He spoke last week on the topic “Understanding China’s Role in Central Asia and Afghanistan,” at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, D.C., webcast here online. Regarding the Uyghurs’ role in this relationship, Pan made only brief references to Uyghur terrorists who may train in the region, a point he made in an earlier talk attended by UHRP. He commented that Uyghurs practice Islam more strictly than their Central Asian neighbors, highlighting the difference by remarking on a pork dinner he was served in Kazakhstan, “If you did this in Xinjiang, they would kill you!”
Pork is a source of sensitivity, as Pan suggests, but not because a single Han has been killed for eating it, and they do eat it every day. The reason is because eating pork represents one of the most tangible distinctions between Muslims and non-Muslims that China’s government allows. Although halal dishes are popular with Chinese immigrants to East Turkestan (especially the traditional dishes of the Uyghur and Hui people), pork is still a staple of the Chinese diet in the region and Han immigration has brought an influx of non-halal restaurants. Abstaining from eating pork is a rare example of freedom to express Islamic identity that is tolerated by China’s government, which orchestrated an especially severe religious crackdown during Ramadan this summer as UHRP documented.
Regionally, Pan stressed that China’s primary interests are political stability and economic growth, especially as he discussed Chinese contracts for development projects in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kazakhstan and the general Central Asian region. Interestingly, Islamic products such as hijabs are made in China, which outsell their local competitors in Central Asia with cheaper prices. In spite of a Tajikistan government ban on the hijab, an outbreak of skin rashes among women in Tajikistan this summer was possibly caused by Chinese-made synthetic fabrics, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
To further regional stability, China even has plans to work with fundamentalist Muslim groups. Dr. Richard Weitz of the Hudson Institute, who joined Pan as a discussant, noted that China has failed to follow the US in recognizing the Taliban-linked Haqqani network as a terrorist organization. Pan explained that China sees the Taliban as important to regional stability, and will negotiate with them after US troops withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014. The Taliban’s record of harsh punishment for any practice deemed haram or unlawful in Islamic jurisprudence during their reign in Afghanistan actually fits Pan’s fears of harsh Islamic punishment. Especially as China enters negotiations with fundamentalist groups like the Taliban, its persecution of its own Muslim citizens will undermine the goal of regional stability.