Why China’s ‘repressed’ Muslims suddenly got dragged back into the light

A report on Beijing’s crackdown on mosques came out right after Muslim countries turned to the Asian giant for mediation in the Gaza war

At the beginning of this week, foreign ministers from a group of Muslim-majority countries, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, the Palestinian National Authority, and Indonesia travelled to China in order to seek support for a ceasefire in the ongoing Gaza war.

The unconditional backing of Israel by the United States and its allies has tanked their credibility across the Islamic world, and Beijing has positioned itself as an advocate of peace when others are not willing to take up that role.

It is curious that within the following few days, a report was released by Human Rights Watch, accusing China of expanding its alleged campaign of closing down and repurposing mosques into regions other than Xinjiang – which had so far been the focus of accusations that Beijing is cracking down on the predominantly Muslim Uighur minority. Even those allegations had been somewhat on the backburner in the establishment media lately, but the HRW report was quickly picked up and amplified.

Although relations between the US and China have somewhat calmed down, it is obvious that Washington does not want to see Beijing increase its influence in the Muslim world, as that would inevitably come at the expense of American clout. The attempt to draw attention back to China’s alleged repression of its Muslim population, while underreporting Israel’s devastating attack on the (also Muslim) population of Gaza, is an exercise in deflection and part of the ongoing narrative war between China and the US. Be it about Muslims or not, the Xinjiang issue has long been a key component of that struggle for influence.

The Uighur minority has, since 2018, been a tool of “atrocity propaganda” used to wage public relations offensives against China. It is a means to an end, which often disappears and resurfaces in the media, coinciding with the ebb and flow of anti-Beijing rhetoric coming from the US administration or the State Department. This includes using it to turn public opinion against Beijing in selected countries, including allies, or to manufacture consent for policies aimed at supply chain shifts or “decoupling,” through the accusation of forced labor, especially in the fields of key agricultural goods, polysilicon and solar panels, or to attempt to embarrass China diplomatically at the UN, or to push for boycotting events such as the Winter Olympics.

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Why China’s ‘repressed’ Muslims suddenly got dragged back into the light
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This is an incredibly opportunistic attitude to something Beijing’s detractors claim is a “genocide.” Since late 2021, the Biden administration has largely ignored the issue and it has fallen off the international agenda, precisely because Washington had gotten the sanctions they wanted from it at the time. However, the Israel-Gaza conflict introduces a new dynamic whereby the US and its allies are dramatically losing face and credibility among Muslim nations because they are backing Israel unconditionally in the wholesale slaughter of Palestinians. From a geopolitical point of view, such a policy pathway is actually strategically disastrous because it alienates the entire Global South, serves as a beacon in projecting US hypocrisy and worse still, directly empowers China as a competitor.

So when you are faced with a situation whereby Beijing is gaining diplomatic capital over your own failures, what do you do? You desperately aim to deflect by trying to draw attention to another issue in the attempt to smear Beijing: Xinjiang and the Uighurs. Now as it happens, Muslim countries mostly ignore US-led propaganda over the Xinjiang issue, because they see it for what it is and also share a common norm of respect for national sovereignty with Beijing, which is politically beneficial for them. The only Muslim nation who has ever made public comment about it is Türkiye, because Uighurs are a Turkic ethnic group and the issues is viewed through the lens of Ankara’s Pan-Turk ideology. However, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is still likely to ignore the issue, or only involve himself in it based on what he can gain.

On the other hand, the Gulf States, the key US allies in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, support China’s position, and the Gaza issue is putting them under pressure regarding their relations with the US and the decision to normalize relations with Israel. So suddenly we are seeing a resurgence of Xinjiang material because the US, even if it cannot sway their governments, wants to kindle the anger of Muslim populations about another issue instead and diminish China’s credibility. Although this is less likely in Arab States, it could cause public opinion ruptures in key Asian Islamic countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia, where significant resources were placed by organizations such as the BBC in relaying Xinjiang-related content in their respective languages.

But the question is, will this campaign succeed? It might be worth remembering that Xinjiang is an artificially imposed issue pushed “top-down” by governments and the media, whereas Palestine is a grassroots issue pushing from the bottom up, aspects of which media and politicians endeavor to selectively ignore. China’s heavy-handed management of Uighurs in Xinjiang is not really a genocide, and it will never rank on the same level of severity as the outright bombardment and mass killing of Palestinians, no matter how hard you try.

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