China can still step back from repressing religion – Ian Johnson

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Ian Johnson

China’s central government has been cracking down on both Protestantism and the Islam over the past year. The direct future looks grim, says journalist Ian Johnson, author of The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao at Foreign Affairs in an addition to a piece he wrote two years ago. The government can still go back to its pragmatic take on religion, but Johnson is not sure it will.

Ian Johnson

The government’s attitude toward Islam has been even more problematic. Ten of China’s 55 non-Chinese minority groups, primarily the Hui and Uighurs in the country’s northwest and far west, are Muslim. Here, the issue isn’t just control but the forced assimilation of these peoples.

Officially, the state is pursuing a war on terrorism in its far western province of Xinjiang. Although the problem of violence there is real, all independent observers agree that the main cause of unrest is the heavy hand of the state, which for decades has pursued a policy of resource extraction and resettlement in order to increase the population of ethnic Chinese.

The resulting downward spiral of repression and violence has culminated in a recent campaign of repression aimed at the very practice of Islam. State authorities have forced Xinjiang stores to sell alcohol and tobacco, for example, and forbidden students from fasting during Ramadan. The repression seems to be spreading beyond Xinjiang to Hui communities in other parts of China, where authorities are tearing down Islamic domes, removing Arabic-language signs, and silencing the outdoor call to prayer.

Most shocking has been the return of something that indeed has echoes from the Mao era: reeducation camps. At first, the notion of such camps seemed like an unbelievable rumor, but the state has confirmed their existence, justifying them as needed to control extremism. In them, Muslims are essentially secularized by force, forbidden from anything seen as too religious.

Until now, if one thought of large Asian countries where the mixing of religion and politics has caused strife and violence, India, Indonesia, or Pakistan might come to mind. In the future, this list could include China.

This need not happen. If the state steps back and takes a deep breath, it could avoid the conflicts that its current policies seem bound to create. One has only to think of the years of protest caused by the crackdown on Falun Gong to get an idea of how banning even one sect can become a messy, protracted affair. House churches have also been equally stubborn—just banning the Shouwang Church in Beijing in 2009 resulted in years of protests. And the inevitable backlash against such misguided policies as forcing Muslims to eat pork and drink alcohol is scarcely imaginable.

Up until now, I’ve always believed in the pragmatism of China’s reform-era leadership, despite the brutality of many measures taken during that period. Yet China is no longer in the reform era. Instead, it is entering a new period, one that may make observers look back fondly on the relatively light touch of the country’s past leaders.

More at Foreign Affairs.

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