A Choice: To Grant or Not to Grant Chinese Muslims Their Rights

Writing for the Diplomat, Patrik K. Meyer lays down strategic reasons for why the Chinese government is making the wrong choice in not embracing a more inclusive and diverse China.

China’s rise as a global power and leader of multinational initiatives is compelling the Communist Party of China (CPC) to find compromises between its domestic policies and international priorities. Among the compromises that the CPC has to make are issues related to ethnic identity and religious rights.

Domestically, the CPC wants to implement ethnic and religious policies that, particularly in the case of Chinese Muslims, are aimed at significantly weakening their religious and ethnic identities, while fomenting an increasingly homogenous and stable Chinese society. Internationally, however, the CPC has to communicate with governments and people who have strong Islamic heritages, making Chinese Muslims with a robust Islamic belief an irreplaceable and valuable resource. This is because Chinese Muslims can help Chinese representatives avoid misunderstandings resulting from intercultural exchanges and facilitate the people-to-people interactions needed to make multinational initiatives successful.

Hence, the CPC appears to have to make a choice between two mutually exclusive options. The first option is to grant Chinese Muslims their constitutionally protected religious and cultural rights, and thereby make them a valuable resource for Chinese international initiatives, but this risks domestic social instability. The second option is to drastically restrict their religious and cultural practices, which would result in the loss of a precious resource needed in China’s international exchanges, but safeguard social stability, at least temporarily. The significance of the CPC’s dilemma can be illustrated using the most prominent Chinese multinational adventure: the massive “Belt & Road Initiative.”

President Xi Jinping launched China’s “Belt & Road Initiative” (BRI) in 2013 with the aim to interconnect major economies in Asia and Europe through infrastructure, investment, and trade. As shown in this map, the initiative can be divided into a land-based economic belt and a maritime route. The economic belt refers to a vast network of rail and road routes, as well as natural gas and oil pipelines that mainly connect China’s Xian city to Europe through Central Asia, but also countries found along the belt, such as Mongolia, Pakistan, and India, among others. As for the maritime route, it refers to a network of coastal infrastructure, such as ports, that will link China to East Africa and Europe through South and Southeast Asia.

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