Will the Rise of Sinophobia Backfire on the Islamic World?


With China’s ascendancy to global superpower status, incidences of anti-Chinese sentiment are sure to increase. However, China will not remain idle.

In the far West of China lies the region of Xinjiang, also referred to as East Turkestan. Xinjiang is the traditional homeland of the Uyghur people, a Turkic ethnic group with an identity, culture, and language distinct from the majority Han Chinese. Unlike the Han who are largely irreligious, Uyghurs practice Islam, a faith deemed by the Communist Party of China (CPC) to be a ‘feudal superstition’ and an ‘impediment to the nation’s progress’. Though religion is hypothetically tolerated by the state, after a string of terrorist attacks by Uyghur separatist groups, culminating in the bloody massacre at Yarkand where more than a 100 people were killed, expressions of Islamic faith and culture have been severely curtailed by the authorities.

Uyghur men under 60 aren’t allowed to grow beards while the wearing of a face veil can result in a hefty fine and even a prison sentence. Added to this is a process of gradual ethnic cleansing in the region, facilitated by the Chinese state’s subsidizing of affordable housing for Han Chinese in cities such as Karamay. With the demographic balance shifting gradually in favour of the Han, Uyghurs increasingly view President Xi’s ‘Sinicization’ as a form of ‘domestic colonization’.

Indonesia’s Sinophobia is bizarrely tangled with its long history of rampant anti-Semitism.

Distrust between the Uyghurs and Beijing is growing and has given an opening to violence. Up to 5,000 Uyghurs have joined the fight of the Caliphate in the Middle East, threatening to bring terrorism back to defeat the ‘Chinese infidels’ and to ‘shed rivers of blood’. So far, the most brazen ISIS-style attack caught on security cameras was a mass stabbing at Kunming railway station in which 33 people died and hundreds were injured. A Uyghur extremist group from outside China claimed responsibility and cited Beijing’s oppression of their people as the primary motivation behind the attack.

The Chinese government’s response was to clamp down even further on the freedoms of Uyghurs. Subsequently, checkpoints have been built on Xinjiang major highways, metal detectors installed outside mosques, futuristic face recognition technology programmed into surveillance cameras while tanks and armed soldiers have become a usual sight in cities like Urumqi and Kashgar. The atmosphere is edgy and reeks of paranoia as the authoritarian state aims to stamp out any whiff of minority dissent.

Source: IB Times

Unsurprisingly, Beijing’s heavy-handedness has drawn accusations of Islamophobia across the Muslim ‘Ummah’ or ‘community of believers’ in Arabic. In Turkey, a country which owing to its cultural and linguistic similarities to Xinjiang readily offers asylum to escaping Uyghurs, anti-Chinese sentiment became a national phenomenon after far-right Turkish nationalists and Islamists marched in solidarity at a pro-Uyghur rally in Istanbul. To avoid being assaulted, Chinese tourists in the area insisted they were not Chinese but Korean. When asked about this, Devlet Bahcel, head of the far-right Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi (MHP) responded: ‘How does one distinguish between Chinese and Koreans? Both have slanted eyes.’

This sparked a wave of anti-China demonstrations across Turkey, with Chinese flags and effigies of Mao being burned to vociferous, warlike cries of ‘Allahu Akbar’. Further anti-Chinese sentiment has been stoked by the spreading of false news stories such as that Chinese police forced Uyghur men to drink beer during the fasting month of Ramadan. More recently, a video of a gloomy-faced Uyghur woman allegedly being forced to marry a Han Chinese man enraged netizens across the Islamic world, leading to a torrent of anti-Chinese abuse.

The Netherlands-based human rights advocacy group ‘Talk to East Turkestan’ who spread the video, claimed it was evidence of Beijing’s systematic “genocide” of the Uyghur people but failed to provide any evidence that the marriage was forced or that the state had had a hidden hand in it. Islamist groups such as the Lebanon-based  Hizb ut Tahrir used the video for their own propaganda purposes as evidence of ‘gene washing’ instigated by ‘predator Kufr rulers’.

In Turkey, a country which owing to its cultural and linguistic similarities to Xinjiang readily offers asylum to escaping Uyghurs, anti-Chinese sentiment became a national phenomenon after far-right Turkish nationalists and Islamists marched in solidarity at a pro-Uyghur rally in Istanbul.

In the diaspora, Chinese citizens are routinely subject to discrimination. In Muslim-majority Malaysia, ethnic Chinese are regularly exhorted to return home by the Malay majority, even by prominent Members of the Parliament, such as Bung Moktar who publicly declared “Chinese go back to China”. Muslim Malay politicians have increasingly used ethnoreligious identity politics to single out and isolate the Chinese minority, scapegoating them in times of financial crisis and frequently questioning their loyalty to the Malaysian state, particularly during periods of diplomatic friction between Malaysia and China. State-linked media have also produced advertisements depicting the non-Muslim Chinese behaving improperly during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan in a bid to ostracize them further and fuel a negative view of the irreligious foreign out-group while preserving the flattering image of the pious Muslim-Malay in-group.

Indeed, the Malay bid to erode Chinese influence in the country has lead to an exodus of Malaysian-Chinese. Malaysia’s university quota system which overwhelmingly favours Malays effectively keeps the Chinese out of higher education, leading many to leave the country in search of brighter prospects. Many head to the West, but increasing numbers are resettling in the land of their ancestors with whom they share a common language and culture. A study by the human rights group Pusat KOMAS argued that ‘religious extremism’ was one of the greatest factors in the rise of anti-Chinese racism and discrimination, citing the ‘inherent danger of the overreach of bureaucratic Islamic institution[s]’.

“Authorities in the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang have ordered its Muslim minority to turn over all copies of the Quran, prayer mats, and other religious items or face punishment”. Source: Morocco World News

Political Islam has proven to be an effective means of marginalizing the Chinese, not just in the political but also the public domain. Consequently, Muslim hardliners have been pushing for a stricter version of Sharia including the enforcement of hudood punishments like caning for immodesty and the amputation of limbs for theft. According to a recent poll by Merdeka Centre, 71% of Malays showed support for the implementation of a stricter, more Islamic penal code amid a growing climate of religious conservatism.

Such figures have alarmed the Chinese minority who could conceivably be made dhimmis (Islamic subjects) and be made to be a poll tax or jizya. Some even claim such a soft jizya exists in the form of the Bumiputra system, an affirmative action programme introduced after the 1969 race riots as a means to redress inequalities. Even the conservative Swiss-Muslim academic Dr. Tariq Ramadan admitted that Malaysia was guilty of double-standards, complaining of persecution by the non-Muslim West on the one hand and the persecuting non-Muslim Chinese on the other.

In the diaspora, Chinese citizens are routinely subject to discrimination.

To the south in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim-majority nation in the world, the 2.8 million ethnic Chinese who live there face an even more uncertain future. On May 9th 2017, Jakarta’s much beloved Christian-Chinese governor Basuki Purnama, affectionately known as ‘Ahok’ was arrested and imprisoned for blasphemy. His crime was quoting a verse in the Quran with which he refuted the claim made by Islamic hardliners and clerics that Muslims should not be governed by kafirs (non-Muslims).

Ahok’s arrest sent a strong signal to Indonesia’s Chinese majority that, if it did not toe the line with the country’s increasingly hardline Islamic dictates, it too may feel the full force of Indonesian law. Even moderate Muslims felt the incident was a travesty of justice, many speculating that it was a conspiracy between self-serving politicians and Islamists to oust the much beloved Chinese governor from his influential position. Islamist groups such as the Islamic Student Association (HMI), the Islamic Mujaheedin Assembly (MMI) and Hizb ut Tahrir whipped up anti-Chinese sentiment, encouraging chants like ‘crush the Chinese’.

To the south in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim-majority nation in the world, the 2.8 million ethnic Chinese who live there, face an even more uncertain future. Source: Hong Kong Free Press

Though Chinese-Indonesians make up a little over 1 percent of the archipelago’s population and are mainly concentrated in the urban centers of Sumatra, historically they have wielded significant economic power across the country. Their financial success has often led to resentment among native Indonesians and a slew of discriminatory policies designed in their disadvantage. During the Suharto dictatorship and the financial crash of May 1998, rumours of ill-gained wealth and prosperity led to the ransacking and destruction of Chinese-owned businesses in Jakarta’s Chinatown and the deaths of over 10,000 people. While many fled to nearby Singapore, others remained in the hope of healing entrenched divides.

Indonesia’s Sinophobia is bizarrely tangled with its long history of rampant anti-Semitism. Chinese success in business have led to accusations of greed and self-interest and stereotypes in the country which mirror those of anti-Semitic tropes once common throughout Europe. The Dutch colonialists who ruled the archipelago exploited negative portrayals of the foreign Chinese as robbing the native Indonesians of wealth and resources, a divisive campaign that helped consolidate and justify its own rule of local Muslims. The Dutch colonial official Dirk van Hogendorp bitterly opposed to the Chinese, calling them ‘bloodsuckers’, ‘parasites’ and ‘tricksters’ while the historian Nicolaas Godfried van Kampen wrote that the Chinese were ‘Jews of the East’.

The Sinophobic legacy left by the Dutch has cemented itself in the Indonesian psyche and has become an unfortunate feature of political life. In an interview conducted by scholar Adam Schwarz, an interviewee stated that, ‘to most Indonesians, the word ‘Chinese’ is synonymous with corruption’. In 1967 a government committee was founded to address the rather ominously named ‘Chinese Problem’ (Masalah Cina). The committee discussed potential repatriation and the levying of special taxes, but agreed eventually on a ‘soft’ system of forced assimilation.

While the West is held responsible for a great deal of ‘Islamophobia’, Sinophobia is a less understood phenomenon, something which is arguably as pernicious. With China’s inevitable ascendency to global superpower status and the CCP’s ill-advised encroachment on the religious autonomy of the Uyghurs, incidences of anti-Chinese sentiment, fuelled by feelings of resentment and a chronic sense indignation at perceived injustices towards their Muslim brothers and sisters, are sure to increase, both in the Muslim-majority nations in southeast Asia where Chinese form significant minorities and across the wider Ummah.


Purdey, Jemma (2006), Anti-Chinese Violence in Indonesia, 1996–1999, Honolulu, H.I.: University of Hawaii Press, ISBN 9780824830571.

Vlekke, Bernard H. M. (2005) The Story of the Dutch East Indies, Leiden University Press, ISBN 9780404090432

About Thomas Clements 2 Articles
Thomas Clements is a published author specialising in literature about Autism and Buddhism. He divides his time between his native London and Beijing. You can follow him @tclementsuk

1 Comment

  1. This was a well researched article and an interesting read. I wasn’t expecting you to put a lot of emphasis on Malaysia since it’s comparatively irrelevant on the international stage, but I’m quite impressed that you are well versed on the local politics there.

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