The posted list of banned names. Photo: Sina Weibo
Radio Free Asia reported Thursday (Sept. 24. 2015) that “Chinese authorities have issued a ban on 22 Muslim names in Hoten [Hetian] prefecture in northwestern China’s troubled Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in an apparent bid to discourage extremism among the region’s Uyghur residents, threatening to forbid children with such names from attending school unless their parents change them, according to local police and residents.”
It may sound like a dark joke to American readers, but RFA reports, “The banned male names are Bin Laden, Saddam, Hussein, Arafat, Mujahid, Mujahidulla, Asadulla, Abdul’aziz, Seyfulla, Guldulla, Seyfiddin, Zikrulla, Nesrulla, Shemshiddin and Pakhirdin. The banned female names are Amanet, Muslime, Mukhlise, Munise, Aishe, Fatima, Khadicha.”
Just two days earlier there was a mass stabbing near Akesu, Xinjiang by suspected Uyghur separatists which killed at least 5 police officers and injured up to 40. It is the latest in a string of violent outbursts since the Urumqi riots in 2009, but it’s unclear how much the ban on Muslim names has to do with the attack.
After reading this story, and with President Xi’s visit to the US this week, I was thinking about how China and America have been dealing with Islamic terrorism. How would America react to a similar mass stabbing? Well, it would only be a matter of time before the assailants got tenure at UC Berkeley. And how would China react to the Ahmed Mohammed clock scandal/hoax? An invite to the Great Hall of the People? The last time the boy was seen, the giant hand of a policeman was pushing his hooded head into the back of a car. Jokes aside, the situations are not really comparable so perhaps it’s not right to draw conclusions from them. But I think it’s fair to say that the US government and media are overly sensitive to the feelings of Muslims, while the Chinese government and media, propaganda about the harmony among the 56 nationalities notwithstanding, are largely indifferent to them.
For example, when the Chechen Muslim Tsarnaev brothers bombed the Boston Marathon, the younger brother was sympathetically portrayed in many media outlets – most notoriously on the cover of Rolling Stone. More recently, the misreporting of Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson’s remarks about a Muslim as president is meant to paint him as a bigot. The American media and some politicians bend over backwards to make sure no one has any unacceptable thoughts about Muslims or Islam. Not so in China. “Islamophobia” isn’t a thing there. On the flip side, nothing as harsh as outright banning Muslim names would happen in the US.
To be fair, Chinese authorities do make exceptions for Uyghurs. There is what you might call “affirmative action” in Xinjiang that in certain cases gives special treatment to Uyghurs in hiring them for governmental or other positions. Also, knife crafting is a big part of Uyghur culture and the passing of family knives from father to son is a Uyghur tradition. Out of respect for this tradition, Uyghurs are allowed, until recent years anyway, to carry traditional knives – which is illegal for Han Chinese. It’s a big exception given that all non-kitchen knives must be registered with police, and that as recently as 2012 supermarkets in Beijing were forced to stop selling knives during the lead up to the 18th Party Congress.
A RESTIVE HISTORY
Now one of Xinjiang’s top tourism destinations, Hetian (aka Hotan and Hoten) is an oasis town at the confluence of the Karakash and White Jade Rivers on the southern rim of the Taklamakan Desert. It was a major stop on what was called the southern route of the old Silk Road and has been mostly populated by Turkic Muslim peoples since the 11th century, with documented history of the area going back a thousand years further. The area’s relationship with Chinese rule began in the mid 1700’s when the expansionist Qing Dynasty absorbed it into vassalage. Han migration and Uyghur resettlement didn’t begin in earnest until the mid to late 1800’s after a series of revolts by locals against the Chinese. Xinjiang officially became a Chinese province in 1884. 28 years later, Xinjiang joined the new Republic of China in the wake of the fall of the Qing Empire.
After more revolts by competing local powers, the Uyghurs declared in 1933 the establishment of The Islamic Republic of East Turkestan, with Hetian on its eastern border. Some also called it Uyghurstan. It lasted less than a year, having been crushed by Kuomintang forces and Hui Muslim warlords. Control of the vast and sparsely populated area was precarious, and in 1934 Xinjiang became subject to Soviet influence through puppet leaders. A second East Turkestan Republic – which did not include Hetian – was established with Soviet backing in 1944 which lasted until the Chinese Communists retook control of the province in 1949 and reincorporated it into the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
That’s leaving out a lot, but suffice it to say that the region around Hetian has a very complex history, and the current tension between the Uyghurs and the Chinese goes back a long way. Indeed, the region has been a point of contest between great powers for nearly 2,000 years. You can get a better feel for it if you think of it as East Turkestan, or Uyghurstan, in the neighborhood of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan rather than China.
AMERICA AND CHINA IN THE WAR ON TERROR
In April 2001 a US Navy plane and a PLA Navy plane crashed in mid air near the island of Hainan off of China’s southern coast. 1 Chinese pilot was killed and the American crew of 24 was detained in China for 10 days.
Exactly 5 months after their release the attacks of September 2001 happened.
This presented an opportunity for the two countries to move on from the incident and both countries seized it. The official Chinese response was sympathetic. President Jiang Zemin called President Bush the next day to offer condolences and cooperation, and on the same day China signed United Nations Security Council Resolution 1368 in a rare instance of Security Council unanimity. At least 15 Chinese citizens are known to have died in the attacks.
A year later China agreed to allow the US to open an FBI liason office in Beijing, and half a year after that signed on to the Container Security Initiative which would have US officials in Shanghai and Shenzhen inspecting US bound ship cargo. In 2002 the US designated the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which the Chinese government claimed had ties to Al Qaeda in neighboring Afghanistan, a terrorist organization.
China was already committed to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization with Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – an organization through which the member countries deal with their domestic separatist movements and terrorist groups (ETIM among others in China). China is accommodating of the American led War on Terror insofar as it is in line with its domestic security concerns, its improving relationship with the US, and its goals of greater international recognition as a major player on the world stage.
China has expressed objections to the War on Terror relating to violations of national sovereignty – Iraq – and the advancement of US interests that are detrimental to China. Many Chinese officials worried that as the US became more involved in Southeast Asia with its enormous Muslim population, the mechanisms of containing China are simultaneously put in place. The US and other Western countries worried that China would use its involvement in the War on Terror to further crackdown on ethnic minorities and government critics. Thus, the US did not send Uyghur militants captured in Afghanistan and held in Guantanamo Bay back to China for fear that they would be treated inhumanely upon arrival.
Throughout the years since 9/11, China has acted as something like the Good Cop to the American Bad Cop. In 2001, Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan announced to the Organization of the Islamic Conference that China wanted to improve “consultation and cooperation with Islamic countries in fighting terrorism [because] Islamic countries are also the victims of terrorism” and that China “opposed…associating terrorism with any nationality or religion.”
How times have changed. Terrorism can’t be associated with any religion, but just in case, don’t name your son Saddam Hussein Arafat bin Laden.
Would it be wise for American leaders to condemn the name ban in the name of religious liberty? Given that the US government has basically zero moral authority anymore, not really. Bigger things are at stake. The Chinese are looking at the FUBAR situation in Syria and Iraq and have suddenly become very worried about America’s looming military withdrawal from their neighbor Afghanistan. Chinese diplomats have sprung into action in Pakistan and Afghanistan in cooperation with the US to forge an agreement between those countries’ governments and the Taliban in an effort to get ahead of any potential Iraq-like collapse on their border.
There are also rumblings of China joining Russia and Iran in breathing new life into the Assad government in Syria, though not much is known yet. America and its coalition are being edged out in part because of their self-imposed rules of engagement – rules that will not be followed by Russia, Iran and China. As evidenced by the banning of Muslim names, the Chinese government appears ready to exercise the brutality required for dealing with much of the Muslim world.