China wants to play an active and constructive role in achieving peace in the Middle East.
That's what Liu Jieyi, China's permanent representative to the UN, recently said when reiterating Foreign Minister Wang Yi's 'Five Point Proposal' promoting an end to violence in Gaza. This was presented as an extension of Xi Jinping's May 2013 'Four Point Proposal' on the Palestine issue.
While China seeks to project a soft-power image with such proposals, China's domestic policy in Xinjiang threatens to undermine its potential to move toward a more active and constructive Middle East policy.
In China, religious activity is strictly monitored and regulated by the Communist Party, which fears any belief system that may undermine its authority. While restrictive policies have been in place for a number of years, in reaction to the spate of attacks and violence in Xinjiang since last year, the Chinese Government has enforced further regulations curbing expressions of Islamic identity in the region. During the month of Ramadan, several government departments required employees to sign pledges to not fast. In universities, Muslim students were forced to eat meals with professors to ensure government orders were being followed. This policy was only applied to Muslims in Xinjiang — other Muslim minorities, such as the Hui, living in other parts of China, were not subject to the same restrictions.
While onlookers in Beijing may interpret these as necessary precautions against the spread of terrorism and extremism, or as evidence of the Government's unwavering authority in Xinjiang, China's restrictive policies are further fueling anti-government sentiment among the Uighur population. On the day before Eid al-Fitr, nearly 100 people were killed in the violence that ensued when government buildings, police stations and vehicles were attacked in the western city of Yarkand. Shortly afterwards, Jume Tahir, the government-appointed Imam of Kashgar's Grand Mosque and vocal advocate of the Party's anti-terror policies, was stabbed to death.
China's Xinjiang policy is counterproductive to its image across the Middle East, as demonstrated by anti-China protests held in Saudi Arabia and Turkey in July.
These events, however, have not led to a change in China's approach. Authorities have now implemented a ban on long beards, headscarves, long dresses, the niqab, as well as star and crescent symbols (the 'five abnormal styles'), in public spaces in the city of Karamay for the duration of a sporting tournament it is hosting from 8-20 August.
By linking Islamic dress, symbols and traditions so closely with the threat of terrorism, China risks alienating not only its domestic Muslim population, but the rest of the Muslim world. Yet as the world's largest net oil importer, China has vital interests in the Middle East. Iraq is now China's fifth-largest source of oil. With four projects in operation, China's CNPC is the largest foreign investor in Iraqi oil.
While the region is preoccupied with the crises in Gaza, Syria and Iraq, China's Xinjiang policy may escape scrutiny. But as China's interests and presence in the Middle East grow, it will need more forward-looking policies. While China frequently regards external criticism of its domestic policies as interference in the country's 'internal affairs', China's policy-makers need to recognise that its Xinjiang policy has serious implications for its engagement with the Middle East.