The history of China’s Muslims and what’s behind their persecution

Over 1 million Uighur Muslims are being held in detention centers in the far western province of Xinjiang, China.

Uighur leaders and experts located outside China have warned that the situation could worsen, and “mass murder” could not be ruled out. With upwards of 10% of the Uighurs being held against their will, it is being called the worst and the most neglected humanitarian crisis of the past 10 years.

Why is this is happening, and what makes the Chinese government see Muslims as a threat?

Islam in China

I have studied the long history of Muslims in China. Today’s China is home to a large Muslim population – around 1.6% of the total population, or around 22 million people.

They are not newcomers. Islam was introduced to China by envoys from the Middle East who traveled to meet Emperor Gaozong of the Tang Dynasty in the seventh century.

Shortly after this visit, the first mosque was built in the southern trading port of Guangzhou for Arabs and Persians who traveled around the Indian Ocean and the South China Seas. During this time, Muslim merchants established themselves in Chinese ports and in Silk Route trading posts.

However, they lived segregated from the Han Chinese majority for five centuries.

This changed in the 13th century under the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, when Muslims came to China in unprecedented numbers to serve as administrators for the new rulers who were descendants of Ghengis Khan, founder of the Mongol empire.

The Mongols had little experience running the bureaucracy of the Chinese empire and turned to Muslims from important Silk Road cities like Bukhara and Samarkand in Central Asia for help. They recruited and forcibly relocated hundreds of thousands of Central Asians and Persians to help them govern their expanding empire to the Yuan court.

During this time, wealthy officials continued to bring their wives with them, while lower-ranking officials took local Chinese wives.

After Ghengis Khan conquered much of Eurasia in the 12th century, his heirs ruled different parts of the continent, leading to a period of unprecedented peace and prosperity. This allowed cultures to flourish and goods and ideas to travel more freely. It brought the cultural traditions of China and the Muslim world together in new ways.

For about the next 300 years – during the Ming Dynasty – Muslims continued to be influential in government.