Hui men praying in mosque
In recent years, China’s treatment of its religious and ethnic minorities has come under increasing scrutiny by the Western world. This has exploded into global anger over the mass incarceration of Muslim Turkic Uyghurs in northwestern China — one of the great human rights scandals of our time.
But oddly enough there is another large Muslim minority group that has so far enjoyed a much better treatment — the Chinese speaking Huis（回族）.
The Huis have a much more ancient and prominent role in China’s history than the Uyghurs. Their ancestors mainly arrived from Central Asia during the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty when Central Asian Muslims were brought into the Chinese hinterland for administrative roles and to help rule over the untrustworthy Han Chinese majority. However, the Hui Muslims eventually assimilated and intermarried with their neighbours. If you meet ethnic Huis today they look undistinguishable from the average Han Chinese.
Well, for the most part.
You see, the term “ethnic Hui” in the People’s Republic of China today is an umbrella term for groups of Muslims with very diverse genetic and ethnic origins. The definition used by the Chinese government is very different from the one used by past dynasties. During the Republic of China era, the famous Muslim general Bai Chongxi of the Nationalist KMT party objected to listing the Hui Muslims as a separate ethnic group from the Han Chinese. He argued that they looked and are the same as their Han Chinese compatriots except for their religion.
But when the Communists took over, they borrowed ethnic minority identification policies from the Soviet Union (which were used by Vietnam later on as well). Fifty-five ethnic minority groups were eventually identified, making China a “56 ethnic groups” nation, a propaganda term widely known by every primary school age child in the country.
However, the identification process is riddled with errors and an ignorance of history and local customs. Thus many historical problems from the ethnic identification days remain and several “unidentified” ethnic groups remain in legal limbo.
Coming back to the Huis, many different Muslim groups were bundled together as the same ethnic group. For example, the Huis of Ningxia, which is a “Hui Autonomous Region” (treated the same as a province) speak Northwestern Mandarin, have similar customs and mannerisms as a Northwestern Han Chinese — and yet they are classified as belonging to the same ethnic group as the Hainan Island Huihui （回辉人）, who are ethnically Southeast Asian Cham Muslims who fled to the tropical island in the extreme south of China when the Vietnamese conquered the Cham centuries ago.
These Hainanese Muslims speak a Chamic language known as Utsal and they are completely unrelated to the Han Chinese or the Ningxia Hui. Yet the Communists decided in the 1950s that simply because of their religious beliefs, they are ethnically the same as their religious brethren thousands of miles away.
All these technicalities aside, the Huis are a 10 million strong ethnic group who live throughout the entire country of China, unlike the Uyghurs who live mostly in the northwestern region of Xinjiang. Hui Muslims have previously also enjoyed relative religious freedom in China compared to the Turkic Muslims further to the north because Huis were seen as loyal and did not seek independence or want to overthrow the government.
Thus, for many years following the Cultural Revolution, in the northwestern provinces of Gansu, Ningxia and Qinghai, as well as in the southwestern province of Yunnan, where the largest populations of Hui Muslims live, huge mosques popped up. The government even permitted Islamic schools to operate in the open as “Arabic schools”. Children learned the Quran and entered mosques in many Hui dominated areas, which is actually illegal under Chinese law.
The Communists even practiced affirmative action and favoured the Huis in many ways to reward them for their loyalty, such as granting extra marks to them in College Entrance Exams, giving lenient sentences to criminals from ethnic minorities, even in drug related cases, and most importantly, granting the Hui an exemption from the one-child policy. Many urban Muslims were allowed to have two kids; in rural Ningxia, the quota was three children.
All this came at the expense of the local Han Chinese, who often could not compete with the Huis in jobs and education or even procreation, especially in Ningxia, thanks to preferential treatment by the CCP.
Coupled with the 2014 Kunming stabbings and the 2009 Urumqi riots this resentment created a perfect storm of rising Han Chinese ethnic nationalism. Many Huis came under attack from the Han nationalists and their privileges became a sore point for millions of Chinese netizens.
China’s internet became a haven for anti-Muslim talk. A frequent comment was that the much higher Hui and Uyghur birthrates will lead to the Islamisation of China, or at least, northwestern China. Through the womb, a conquest shall be made, the argument goes.
How true is this theory?
China’s demographic data is notoriously hard to obtain and inaccurate, but the 2010 census seems reasonably accurate.
In 2010, the Hui Muslims indeed had a higher than national average total fertility rate of 1.416 (down from 1.543 in 2000). That fertility rate is not high at all and is also well below the replacement rate, you might say.
However, this is China. In 2010, China’s national TFR was 1.18 and the Han Chinese TFR was only 1.152, meaning that the Huis have a 30% fertility advantage over the Han. The Huis also have a relatively low fertility rate and have been below replacement since the 1990s. But their numbers will shrink at a much slower rate than China as a whole.
If we dig deeper into the figures, however, we can see that some of the Han nationalists’ fears of Islamic takeover are justified in certain regions. Ningxia ranked 10th out of 31 provincial level regions of China in terms of TFR in 2010 with a not-so-impressive fertility rate of 1.363, but the discrepancy in birth rates between the Ningxia Han and Hui has seen the Han population percentage drop from 65.47% of the total population in the year 2000 to 63.11% in 2015. Huis only made up about 36% of the total population in 2015 but they made up 57% of newborns born in the 2010-2015 period, which means a much more significant demographic shift is underway.
Han majority areas in Ningxia such as the capital Yinchuan and the city of Shizuishan have TFRs of 1.11 and 1.28 respectively, but Hui majority areas such as Wuzhong and Guyuan cities have TFRs of 1.63 and 1.8.
Rural Hui-dominated areas such as “little Mecca” Tongxin County, where niqabs are not uncommon, and Xiji County, have TFRs of 1.905 and an above-replacement rate of 2.136 respectively, a feat which is rare in China.
In neighbouring Gansu province, the same is true: the region of Linxia, which is also known as “Little Mecca” locally, enjoys a much higher TFR of 1.675, with Guanghe County also hitting a near-replacement level 2.066, compared to the provincial TFR of 1.278.
Thus it can be concluded that Hui Muslims do enjoy a demographic advantage over the Han Chinese in some areas, thanks to a much less stringently enforced birth policy as well as their different levels of faith and religious piety.
This, along with the recent surge in Saudi-style Salafism amongst the previously well-Sinicised Hui, has raised alarm in Beijing and the religious freedoms of the Hui have taken a nosedive in recent years. Mosques and domes are being demolished and Islamic schools are being closed.
But the Han nationalist suspicion of the Muslim “other” will not vanish because of these one-time campaigns. With their greater fertility, the Hui are here to stay. Clashes between them and the Han Chinese will grow more intense as the latter shrinks demographically.
China scholars and researchers need to watch this space. Another campaign of human rights abuse may be on the horizon.
William Huang is an avid researcher into China and East Asia’s looming demographic crisis. He also aims to raise his voice for the sanctity of life wherever and whenever he can.