Strife with Uighurs Fueled by the Mandate of Heaven?

Contrary to public debates on social difference, many conflicts happen at the crux of multiple cultural discourses. In this piece, Samantha Mundorff theorizes about the conflict around the Chinese Muslim population known as the Uighurs. She theorizes how ancient Chinese political philosophy may inform the contemporary state’s policy on the minority group.

Xinjiang is a province located in China that is inhabited primarily by one minority ethnic group, the Uighur. The Uighur ethnic group descended from Turkish Muslims. They make up the majority of the current population that practices Islam. There has been conflict and unrest in this province for many years because tension between the native Uighur people and the Chinese government. In recent years, the Chinese government has cracked down on the Islamic practices of the people that live in the Xinjiang province.


“A Uyghur Mosque in Khotan,” an image by Colegota used under CC-BY-SA 2.5 es.

The strife between the Chinese government and the Uighur ethnic group is not simply because of differing religions or ethnicities. Its how religion and ethnicity intersect that distinguish the conflict. The Chinese have maintained control over the province by making the Uighurs’ presence contingent upon assimilation—forcing them to sever ties with their heritage in order to persist.

The need for China to maintain control over the Xinjiang has precedent in ancient Chinese political thought. In ancient China the decision of who was ruler was based on Shang-Ti. Shang-Ti is the ruler of heaven and decided who was worthy of Tianming. Tianming is known as the mandate of heaven wherein the king has been granted the ability and connection with the ruler of heaven. If the ruler can no longer provide for the people and keep them happy, they lose the mandate. According to sociologist Stephen Sharot, the hierocrats of popular religions were allowed to preach what they believed only if it strengthened the rule of the current dynasty.[1] In present-day China, these specific beliefs are no longer officially in practice but they inform the rationalization of governmental elites who are trying to maintain the Xinjiang province as Chinese. Having one of the largest provinces in China not represent Chinese culture does not further the control that Chinese has.

Religion is a site to observe this ethnic contest. In 2015 China banned Ramadan fasting in the Xinjiang province. The government forced workers and business to stay open and continue operations. The Chinese government also banned men from having beards and veils on buses and in major cities.[2] The government has banned these practices as a way to further separate the people from their Islamic heritage. The Islamic beliefs of the province are the values that the people follow. These values —such as the practice of fasting and wearing headscarves— set the people apart from the rest of China. The government wants to maintain Chinese culture and obedience to the state. They do so by routing out any values in the province that go against that.

The government has many policies that assimilate the minority nationalities into society because they should have close economic relations with the Chinese.[3] They are not allowed to have contact with outside people. The police enforce this by setting up roadblocks with warrants to search mobile devices of any person that has papers stating they are from a Uighur ethnic background.[4] Essentially this prohibits learning about any other way of life that is not the Chinese way of life.

Despite the centrality of the state, China is marred with stratification. The socioeconomic development of the Uighur ethnic group is behind that of the Han, the Chinese ethnic majority. And until now, the minority enjoy the privileges of speak and learn their own languages, and express their cultural difference through the arts and literature.[5] But the government has begun to take away many of those privileges because they were seen to socioeconomically advantage the province.[6] The government’s primary policy is that all minority nationalities retain close economic relations with the Chinese.

The strife between the people of Xinjiang province and the government is not well documented. The government of China and the local government of the province is not transparent about laws and actions they are enforcing. According to the government the cause of the strife is that radical Muslims that are taking over the area. A reporter who recently visited the area was unable to discern if the truth of this narrative. He says, “What is happening is that the discrimination against Uighurs is a part of a government plan to dilute Uighur identity.” In order to maintain control over the Xinjiang province, the Uighurs dilute their own identity and force them into Chinese culture. Whatever is happening, the Chinese government finds peace with such polices because they better the government and strengthen the state of China, as mandated by heaven.

[1] Stephen Sharot, A Comparative Sociology of World Religions: Virtuosos, Priests, and Popular Religion (New York: New York University Press, 2001), 70-101.

[2] AFP, “China Bans Ramadan Fasting in Mainly Muslim Region,” Al Jazeera English, June 18, 2015.

[3] Eric Hyer. “China’s Policy towards Uighur Nationalism 1.” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 26, no. 1 (2006): 75-86.

[4] Andrew Jacobs, “Xinjiang Seethes Under Chinese Crackdown,” The New York Times, January 2, 2016.

[5] Wei Xing, “Prevalence of ethnic intermarriage in Kunming: Social exchange or insignificance of ethnicity?” Asian Ethnicity 9, no. 2 (June 2007): 165-179.

[6] Eric Hyer, “China’s Policy towards Uighur Nationalism,” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 26, no. 1 (2006): 75-86.


Sam Mundorff-headshot.jpgSamantha Mundorff ’16 is a graduate of Elizabethtown College. She majored in biology and minored religious studies.

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