China’s Relationships with the Muslim World

Foreign Policy Brief #131 | By: Avery Roe | September 15, 2021

Header photo taken from: Middle East Institute




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Photo taken from: Getty Images

Policy Summary

With significant attention being drawn to the treatment of the Uyghur population and the rise of the Taliban, it is important to understand China’s relationship with the Muslim world as they contend for global influence

One of the most newsworthy relationships China has with the Muslim world is the treatment of the Uyghurs. The Uyghurs are a population of approximately 12 million, predominately Muslim people, that live in the Xinjiang region of China. Most do not speak Mandarin. The Chinese Government has orchestrated a mass crackdown in the region, including restricting people’s rights to practice their religion and the construction of  forced re-education camps. The Chinese say this these moves are to prevent terrorism and root out  Islamist extremism. However, these  acts have been called Genocide by multiple Western Countries, including the United States.

China;s treatment of the Uyghurs is in stark contrast to China’s actions towards Muslims abroad and even other groups of Muslims within the Chinese borders. The Chinese Communist Party is officially atheist but recognizes five religions, including Islam. Religious practices are tightly monitored and limited to “normal religious activities,” normal remains undefined. Hui Muslims within China have not faced nearly the same repression that Uyghurs have. Historically relations between the Hui people and the ethnic majority Han have been very friendly. This is largely considered to be because the two cultures have merged. Whereas the Uyghurs have a strong desire to be autonomous, the Hui are culturally very similar to the Han, including speaking Mandarin. The Hui have largely been allowed to practice their faith in ways that they see fit.

China has also cultivated very positive relationships with Pakistan and The Taliban, two largely Muslim entities. While China is still concerned about the threat of terrorism with regards to the Taliban, they have given them their political and diplomatic support in the aftermath of their takeover of Afghanistan. In the eyes of Chinese leadership, the fall of Afghanistan shows that the values of Western Democracy aren’t universal and that their system could be a viable alternative to American ideas. China has also forged a very strong economic relationship with Pakistan through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. This gives China access to ports and further trade and Pakistan gains a very valuable trade ally.

Policy Analysis

In actively working on its relationships with the Muslim world China is finding a foreign policy gap that the United States has struggled with, especially in the post-9/11 era. As the United States has left Afghanistan to disastrous results, China is stepping in to fill that gap and present what could be a valuable alternative. This should be of some concern to the United States as it tries to establish its post-Afghanistan foreign policy. If the United States wants to maintain its influence it is important to maintain an awareness of Chinese activities and how China is attempting to portray itself as an alternative to the United States. It could be incredibly beneficial for the United States to reach out to Muslim countries in order to create more depth in those relationships.

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Photo taken from: The Times

China’s relationship with religion becomes much more nuanced when looking internally. Given the difference in treatment between the Hui and Uyghur peoples, it is clear that religion is not the sole issue, it comes down to cultural differences and how each group practices their faith. While this is important to understand it does not diminish the urgency in the circumstances of the Uyghur people. The international community, including the United States, needs to take the more active role  so that further harm can be prevented.

While China has rightfully been receiving significant negative attention for its treatment of the Uyghur population, it is clear that their concerns are far more cultural than religious. Not acknowledging the intricacies in China’s relationship with the Muslim world could be a dangerous way to ignore China’s attempts at gaining international influence.

Engagement Resources​

Click or tap on image to visit resource website.

org logo UHRP

  • The Uyghur Human Rights Project is an American-based organization promoting the rights of the Uyghur people through research and events.


  • End Uyghur Forced Labor calls on corporations to exit the Uyghur region at all levels of their supply chain to stop the system of forced labor that has been occurring.
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