21 August 2018

China, Syria, Uighurs and the Silk Road

Given the recent hints (now back-pedalled somewhat) that China may be stepping up its presence in the Syrian conflict, there has been a fair amount of speculation on the relationship between China and the Arab world generally. Oftentimes in Anglophone media the relationship between China and the Arab world is considered an ancillary one to the ‘special relationship’ between China and Russia, but there are multiple good reasons to consider the China-Arab relationship on its own merits.

Anyone who is familiar with the Judge Dee murder mysteries will recall that there was an Arabic (or Dashi 大食) maritime trading and diplomatic presence in Guangzhou as early as the Tang Dynasty, and also that the relationship was not always a particularly friendly one. However, during the An Lushan Rebellion 安史之亂, the Arab Caliph Al-Mansur sent four thousand soldiers to aid the Tang Emperor Minghuang 唐明皇 and Chinese Christian general Guo Ziyi 郭子儀 in putting down the revolt. These Arab soldiers, called ‘Black-Robed Dashi’ 黑衣大食, were integrated into the Tang military after the rebellion was quelled, and the Tang established good diplomatic relations with several of the Arab Caliphs in subsequent generations, even occasionally returning the favour to the Caliphs.

Tang cavalry, ca. 800 AD

The Silk Road – the original one, the overland trade route – originated in Luoyang (my wife’s hometown and former residence) and ended in the Syrian cities of Antioch, Damascus and Tyre. Guo Ziyi himself was a product of Syrian-Arab and Persian cultural exchange with China. The Nestorian Church of the East to which he belonged has an East Syrian Rite, and had its heartland in the Fertile Crescent. Its first missionaries to China came from Assyria and Mesopotamia along the routes used by traders on the Silk Road.

Chinese Nestorian Christian stele, 781 AD

In more modern times, the Chinese Hui Muslim minority was instrumental in establishing good diplomatic relations with the Arab nationalist states in the wake of World War I. The Hui Muslims (Huizu 回族) themselves are the descendants of the Persian, Arab and Turkic Silk Road traders who arrived during the Tang Dynasty and thereafter intermarried, adopted the Chinese language and assimilated to Han Chinese culture, similar to the Orthodox Christian Albazinians of Beijing. Traditionally, they belong to the Hanafî school of Sunnî Islamic jurisprudence, though there are also Ismâ‘îli Shî‘a and Sûfî minorities.

During the Second Sino-Japanese War, Hui Muslim leaders petitioned the kings of Saudi Arabia and Ægypt for aid against the Japanese, who had been committing atrocities against the Muslims in Asia, leading the Muslims of China to declare a jihâd against the Japanese idolaters. The Muslim community itself split due to the Chinese Civil War into pro-Communist and pro-Nationalist factions – a split which carried over into its gæopolitics. This split is drenched with irony on multiple levels. The Hui Muslims who sided with Mao – particularly the conservative but heavily-Sinicised followers of the Qadim school – were deeply sympathetic to the Arab nationalist cause despite having adopted Chinese language, architecture and manners. On the other hand, the Guomindang-loyalist Xibei San Ma, patrons of the Ikhwâni school (not to be confused with the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East), tended to be more sympathetic to the puritanical Salafism of the Saudis, but (to a point) intolerant of the newer successive waves of Arabic Salafism into China. This pattern has continued to modern times.

Qadim-school Hui Chinese mosque in Xi’an; note the Chinese-style architecture

When Jamâl ‘Abd an-Nâsr came to power in Ægypt, he chose to recognise the People’s Republic in Beijing rather than the Republic in Taibei; most other Arab nationalist polities, including Syria – which would be politically united with Ægypt two years later – followed his lead. Beijing’s relationship with Syria under Hâfiz al-’Asad, therefore, ranged between cordial and overtly friendly. They supported the Ba’ath Party in Syria in 1963 with a generous $16 million aid package; and the Chinese Communist Party later welcomed Mustafa Abd al Qadir Tlâs to negotiate an arms agreement – and Tlâs himself was seen waving Mao’s Little Red Book in a move calculated to provoke the chagrin of the Stalinist Soviet Union in the wake of the Sino-Soviet split. It is not an accident that Syria was accepted into the Non-Aligned Movement the following year.

The relationship between Beijing and Damascus remained friendly, if a bit distant, throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s, primarily because they had common interests in Third-World and Non-Aligned Movement ventures. That changed in the 1990’s when Russia began to unravel at the seams under American-administered ‘shock therapy’, and Syrian support from Russia began drying up. At that time, the al-’Asad family began looking to China for support, and they got it in spades, particularly after President Baššâr al-’Asad’s visit in 2004. China is now Syria’s third-largest trading partner in terms of import volume – largely because of Baššâr’s efforts to keep the 1200-year-old relationship between China and Syria alive and happy.

Baššâr al-’Asad and Hu Jintao, 2004

So why does all this gæopolitics and history matter now? Well, two seemingly-unrelated current events seem to render the history of relations between China and the Arabic world particularly relevant. The first is the offer from China, now partially-rescinded, in light of Syrian military action in Idlib, to support the government of Syria with military muscle rather than just diplomatic and financial measures. The second is the astoundingly-hypocritical hand-wringing in the United States and Western Europe over the Chinese government’s treatment and hypothesised internment of Uighurs in Xinjiang.

Thus far, China has not been particularly eager to get involved in a Middle Eastern conflict in any capacity. However, the Chinese government has already helped the Syrian people in other ways, and the use of the imagery of Belt and Road has not been accidental.

And here’s where we get back to the significance of the sectarian-ethnic-gæopolitical ‘split’ in the Hui Muslim community. The following is a simplification, but in the broad strokes: the culturally-conservative majority in the Qadim school of Hanafî jurisprudence generally get along fairly well with the Chinese government, as do the various Sûfî groups. The ‘reformist’ Ikhwâni minority have a little tenser relations with the Chinese government, but this is as much on account of their previous pro-Guomindang political leanings as on account of their previous association with Salafism. Successive influxes of Salafist money, material and converts from the Gulf monarchies, from the 1970s onward, have been associated with more violent and radical tendencies, they’ve focussed their conversion efforts on the Uighur minority, and this is what the Chinese government primarily objects to. This is broadly interpreted in the Western press as ethnic favouritism (the story being that Hui Muslims get a pass and Uighurs don’t, because of Han cultural chauvinism) – but really what is at stake is when they were exposed to Salafi ideology. As puritan Saudi legalism has gotten more blatant and more strident, the converts they made, Hui and Uighur, have become twice the children of hell. The fact that Uighur Salafis have been recruited into Dâ‘iš and into other extremist groups operating in Syria has given the Chinese government an additional interest in the conflict.

Conversely, it seems naïve to assume that the recent Syrian military operation in Idlib and the Chinese Uighur question are unrelated from the Atlanticist point of view. The Anglo-Franco-American alliance still hasn’t forgiven Baššâr al-’Asad for surviving this long; it’s doubtful our governments have quite forgiven the Syrians for having thrown off the French in the first place. And the sudden outpouring of sympathy for the Uighurs from a notoriously Islamophobic administration is more than a little convenient. Robbing the Syrian people of Chinese development aid and military assistance may be postulated as a motive for this ‘sympathy’, particularly considering the timing.

Again, the relationship between China and the Arab world is long and involved; it goes deeper than the Non-Aligned Movement; and it’s necessary for us Christians – Orthodox, Catholic and otherwise – to pay careful attention, particularly since we happen to be involved in this conflict. Muslims are our brothers in more ways than one; even if the relationship seems to be analogous to that between Cain and Abel. It behoves us not to be naïve about our long history together (and apart). It also behoves us, particularly those of us Christians in the West who still value our apostolic ties, not to be so dismissive or ungrateful toward China, which, even if its motives are grounded in realpolitik, is here acting in defence of our brothers and sisters, the living stones of the Middle East.

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