The two major Islamic minorities in the People's Republic of China are the Uighurs and the Hui. Both follow the Sunna form of Islam, mixed with several schools of Central Asian Sufism. The Uighurs are a Turkic people who came originally from the Altai Mountain region north of western Mongolia. After ruling Mongolia from the early 8th to the mid-9th centuries CE, they migrated to East Turkistan (Chin. Xinjiang). They have been the predominant ethnic group of the region ever since and speak their own Turkic language. The Uighurs, however, are not a unified people. As in the past, they identify primarily with their oasis cities. The term "Uighur" to refer to all of them has, in fact, only been used since the late 19th century to unify their resistance against the Manchu Qing Dynasty.
As a whole, the Uighurs are a relaxed gentle people who, like the Tibetans, do not have a Protestant work ethic. They do not see work as a virtue in itself and also value enjoying life. Their level of knowledge and practice of Islam is fairly low, and the style of their mosques and customs are Central Asian. Those in the central and northern parts of Xinjiang have now become strongly Sinified. Mostly only the old people go to the mosques, which are not kept in good condition. Islam is stronger among the Uighurs in southern Xinjiang where there has been a relatively small Han presence. It is practiced there in a more traditional form than among the Hui.
The Hui are from divers ethnic origins, primarily Arab, Persian, Central Asian, and Mongol, and live throughout China. They came originally as merchants and conscripted soldiers, starting in the mid-7th century. In the mid-14th century, they were forced to intermarry with Han Chinese. Consequently, they speak Chinese and their customs and mosques are all Chinese style. The other Muslim minorities of China have traditionally been highly critical of the Hui's adaptation of Islamic practices to Han ways of life.
In general, the Hui lack the Middle Eastern/Central Asian relaxed attitude towards life and share the Chinese aggressive ambition for trade and money. Like the Tibetans, many carry knives and are fast to use them. They divide into two major groups. The Western Hui live in Ningxia, southern Gansu, and eastern Qinghai, bordering Amdo (northeastern Tibet); while the Eastern Hui are spread throughout northern China and eastern Inner Mongolia.
The Western Hui
Among the Western Hui, Islam is relatively strong as a unifying force and continues to grow. Both young and old go to the mosques, which function as a social meeting-place for exchanging information. These mosques are much wealthier and kept much cleaner than their Uighur counterparts. Despite the presence of Islamic schools in the Hui cultural capital, Lingxia, teaching mostly the traditional Sufi sects, with even some meditation masters, the vast majority of Western Hui know hardly anything deep about Islam.
The Western Hui seem to succumb less to the present pressures of Sinification than the Uighurs, perhaps because they are already so Sinified and speak exclusively Chinese. For example, only those Uighur women who live in remote villages in southern Xinjiang wear scarves on their heads, whereas Western Hui women wear them even in Han Chinese dominated cities.
The Eastern Hui
The Eastern Hui are less traditional than the Western Hui. Although approximately eighty per cent, both young and old, are believers in Islam, few come to prayers. The Eastern Hui still slaughter their animals according to the "halal" procedures and do not eat pork. Many, however, smoke and drink alcohol, which is against the Quran. Some observe the Ramadan fast, but very few of the men are circumcised and the women do not wear headscarves.
Privileged Position of the Hui
The Hui have enjoyed more privileges in the People's Republic of China than other non-Han minorities, primarily because they have been diplomatic and cooperated greatly. Because of this cooperation and the diplomatic espousal of both Maoism and Islam, plus pressure on China from Middle Eastern countries for respect of Islam in exchange for trade privileges, there has been a large proliferation of new mosques. These have been built primarily by the Hui, not the Uighurs.
For centuries, the Hui have been spreading out and settling throughout China, primarily as merchants. Even during the Mongol Yuan dynasty, Muslims accompanied the Mongol tribute missions to Beijing in order to conduct trade. The Uighurs and Tibetan Muslims, by contrast, have remained isolated in their homelands. This difference is perhaps due to the Hui being descended from merchants and mercenary soldiers, whereas both the Uighur and Tibetan Muslims came to their present locations as refugees driven out of their homelands in Mongolia and Kashmir respectively. Thus, the present migration of Muslim merchants to Central Tibet is nothing new in Hui history. They are not being forcefully relocated to Tibet by the Han Chinese authorities, but are moving on their own initiative for a business motive.
Western Hui have been moving not only into Tibet, but also all over Gansu and Xinjiang as the pioneers for Han Chinese settlement. They open restaurants and shops along all the roads, and as soon as there are a small number of them in any locality, they build a mosque – usually as a social gathering place to keep their communities together, rather than because of religious zeal. Not only do the Tibetans resent the Hui immigration; but so do the Uighurs. Although the Han Chinese army and bureaucracy have moved in first, Han traders and businessmen, lacking the pioneering spirit of the Hui, have only followed in their footsteps.
Contrast between the Tibetan and Hui Mentalities
Many Tibetans still have a nomadic mentality, with a fierce desire for independence, especially freedom of movement. In general, they dislike routine work. Even if they have shops, many will run them only seasonally, frequently closing them for long holidays, pilgrimages, picnics, and so on. Even in India, many Tibetans seasonally migrate to the Indian cities to sell sweaters, go on pilgrimage, attend Buddhist discourses, and only work part of the year. By contrast, the Hui, as well as the Han, are interested only in money and business, and they stay put in their shops and street stalls from 6 AM to 10 PM year-round without moving.
The Hui, being very ingenious as well as industrious, have taken over the manufacture and sale of traditional Tibetan goods, and the Tibetans cannot, and do not even seem to want to compete. The Hui are making Tibetan-style jewelry, rosaries, and other religious paraphernalia, equipment for horses, knives, wool, carpets, musical instruments, shoes and noodles, as well as running the ubiquitous restaurants. The Han merchants come only later and sell mostly modern Chinese manufactured goods like toothbrushes and cheap Chinese clothing.
Tibetan and Uighur Autonomy Movements
The Tibetans and Uighurs see the Hui immigrants, more than the Han, as a greater threat to their cultures. As the Hui and Uighurs share Islam in common, it is evident that the tension does not arise from religious grounds, but from economic competition. The Han Chinese seem to encourage this tension, so as to use it to justify their military occupation to keep the peace and prevent another Bosnia.
Thus, the Tibetan and Uighur movements for true autonomy or even independence have nothing to do with Buddhist or Islamic fundamentalism. They arise from the shared wish to preserve their cultures, religions, and languages from being overwhelmed and marginalized by the policies of the People's Republic of China and by the waves of Han and Hui settlers. The Hui, on the other hand, do not hold similar aspirations, as they share so much in common with the Han Chinese and have never had an independent state.