Written by Ngeow Chow Bing.

Ever since Chinese officials and academia embraced the concept of “soft power” in the early 2000s, there has been a constant search for methods and tools to increase the “likeability” of China to foreigners, such as the establishment of Confucius Institutes in more than 140 countries (as of December 2016), the internationalisation of the Chinese media, expansion of foreign aid and investment in fellow developing countries, and promotion of its cultural products. Public diplomacy also came into being, with many state-directed NGOs and associations initiating engagements with their foreign counterparts.

As China embarks on the Belt and Road Initiative, it can be expected that the leadership will increasingly mobilise Buddhism and Islam to help foster what it calls “people-to-people exchanges” between China and the countries along the Belt and Road in support of this grand initiative.

Despite being officially atheistic, the Chinese government discovered the utility of mobilising Chinese indigenous religious resources to promote its public diplomacy. Reflecting on the World Buddhist Forum (held in Beijing) in 2009, a researcher from the Religious Affairs Bureau of the State Council of China wrote the following words:

Religious diplomacy is an important component of our public diplomacy. It plays an important role in publicising China’s achievements, clarifying China’s policies, and positively displaying China’s image. China’s various religions have also had positive traditional values such as patriotism, kindness, serving the society, and contributing to humanity… in exchanges with foreigners, [China’s religions] can contribute to the shaping of a friendly, civilised, inclusive, and open national image of China.

Islam was imported to China centuries ago, and although not generally considered a mainstream religion in China, it has long been accepted as one of the main legitimate religions for hundreds of years (with varying degrees of acceptability by different regimes). Its long existence in China, relatively peaceful cohabitation with the non-Muslim majority, partial indigenisation through the emergence of Confucianised Muslim thinkers, and its lack of imperialist baggage, made Islam less suspicious (compared to Christianity) in the eyes of the communist leaders, at least until the rise of the recent international terrorist threats associated with Islam. Two main ethnic groups form the main bulk of the Chinese Muslim population today: the Hui and the Uyghur. While the Chinese party-state keeps a very watchful (and discriminating) eye on the Uyghurs, in general it has placed greater trust in the Hui to be ambassadors for China’s religious diplomacy.

The first Islamic engagement between China and Malaysia occurred in 1982, when a delegation from a semi-governmental Islamic organization in Malaysia travelled to China and was well received by the Chinese hosts. Thereafter an educational exchange program was put in place in which Chinese Muslim (mostly Hui) students were brought to Malaysia to pursue higher education in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Many of these students stayed in Malaysia after graduation, and this was the beginning of a small but growing China-origin Chinese Muslim community (different from the Malaysian Chinese Muslim community). An umbrella organization, the Overseas Chinese Muslim Association (OCMA), was formed in 2012 to serve the interests of this community.

OCMA is a useful platform to connect Chinese Muslims with the majority Malay-Muslims in Malaysia. While OCMA has echoed the Chinese government rhetoric (for example, in February 2016 it organized a “Belt and Road Business Forum” to attract Chinese Muslim business people to invest in Malaysia), OCMA is a relatively non-political NGO registered in Malaysia without much official backing from China and unlikely to have awareness about any religious diplomatic program in mind (although its activities are useful for Beijing). There is another similar outfit, also formed by Chinese Muslims in Malaysia, called the Chinese Muslim Chamber of Commerce, which wishes to tap into the halal trade between the two countries.

A more significant organisation promoting religious diplomacy towards Malaysia is the  China Islamic Association (CIA), the largest official organisation representing Islam in China. CIA was the organisation that invited and hosted the aforementioned Malaysian delegation in 1982, and has now become an important partner with the Islamic bureaucracy in Malaysia to advance bilateral ties. For instance, in 2014, in commemorating the 40th Anniversary of the Establishment of Diplomatic Ties between Malaysia and China, CIA organized a large Islamic cultural event in Kuala Lumpur that was well received by the Muslim publics in Malaysia and attended by the Malaysian Minister in charge of Islamic affairs. The President of CIA, Chen Guangyuan, and the Director of the Religious Affairs of State Council, Zhang Lebin, also attended the event. In April 2017, the Vice President of the CIA, Jin Rubin, led a delegation to attend an international conference co-organised by the Islamic Science University of Malaysia and the World Muslim League. Other than sending officials to Malaysia, the CIA has also received numerous delegations from Malaysia in recent years.

The Confucius Institute (called Kong Zi Institute in Malaysia) at the University of Malaya, being a major component of China’s overall cultural and public diplomacy, also realises the importance of reaching out to the Malay-Muslim majority through Islam. To this end, it has organised an annual forum on Islam in China in the past two years. These forums invite scholars from China to address more sensitive current developments and issues related to Islam in China, of course within approved official parameters.

On top of these Islam-themed cultural activities, the governments of both countries have embraced the legend of a Chinese Muslim Admiral during the Ming Dynasty, Zheng He. The voyages of Zheng He are portrayed by the Chinese today as a symbol of China being a peaceful superpower, in contrast to the colonialist powers originating from Western Christendom. By and large, Malaysia has accepted this interpretation. The legend of Zheng He is supposed to show the world that Chinese civilisation and tradition is inclusive and tolerant. Through Zheng He, China can show that there are heroic, important, and respectable Muslim figures in Chinese history, earning the appreciation of Muslims around the world.

Consciously or not, these activities are useful to form a more positive image of China as an inclusive and tolerant country in the Muslim world despite its communist system. It is difficult to scientifically measure and ascertain the impact of these activities on China’s image in Malaysia, but by and large Malaysians continue to hold very positive view of China, as shown in a recent Pew Survey, and these activities probably do play a role in forming this positive image. Nevertheless, given the recent measures against the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, scepticism in Malaysia could increase regarding Beijing’s commitment to respect the freedom of religion for Muslims. Still, it should be noted that the Malaysian government has not directly addressed the Uyghur issue. This contrasts with other cases of the Malaysian government advocating on behalf of oppressed Muslims in other parts of the world – the  Palestinians, the Bosnians and Kosovars in the 1990s, and more recently, the Rohingya people in Myanmar.

In a way, China is unique among the major powers in the world in terms of its potential in engaging in religious diplomacy. Most major powers identify with a particular religion (e.g., Western powers as Christian, India as Hindu, Russia as Orthodox, Japan as Shinto). China also has its Confucian heritage but Confucianism has been a far more secular doctrine compared to others. In addition, throughout history China has absorbed many foreign religions and indigenised them, such as Buddhism and Islam (albeit in varying degrees); today, they are useful resources for the atheistic communist leadership to conduct religious diplomacy. As China embarks on the Belt and Road Initiative, it can be expected that the leadership will increasingly mobilise Buddhism and Islam to help foster what it calls “people-to-people exchanges” between China and the countries along the Belt and Road in support of this grand initiative.

Dr. Ngeow Chow Bing is Deputy Director of the Institute of China Studies at the University of Malaya. Image credit: CC by watchsmart/Flickr.


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