A Tale of Two Muslims

Walking down a major Beijing thoroughfare in search of a subway station, I passed a mustached man of olive-colored skin on a flatbed tricycle loaded with che, a sweet snack made of peanuts and fruit. He asked if I wanted to buy some, and offered a free sample. The man spoke Chinese with a heavy accent, and I realized he was not an ethnic Chinese, but a Uighur, one of China’s ethnic and religious minorities.

According to the CIA's World Fact Book, Muslims comprise between and one and two percent of the Chinese population. China has two main Muslim groups: the Uighurs, from the Xinjiang province, and the Hui, who are ethnic Chinese but officially distinguished from the rest of the population by their religion. The Uighurs have a language and culture more related to Central Asia than to China and have not always been happy under Beijing’s rule, while the Hui have been more influential in Chinese society.

After agreeing to buy some of the che for a modest price, I asked the vendor about being a Uighur and a Muslim in Beijing, and he was quick to share his discontent. We exchanged phone numbers and I met him a few days later. He said that he hoped that "someday the Uighurs could separate from China,” and complained that it was nearly impossible for him to obtain a passport. Because he was in the city illegally, he said he’d have to leave before the Olympics because of an increasing police presence.

Photo by Patrick Michels

Hui Muslims, like this Beijing restaurant owner, tend to enjoy greater opportunities in Chinese society than do Uighurs.

For another perspective, I stopped at a restaurant owned by a Hui man, where I had bought lamb kebabs one of my first nights in Beijing. Compared to the man selling che, the Hui was much more content. He said that he will be able to make his pilgrimage to Mecca once he saves up enough money. He appreciated the opportunity to work legally in Beijing and earn money, and was looking forward to increased business during the Olympics.