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China In Eurasia

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet in Beijing in February 2023. How much sway does China actually have over Iran and the Huthis? And would it even want to use it?
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet in Beijing in February 2023. How much sway does China actually have over Iran and the Huthis? And would it even want to use it?

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Welcome back to the China In Eurasia Briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter tracking China's resurgent influence from Eastern Europe to Central Asia.

I'm RFE/RL correspondent Reid Standish and here's what I'm following right now.

As Huthi rebels continue their assault on commercial shipping in the Red Sea, the deepening crisis is posing a fresh test for China’s ambitions of becoming a power broker in the Middle East – and raising questions about whether Beijing can help bring the group to bay.

Finding Perspective: U.S. officials have been asking China to urge Tehran to rein in Iran-backed Huthis, but according to the Financial Times, American officials say that they have seen no signs of help.

Still, Washington keeps raising the issue. In weekend meetings with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Bangkok, U.S. national-security adviser Jake Sullivan again asked Beijing to use its “substantial leverage with Iran” to play a “constructive role” in stopping the attacks.

Reuters, citing Iranian officials, reported on January 26 that Beijing urged Tehran at recent meetings to pressure the Huthis or risk jeopardizing business cooperation with China in the future.

There are plenty of reasons to believe that China would want to bring the attacks to an end. The Huthis have disrupted global shipping, stoking fears of global inflation and even more instability in the Middle East.

This also hurts China’s bottom line. The attacks are raising transport costs and jeopardizing the tens of billions of dollars that China has invested in nearby Egyptian ports.

Why It Matters: The current crisis raises some complex questions for China’s ambitions in the Middle East.

If China decides to pressure Iran, it’s unknown how much influence Tehran actually has over Yemen’s Huthis. Iran backs the group and supplies them with weapons, but it’s unclear if they can actually control and rein them in, as U.S. officials are calling for.

But the bigger question might be whether this calculation looks the same from Beijing.

China might be reluctant to get too involved and squander its political capital with Iran on trying to get the Huthis to stop their attacks, especially after the group has announced that it won’t attack Chinese ships transiting the Red Sea.

Beijing is also unlikely to want to bring an end to something that’s hurting America’s interests arguably more than its own at the moment.

U.S. officials say they’ll continue to talk with China about helping restore trade in the Red Sea, but Beijing might decide that it has more to gain by simply stepping back.

Three More Stories From Eurasia

1. ‘New Historical Heights’ For China And Uzbekistan

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev made a landmark three-day visit to Beijing, where he met with Xi, engaged with Chinese business leaders, and left with an officially upgraded relationship as the Central Asian leader increasingly looks to China for his economic future.

The Details: As I reported here, Mirziyoev left Uzbekistan looking to usher in a new era and returned with upgraded diplomatic ties as an “all-weather” partner with China.

The move to elevate to an “all-weather comprehensive strategic partnership” from a “comprehensive strategic partnership” doesn’t come with any formal benefits, but it’s a clear sign from Mirziyoev and Xi on where they want to take the relationship between their two countries.

Before going to China for the January 23-25 trip, Mirziyoev signed a letter praising China’s progress in fighting poverty and saying he wanted to develop a “new long-term agenda” with Beijing that will last for “decades.”

Beyond the diplomatic upgrade, China said it was ready to expand cooperation with Uzbekistan across the new energy vehicle industry chain, as well as in major projects such as photovoltaics, wind power, and hydropower.

Xi and Mirzoyoev also spoke about the long-discussed China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway, with the Chinese leader saying that work should begin as soon as possible, athough no specifics were offered and there are reportedly still key disputes over how the megaproject will be financed.

2. The Taliban’s New Man In Beijing

In a move that could lay the groundwork for more diplomatic engagement with China, Xi received diplomatic credentials from the Taliban’s new ambassador in Beijing on January 25.

What You Need To Know: Mawlawi Asadullah Bilal Karimi was accepted as part of a ceremony that also received the credential letters of 42 new envoys. Karimi was named as the new ambassador to Beijing on November 24 but has now formally been received by Xi, which is another installment in the slow boil toward recognition that’s under way.

No country formally recognizes the Taliban administration in Afghanistan, but China – along with other countries such as Pakistan, Russia, and Turkmenistan – have appointed their own envoys to Kabul and have maintained steady diplomatic engagement with the group since it returned to power in August 2021.

Formal diplomatic recognition for the Taliban still looks to be far off, but this move highlights China’s strategy of de-facto recognition that could see other countries following its lead, paving the way for formal ties down the line.

3. China’s Tightrope With Iran and Pakistan

Air strikes and diplomatic sparring between Iran and Pakistan raised difficult questions for China and its influence in the region, as I reported here.

Both Islamabad and Tehran have since moved to mend fences, with their foreign ministers holding talks on January 29. But the incident put the spotlight on what China would do if two of its closest partners entered into conflict against one another.

What It Means: The tit-for-tat strikes hit militant groups operating in each other’s territory. After a tough exchange, both countries quickly cooled their rhetoric – culminating in the recent talks held in Islamabad.

And while Beijing has lots to lose in the event of a wider conflict between two of its allies, it appeared to remain quiet, with only a formal offer to mediate if needed.

Abdul Basit, an associate research fellow at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told me this approach reflects how China “shies away from situations like this,” in part to protect its reputation in case it intervenes and then fails.

Michael Kugelman, the director of the Wilson Center's South Asia Institute, added that, despite Beijing’s cautious approach, China has shown a willingness to mediate when opportunity strikes, pointing to the deal it helped broker between Iran and Saudi Arabia in March.

“It looks like the Pakistanis and the Iranians had enough in their relationship to ease tensions themselves,” he told me. “So [Beijing] might be relieved now, but that doesn't mean they won't step up if needed.”

Across The Supercontinent

China’s Odd Moment: What do the fall of the Soviet Union and China's slowing economy have in common? The answer is more than you might think.

Listen to the latest episode of the Talking China In Eurasia podcast, where we explore how China's complicated relationship with the Soviet Union is shaping the country today.

Invite Sent. Now What? Ukraine has invited Xi to participate in a planned “peace summit” of world leaders in Switzerland, Reuters reported, in a gathering tied to the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion.

Blocked, But Why? China has suspended issuing visas to Lithuanian citizens. Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis confirmed the news and told Lithuanian journalists that “we have been informed about this. No further information has been provided.”

More Hydro Plans: Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry of Energy and the China National Electric Engineering Company signed a memorandum of cooperation on January 24 to build a cascade of power plants and a new thermal power plant.

One Thing To Watch

There’s no official word, but it’s looking like veteran diplomat Liu Jianchao is the leading contender to become China’s next foreign minister.

Wang Yi was reassigned to his old post after Qin Gang was abruptly removed as foreign minister last summer, and Wang is currently holding roles as both foreign minister and the more senior position of director of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee Foreign Affairs Commission Office.

Liu has limited experience engaging with the West but served stints at the Communist Party’s anti-corruption watchdog and currently heads a party agency traditionally tasked with building ties with other communist states.

It also looks like he’s being groomed for the role. He recently completed a U.S. tour, where he met with top officials and business leaders, and has also made visits to the Middle East.

That’s all from me for now. Don’t forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you might have.

Until next time,

Reid Standish

If you enjoyed this briefing and don't want to miss the next edition, subscribe here. It will be sent to your inbox every other Wednesday.

Security personnel patrol near the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar in western China's Xinjiang region. (file photo)
Security personnel patrol near the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar in western China's Xinjiang region. (file photo)

In a move set to tighten government control over practicing religion in China's western Xinjiang Province, the Muslim-majority region will introduce a set of regulations that -- among other things -- will require all new places of worship to reflect "Chinese characteristics and style."

The sweeping legislation will come into force on February 1 as part of a broader multiyear campaign aimed at controlling religion in Xinjiang, which is home to mainly Muslim ethnic groups such as Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Hui (aka Dungans).

As part of the new set of "regulations on religious affairs," all new mosques, churches, and other religious buildings must reflect Chinese design elements and any renovations to extant layouts will require approval from Xinjiang's regional authorities. Additional measures include controls on "large-scale" religious gatherings -- which will require approval from the local government at least one month in advance -- and that religious content posted online must be screened by the regional government.

The rules also say for the first time that interpretations of religious doctrine must "meet the requirements of contemporary China's development and China's outstanding traditional culture," a move that experts warn could further cement an ongoing crackdown against Uyghur and minority rights in the region.

"The move is significant, as it's about cutting off China's religions from international networks and communities and keeping them socially and politically isolated under the watch of the Chinese Communist Party," Bradley Jardine, managing director of the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs, told RFE/RL.

China has been accused of systemic human rights violations in Xinjiang, including launching a dragnet that sent more than 1 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities to detention camps and prisons.

A growing body of evidence -- including firsthand testimony and leaked official Chinese government documents -- support the accusations, which range from forced labor to sexual abuse, forced sterilization, and erasing Uyghur cultural and religious identity, including the tearing down of mosques and other religious sites.

These actions have drawn accusations of genocide from international rights groups and several Western governments. In 2022, a UN report found China was committing "serious human rights violations" in Xinjiang that may amount to crimes against humanity.

China has denied any human rights abuses in the region and says that its policies in Xinjiang are designed to counter extremism and terrorism.

Against this backdrop, local activists are worried about the lasting effects of these policies as the new rules come into force.

"Religious rights have long been restricted in Xinjiang," Bekzat Maksutkhan, the director of Naghyz Atazhurt, an unregistered organization in Kazakhstan focused on ethnic Kazakhs affected by the crackdown in Xinjiang, told RFE/RL. "But this law is the legalization of all those previous actions."

What Does The New Law Mean?

Since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the communist government's atheistic ideology has led to consistent efforts to suppress and control religion inside the country.

But while previous legislation has governed religious practices inside Xinjiang, experts say that the new legislation marks a significant escalation, demanding not just control but a specific reflection of "Chinese characteristics and style" in religious buildings and customs.

According to the regulations set out for Muslims, religion should not interfere in "clothing, weddings, funerals, and other ethnic customs" and "religious activity sites that are newly built or renovated, expanded, or rebuilt should reflect Chinese characteristics and style in terms of architecture, sculptures, paintings, and decorations."

A Uyghur woman in Xinjiang on a scooter with schoolchildren as they ride past a picture showing Chinese leader Xi Jinping joining hands with a group of Uyghur elders.
A Uyghur woman in Xinjiang on a scooter with schoolchildren as they ride past a picture showing Chinese leader Xi Jinping joining hands with a group of Uyghur elders.

Claims of Chinese authorities altering or pulling down mosques in Xinjiang are not new, with a 2020 report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute documenting the destruction and renovation of mosques in Xinjiang, finding two-thirds were changed, mostly since 2017, when Beijing accelerated its crackdown and expanded its camp system.

A 2023 report by the watchdog group Human Rights Watch used public documents, satellite images, and witness testimony to show that the Chinese government had expanded its campaign of closing and altering mosques to regions other than Xinjiang, as part of an official policy known as "consolidation."

As part of this, local authorities have removed architectural features of mosques -- such as Arabic-style domes and minarets -- replacing them with traditional Chinese designs to make them look more "Chinese."

Authorities in Beijing have rarely commented on this policy, but a June 2022 report by the Chinese state news outlet CCTV praised the removal of such architectural features as "protecting traditional heritage."

The new regulations look to formalize and build on these policies.

Beyond the rules on mosques, the law looks to expand the authority of the Islamic Association of China, the official government supervisory organ for Islam. The state body will now be the only organization that can organize activities related to the hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, and only mosques and individuals that are members of the association will be allowed to participate.

The law also calls on religious leaders to transmit a "patriotic" spirit to followers and stipulates that religious schools should instill Chinese characteristics, such as praising socialism and using Mandarin Chinese, in their teachings.

"China is trying to justify its crimes in Xinjiang to the world and the international community to make their crimes appear legitimate," Yerbol Dauletbek, the head of Atazhurt Eriktileri, another organization in Kazakhstan that helps ethnic Kazakhs, told RFE/RL. "This law is one of them."

Why China Targets Religion

The ruling Chinese Communist Party has viewed religion as a form of foreign influence that could undermine its authority and has looked to control and suppress all major religions in the country.

China's overall policy has been called "Sinicization," which requires religious groups to align their doctrines, customs, and morality with Chinese culture. The government also has strict rules for all religions, with provisions in its national law saying that it is illegal for minors 18 years or younger to attend religious services or celebrations or be taught about religion in any way.

A facility believed to be a detention center in Xinjiang Province
A facility believed to be a detention center in Xinjiang Province

Government pressure has been particularly targeted toward religions that Beijing views as foreign, such as Islam and Christianity -- both Protestantism and Catholicism.

Authorities have in the past removed crosses from churches and had others demolished.

Christianity in China is also governed by several sets of rules. Christians are allowed to worship in "official churches" registered with supervisory government agencies, although millions of Christians in China still worship in underground churches.

Since Xi Jinping became leader of the Communist Party in 2012, Beijing has tightened control over Christian activities outside of registered venues, shutting down churches that refuse to register and arresting prominent church leaders.

Buddhism -- particularly Han Buddhism, the most widespread branch practiced in China -- has been treated more leniently by Chinese authorities, but the government has cracked down on Buddhists in Tibet.

Beijing has tried to cement allegiances there and discourage support for the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist leader living in exile in India. Chinese officials have also been accused of carrying out "political reeducation" campaigns, separating children from their families, and have torn down thousands of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, monuments, and statues.

A similar approach to that practiced on Buddhism in Tibet has also been applied to Islam in Xinjiang.

When Xi last visited the region in August, he called on officials there to conserve "hard-won social stability" and to "more deeply promote the Sinicization of Islam and effectively control illegal religious activities."

"When we say Sinicization, the broad core is aimed at cutting [these] world religions off from the world," Jardine said. "And [instead] keeping them locally grounded, tied to the Communist Party, and politically neutralized."

Written and reported by Reid Standish in Prague with reporting by Ruslan Medelbek of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service

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About The Newsletter

China In Eurasia
Reid Standish

In recent years, it has become impossible to tell the biggest stories shaping Eurasia without considering China’s resurgent influence in local business, politics, security, and culture.

Subscribe to this biweekly dispatch in which correspondent Reid Standish builds on the local reporting from RFE/RL’s journalists across Eurasia to give you unique insights into Beijing’s ambitions and challenges.

To subscribe, click here.