Islam is the most popular religion in China among young people despite a government crackdown on Ramadan and historic persecution of the Muslim Uighur minority, according to a new survey.
Of the five religions recognised by the atheist state, Islam has the largest proportion of followers under 30, with 22.4% of Chinese Muslims fitting this age bracket, according to the China Religion Survey carried out by a research centre at Beijing’s Renmin University.
Around 23.3 million Muslims live in China, making up 1.8% of the total population, according to Pew Research Center data from 2010. The Center predicts the Muslim population to grow to around 30 million by 2030.
The new statistics come on the back of China imposing controversial measures on Muslims observing the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
The Communist Party has reportedly banned teachers, students and government employees in Xinjiang province from fasting, though Chinese authorities have denied these accusations.
The government has also reportedly instructed Muslim shopkeepers and restaurant owners to sell alcohol and cigarettes in order to combat “religious extremism” in Xinjiang, which is the largest of China’s administrative regions and has a majority Uighur Muslim population.
Xinjiang is a hotly-contested area of China. Hundreds have died in recent years in clashes which China has blamed on Islamist terrorist groups, while the Uighurs say they are repressed by Beijing’s policies.
Despite such restrictions, the survey also found that 60% of people working at places of worship considered government regulations on religious freedom to be fair.
In addition to Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism and Taoism are the other officially recognised religions in China.
Catholicism was the second-most popular religion among under-30s, while traditional Chinese religions Buddhism and Taoism were most popular among over-60s. Overall, Buddhism has the highest amount of followers in China, according to the survey.
Wei Dedong, a professor of Buddhist studies at Renmin University, told the state-run newspaper the Global Times that the primary reason for the growth in Islam among young Chinese was demographic.
“Most believers of Islam belong to ethnic minority groups and it is common for a woman to give birth to several children. The children would also become Muslims while it is very rare to have an adult converting to Islam,” said Dedong.
According to Pew, the fertility rate for Muslims is higher than non-Muslims in China, with believers having an average of 1.7 children compared to the national average of 1.4 children. The research centre found that Chinese Muslims are generally less educated and tend to live in rural areas, two factors which are associated with higher fertility rates.
Islam has a long but chequered history in China. The Uighurs, an indigenous ethnic population who are mostly Muslim, inhabit the northwestern province of Xinjiang but consider themselves culturally closer to central Asian nations than Chinese.
Xinjiang became part of China in the 18th century and an independence movement, which declared a state of East Turkestan in the region, was crushed by Chinese authorities in 1949.
The latest Chinese census puts the Uighur population, who have lived in the region for thousands of years, at more than 11 million, although the Uyghur American Association estimates it to be above 15 million.
On Monday, the Chinese consulate in Istanbul issued a travel warning to its citizens after protests were held over the weekend as Turkish Muslims turned out in solidarity with the Uighurs, who they believe are suppressed by Beijing.
Ankara also summoned the Chinese ambassador last week about the reports that Uighurs in Xinjiang have been banned from fasting during Ramadan. A Chinese government statement said reports of a ban were “completely at odd with the facts”.