China is home to a large population of adherents of Islam. According to the CIA World Factbook, about 1–2% of the total population in China are Muslims, while the US Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report shows that Muslims constitute about 1.5% of the Chinese population.
Recent census counts imply that there may be up to 20 million Muslims in China. A 2009 study done by the Pew Research Center, based on China’s census, concluded there are 21,667,000 Muslims in China, accounting for 1.6% of the total population.
Discrimination against China’s mainly Muslim Uighur minority is widespread, members of the community
Uighurs, from the far western region of Xinjiang, mostly follow Sunni Islam and their central Asian physical appearance clearly distinguishes them from China’s ethnic Han majority.
"Its always the case in Xinjiang that when something happens elsewhere the police tighten restrictions on travel and things like that," said Ablikim, a student at a university in Beijing who would only give his first name.
"We are wary of talking about the event online because we could be arrested without any evidence," he said of Monday’s Tiananmen attack which Beijing describes as terrorism.
Police have captured five suspects after an SUV ploughed into crowds and crashed in the symbolic heart of the Chinese state, bursting into flames.
Three people inside the vehicle and two tourists were killed. The SUV had a Xinjiang number plate and the names of the three dead and of the five detainees sounded Uighur.
A chef at a Uighur-owned restaurant in Beijing, where customers drank strong tea and broke freshly baked flat bread, said ethnic discrimination was commonplace.
"A lot of Han people are suspicious of us," he said.
"Hotels in Beijing often don’t let Uighurs stay and landlords won’t rent houses to us."
In a university canteen, a middle-aged Uighur man slurping on noodles said: “I applied for a passport three times, each time I was turned down and they gave no reason.”
"Finding a job, getting a passport, or opening a business — we are unequal in these things," he added.
Local governments in Xinjiang have banned government officials and students from fasting for the Muslim festival of Ramadan, and rights groups say the Chinese state restricts the content of religious services.
"My brother is a tax officer in Xinjiang and he was ordered to eat during Ramadan, his boss drove him to a restaurant and said that he must eat," the man said.
Beijing says it ensures religious freedom for all of its citizens and has preferential policies towards ethnic minorities.
A mural opposite the 1,000-year-old Niujie mosque — the oldest in Beijing — depicts cartoon-like images of minority ethnic groups dancing happily.
The imam, who gave his name as Salih and is a member of the Hui minority, said after leading afternoon prayers: “The relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims are very good.”
"This was just the act of a kind of individual," he said of the Tiananmen incident. "I feel it has nothing to do with Muslims."
But at the canteen, the noodle eater feared that suspicion of Uighurs would mount after the accusations of terrorism.
"I’m worried that some of my friends will not understand after these reports," he said. "I love this country but I’m afraid that people won’t understand me."