Islamophobia and Anti-Muslim Racism as Art and Documentary: Notes on Shanghai Vice (UK, Channel 4, 1999)

Islamophobia and Anti-Muslim Racism as Art and Documentary: Notes on Shanghai Vice (UK, Channel 4, 1999)

Islamophobia and Anti-Muslim Racism as Art and Documentary: Notes on Shanghai Vice (UK, Channel 4, 1999).


“What can I do, it’s my fate. Please take care of our children, and let them get a good education”.
These words were the last wishes of Ismail Semed an alleged Muslim separatist from the western region of Xinjiang (Watts: 2007). After 10 minutes of a brief meeting with his wife, a bullet was put through his heart on 8 February 2007 having been convicted in 2005. He was the latest prominent victim of Chinese religious repression against Muslims. However, according to the 2006 Amnesty report, the conviction based on his alleged confession, suggested that it may have been taken under torture. A Human Rights Watch report (2005) further elaborates widespread injustice and unfair trails against Muslim suspects in the Chinese legal system:

“The conviction rate for criminal cases brought through the judiciary in the PRC is 98 percent, meaning that being indicted almost automatically results in a conviction. Most testimonies by Uighurs who have been detained claim that they suffered from various forms of torture. Of course, this makes convictions quite straightforward in a justice system with little regard for fair trial standards or the right to adequate defense counsel.”

According to the same report, the Chinese government systematically suppresses Muslims in the Xinjiang region where a substantial Muslim population resides. This form of suppression ranges from persecution and tight controls over the Imams, closing down or demolishing mosques, detention of thousands of Muslims every year as well as a number of executions. Further the report argues that the Chinese government is:

“…opportunistically using the post-11 September environment to make the outrageous claim that individuals disseminating peaceful religious and cultural messages in Xinjiang are terrorists who have simply changed tactics.”

The Chinese government has been denying that suppression of the Muslim minority is not a government policy and they only want to stop terrorism, separatism and religious extremism. However, challenging the government’s crackdown over the Muslims, Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China, stated that “Religious regulation in Xinjiang is so pervasive that it creates a legal net that can catch just about anyone the authorities want to target,” (Reuters: 2005). Furthermore, a statement from an Uighur Muslim expresses how Chinese Muslims feel about the government’s crackdown on Muslims: “They’re punishing people for their religious beliefs, they’re punishing those who become devout Muslims and want to research Islam by themselves. Uighur people are not terrorists. They don’t want to be terrorists. They’re peaceful people.” (Lim: 2003).

All the relevant sources (Human Rights Watch, 2005, Amnesty International, 2006, Lim, 2003, Reuters, 2005, Watts, 2007) report that there has been a heavy crackdown against the Muslim minority in China after 9/11. A BBC article mentions that there have been a number of arrests without any official figures disclosed but as human rights groups suggest “thousands of Uighurs have been detained since 11 September, many for illegal religious activities.” (Lim: 3 November 2003). Although 9/11 has significantly increased China’s religious repression policy , there are evidences that strongly indicate China’s religious repression going back prior to the 9/11 period and that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 are just being used by the Chinese government to justify their own agenda to further restrain the Muslim minority. As the Human Rights Watch 2005 report documents, there were systematic government-conducted programs of religious crackdown prior to 9/11.

These are chronologically:

1996: First “Strike Hard” campaign specifically targeting “splittism and illegal religious activities”;

1997: “Rectification of Social Order” campaign;

1998: “People’s war” drive against “separatist and religious extremists”;

1999: “Special 100 Days Strike Hard Fight” and “General Campaign against Terrorism”;

2000: “Focused Rectification of Religious Places Campaign”;

2001: Two-year “Strike Hard” launched, to last until June 2002;

There were thousands of arrests in these crackdown campaigns and many convictions took place after brief trials according to the official accounts.

Further evidence is presented by a British-made seven episode documentary entitled “Shanghai Vice”. The documentary was directed by Phil Agland and broadcast on Channel 4. The documentary was intended to study the social and criminal life of Shanghai as a city that symbolizes the sharp transformation of Chinese social and economic life into a capitalist system that brought dramatic changes into the daily lives of people as well as increase in the criminal activities. The documentary occasionally comes across China’s Muslim minority presenting Islamophobic images and comments. This article will focus on the Chinese repression of the Muslim community in light of this documentary.

Further, the article will study the documentary itself as a manifestation of Islamophobia in the Western media when they present Muslims.


An artistic landscape that is embellished with exotic Chinese music the documentary starts with a marvellous view of the city of Shanghai. There is no doubt that director Phil Agland has worked hard to make this documentary. In fact he was awarded in 1999 by Silver Rembrandt for Nombre d’Or Awards for ‘Shanghai Vice’. The documentary itself was awarded in the Best Editing (Factual), Best Factual Series or Strand, Best Photography (Factual), Best Sound (Factual) categories for the BAFTA Awards in 2000.

The style of the documentary is seemingly natural. There is no sign of the makers of the documentary in the scenes and a very limited narrative intervention which mostly briefs the audience regarding some general issues and for summing up the previous episodes. Therefore, The Independent (2000) classifies Shanghai Vice as a fly-on-the-wall documentary series aiming to educate and inform. During these comments the narrator concurs with the general course of the documentary and takes the colour of the present climate, apparently providing some objective information and context to the audience. There are several characters that the documentary centres around. It closes in on the lives of some individuals with the ostensible aim to reflect the social landscape within the daily lives of casual people in Shanghai. There are different shots about these characters taken in different places wherein they sometimes talk about daily life, arts, business, crime, politics and sex. In addition, there are some official figures who are mainly security officers going after the criminals. In general, the audience is left alone with all these characters to understand what was going on in modern Shanghai and make their own judgments regarding the issues that they come across. However, the absence of all the parties discussed or shown, namely Muslims from the scenes, despite the strong accusations against them and the raw information that is given as context by narrative intervention, seriously undermines the objectivity of the documentary. In this regard, Richardson’s (2001) empirical study on the media representation of British Muslims suggests that it is common practice for the British media to exclude Muslims from the British media. The study finds that “British Muslim communities are almost wholly absent from the news, excluded from all but predominantly negative contexts”. As it is demonstrated in this documentary the Muslims are totally absent from the scenes except when there is a bombing that takes place or they are related to a drug operation. Besides, presenting ostensibly objective information in a wrong context, might lead to very subjective consequences. As the predominant representation theory of ‘constructive approach’ suggests:

“…neither things in themselves nor the individual users of language can fix meaning in language, however, this does not mean that we produce meaning. It is the language system or whatever system we are using to represent our concepts. It is actors who use the conceptual systems of their culture and the linguist and other representational systems to construct meaning, to make the word meaningful and communicate about that world meaningfully to others.” (Ameli et al: 2007).

In this context when the screen shows a Muslim woman being humiliated and told that “that’s all you Muslims do [drug dealing] in Shanghai” during the police interrogation while the narrator comments about the sophisticated drug networks and their security system might easily be perceived by the audience that the allegation of the policeman is true. Objective information in this context is actually a reflection of the prejudice of the majority.

After a brief introduction and background information about Shanghai, the audience is immediately taken aback by a covert police operation wherein the undercover police officers chase and arrest some drug dealers. The documentary reflects on the preparation stage of the operation as well as the action itself. These images are unusual in a country that has been isolated from the outside world and everything is carried out in secret. In fact the later parts of the programme indicate that the makers of the documentary had access to Chinese security forces at an unprecedented level. The camera shows top secret files and high security places including safe houses and intelligence rooms.

“I buy heroin from Muslim dealers, the dealers from North West China” the suspects says in the interrogation room that appears in the first episode entitled “Betrayal”. He had just been arrested violently after a brief chase in the street, pointing to the Uyghur Chinese Muslim minority, then, the documentary moves on to another scene without any comment and further explanation. This is an early example of anti-Muslim portrayal in the documentary and there are several more incidents in which the Chinese police explicitly attack the Muslims. The other important issue to be mentioned here is the inconsistency of information presented in the documentary.

In another dialogue that took place at an unknown police station, while a suspect is being interrogated the officer says “he buys the drug from Muslims live in Canton, North West of China.” However, Canton is not in the North West of China. Canton (Chinese name is Guangzhou) is the capital and the sub-provincial city of Guangdong Province in the southern part of China and known to be within the ‘golden triangle’. The drug gangs based in the ‘golden triangle’ smuggle most of the heroin for the Chinese underground network to be sold in the other parts of China.

Yet, it is not clear why there is a great emphasis on the North West China, where a significant number of the Uyghur Muslim population resides, and why the wrong information is given.

Another scene took place in the Shanghai Police Headquarters’ annual crime review:

An uneasy looking police commissioner in his cold toned voice was complaining that drug related crimes had increased 250 percent in comparison to previous year’s crime ratio. Having said that, the commissioner urges the other police chiefs that they “must increase surveillance, especially of the Muslim population and break into their smuggling link”. The commissioner does not say why the police must “especially” monitor the “Muslim population” and what their link to drug smuggling is. The documentary gives a fair portrayal of the extent of the bias Chinese police have towards the Muslims and brutality targeted against them.

“Those Muslims are evil, they hate us Han Chinese. Their terrorists fight on the North-West border, they planted bomb in Beijing while congress was in session…” says a senior police officer in another scene, during which he was trying to ‘break’ Ding, who is a central figure in the documentary. Ding is a drug dealer and the police wanted to turn him into an informant so that they could infiltrate into an alleged Muslim drug network. This conversation took place during their recruitment attempts. It is not clear whether it was the racist and Islamophobic words or the threats of the police officers towards Ding and his wife (who was in custody at that time), but Ding eventually relented and became a police informant. Again, the narrator remained silent, insinuating that Ding was right to side with the police and tackle the alleged Muslim drug dealers.

The first two episodes of the documentary focus on drug related crimes mainly concerning heroin. In these episodes Muslims are excessively portrayed as villains and accused of controlling the heroin traffic into Shanghai. During the crack down campaign when the police are trying to arrest alleged criminals, they perform explicit racial profiling and label the whole Muslim population as criminals. There are no statistics or any other factual evidence that informs the audience of the actual number of the Muslim population that have been involved in drug related crimes in China, so the audience do not know to what extent what the police say is true. In fact, the police have never come across and/or arrested a Muslim dealer except a Muslim prostitute drug addict. In her interrogation, police ask her whether she knows a Muslim drug dealer or not then using an aggressive tone tells her “that’s all you Muslims do in Shanghai” referring to drug dealing. This last scene turns into a repulsive Islamophobic show that demonstrates the worse form of racial profiling. China’s religious repression policies are well-known and the antagonistically Islamophobic character of the police in this particular scene gives the audience a quick glimpse as to how far it can be taken.

However, the more worrying side of the documentary is the attitude of the producers. Having presented a number of Islamophobic images and comments, in fact they themselves demonstrate a different form of Islamophobia. The aim of this documentary was to show the criminal life in China, Police brutality and the injustice in the legal system. In some instances they indeed showed the extent of police brutality and injustice, for example in episode five a couple were arrested by police on an alleged involvement in fraud. The couple sues the police for the brutality and torture and claim that the husband was held for 21 days in a factory under constant torture and that they were both forced to sign false statements that would incriminate themselves. Despite the strong evidence the court ruled against the couple.

The documentary highlights the injustices that the Chinese people have to endure, but when it is done against the Muslims they fail to show the same sensitivity. For example when the police mention shadowy villain Muslims, they never feel it quite necessary to listen to the other side and investigate if there is any truth behind these allegations. However, they do present the emotions and thoughts of other suspects including a convicted criminal who are ethnically Chinese non-Muslims. For example the film makers pay a great deal of attention to interview a program maker for a popular radio station with a girl. She is a convicted criminal, whose boyfriend had been executed for smuggling drugs. The girl also received a death penalty for the same accusation but her punishment was suspended. The interview suggests that she deeply regrets her actions, the emotional voice of the girl and the tears create an emotional and sympathetic atmosphere. Showing the human face of ‘vice’ in Shanghai gives the programme commendable complexity and subtlety. However no Uighurs or Muslims are afforded the same treatment.

Furthermore, Ding a notorious drug dealer who was turned into a police informer is given so much attention by the documentary that even such a person was able to attract some sympathy from the audience. The documentary intentionally or unintentionally created a picture that everybody, including the most notorious criminals who were given some sort of creditable agency and were ultimately united with the police as part of ‘us’ to fight against a just cause which is to destroy ‘villainous’ Muslim ‘other’.

Their negative absence from the camera and continuing emphasis on the viciousness and evil of the Muslims throughout the first and the second episodes demonize the whole Muslim population in China. A recent report of the Islamic Human Rights Commission (Ameli, et al 2007) conducts an intense study on the ‘Otherization’ of the Muslims in the western media. The report notes that

“Certain common images and stereotypes tend to dominate both visual and print media, and hostility towards Islam combines with journalistic values and practices to create a limited caricature of the faith and its followers which continually circulates in the media. The ‘preferred readings’ or meaning of these cultural myths create distance between dominant and minority groups. It is these myths and predetermined notions about minorities that contribute to a social order that dictates who participates and who does not – who ‘belongs’ and who is an ‘outsider’. (Ameli, et al 2007)

It is self evident that the maker of the documentary labels Muslims ‘outsiders’ and non-Muslim Chinese people including the criminals and, despite its oppressive nature, the Chinese government are considered to be ‘insiders’. Thus, Muslims are blamed for eztreme evil and are singled out to be the worse type of people.

However, as van Djik (2000) points out though the ‘otherness’ of Muslims is clearly evident in contemporary discourse, they are not biological inferior as they were in the times of ‘old’ racism, they are simply different, having a different culture. This ‘new’ racism is of a subtle and symbolic nature; this is discursive and is expressed in text and everyday talk.

Narrative intervention comes in rare but hard forms. In one case, a fax suddenly appears in the scene from the Shanghai Police centre’s communication room stating “Muslim separatist bombing in Bejing” and “Muslim separatist stir up in Xinjiang” further enhancing the villainous image of the Muslims. There is no doubt in the mind of the audience that Muslims are the culprits. They are not just drug dealers but also notorious terrorists who plant bombs and kill civilians and cause unrest and bloodshed in the country. In this respect the documentary reflects a wider mindset that demonstrates how the western media represent the Muslims. As it has been discussed in the IHRC report (2007) when the western media presents Muslims they tend to approach the issue from an Orientalist perspective and stereotype Muslims as intolerant, misogynistic, violent and cruel. The report also notes that “negative stories often come from other countries, they obviously have some effect on readers’ perception of Muslims in Britain (Ameli, et al 2007) “Shanghai Vice” fits into this category with its excessively disturbing Islamophobic presentation of Muslims. Hence, it does not only misrepresent the Muslims in China but it also serves to present a negative image of the Muslims that live in Britain or elsewhere.

According to Human Rights Watch report (2005) in 1998 the Chinese government launched a crackdown campaign called “People’s War” exclusively for targeting religious activities. According to official accounts these crackdowns campaign led to the arrest of “several thousand ‘terrorists’” imposed a “tightening of control on religion…” in which Muslims were also targeted. Authorities shut down twenty-one “illegal religious spots” and arrested one group of reactionary “Talebs” (religious students) in Urumqi in Xingjian region.

The documentary suggests that there is a strong connection between this crackdown campaign on religious activities and the way Islamophobic representation of the Muslims came into the programme. The level of interaction and input from Chinese officials into the programme meantthat official anti-Muslim racism was uncritically reflected in the programme’s inevitable siding with the Shanghai vice squad.

The documentary reflects state anti-Muslim racism and Islamophobia predating 9/11. Though it is undeniable that 9/11 affected a rise in Islamophobia it should be acknowledged that Islamophobia has always existed but certain events inflamed it or used it as an excuse to justify its existence. Furthermore, as it has been studied in the documentary, Islamophobia might not always take an explicit form, instead it might be in a constructive form in which not the information itself may be Islamophobic but a particular language system or context might be Islamophobic. It should be also noted that the style of the documentary (fly-on-the-wall) in this case becomes a constructive form of discrimination.


Episode 1

Min. 1: The narrator introduces Shanghai and a central character the “land lady”.
Min. 2: An undercover police officer is talking on the walkie-talkie while directing an operation in a house. After a few seconds police officers arrest a suspect in the street. After the scene the narrator talks about trade, drugs issue, especially heroin, underworld life in Shanghai.
Min. 4: The narrator talks about police safe houses that are set up to track down increasing crime in Shanghai. In the meantime screen shows the arrested suspect saying “I buy heroin from Muslim dealers, the dealers from North West China”.
Min. 6: The narrator talks about economic development of Shanghai in recent years and the migrant influx to Shanghai following the economic development.
Min. 8: A police officer talks on the walkie-talkie.
Min. 9: Annual crime review meeting takes place in Shanghai Police Headquarter The police commissioner mentions the 250 percent increase in the crime rates in comparison to previous years. Then he urges his colleagues that “you must increase surveillance especially of Muslims population and break into their smuggling link”.
Min. 10: The police officer talking on the walkie-talkie in a car; a few seconds later undercover police arrest two suspects one of whom is a woman. In the beginning of the scene the narrator talks about how the police are after the street dealers in order to catch the big dealers.
Min. 11-12: A police officer interrogates the arrested woman in a room and she bursts into tears.
Min. 13: The narrator introduces a popular programme maker for a local radio station while she is having a conversation with a convicted drug dealer.
Min. 15: The narrator talks about the land lady and her boyfriend while the camera shows the boyfriend having a hair cut.
Min. 16: The police question the woman suspect about the Muslim drug dealers. During the interrogation he tells her “that’s all you Muslims do in Shanghai”. In the beginning of the scene the narrator gives information about the drug rings and their sophisticated security systems.
Min. 20: A fax arriving to the police communication room about Muslim stir-up in Xingjian.
Min. 21: Police raids an unknown house and question the suspect in his bed while several guns are pointed at him. The narrator gives information about the raid.
Min. 25-26: Scenes from Putuo Police Station where three police officers aggressively question the suspect about Muslim drug dealers.
Min. 33: In an unknown police station a suspect is being interrogated about Muslim drug dealers. In this interrogation the suspect says “he buys the drug from Muslims live in Canton, North West of China.”
Min. 33-34: A top secret fax arrives at the police communication room about “Muslim separatist bombing in Bejing”.
Min 38: The narrator introduces the Shanghai elite crime unit and its head officer while he is talking about Muslim drug networks. This scene is taken at the police head quarters.
Min. 43-45: While the narrator gives information about Team 5, an elite unite in Shanghai police department to tackle high profile cases, Ding who is a notorious drug dealer is being brought to the Team 5 office late at night in a police car. The following scene is Ding in the Team 5 office while he is being questioned. A police officer is trying to break Ding in order to turn him into a police informer. During this attempt a police officer comments on Muslims: “Those Muslims are evil, they hate us Han Chinese. Their terrorists fight on the North-West border, they planted bomb in Beijing while congress was in session.”
Min. 55: The narrator sums up the first episode.


Ameli et al (2007). The British Media and Muslim Representation: the Ideology of Demonasation. London: IHRC

Lim, Louisa. (3 November 2003) “China’s high-stakes war on terror”. BBC

Reuters (11 April 2005). Report: China “smothering” Islam to control Uighurs – Reuters, India.

(2005). Devastating Blows Religious Repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang, Human Rights Watch.

(2006). Amnesty International Country Report.


Islamic Human Rights Commission
PO Box 598
United Kingdom

Telephone (+44) 20 8904 4222
Fax (+44) 20 8904 5183

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