China is determined to maintain control over how religion is practiced, recent threats to demolish one mosque in a previously rule-abiding city threatened to backfire, writes US-based academic David R Stroup.
On a frigid morning in early February 2016, just before sunrise, I stood in the courtyard of a mosque in Weizhou, a tiny, rural, predominantly Muslim township in China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.
Around me nearly 150 men, most wearing traditional white knitted skullcaps, some sporting long wispy beards, hurried into the mosque’s washroom to perform ritual ablutions in preparation for Salat al-fajr, the first prayer of the day.
In the distance, loudspeakers from the community’s other mosques sounded the call to prayer. With the call echoing through the town, the men gathered and began to pray, kicking off another day in China’s Islamic heartland.
Two years later, the tiny township of Weizhou finds itself enmeshed in a growing conflict between the government and its Muslim citizens, over plans to demolish its recently completed Grand Mosque.
The local government justified its decision to raze the mosque on the grounds that it did not receive proper building permits, making it an “illegal building.” In response, the predominantly Hui Muslim residents of Weizhou occupied the building to block the demolition.
The conflict reached a stalemate. The government has now promised not to demolish the mosque entirely, but maintains the need for alterations to its Arabesque features. It has promised to get the community’s approval for any changes.
But doing so risks tearing down the most powerful symbol of Weizhou’s success, and antagonising a community which is emblematic of the triumph of China’s economic reforms.
A town of devout Muslims
The population of Weizhou is over 90% ethnically Hui. Often referred to by the media as Chinese Muslims, the Hui trace their ancestry to Muslims who arrived in China as early as the Tang Dynasty during the 8th Century.
After centuries of intermarriage and assimilation into Chinese society, most Hui are virtually indistinguishable from China’s majority Han, save for their ties to the Islamic faith.
Despite a history of violent conflict with the ruling Qing Dynasty in the 18th and 19th Centuries, Hui have come to be regarded by many in China as a model minority. As one Han interviewee in the Ningxia capital of Yinchuan told me in the course of my fieldwork, “the Hui have been totally Hanified”.
However, in more pious Hui enclaves – like Weizhou – residents observe Islamic tradition with devotion.
During my time researching in the city, residents proudly pointed out that most people in the town wore hijabs or traditional white prayer hats. Almost everyone went to the mosque to pray daily. No shops in the village sold alcohol, and residents maintained a strict halal diet.
In contrast to the provincial capital of Yinchuan, which residents derided as secularised or “danhua” (quite literally “watered down”), Weizhou’s population remained strong in its faith.
The Grand Mosque – then still under construction – was already the pride of the community. Upon completion it would be the largest in Ningxia, built in what locals called the Arabic style: glistening white domes, archways, and towering minarets with crescent moon spires.
It would be large enough for the entire community to gather for Friday prayer, a beacon of faith.
A crackdown on religious practice
Less than a year after its completion, the mosque found itself caught up in the campaign to “Sinicise” religion – that is, make it more Chinese – at the direction of President Xi Jinping.
It’s an attempt to consolidate power and blunt resistance to the party-state. The government couches such efforts in the language of security, claiming they are necessary to combat religious extremism.
In his address to the 19th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in October 2017, Xi declared that the party must, “uphold the principle that religions in China must be Chinese in orientation and provide active guidance to religions so that they can adapt themselves to socialist society”.
In the wake of Mr Xi’s pronouncement, local officials throughout China enacted sweeping crackdowns on religious practice.
The campaign particularly affects China’s Muslim communities.
The most prominent example of the effects of the campaign come from the north-western Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.
A recent report from a UN panel on human rights speculates that as many as one million ethnic Uighurs have been detained in “re-education” camps after being accused by the party-state of being religious extremists for reasons as simple as wearing a hijab, travelling abroad, or sharing passages from the Qur’an on social media.
In response to urges from abroad to end the crackdown, the Chinese government maintains that foreign critics do not fully understand the situation. On 13 August, amid the steadily rising tide of censure from many corners of the international community, The Global Times bristled “Western media should see the situation for themselves before accusing China”.
China’s model Muslim province
Though the crackdowns are most severe in Xinjiang, elsewhere Hui communities – particularly those in the Ningxia – have also begun to feel the pinch. Reports of de-Islamification campaigns that stripped the domes from Arabic-style mosques emerged from Ningxia over the last year.
Hui people in China
- The third largest ethnic group in China, with about 10 million living in the country – mostly in the north-west
- Predominantly Sunni Muslim, the majority Islamic denomination, and speak mostly Mandarin
- The majority are descendants of Silk Road traders, who intermarried with Mongols and Han Chinese
- Beijing has been more tolerant towards the Hui than the Uighur community, whose frictions with the central government have been well documented.
The Grand Mosque in Weizhou, with its obvious Arabesque features, made for a likely target of this campaign.
In threatening the centrepiece of a devoutly Islamic community in Weizhou, the government risks triggering backlash in a community that ought to be one of its greatest success stories.
Like most of western China, the town’s development lagged behind the prosperous East Coast. In the 1990s, Weizhou was beset by endemic poverty and a crisis of heroin abuse. Signs posted throughout the community still promote vigilance against addiction.
The Great Western Development Campaign of the early 2000s poured resources into towns like Weizhou and with this economic support, the people of this tiny Hui enclave pulled themselves out of poverty, and reconnected with their Islamic heritage.
Local residents engaged in entrepreneurship and became modestly prosperous. The community opened schools for poor children to learn to read the Koran. People began to pray regularly. One person I spoke to told me: “People here have simple lives. There aren’t any high-rise buildings, but the locals are really quite prosperous. Life here is good.”
Far from extremist rejection of the party-state’s authority, Weizhou’s Hui community prospered under state-led development initiatives.
The community’s religious devotion grew alongside its economy. Residents of the town view themselves as exemplars of both Islamic devotion and Chinese patriotism.
In antagonising them, the Chinese Communist Party risks provoking resistance among the very segment of its population it can ill afford to lose.
Dr David R. Stroup is a lecturer in the Department of International and Area Studies at the University of Oklahoma, specialising in Chinese politics, nationalism and ethnic politics.