This essay is part of the series “All About China”—a journey into the history and diverse culture of China through essays that shed light on the lasting imprint of China’s past encounters with the Islamic world as well as an exploration of the increasingly vibrant and complex dynamics of contemporary Sino-Middle Eastern relations. Read more ...


— “Closely united, like the seeds of a pomegranate” 

The road to Weizhou township, a small village in rural Tongxin County in the heart of China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, stretches through miles of open countryside. Between the patchy scrub brush and fields of goji berries, and the snow-capped Helan Shan mountain range looming far off in the distance, the slender spires of minarets and round domes of mosques dot the landscape. Local Hui (often translated at “Chinese-speaking Muslim”)[1] residents proudly proclaim that the county is China’s “Little Mecca,” and laud the region’s deep Islamic piety. In Weizhou, itself, residents estimated that Muslims made up 90% of the population. No fewer than 12 mosques serve the community of just 22,000. On any given morning, just after daybreak, visitors can listen as the sound of the call to prayer ripples out from the minarets of different mosques throughout the town along with the rising sun.

Normally, a quiet, rural community such as Weizhou escapes international attention. Yet this tiny, pious, majority-Hui community rocketed to prominence during the summer of 2018 as it became a testing-ground for the implementation of Xi Jinping’s campaign to Sinicize religion. At the center of the controversy that drew the eyes of the world to Weizhou: a supposedly illegal mosque.

Weizhou Mosque | Artist Representation
Grand Mosque of Weizhou | Artist schematic representation | February 2016 | Photo by author

 

Erected in 2016, the Grand Mosque of Weizhou (depicted above) stands at the center of the community. Like many of the newer mosques in Ningxia, its design emulates what local Hui call the “Arabic style”: built out of carved white stone with towering minarets, large onion shaped domes, and topped with golden crescent moon spires. One interviewee I met in the city of Lanzhou in Gansu province during field research in 2014 proudly stated that with connections between China and the larger Islamic world on the rise, Chinese Muslim communities now built their mosques in this more “traditional” style befitting their religious heritage.

However, it is precisely this kind of architectural expression of Islamic identity that placed the Grand Mosque of Weizhou at the center of a political maelstrom. Built with the lofty goal of becoming the largest mosque in all of Ningxia, the Grand Mosque could hold the entire community of Weizhou at once for Friday Jumu’ah prayers. For residents, the mosque stood as a symbolic triumph of Weizhou’s rise: in the early 2000s, at the start of the government-led “Great Western Development Campaign”[2] which brought economic aid to China’s under-developed western provinces, heroin addiction and poverty crippled the town. Now, after nearly two decades of economic development and re-engagement with their Muslim roots under the comparatively tolerant religious policies of the Hu-Wen administration, the construction of the Grand Mosque gave Weizhou residents an opportunity to showcase their community’s prosperity and religious devotion.

To the local party-state, however, the more visible expression of Islamic identity that the mosque promoted appeared more troubling than inspiring. Claiming the building lacked proper authorization for construction, officials marked the mosque for demolition.[3] The decision came in the midst of a much wider campaign undertaken by the Ningixa Hui Autonomous Region government to “de-Islamicize” public space within the region’s boundaries.[4] Reports of “Arabic style” mosques being forced to remove their domes with cranes, and Arabic language being stripped off of storefronts, road signs, etc. began to trickle out of Ningxia in late 2017.

Shocked by the pronouncement that the Grand Mosque would be demolished, protesters held sit-ins after Friday prayer on August 10, 2018, blocking the attempts to tear it down. Events reached a stalemate. Faced with a dilemma, the local party finally stood down and agreed not to demolish the Grand Mosque and to consult the citizens of Weizhou before taking further action.[5]

The saga of Weizhou’s Grand Mosque is not an isolated case. Most notably, the party-state enacted stringent controls over Islam, particularly in ethnic Uyghur communities in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Just as in Weizhou, the provincial government enacted mandates to strip Arabic language and Islamic motifs from signs and buildings. In late 2018, the party in Xinjiang deemed that practicing Islam was akin to a mental illness.[6] Further, the XUAR government adopted severe restrictions on observing Islamic practice. Those measures, including detention of over a million Uyghurs in internment camps as suspected radicals for offenses as simple as reading the Qur’an or fasting during Ramadan, represent the party-state’s most visible measures.[7]

However, even outside of Xinjiang, restrictions designed to limit religious expression have begun to occur in Hui communities. Over the past two years, local law enforcement in Hui communities throughout the country have made efforts to remove Islamic identity from public spaces. Just a few weeks after the Weizhou demonstrations, on August 30, 2018, the local government of Linxia Hui Autonomous County in Gansu province, a historic Muslim enclave, issued a report outlining new policy changes that would encourage the Islamic community to “follow the path of Sinicization, and resolutely prevent the Saudi-fication’ or Arabization’ of Islam.”[8] In late December of 2018, police raided and closed three mosques in the Hui community of Weishan in Yunnan Province, similarly claiming that they were “illegal” unregistered buildings despite the longstanding attempts of the mosque community to fill out the proper paperwork.[9]

The growing set of restrictions follows a strong centralizing push coming from the very top of the party. As he addressed the 19th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in October 2017, Xi Jinping outlined his vision for China’s ethnic politics. Repeating a well-worn metaphor that he first used in 2014, Xi declared that under his leadership, “We will encourage more exchanges and interactions among different ethnic groups, helping them remain closely united like the seeds of a pomegranate that stick together, and work jointly for common prosperity and development.”[10] 

In some ways, these bromides about ethnic unity and harmony between all of China’s minzu (usually translated as “nationalities” by the party-state, and understood to approximate “ethnic group” in meaning) seem like a continuance of the status quo in the party’s ethnic politics. Beginning with the start of the period of “Reform and Opening” that began under Deng Xiaoping in 1979, the party’s propaganda goes to great lengths to emphasize the virtues of China’s diversity, the strength and unity of its peoples, and the equality of its shaoshu minzu (ethnic minorities) alongside the majority Han.[11] In 2001, during the administration of Jiang Zemin, the party coined the “Three Inseparabilities” to describe ethnic relations: “Ethnic minorities are inseparable from the Han. The Han are inseparable from ethnic minorities. All minzu are mutually inseparable.”[12] A propaganda poster hailing this “inseparability” and displayed outside a mosque in the township of Lusha’er near Xining is depicted below.

Xining Propaganda
Propaganda poster hails “inseparability” of ethnic minorities | Outside a mosque in Lusha’er | Photo by author | 2016

 

Yet, upon closer scrutiny Xi’s articulation of his vision of ethnic politics does not merely replicate the same tropes about ethnic unity. As the speech continued Xi provided further elaboration about what this unity of China’s various minzu entailed. Chinese culture formed the central pillar of China under the Xi regime, he proclaimed. “Socialist culture with Chinese characteristics is derived from China’s fine traditional culture,” he remarked, “which was born of the Chinese civilization and nurtured over more than 5,000 years.”[13]

Xi’s remarks underscored two guiding principles that drive governance in his second term: centralization and Sincization. In practice, these policies have entailed restrictions which emphasize conformity with a vision of Chineseness centered on Han culture, and scrutiny of those ethnic or religious practices that might be deemed “threatening.” Addressing the subject of religion, Xi promised that under his leadership “we will fully implement the Party’s basic policy on religious affairs, uphold the principle that religions in China must be Chinese in orientation.”[14]  

The party-state justifies tightening its control over religious expression under the pretense of preventing radical, violent extremism from taking root in China. When viewing the targets of the campaign, however, the party-state’s rationalizations appear misplaced. A recent policy change in the city of Beijing illustrates the tenuousness of these claims. On July 31, 2019 a number of international news outlets — including Al Jazeera and Reuters — reported that officials in Beijing enacted a policy of de-Islamification in the city, mandating that Arabic language and Islamic iconography be removed or covered at 11 restaurants in Beijing.[15] One restaurant owner, under the condition of anonymity, revealed to Al Jazeera that officials scolded him for his use of “foreign culture” and told him to “use more Chinese culture.”[16] These warnings against Islam as “foreign” religion suggest not only that Islam is threatening, but that it is incompatible with Chinese — and, implicitly, Han — culture.

While officials warn of “creeping Islamicization” of the city, the offending bits of Arabic text or Islamic imagery hardly suggest simmering radicalism. The heart of Beijing’s Islamic community lies on Niu Jie (often translated to English as “Oxen Street”)[17], where I did field research in 2015-2016. During my time in Beijing, the neighborhood, clustered around the famous Niu Jie mosque, proudly displayed its Islamic identity. Arabic script graced the sign of the large Niu Jie Qingzhen (halal) Supermarket and Food City across the street from the mosque. In the windows of the dozens of restaurants located up and down the street seals emblazoned with the Arabic word “halal” advertise Muslim-friendly fare. Even Niu Jie’s post office places Arabic lettering underneath the Chinese characters on its large sign, though keen observers point out that the text incorrectly reads left to right, and contains many obvious inaccuracies.

Niu Jie is hardly the only place in Beijing where one finds Arabic on public signs. Al Jazeera’s reporting suggests that Beijing is home to some 1,000 halal establishments scattered throughout the city.[18] At these locations, Arabic may be found adorning restaurant and small business signs. Often, in neighborhoods with historic ties to the Hui community, Arabic signage provides a faint, lingering trace of the area’s Islamic past. For example, in 2015 the community office near the small mosque on Dou Ban Hutong, a former Hui enclave near the Chaoyang subway stop, contained both Arabic and Chinese characters. Today, reports suggest, the Arabic is gone.

Indeed, countless restaurants and shops throughout the city bear Arabic language testifying to their status as halal, or serving as a visual reminder of their status as Islamic. From a practical standpoint, many of these signs are functionally unimportant. The vast majority of Beijing’s Hui community cannot read the script, and many are written in grammatically incorrect gibberish, the obvious product of copying and pasting into an online translation site. However, symbolically, these small reminders of Islamic identity serve as an important marker of Hui identity. The placement of the Arabic script alongside Chinese characters reinforces a unique identity that is, at once, Islamic and Chinese.

Arabic language branding like this helps maintain a sense of group belonging, and allows Hui and other Muslims throughout the city to feel bonds of community by having a visible presence in the city. These are not signs of extremism. Nor are they signs of an attachment to a cult, or indicators of mental illness, as the party-state has occasionally suggested. They pose no ostensible threat to China’s stability. Instead, these public signs containing Arabic are markers of routine daily concerns: grocery stores, butcher shops, restaurants, the post office.

In mandating that these ordinary sites of Hui identity reflect a more overtly “Chinese” cultural frame, the party-state seemingly signals a shift in official policy toward shaoshu minzu. At the start of the era of Reform and Opening, the CCP promoted a policy of multiculturalism and ethnic differentiation. Scholar Loiusa Schein argues that this system allows the CCP to promote the expression of “permissible displays of difference” by officially recognized minority groups.[19] By officially registering minzu identity and sorting all citizens into categories, and attaching some preferential policies — like exemptions from the former “One Child” policy, adding extra points on the college entry exam, or promoting minority language use — to holding shaoshu minzu status, the CCP officially encouraged registration. The party-state claimed these policies promoted a vibrant, diverse, multi-ethnic China.[20]

However, some academics and policy makers — most notably Ma Rong, Hu Angang, and Hu Lianhe —  advocated for abandoning the minzu system and an end to preferential policies for shaoshu minzu, arguing it was the source of divisions within Chinese society. Instead, they advocated against officially tracking ethnicity, and encouraging an assimilationist model of ethnic politics built on “ethnic contact, exchange and blending.”[21] While these reforms portend to encourage equal treatment of all citizens, regardless of ethnicity, they also carry an implicit mandate for Sinicization. In attempt to promote a more centralized, standardized notion of Chinese nationality, the party may attempt to transform even the most mundane daily habits of language, diet, dress, and religion.

When placed against this ideological backdrop, it is quite easy to trace the objectives of the recent campaign of de-Islamification, as it leads toward a foreclosing of the “permissible displays of difference” and instead emphasizes Chinese language, Chinese culture, and Chinese religious orientations. The ultimate scope and intended ends of the campaign to Sinicize ethnic and religious communities are, as of yet, unclear. Discerning large-scale shifts in CCP policy is a difficult task. The opacity of the system and the official rhetoric used to describe policymaking decisions often obscures intent. However, Xi’s remarks, and the enactment of campaigns in Xinjiang, Ningxia, Yunnan and Beijing suggest a sea change in the party-state’s thinking on ethnic politics.

 Xi’s determination that the party will “base our efforts on Chinese culture,” suggests a departure from the rhetorical celebration of ethnic diversity under his predecessors. Taking instruction from the examples of the attempted shuttering of the Grand Mosque of Weizhou, or the scouring of Arabic script in Beijing, suggests that further changes to daily expression of identity may still lie ahead.

 


[1] For further background on the Hui, see Matthew S. Erie and Allen Carlson, “Introduction to ‘Islam in China/China in Islam,’” Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review 12 (2014): 1–13; Jonathan N. Lipman, Familiar Strangers: A History of Muslims in Northwest China (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1998); Dru C. Gladney, Muslim Chinese: Ethnic Nationalism in the People’s Republic, Harvard East Asian Monographs 149 (Cambridge, Mass: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University: Distributed by Harvard University Press, 1991).
 

[2] Barry Naughton, “The Western Development Program,” in Barry Naughton and Dali Yang (eds.), Holding China Together: Diversity and National Integration in the Post-Deng Era (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004) 253–96.
 

[3] “Standoff over China Mosque Demolition,” BBC News, August 10, 2018, sec. China, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-45140551.
 

[4] Nectar Gan, “How China Is Trying to Impose Islam with Chinese Characteristics in the Hui Muslim Heartland,” South China Morning Post, May 14, 2018, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/policies-politics/article/2145939/how-c….
 

[5] Nectar Gan, “Chinese Hui Muslim Protest Forces Authorities to Halt Plan to Demolish Weizhou Grand Mosque,” South China Morning Post, August 9, 2018, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/policies-politics/article/2159047/chine….
 

[6] Khaled A. Beydoun, “For China, Islam Is a ‘mental Illness’ That Needs to Be ‘Cured,’” Al Jazeera, November 28, 2018, https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/china-islam-mental-illness-cu….
 

[7] Numerous outlets have covered the ongoing crackdown on Muslims — in particular Uyghurs — in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. This represents a small, but by no means exhaustive selection of resources on the subject. See Benjamin Haas, “China Bans Religious Names for Muslim Babies in Xinjiang,” The Guardian, April 24, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/apr/25/china-bans-religious-name…; James T. Areddy, “China Real Time Report: Xinjiang Arrests Nearly Doubled in ’14, Year of ‘Strike-Hard’ Campaign,” The Wall Street Journal (blog), January 23, 2015, https://blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime/2015/01/23/xinjiang-arrests-nearly-…; Timothy Grose, “China’s Mass Incarceration of Muslims Cannot Be Left Unchallenged | Timothy Grose,” The Guardian, November 13, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/nov/13/china-mass-incarc…; James A. Millward, “What It’s Like to Live in a Surveillance State,” The New York Times, February 3, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/03/opinion/sunday/china-surveillance-st…; Adrian Zenz, “‘Thoroughly Reforming Them towards a Healthy Heart Attitude’: China’s Political Re-Education Campaign in Xinjiang,” Central Asian Survey 38, 1 (January 2, 2019): 102–28, https://doi.org/10.1080/02634937.2018.1507997.
 

[8] Gansu sheng huanjing baihu ting (甘肃省环境保护厅), “Linxiazhou huanbaoju quanmian guanche luoshi quanzhou yisilanjiao gongzuo huiyi jingshen (临夏州环保局全面贯彻落实全州伊斯兰教工作会议精神)” (Lanzhou: Gansu sheng huanjing baihu ting (甘肃省环境保护厅), August 30, 2018), http://www.gsep.gansu.gov.cn/info/1003/50883.htm.
 

[9] WIllliam Yang, “Chinese Police Officers Have Raided Mosques In A New Crackdown On Religion,” BuzzFeed News, December 30, 2018, https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/williamyang/chinese-police-have-ra….
 

[10] Xi Jinping, “Secure a Decisive Victory in Building a Moderately Prosperous Soceity in All Respects and Strive for the Great Success of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” (Address to the 19th National Party Congress of the Communist Party of China, October 18, 2017), http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/download/Xi_Jinping's_report_at_19th_C….
 

[11] Anne-Marie Brady, “‘We Are All Part of the Same Family’: China’s Ethnic Propaganda,” Journal of Current Chinese Affairs 41, 4 (2013): 159–181.
 

[12] Elena Caprioni, “Daily Encounters Between Hans and Uyghurs in Xinjiang: Sinicization, Integration or Segregation?” Pacific Affairs 84, 2 (2011): 267–87.
 

[13] Xi Jinping, “Secure a Decisive Victory in Building a Moderately Prosperous Soceity in All Respects and Strive for the Great Success of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.”
 

[14] Xi Jinping.
 

[15] “Arabic, Muslim Symbols Ordered Taken down in China’s Capital,” Al Jazeera, July 31, 2019, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/07/arabic-muslim-symbols-ordered-ch…; Huizhong Wu, “Sign of the Times: China’s Capital Orders Arabic, Muslim Symbols...,” Reuters, August 1, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-religion-islam-idUSKCN1UQ0JF.
 

[16] “Arabic, Muslim Symbols Ordered Taken down in China’s Capital.”
 

[17]A more thorough examination of the Niu Jie community may be found in Chuanbin Zhou and Xuefeng Ma, Development and Decline of Beijing’s Hui Muslim Community (Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books, 2009).
 

[18] “Arabic, Muslim Symbols Ordered Taken down in China’s Capital.”
 

[19] Louisa Schein, Minority Rules: The Miao and the Feminine in China’s Cultural Politics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000).
 

[20] A more complete discussion of the development of the minzu system may be found in, Thomas S. Mullaney, Coming to Terms with the Nation: Ethnic Classification in Modern China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011).
 

[21] James Leibold, “Toward A Second Generation of Ethnic Policies?,” China Brief  12, 13 (July 2012).