SHADIAN, China – "Assalamu alaikum," Ma Zhijun greeted me in Arabic and gave me peace and a big smile. We were strangers looking at the same beef skewers in front of the Shadian Grand Mosque, the largest in southwest China, at the end of Ramadan in 2019. Food stalls lined Muslim Avenue; Eid al-Fitr had finally arrived, and the Muslims in the Chinese city were eager to make up for a month's fast a day.
"Are you one of our Muslims?" he asked when I returned his greeting, confused perhaps by my real beard, but bad Arabic. "No," I replied and asked Ma to go into the shade of the palm trees that lined the mosque square, a refuge from the baking June sun. There he shared his faith with me for most of the afternoon until the call to prayer turned him away.
I welcomed the conversation. An imam in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, had described Ramadan to me in fleeting English: "No food, no drinking and no sex." But I knew that there were more restrictions in Shadian than just fasting. Muslims in Shadian, a small town that is now a suburb of the city of Gejiu in Yunnan, are in the eye of an increasingly paranoid and Islamophobic state – especially given the city's history as a focal point between the power of the Communist Party and Islamic faith.
China's religious policies are tightening, including new regulations enacted in 2018 and 2020, and Muslim communities across China are feeling the pressure. The approximately 12 million Uighur Muslims have been exposed to increasingly repressive politics in Xinjiang since the ethnic conflict in 2009. An estimated 1 million people have been detained in what the state calls "re-education" and "anti-extremism training". Hui Muslims are almost as numerous, but rarely in the headlines due to better integration with the Han majority in China. But attitudes toward Hui have changed in recent years, and some in the community fear the effects. I went to Shadian to find out how the residents were experiencing the changes and where China's religious policy was going.
The Great Mosque has a fitting name. The crescent-shaped green dome and towering minarets are modeled after the Prophet's mosque in Medina, Saudi Arabia, which was built and used by Muhammad himself and is now where he is buried. It towers over Shadian – terrific for a city of fewer than 20,000 – but that was the plan. In the early 2000s, local officials decided to make Shadian a four-star Islamic tourism destination, and a new mosque was at the center of their vision. Local Muslims, flushed with cash from private mining and China's booming economy, donated generously while the government provided the land and signed the Middle East design. Party officials, who were officially atheists themselves, even cited an alcohol ban to make Shadian more authentically Muslim. They weren't the only ones: Ningxia, another Hui-majority region, turned into a center of the halal meat trade. China was hungry for foreign investment, and that included Middle Eastern money – even if it was used to spread the religion.
That was an ironic vision given the city's history. Yunnan was at the heart of the Panthay Rebellion, a Muslim revolt in the 1850s that established an effectively independent sultanate in southeast China for nearly 20 years. Other memories were closer and bloody. The Shadow Incident, as it was euphemistically called, was still going on.
In 1968, China was at the height of the campaign to "smash the Four Elders". The campaign to destroy pre-communist elements of Chinese culture – ancient customs, ancient culture, ancient habits, and ancient ideas – has been fanatical in various ways across China, leaving behind destroyed buildings and burned books.
In Shadian, mosques have been closed, prayers have been banned, Korans have been burned, and most reports quote Han forcing Hui to eat pork. A mosque in Shadian was converted into a propaganda center where communist work teams lived, raised and slaughtered pigs, and allegedly threw bones into the well used for ablutions before prayer. Hui formed militias and sent appeals to provincial and central governments for religious freedoms to be granted to citizens under the 1954 Constitution of the People's Republic of China. But the petitions went unheeded – and party officials viewed resistance as an insurrection.
Finally, in July 1975, the People's Liberation Army was ordered to suppress the Hui Resistance in Shadian. Troops surrounded the city before dawn on July 29th and bombarded it with heavy artillery for the next seven days. "Shadian looked like a pile of ruins," wrote Ma Ping, director of the Hui and Islamic Studies Institute at the Ningxia Academy of Social Sciences. “You could see arms and legs torn. The air reeked of the disgusting stench of rotting corpses. “It is estimated that 1,500 people were killed, nearly a quarter of the then population of Shadian.
In 1979, after Mao Zedong died and the chaos of the Cultural Revolution subsided, liberal-minded national leader Hu Yaobang, who had been purged twice in the past, wrote a letter freeing Shadian Hui of guilt and reparation. The same army that destroyed Shadian was ordered to return and rebuild. In the 2000s, officials re-imagined a city once famous for religious clashes as a place of peaceful tourism.
But Shadian's ambitions for tourism disappeared in March 2014. Eight Uyghurs from Xinjiang armed themselves with knives, entered Kunming train station and began indiscriminately to cut up passengers. Thirty-one people were killed and more than 140 injured before four of the attackers were shot dead and one arrested. The other three fled to Shadian, where they were arrested two days later.
Before this event, the Hui and Uyghur Muslims were different in the minds of the Han majority in China. Many viewed Hui as an exemplary Muslim minority. "Hui looks like Han, talks like Han, and has integrated better into a Han-centered society," said Darren Byler, an expert on Uighur technopolitics. "But Uighurs look foreign, have their own language and a territorial home." According to Byler, the dual threat of separatism and Islamist terrorism was the reason the Chinese Communist Party's policy towards Uyghurs in Xinjiang was so brutal.
But after the Kunming attack, public sentiment towards Hui Muslims intensified, and Shadian was labeled a center for "ethno-religious extremism". Internet users complained about national food delivery apps providing halal options, as well as alcohol bans in Shadian and some other predominantly Muslim areas. "The Chinese have the inalienable right to drink alcohol," wrote an angry internet user after the attack. Meanwhile, the 2015 Paris attacks and Islamic State violence in Syria and Iraq heightened perceptions of the threat posed by Islam, while anti-Islamic narratives by Western far-right activists were returned to China via WeChat groups without being bothered by otherwise vigilant censors become.
"This is not our Islam!" Ma Xiaoxiao told me. She had large dark eyes and a round face, framed by a fashionable bob cut. A mutual friend introduced me to her husband Wang Gang, who drove her Range Rover with the air conditioning system blown up. "We are not …" She paused and looked for the English word "… kongbu fenzi!"
"Terrorists," I filled in.
"Right! We are not terrorists. These people use the Koran and religion to defend their bad actions."
As a person of faith, I sympathized: "Many religious people do not allow Scripture to influence what they want to believe."
Wang parked in an alley and Ma put on a hijab to cover her hair and neck before we strolled through a street market. "Everyone here still wears one," she said, almost apologetically. Ma and Wang live in eastern China, where few people wear traditional Muslim clothing. After meeting at a foreign university, they admitted that they thought differently from many Hui in Shadian. In fact, Wang was not a Muslim until he fell in love with Ma and converted.
"The older generation is still open-minded here," she continued. “Our generation wants to go out to understand the world and share with it. I believe mine and you can believe yours, ”she told me. "That's what I love about our mosque here. It has no walls. It's open to everyone – including – like our Islam."
But as we drove past the Grand Mosque, a Chinese flag was waving in the front and center, flanked by a black surveillance van with the words "Police" on it. While some Muslim practices may loosen, China's policy towards Hui Muslims is tightening in the name of Sinization. In 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping did not crush his words at the 19th party congress: The Communist Party will "insist on the sinization of Chinese religions and provide active guidance for the coexistence of religion and socialism".
Then, in 2018, the party leadership implemented revised regulations on religious affairs, followed by five-year plans to Sinize Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism – the religions that are allowed in China and most suspect of foreign influence. When these comprehensive regulations came into effect, prominent Protestant house churches in Beijing and Chengdu were closed, the Communist Party exercised authority to appoint Catholic bishops, and efforts are being made to translate the Bible again and comment on a To establish "correct understanding" of the text.
Mosques have been torn down or domes and crescents removed from them in Muslim communities. Religious education has been banned and unauthorized religious activities are prohibited. The religious affairs bureau in one county ordered mosques to play the Chinese national anthem instead of adhan, the call to prayer, and last spring I visited three house mosques that had been ambushed and chained up by the authorities, like the one Foreign policy reports.
The guidelines are always localized, so enforcement in China is different. In Shadian, the government's approach sometimes seems softer, while in other cases it seeks to set an example for Shadian to the Muslim communities of China. "Other Hui are watching us," said a groundskeeper in a mosque. “The government knows Shadian is a flash point. It's because of our history. "
In 1979, a memorial was erected on the summit of Phoenix Tail Mountain, overlooking the city. I walked up a narrow concrete road and meandered past hundreds of unmarked burial mounds to the memorial. The names of the victims are engraved on the base: Ma Jinguo, Ma Jiacai, Ma Fuguang, all of whom have a surname that is as common among Chinese Muslims as "Smith". A stone pillar towers 30 feet into the sky and is crowned by a crescent moon – like those that are now being forcibly removed across China. The column reads: "Monument to the Shadian Martyrs".
Men used to stuff every Eid al-Fitr on their prayer rugs shoulder to shoulder around the memorial, recalled Li Minghong, a childhood friend of Ma Xiaoxiao. “I grew up there and said prayers there,” she said, “but most young people don't know much about it. We were raised to love this country and to believe the government.” In 2008, prayers became new "I thought it was a space problem," Li said, "but later I learned that the government didn't want people to gather at the memorial." This Eid al-Fitr, I was alone at the memorial.
The restrictions in Shadian have tightened since my visit. Before the National Day in October 2019, hijabs were banned in government institutions such as schools and universities, hospitals, and government buildings. With the exception of one state-run school, all kindergartens, most of which had offered religious instruction, have closed. Arabic script is now forbidden.
"There is no policy on paper, but there is pressure," said Ruslan Yusupov of Hong Kong University of China. Yusupov spent two years fieldwork in Shadian and felt the tense environment. “It travels in the atmosphere. Everyone is talking about it. You breathe it in. The government will let you know what to know. "
These are trends across China, not just Shadian. Even the Chinese characters for "Halal" have been banned in some provinces, forcing restaurants and street vendors to get creative to save their signage. Some vendors have simply changed their Halal characters from the traditional green logo to red to circumvent the ban. Street signs in Ningxia that once contained Arabic to help overseas Muslims do business there have been replaced. Even a river named after one of Muhammad's wives was renamed to sound more Chinese.
"It's so counterproductive," a Western scientist told me on condition of anonymity due to her active research in China. “The government and corporations have spent millions developing the halal industry and attracting foreign investment and tourism. Now all for nothing. "Even more foreboding, the authorities are now forcing scientists to restrict research and remove scientific articles on Hui-related subjects -" even harmless subjects like culture, clothing and food, "added the scholar, puzzled.
In February 2020, additional regulations came into force to reinforce the revised religious regulations from 2018. The new administrative measures for religious groups state that "religious organizations must support the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party" [CCP]. They must also "adhere to the sinification of religion, embody the basic values of socialism and ensure national unity, ethnic unity, religious harmony and social stability". In practice, writes sociologist Massimo Introvigne in Bitter Winter, "religious organizations exist to promote the CCP and its ideology rather than religion."
"The CCP is unsettled that it has lost the battle for people's loyalty to the heart, especially against organized religions," wrote Adrian Zenz, a senior researcher at Uighur detention centers in Xinjiang. He suggested that guidelines now being implemented among Hui Muslims in other parts of China were first adopted in Xinjiang as a testing ground. Chen Quanguo, who became party secretary of Xinjiang in 2016, introduced repressive ethnic and religious policies that he first developed as party leader in Tibet and that oversaw the establishment of mass detention centers. Last year, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on Chen and other officials responsible for human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
But Chen's work is expanding. Xinjiang has hosted cadres from Ningxia and Gansu, home of the Hui enclaves, to share best practices in combating extremism. In a report on China's stance on human rights, Chang Jian, director of the Human Rights Research Center at Nankai University, wrote in the party's mouthpiece China Daily: “Other regions with similar conditions may learn some lessons from Xinjiang's fight against terrorism and violent extremism. "
Zenz isn't sure how far politics will go outside of Xinjiang, but he is sure of its long-term development. "Sinizing the religion is a pretext for the CCP to take control and ultimately subjugate these religions," he said. Worryingly, Sinization is as vaguely defined as the Smash the Four Olds campaign that led to the Shadian incident, and is also being carried out by zealous ideologues with too much power and little accountability.
When I asked about detention centers for Muslim communities outside of Xinjiang, Zenz replied, "There is a possibility."
During Ramadan last year, Ma Zhijun, who wanted to convert me in the Grand Mosque Square the year before, could not go to prayer in the mosque. All mosques in Shadian have been closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. However, the city had no official cases, so the atmosphere made it possible to open a different mosque each evening for the final prayers of the day. Religious leaders have also been vigilant about hand sanitizers and masks. While party officials in Xinjiang banned fasting during Ramadan – even forcing students to eat at school and forcing Muslim restaurants to serve pork and alcohol – nobody in Shadian of all places wanted to risk conflict or blur the lines between public health and religious restrictions .
On May 23, when Eid al-Fitr arrived, the Great Mosque had reopened and invited everyone to pray together again – perhaps to rule out a meeting at the martyr's memorial. Ma was going to prayer when I called him from the United States and he called me back at 3:00 a.m. without noticing the time difference. When I didn't answer, he wrote: "Hello friend. May the great Creator God guide you on the path of Islam. Aminai."
May God guide you in the days to come, friend. Assalamu alaikum.