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China's campaign to 'Sinicize' Islam curbs religious freedom

William Yang in Taipei
June 7, 2023

Chinese Hui Muslim activists warn Beijing's campaign to "Sinicize Islam" is curtailing religious freedom across the country and redefining Islam.

Najiaying mosque in Yunnan province, China
Over the last few years, mosques in many places in China have seen their domes and minarets demolished by local authorities and replaced with Chinese-style roofsImage: Iceway12/Wikipedia

A clash between police and residents last week over local authorities' attempt to partially demolish a mosque in China's southwestern province of Yunnan triggered international concern about the impact of the Chinese government's five-year plan to "Sinicize" Islam across the country.

Dozens of police with riot shields and truncheons were seen pushing back a group of angered local residents who threw objects at them outside the Najiaying mosque in the town of Nagu. Related videos were soon removed from Chinese social media platforms, and the local government issued a notice on May 28, ordering people involved in the clash to "immediately stop all illegal and criminal acts."

With an unspecified number of local residents having been reportedly arrested by police, Hui Muslim (a Chinese ethnic group) activists living abroad told DW that authorities are still urging anyone who was involved in the clash to turn themselves in while vowing to remove the domes and the minarets from the mosque as originally planned. 

"Local residents are still resolutely pushing back against the government's efforts to demolish important structures of the mosque, and local authorities have not withdrawn the police who were deployed to help repel the clash that took place last week," said Ma Ju, a prominent Hui activist living in the US who has been closely following the situation in Yunnan.

The Najiaying mosque is not the first Islamic religious site that has faced the threat of partial demolition of its structure. Over the last few years, mosques in Ningxia, Gansu, Henan, and even Beijing, have seen their domes and minarets demolished by local authorities and replaced with Chinese-style roofs.

These efforts are part of the Chinese government's plan to "Sinicize" Islam, which aims at removing "foreign influence" from the religion while ensuring that it aligns with traditional Chinese values outlined by the Chinese government.

"In many of his speeches, there are indications that President Xi Jinping views foreign religious ideologies or traditions as threatening, and Islam is one that he is very concerned about," said David Stroup, a lecturer of Chinese politics at the University of Manchester.

China's five-year 'Sinicizing' plan

In 2019, China passed a law that aimed at Sinicizing Islam in five years, emphasizing that it's necessary to ensure Islam is "compatible with socialism," according to a report by China's state-run tabloid Global Times in January that year.

UN report on Uyghurs in China

During a government meeting in September 2020, Chinese leader Xi reiterated the need to ensure the "healthy development of religion."

"We must do a good job in the field of ideology and carry out the project of cultural enrichment of Xinjiang," Xi said in an article published by the Chinese state-run Xinhua News Agency.

In September 2022, Wang Yang, former chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, told leaders of the Islamic Association of China that they need to keep promoting "Sinicization of Islam," and that they shouldn't be "ambiguous in their political stance of listening to the Party and following the Party at any time."

Hannah Theaker, a lecturer in history and politics at the University of Plymouth in the UK, says some mosques in China have been demolished, while others are being merged together as part of a policy to reduce the overall numbers of mosques."

Theaker said the Chinese government has also closed down many religious schools and institutions while increasing ideological control of religious leaders. "These measures have been accompanied by increased and often highly intrusive surveillance of mosque communities and non-Han communities, especially migrants," she told DW.

Forced assimilation 

Some overseas Hui Muslims told DW that many Chinese Muslims can no longer maintain a lifestyle that's in line with traditional Islamic rules.

"The Chinese government starts it by destroying the religious venues where Muslims practice their faith and then force us to assimilate into the religious norms established by them," said a Hui Muslim woman surnamed Ma, who lives in Malaysia, but keeps close contact with family members in China.

Stroup from the University of Manchester added that Beijing's Sinicization campaign essentially tries to establish a version of Islam approved by the Chinese Communist Party, with the ethnic communities becoming "a vehicle for party-state values."

"What we will probably see is a state-approved version of Islam that's overseen and dominated by party imperatives," Stroup told DW.

Beijing pushes to 'redefine' Islam 

Many activists see very little room for Hui Muslims to push back against Beijing's efforts to "redefine" Islam.

The US-based Hui activist Ma Ju said despite local community pushback, their resistance is generally "very weak," and local governments will generally temporarily suspend mosque demolition efforts but won't abort their plans entirely. 

"While the Chinese government won't completely eliminate Islam, they will try to break the social cohesion of the Muslim community in China, just like what they do to other organized groups and communities," he said.

With the Sinicization campaign being rolled out unevenly across China, Stroup argues that there haven't been many opportunities for the Muslim community to organize large-scale mobilization or resistance.

Former Uyghur detainees of internment camps

"The program was first started in Ningxia, then southern Gansu, Yunnan, eastern China, and Qinghai, and it's like all of a sudden, the community is going through Sinicization with no prior warning or an opportunity for them to mobilize," he told DW. 

Stroup thinks Beijing's campaign could lead to the practice of Islam going underground.

"The state will determine what religious discretion can and should be, and this is worrisome, as authorities would possibly label anything that doesn't conform with the state ideology as potentially extremist and treat non-conforming religious discourse as a potential breeding ground for terrorism or Islamic fundamentalism," Stroup warned.

Edited by: Sou-Jie van Brunnersum