Hope faded in April. Government cranes began appearing ominously over Hui mosques. A video surfaced on social media showing workers taking apart the Gazhuang mosque’s gold dome, then smashing it into the prayer hall. Local Hui saw an unmistakable metaphor: The Communist Party, which once handled religious life here with a light touch, now ran roughshod over it.
“Women were crying; others, like me, couldn’t believe what was happening,” said Ma Ha, a 40-year-old owner of a noodle shop. “We had 40 years of religious freedom. The winds are changing.”
Under its leader, Xi Jinping, China’s government has intensified efforts to assimilate ethnic minorities and curtail religions, such as Islam, that it considers carriers of foreign influence. For two years on the Xinjiang frontier, China has sent hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of Uighurs to what it calls reeducation centers, where they are taught to renounce their religion and culture and embrace new state-prescribed identities as secular Chinese.
That tide of “Sinicization,” as Chinese policymakers call it, is surging nationwide. A recent, unescorted trip through Gansu, a corridor that once ushered Silk Road caravans and Islam into imperial China, revealed an accelerating campaign to assimilate another Muslim minority, the Hui, a Chinese-speaking people with no recent record of separatism or extremism.
The campaign targeting the Hui does not feature mass internment or pervasive digital surveillance, the most striking aspects of the Xinjiang crackdown. But it is a purge of ideas, symbols, culture, products — anything deemed not Chinese. It permeates life, in ways existential and mundane.
Domes and minarets are lopped off mosques and replaced with curving Chinese roofs. News broadcasts are forbidden to show pedestrians wearing traditional Hui skullcaps or veils. Arabic script is outlawed in public spaces, so practically every restaurant has a sun-beaten facade with dark traces where the word “halal” has been scraped off.
Strict new quotas throttle religious education to the degree that some Hui intellectuals predict their people could become largely irreligious, like most of China, in two or three generations.
Pressures are mounting against the Hui, the distant descendants of Persian traders, at a moment when the Communist leadership is stoking nationalism among the ethnic majority Han to bolster popular support. In officials’ speeches, on television and across billboards, one frequent refrain is the “China Dream” — Xi’s vision of restoring China’s historic power and wealth, its culture and its pride.
“The great rejuvenation of the Chinese people is actually a narrow-minded, xenophobic kind of nationalism,” said Li Yunfei, an imam from eastern China and one of the last dissident Hui writers. “Anything that is defined by them as coming from abroad, they strive to eliminate through administrative means.”
An April 2018 Communist Party directive obtained by the Germany-based World Uighur Congress advocacy group showed the party’s central leadership instructing local authorities to reverse what it deemed to be growing “Saudi” and “Arab” influences in architecture, clothing, religious practice and language.
Although the contents of the directive were confidential, government offices nationwide have issued general statements confirming they were implementing its orders.
The 22 million followers of Islam are not the only people touched by China’s assimilation drive. Christian church steeples and crosses have been taken down across the country. When party bosses inspected Tibetan regions in August, they told local officials to implement Xi’s “important words on religious work,” tighten control over monasteries and “focus efforts to Sinicize religion.”
Ambitious social re-engineering will be seen as one of Xi’s legacies, said Vanessa Frangville, a professor of Chinese studies at the Université libre de Bruxelles in Belgium.
By curbing religion, the party “removes potential opponents to power,” Frangville said. “To control the whole population through technology and ideology — it’s what leaders dream about.”
'We've regressed 40 years'
For centuries, Gansu was a land of transition. In the hills where the Tibetan highlands flatten into prairie, sprawling Tibetan monasteries exerted a greater gravity than the emperors of faraway Beijing. In the Daxia River valley, Sufi preachers and devout warlords had turned an old Silk Road hub called Linxia into a Hui bastion decades before communists swept through in 1949.
Today, Beijing wants to make its influence felt.
On a recent morning, a local imam ushered a visitor past a flagpole with a flapping red Chinese banner that officials insisted on installing earlier this year. Along a courtyard wall, propaganda bulletins reminded worshipers of their foremost loyalty: the communist state before Allah.
“Islam has been in China 1,300 years. Other than 10 years of the Cultural Revolution, it’s always been passed down generation to generation without a break,” said the imam, who, like almost everyone in Gansu, spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of government retribution. “We’ve regressed 40 years to the Cultural Revolution.”
Sitting in his classroom, where the number of religious students had plunged 90 percent in one year as new quotas took effect, the imam spoke about how the Koran was banned from sale and local publishers who printed the hadith — collections of the prophet Muhammad’s sayings — were jailed.
Most destabilizing, the imam said, was the sense of foreboding.
Hui officials felt unsure about how to please the central government, so they erred on the side of caution, the imam said. Everybody else — from wealthy Hui businessmen to poor farmers — felt “completely paralyzed,” he said.
“The Xinjiang policy is already being implemented here. At least we’re moving in that direction,” the imam said. “We’re born and raised Chinese. Our passports are Chinese. Our forefathers are Chinese. How do you want us to be more Chinese?”
Down an alley from Linxia’s Binhe mosque, one of at least three in the city facing what officials euphemistically call “renovation,” a day laborer named Ma Junyi seemed strained as he spoke about the shifting sands.
Residents were uneasy about new restrictions that cut the madrassa’s class sizes down to 30 — a quota enforced by random checks, Ma said. Youngsters under 18, such as his 9-year-old daughter, were forbidden to set foot inside the mosque courtyard.
“We know leaders have their reasons,” Ma said. “But how can we pass on our traditions? It feels like we’re going extinct.”
An American model
In 2008 and 2009, China was rocked by race riots in Tibet and Xinjiang that left hundreds of Han, Uighurs and Tibetans dead.
In the following years, a remarkably open discussion about China’s ethnic policy flourished on campuses, in journals, even on television. Two of the most influential voices were Hu Angang, a conservative intellectual at Tsinghua University in Beijing, and Hu Lianhe, a midcareer official who later soared through the Communist Party ranks.
In 2011, the two Hus, who are not related, teamed up to publish essays critiquing long-standing policies that recognized China’s 55 ethnic minorities, offered them preferential treatment on matters such as college admissions, and carved out regions where peoples such as Uighurs and Tibetans lived with some autonomy.
The Hus pointed out that religious and ethno-nationalist impulses played a role in the demise of the Soviet Union — a cautionary tale that the Chinese Communist Party studies obsessively. They called for an “upgrade” of the policies and pointed to a model that they thought China should consider: the United States.
“The early melting pot policy . . . was a powerful ‘Anglo-Saxonization’ policy, mainly assimilating other ethnic groups into Anglo-Protestant groups,” they wrote in a paper that traced waves of U.S. immigration from southern Europe and later Latin America. “Although the norms of pluralism have become very strong in recent years, the fact remains that ethnic differences are tending to disappear.”
The articles sparked controversy in China. But today, they are the most-cited papers on the subject, said Hu Angang. They helped propel Hu Lianhe to become a top official; last year, he defended China’s Xinjiang policy before a United Nations panel in Geneva.
In an interview and in emails, Hu Angang said his ideas were often misunderstood in the West. He did not espouse forced assimilation, he said, but the wisdom of China’s ethnic policies was proved by data showing the standard of development in Xinjiang and Tibet outstripping neighboring countries stricken by poverty and chaos.
“Ethnic harmony and social stability are the greatest, most important public good, but invisible and intangible like fresh air.”
A quiet demise
Weeks after Linxia was stunned by the video of grieving worshipers wailing next to their crushed Gazhuang mosque, a retired village party secretary sat in a nearby farmhouse picking at a plate of stewed chicken.
Was China cracking down on Islam? Nonsense, he said.
First, he said, the Linxia government is paying to rebuild the Gazhuang mosque — with a Chinese-style roof. Workers did drop the dome, but it was an accident. And the video that went viral was uploaded by mischievous young Hui who have since been punished with 24-hour detention and released. The party was not only beneficent, he said, but also lenient.
“Why is a dome so important?” the official said as he shuffled to a coat rack and removed his Hui skullcap in favor of a sun hat. “I can swap out my hat. You can swap out a dome. The government’s not saying you can’t be Muslim, or forcing you to be Buddhist or Christian!”
Residents had voiced worries about the direction things were headed, he conceded, but quickly dismissed the thought. “I tell the people they need to trust me, we are not in danger,” he said. “And the people trust me.”
The bottom line was that China had the right to do things its way, he said.
“How can Americans possibly lecture China about religious freedom?” he said. “How many Muslims has America killed in Iraq and Afghanistan? If you ask the Muslim world if they prefer America or China, I believe they would say China.”
In a high-rise near Linxia’s modest downtown, Suleiman, a 30-something public-sector employee, said local government officials and Communist Party members, most of whom are Hui, were caught in a particular bind.
Party members and civil servants are prohibited from making hajj pilgrimages, the obligation of every Muslim, according to Suleiman. Linxia city employees cannot be seen praying, and Hui contractors are asked to take off skullcaps when they meet officials for city business.
Suleiman said the government policies seemed almost mild compared with rhetoric on Chinese social media, where popular Han nationalist accounts often sound warnings about sharia law, halal food and other alleged Islamic conspiracies corrupting Chinese society.
Chinese Christians are also under pressure from the state, Suleiman said, but there seemed to be no widespread antipathy toward Christians, no explosive potential.
“I’m afraid someday there will be mass movement against Muslims,” he said. “I’m terrified, because China has been easily gripped by mass movements since ancient times.”
To journey through Linxia, where eight great mosques, a bazaar and warlord estates once composed the center of Hui life, is to see the Sinicization campaign unfolding with a meticulous logic.
Along the highway approaching the city, a wall of black tarp perfectly blocks drivers from seeing the Jiajianan mosque’s minarets being pruned in the distance. On the main commercial avenue, officials covered up Islamic arches with stone slabs featuring a Chinese motif, chrysanthemum flowers. In a government-run museum, curators removed skullcaps and headscarves from mannequins in an exhibit on Hui culture.
In the next room, an exhibit on local history celebrates how the region’s mosques were rebuilt during the 1980s. It omits a piece of context: Many were razed earlier, in 1957, by communist zealots during a mass frenzy whipped up by Chairman Mao Zedong.
The Hui in Gansu today do not suffer violence, only a quiet demise, Suleiman said: “They’re slowly boiling us like frogs.”