Thousands of Hui Muslims gathered at the Weizhou Grand Mosque in Ningxia last week in an attempt to stall government plans to demolish the newly built structure. The forced demolition threat came after authorities issued a notice on August 3rd demanding the mosque be torn down by Friday, citing that it had not been granted the necessary planning and construction permits. Camila Domonoske at NPR reports:
The Grand Mosque in Weizhou is brand-new — it was just finished last year. Authorities say it lacks the proper permits and must be torn down. But worshipers are fiercely opposed. They point out that the government did not raise concerns about the permits during the actual construction process.
[…] Public demonstrations like this are not common in China, “where the government is often quick to quash any hint of dissent,” The Associated Press notes.
[…] ” ‘People are in a lot of pain,’ said Ma Sengming, a 72-year-old man who was at the protest from Thursday morning until Friday afternoon. ‘Many people were crying. We can’t understand why this is happening.’
“The protest comes as faith groups that were largely tolerated in the past have seen their freedoms shrink as the government seeks to ‘Sinicize’ religions by making the faithful prioritize allegiance to the officially atheist ruling Communist Party. Islamic crescents and domes have been stripped from mosques, Christian churches have been shut down and Bibles seized, and Tibetan children have been moved from Buddhist temples to schools.” [Source]
Although local officials subsequently withdrew the demolition order in response to the protests, they insisted on removing several domes on the mosque to make it look more Chinese in style–a move that is in line with government efforts to “Sinicize religion.” The remodelling plan was met with further opposition from the community as protesters vowed to fight on until a compromise is reached. Nectar Gan at South China Morning Post reports:
With its onion-shaped domes, crescent moons and towering minarets, the all-white mosque is the latest structure to come into the cross hairs of a campaign to rid Ningxia of what the government sees as creeping Islamisation and Arabisation.
[…] The first version of that plan called for the mosque’s “Arab style” domes to be replaced with traditional Chinese-style pagodas, but was swiftly rejected by worshippers. The government then asked the mosque’s management committee to remove eight of the nine domes that top the mosque, leaving the largest one in the centre.
That, too, was deemed unacceptable by most members of the community.
“After taking down the domes, the mosque can no longer be an icon of Islam,” said a local man who declined to give his name. “Changing it to a traditional Chinese style is as incongruous as putting the mouth of a horse on the head of an ox.”
[…] “The officials have not given us a clear answer,” one member of the crowd said. “And we plan to carry on until the government makes it clear that it won’t make any changes to the mosque.” [Source]
Residents in Weizhou, a Hui town of about 20,000 people in the northern Ningxia region on the Yellow River floodplain, said that life was returning to normal after assurances were given on Saturday afternoon by the chief of Tongxin county, which governs Weizhou.
“It’s all calmed down now,” a resident who witnessed the protest said. “The county’s party chief has told everyone that the mosque is to be revamped, not demolished, and the reconstruction will only take place after everyone is happy [with the renovation plan].”
A business owner said: “[The county chief] said we should first celebrate Eid al-Adha, and negotiations over the reconstruction could resume afterwards.” Eid al-Adha, known as “festival of sacrifice”, is one of the two major annual Islamic festivals and starts next week, running over four days.
Internet services also resumed in the town on Monday afternoon after two days of outages, and prayer services at the mosque were again being held as usual, residents said. [Source]
The authorities’ heavy-handed approach in Ningxia is prompting fears that the government is extending its crackdown on Islam from Xinjiang to other parts of China where Muslim minorities reside. Rapidly expanding policing and surveillance in recent years has turned Xinjiang into a massive police state, where efforts to combat “religious extremism” have led to bans on long beards and the wearing of veils. A recent report from a UN human rights panel estimates that more than one million Uyghurs have been sent to re-education camps where they are forced to renounce their religious identity as part of the state’s anti-terrorism campaign. Questioning by the UN on this issue was met with outright denial as Beijing refused to acknowledge the rights violations that it has committed against its Muslim population. From the BBC:
[…T]he current move to demolish the Ningxia mosque is an indication that the government is now looking to extend control over other Muslim ethnic minorities, says rights group Amnesty International.
Earlier this year, in neighbouring Gansu province, children under 16 in the region of Linxia were banned from religious activities, in a move that alarmed Hui imams.
“It’s clear that the Chinese government’s hostility towards Muslims in China is not only limited to Uighurs,” researcher Patrick Poon told the BBC.
“Hui Muslims are generally considered less vulnerable to crackdowns, but this incident proves that the government is determined to use a holistic and heavy-handed approach towards all Muslim ethnic minorities in China.” [Source]
The SCMP editorial board writes that the protest by Hui Muslims in Weizhou was less a reflection of expanding religious oppression and more a consequence of the government’s lack of sensitivity and consideration towards local conditions in drawing up regulatory policies.
Religious institutions and communities share in China’s rising prosperity. This is often reflected by lavish property developments that project worldly rather than spiritual values associated with places of worship and spark friction with secular bureaucracy. Despite the wealth of religious bodies, it can take a long time to obtain various permits to build a new place of worship on the mainland, and just a stroke of the pen for an order to pull it down because it still does not have all the necessary paperwork. That is a recipe for conflict in which heavy-handed regulation is conflated with religious oppression.
[…] Regardless of perceptions, it is reasonable for officials to expect religious institutions to comply with local building regulations and standards. But even legitimate enforcement, often prompted by a higher authority, is fraught with the risk of misrepresentation of political motives. Officials need to exercise their power with sensitivity and common sense. Demands for demolition and radical changes to churches, mosques and temples without so much as lip service to negotiation or consultation are examples. They show little empathy with the feelings of people amid political concerns, as mainlanders increasingly turn to religion to fill the spiritual vacuum left by wealth and materialism.
That said, it is a sweeping conclusion to regard the Weizhou protest as an issue of religious freedom. Examples of conflict with authority over places of worship may be found throughout China but they are not part of a universal pattern. There is a historical background in that Beijing has drawn up policies on the design and construction of temples. In this case, it has apparently come down to an issue of building standards. However, even though Beijing may be able to cite rules as the basis of action, officials have to be sensitive to local conditions and sentiment in applying them and take into consideration circumstances on the ground. [Source]
At the BBC, David Stroup, an expert on Hui Muslims at the University of Oklahoma, writes that the government’s action in Weizhou could backfire as it risks antagonizing an Islamic community that benefited from China’s economic development and, as a result, think of themselves as both Chinese patriots and loyal Muslims.
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. [Source]