“Sinicization” Campaigns Target Religious and Ethnic Minorities Across China

Under Xi Jinping, China has launched aggressive religious “sinicization” campaigns that have affected the constitutionally protected freedom to religious belief of many in China. Members of China’s ethnic minority groups have been especially hard hit. The most striking of these campaigns has been against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, who have been placed under unprecedented surveillance and imprisoned by the hundreds of thousands. Mongolians, Koreans, and now Utsuls, a tiny population of Chamic language-speaking Sunni Muslims who live in Hainan Province, have also been subjected to policies aimed at minimizing religious expression and instituting Mandarin-language education.

Last September, a ban on hijabs in Hainan classrooms sparked Utsul student protests. At The New York Times this week, Keith Bradsher and Amy Qin wrote about the history of the once-celebrated Utsuls, and how the central government’s about face on Islam has impacted their religious expression:

Signs on shops and homes that read “Allahu akbar” — “God is greatest” in Arabic — have been covered with foot-wide stickers promoting the “China Dream,” a nationalistic official slogan. The Chinese characters for halal, meaning permissible under Islam, have been removed from restaurant signs and menus. The authorities have closed two Islamic schools and have twice tried to bar female students from wearing head scarves.

[…] The new restrictions in Sanya, a city on the resort island of Hainan, mark a reversal in government policy. Until several years ago, officials supported the Utsuls’ Islamic identity and their ties with Muslim countries, according to local religious leaders and residents, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid government retaliation.

[…] The effort to “sinicize Islam” accelerated in 2018 after the State Council, China’s cabinet, issued a confidential directive ordering officials to prevent the faith from interfering with secular life and the state’s functions. The directive warned against “Arabization” and the influence of Saudi Arabia, or “Saudi-ization,” in mosques and schools.

[…] Local mosque leaders said they were told to remove loudspeakers that broadcast the call to prayer from the tops of minarets and place them on the ground — and, more recently, to turn down the volume as well. Construction of a new mosque was halted in a dispute over its imposing dimensions and supposedly “Arab” architectural elements; its concrete skeleton now gathers dust. The city has barred children under 18 from studying Arabic, residents said. [Source]

The Chinese government is open about its goals of “sinicization.” In 2019, Foreign Policy deputy editor James Palmer warned that Chinese authorities increasingly view Islam as a “perfect enemy” upon which to build a new ethnonationalist Chinese identity. In a 2020 speech, Xi Jinping publicly embraced the term as national policy. In recent days, state media outlet Global Times published an interview with Yang Faming, the president of the state-run China Islamic Association, who explicitly endorsed “sinicization” and defended the installation of cameras in mosques as a needed safety measure:

Yang: In order to ensure the healthy development of Islam itself and the better adaptation of Islam to the socialist society with Chinese characteristics, the China Islamic Association has drawn up the outline for the five-year work plan (2018-22) for the religion’s sinicization in China. The outline laid out scientific plans for promoting patriotism, building a system of Islam classics with Chinese characteristics, improving rules and regulations in the field of Islam, strengthening the construction of Islamic culture, engaging in public welfare and charity activities, and training high-quality Islamic personnel. At present, the work is progressing smoothly in all aspects and remarkable results have been achieved.

[…] After Islam was introduced into China, after a long period of integration, it has gradually integrated with Chinese characteristics. The course of the development of Islam in China is the course of the continuous sinicization of Islam. We believe that the sinicization of Islam is the foundation for the better development of Islam in Chinese society. It is the only way for Islam to take root and develop in a healthy way in China. That is to say, only by adhering to the sinicization of Islam can Islam keep pace with the times, the development of contemporary Chinese society, and inherit and develop in a more stable and healthy way.

[…] Yang: Take Xinjiang as an example, the installation of cameras in mosques is aimed at protecting the safety of local religious figures and believers, guarding against fire and theft, and preventing and cracking down on violent and terrorist crimes. It is supported by local religious figures and believers. [Source]

In Tibetan regions of China, Buddhists and language activists have faced similar hardships. A teenage monk who distributed leaflets and called for Tibetan independence outside of a local government office in Sichuan Province died after his release from police custody. Human Rights Watch reported that the boy’s friends and family believe he was “suffering from serious injuries and an acute respiratory infection, which they believed was due to beatings, malnourishment, and mistreatment in custody.” Kunchok Jinpa, a Tibetan tour-guide who was arrested for reporting on protests in the region in 2013, also died in police custody this year. Sophie Richardson, Human Rights Watch’s China director called his death “yet another grim case of a wrongfully imprisoned Tibetan dying from mistreatment.” Tibetan language advocate Tashi Wangchuk was released from prison earlier this year after serving a five year sentence for “inciting separatism” because he petitioned the central government to promote Tibetan language education. Citing coronavirus concerns, Chinese authorities shuttered monasteries during Losar, the Tibetan Lunar New Year festival, but some residents suspected it was an attempt to limit religious celebrations, according to Radio Free Asia. The Economist detailed the increasing similarities between Tibet and Xinjiang:

The Tibetan religion is undergoing what the party calls “sinicisation”. Although different methods are involved, the process echoes a campaign in neighbouring Xinjiang to do the same to Islam, the faith of most of that region’s 12m ethnic Uyghurs. The purpose is to eliminate religious influences from outside China, especially from the Dalai Lama (on the Tibetan plateau) and from radical Islamic groups (in Xinjiang). In both regions, the party’s efforts amount to an assault not only on religion, but on cherished cultural traditions. Chen Quanguo, the party boss in Xinjiang, was Mr Wu’s predecessor. While in Tibet Mr Chen tried out some of the heavy-handed security tactics which later, in Xinjiang, he developed into a vast network of “re-education” camps for Uyghurs.

[…] As in Xinjiang, however, sinicisation—though officially limited to religious affairs—involves a much broader effort to make ethnic-minority residents feel they belong to China. In schools, “patriotic education” is emphasised. Mandarin has replaced Tibetan in most classes. Surveillance has been stepped up. Networks of informers relay information to the state; smartphones are tapped. Just as Uyghurs can no longer make pilgrimages to Mecca, it has become almost impossible for Tibetans to travel to India to attend religious teachings given by the Dalai Lama, as many did before Mr Xi took power in 2012.

[…] In December and January officials seized the mobile phones of dozens or hundreds of members of a WeChat group of Tibetans in and from Xiahe, a monastery town in Gansu province which borders on Tibet, says a member of the group who lives in exile. Participants had used the app to discuss sensitive topics, such as the life of the Dalai Lama and America’s passage in December of a law calling for sanctions against Chinese officials if they interfere in the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation. In the 2000s Tibetans still kept images of the Dalai Lama in their homes. Now many display photographs of Mr Xi as well as of Mao Zedong and other former leaders of China (see picture). These are handed out by officials along with gifts of rice, clothes or cash. Refusing the presents, and the photos, may incur reprisals. [Source]


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