Mosque Demolition Sparks Clashes Between Armed Police and Hui Muslim Residents in Yunnan

The partial demolition of a historic mosque in rural Yunnan this past weekend ignited conflict between local Hui Muslim residents and armed police. The clashes in Najiaying, a village in Yuxi, China, began when residents discovered that cranes had been moved into the compound of the Najiaying mosque, and that demolition of the mosque was imminent. The conflict is the latest chapter in the implementation of the central government’s “sinicization” policies. Similar “sinicization” measures in the past have sparked contention—and in some cases, popular protests—over the erasure of overt Islamic architectural influences in mosques and the cancellation of Mongolian-language and Korean-language education programs in Inner Mongolia and northeast China, respectively. CDT Chinese editors have collected videos circulating online of the protests in Najiaying, all news of which was censored on Weibo in the immediate aftermath of the conflict

At CNN, Nectar Gan and Wayne Chang reported on clashes over the Najiaying Mosque between thousands of Hui villagers and the police:

This is our last bit of dignity,” a local witness told CNN. “It’s like coming to our house to demolish our home. We can’t allow that to happen.”

[…] The hours-long standoff on Saturday yielded a temporary win for the protesters, who streamed into the mosque as the police retreated, according to the witness and online videos.

Throughout Saturday night and Sunday, residents took turns to guard the mosque, fearing that authorities would return to demolish its large centerpiece green dome and four minarets, the source said.

[…] The internet has been cut off in many neighborhoods. Drones buzzed overhead and surveilled the village. Public loudspeakers blasted the authorities’ message on repeat, urging protesters to turn themselves in, according to the source and Ma, the US-based activist.

“It feels like our nightmare is only starting now,” the source told CNN. “Everyone is in fear…We don’t know what’s going to happen next.” [Source]

The Hui people are China’s third largest ethnic group and are generally Mandarin speakers. During the Cultural Revolution, approximately 1,600 Hui Muslims were massacred by the People’s Liberation Army in Shadian, a village in Yunnan located less than 90 miles away from Najiaying. After the end of the Cultural Revolution, the central government apologized for the massacre but blamed it on the “Gang of Four,” the political leaders who were toppled in an intra-Party coup after Mao’s death. In the decades that followed, the Hui people, especially those located in northwestern China, were allowed to practice their religion with relative freedom. That began to change with the crackdown on Islam in Xinjiang, which has seen hundreds of thousands of Uyghur Muslims interred in reeducation camps. Xinjiang is now the subject of a tourism push that aims to “culturally replenish” the region with a new, sino-centric identity. At The China Project, Ruslan Yusupov wrote about the recent history of the government’s sinification campaign and the rumors that the (temporarily delayed) renovation of the Najiaying mosque will resume next month:

The incident in Najiaying, part of Nagu Township, was as sudden as it was predictable. Back in April 2020, a photo of an internal document issued by the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Committee of Sichuan Province briefly circulated on WeChat until it was censored. Called “Notice on the rectification of the ‘Arabic-style’ mosques,” it instructed authorities to “pay attention to the means and strategies” in the work of “altering” mosques and “prevent causing contradiction or any incidents of unrest.”

[…] Meanwhile, provincial authorities have tried to convince locals that the demolition is necessary. One Shadian resident reported that his wife, who works in the local school, attended a meeting where all the teachers were requested to show support for the “alteration” project.” Absence of their signatures in an internal letter of support distributed by the government, they were told, would be adversely reflected on their paychecks. Authorities also seem to have reached out to the private business owners who sustain the upkeep of the mosque through their charitable donations. “They ask us to show agreement,” one of them said, “and their meaning is that they would open our past tax returns for investigation if we don’t make right decisions.”

[…] Rumors from Nagu at this point say that authorities have decided to postpone renovations until early next month, since the community will gather in the mosque’s courtyard on May 30 to send this year’s pilgrim delegation to Mecca for Hajj. Shadian, on the other hand, sent their delegation on May 29. The pilgrims left their hometown in despondency: They will probably come back to witness the Grand Mosque of Shadian missing its minaret and dome. The “alteration” work is scheduled to begin in late June, after the Sacrifice Feast celebrations are over. [Source]

At The Washington Post, Christian Shepherd and Vic Chiang reported on the Hui people’s long history of employing flexibility in order to avoid repression, a forbearance that has not always helped them to escape from persecution

Surveillance of religious leaders has also intensified. A nationwide database of officially approved Islamic, Protestant and Catholic religious teachers was launched this month.

[…] Even government-backed researchers acknowledge that a flexible approach historically allowed Hui in Yunnan to avoid the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution, when most of China’s mosques, churches and temples were closed.

At the time, the Najiaying Mosque hosted readings of Mao Zedong Thought and painted slogans on the walls so the Hui could meet and continue worshiping, Li Hongchun, a researcher at the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences, wrote in an article about regional history published in 2010.

“At critical junctures when faced with a political conflict that could slip into violence, the Hui of Najiaying kept quiet and actively engaged with the government to dispel misunderstanding and successfully avoid tragedy,” demonstrating a “unique kind of ethnic survival wisdom,” he said. [Source]

CDT’s recent special report on China’s police geographic information system found that 55 percent (or 6 of 11) of all the prefecture-level administrative units in Yunnan that purchased PGIS technology between 2005 and 2022 were minority autonomous prefectures, and the three highest-value purchases in Yunnan went to minority autonomous prefectures. In 2016, the Public Security Bureau of Yuxi, the city in which the town of Nagu is located, purchased a sizable PGIS contract worth 5,230,000 yuan. After the Najiaying protests, some nationalist Weibo commentators began sharing a May 19 video of Yuxi’s public security police anti-terrorism drills. One commenter wrote: “It’s about time—those terrorists in Najiaying ought to be handled with the same shock-and-awe tactics!”

Arthur Kaufman contributed to this post.


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