Chinese Hui Muslims protest mosque demolition in Weizhou

The grand mosque in remote northern China was slated to be demolished, according to local officials who said it had not been granted proper permits. A rare protest has been held to save the building.

Local sources said a sit-in protest by hundreds of ethnic Hui Muslims took place on Friday to defend the huge new mosque, which was built last year in the northern region of Ningxia.

Politics | 09.12.2016

Protests are rare in China, and news of demonstrations are difficult to verify. Most reports come via unverified social media.

Weizhou officials last week gave the mosque management a deadline of Friday to demolish the building, as they said it had not received the proper permits before it was built. Otherwise it would be forcibly taken down.

A government proposal to replace the mosque's nine Middle Eastern-style domes and four towering minarets with Chinese-style pagodas was apparently rejected by mosque representatives.

The English-language South China Morning Post reported on Friday that local authorities had agreed to delay the demolition until a reconstruction plan could be agreed with the mosque representatives. 

The Hui Muslim community questioned why, if the necessary paperwork was absent, the two-year construction project had not been halted.

The Ningxia region is in the north of China, towards the border with Mongolia

Sinicization of religion

While China guarantees freedom of religion, concerns over possible radicalization in Muslim areas has led to stricter controls on Islamic communities since 2015 under the Sinicization of religion. This aims to bring religious groups into line with Chinese culture and under the authority of the ruling Communist Party.

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Measures have included a ban on religious education for young people in mosques, a silencing of the call to prayer over loudspeakers and eradication of Arab elements in mosques.

Targeting the Hui?

The Hui Muslims are largely integrated into the local Chinese, Han community. Most of them speak Mandarin, and the only sign of a difference is shown in the white caps and headscarves worn by some traditional Hui Muslims. 

But in recent months, controls over the Hui Muslims appear to have been increased as the central government targets another Muslim group, the Uighurs who live in the far western region of Xinjiang and have a far more distinctive and visible culture.

Soldiers have patrolled Uighur neighborhoods for years

The 11-million-strong Uighur population have found themselves subject to increased surveillance with checkpoints, security cameras, and armed patrols controlling their movements. Thousands of religious buildings have been destroyed.

There have been reports of secretive, re-education centers where the human rights group Chinese Human Rights Defenders say Uighur have been detained or forced to attend education sessions. 

"Our findings show that, in the villages of Southern Xinjiang, about 660,000 rural residents of ethnic Uyghur background may have been taken away from their homes and detained in re-education camps, while another up to 1.3 million may have been forced to attend mandatory day or evening re-education sessions."

The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is to review China's implementation of its international convention on Friday. 

China's Uighur heartland turns into security state

China's far western Xinjiang region ramps up security

Three times a day, alarms ring out through the streets of China's ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar, and shopkeepers rush out of their stores swinging government-issued wooden clubs. In mandatory anti-terror drills conducted under police supervision, they fight off imaginary knife-wielding assailants.

China's Uighur heartland turns into security state

One Belt, One Road Initiative

An ethnic Uighur man walks down the path leading to the tomb of Imam Asim in the Taklamakan Desert. A historic trading post, the city of Kashgar is central to China's "One Belt, One Road Initiative", which is President Xi Jinping's signature foreign and economic policy involving massive infrastructure spending linking China to Asia, the Middle East and beyond.

China's Uighur heartland turns into security state

China fears disruption of "One Belt, One Road" summit

A man herds sheep in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. China's worst fears are that a large-scale attack would blight this year's diplomatic setpiece, an OBOR summit attended by world leaders planned for Beijing. Since ethnic riots in the regional capital Urumqi in 2009, Xinjiang has been plagued by bouts of deadly violence.

China's Uighur heartland turns into security state

Ethnic minority in China

A woman prays at a grave near the tomb of Imam Asim in the Taklamankan Desert. Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking distinct and mostly Sunni Muslim community and one of the 55 recognized ethnic minorities in China. Although Uighurs have traditionally practiced a moderate version of Islam, experts believe that some of them have been joining Islamic militias in the Middle East.

China's Uighur heartland turns into security state

Communist Party vows to continue war on terror

Chinese state media say the threat remains high, so the Communist Party has vowed to continue its "war on terror" against Islamist extremism. For example, Chinese authorities have passed measures banning many typically Muslim customs. The initiative makes it illegal to "reject or refuse" state propaganda, although it was not immediately clear how the authorities would enforce this regulation.

China's Uighur heartland turns into security state

CCTV cameras are being installed

Many residents say the anti-terror drills are just part of an oppressive security operation that has been ramped up in Kashgar and other cities in Xinjiang's Uighur heartland in recent months. For many Uighurs it is not about security, but mass surveillance. "We have no privacy. They want to see what you're up to," says a shop owner in Kashgar.

China's Uighur heartland turns into security state

Ban on many typically Muslim customs

The most visible change is likely to come from the ban on "abnormal growing of beards," and the restriction on wearing veils. Specifically, workers in public spaces, including stations and airports, will be required to "dissuade" people with veils on their faces from entering and report them to the police.

China's Uighur heartland turns into security state

Security personnel keep watch

Authorities offer rewards for those who report "youth with long beards or other popular religious customs that have been radicalized", as part of a wider incentive system that rewards actionable intelligence on imminent attacks. Human rights activists have been critical of the tactics used by the government in combatting the alleged extremists, accusing it of human rights abuses.

China's Uighur heartland turns into security state

Economy or security?

China routinely denies pursuing repressive policies in Xinjiang and points to the vast sums it spends on economic development in the resource-rich region. James Leibold, an expert on Chinese ethnic policy says the focus on security runs counter to Beijing's goal of using the OBOR initiative to boost Xinjiang's economy, because it would disrupt the flow of people and ideas.

jm/rt (Reuters, AFP)

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