In the normally quiet city of Xining, the capital of northwest China’s Qinghai Province, daily interactions between the city’s ethnic groups – Han Chinese, Hui Muslims, Tibetans, Turkish Salars and others – usually take place without conflict or fanfare.
But thanks to the city government’s controversial demolition of the entrance hall of the city’s famous Dongguan Mosque, one of the largest in China, the city finds itself squarely in the crosshairs of a nationwide campaign to render more Chinese Islam or “siniser” – in the official language, “guiding Islam so that it is compatible with socialism”.
The removal of the “Arabian-style” domes and minarets from the entrance gate to the mosque drew a reaction from local residents and even caught the attention of foreign diplomats. The story of Dongguan’s renovation signals the expansion of an ongoing crackdown on Islam in China, which has so far been widely adopted against Uyghurs and other Turkish Muslims.
On July 9, images of a notice from the Xining Municipal Government announcing the renovation of the entrance gate to the Dongguan Mosque circulated on social media sites such as Sina Weibo and Zhihu. Similar changes were enacted in the city’s other mosques – at least ten of which are in the central district of Chengdong alone. Twitter users in Xining documented and share images of these changes as they swept through the city.
The unhappy reaction from the local Hui Muslim community – which comprises 16% of Xining’s population – was palpable. On July 15, a woman wearing a hijab bowed down in prayer in the street outside the mosque, sobbing. Captured on video, the woman’s only protest spread online, inspire a cartoon which has gone viral.
But the protests turned out to be in vain. September 13 a tweet by Christina Scott, deputy head of the British mission to China, who was visiting the city, compared the photo of the building in a recent guide which showed its arabesque features, to the current state of the building, stripped of its dome and minarets .
The sinization of the Dongguan Mosque suggests a disturbing trend towards coercive, state-run assimilation of Muslim minorities by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
The demolition of the front door came against the backdrop of a much larger crackdown on Islamic identity unfolding across China. The most notable aspects of this campaign took place in the region that China calls the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region as part of the so-called “People’s War on Terror,” a repressive campaign that criminalizes many aspects of behavior. religious daily. Turkish Muslims have been detained in concentration camps, sentenced to long prison terms and subjected to forced labor.
For Hui communities, this crackdown has resulted in the lockdown of expressions of faith not approved by the state. Internal party speeches have likened Islam to a “virus”. It is this mentality that prompts the regime to restrict overtly Islamic architecture in public spaces.
The Nanguan Mosque in Yinchuan underwent a similar transformation in 2020. Linxia Hui Autonomous County in Gansu removed loudspeakers (typically used to broadcast the call to prayer) and Arabic signs from mosques in June 2018. In December of the same year, three mosques in Yunnan were demolished, having been declared “illegal unregistered buildings”.
At the end of 2019, reports from Henan and Shandong indicated the campaign’s national expansion. Even shops and restaurants have seen their sinicized Arabic signage.
The symbolic importance of the Dongguan Mosque is hard to underestimate. Politically, the Dongguan have long represented power in the region. When I visited the area several years ago to research my next book, Pure and True: The daily Politics of ethnicity for China’s Hui Muslims, one of the people I interviewed called the neighborhood qu ‘it towered over from “the de facto Islamic capital of China”.
The region is home to countless businesses, restaurants and cultural resources. The mosque offers Arabic lessons and displays collection boxes for donations to charitable projects.
As a place of worship, Dongguan is the only Yihewani Mosque in Xining that holds weekly prayers on Friday afternoons. Up to 70,000 people attend in a typical week, spilling out onto the streets. During Ramadan, more than 2,000,000 people could gather for Friday prayers, with Eid celebrations drawing up to 3,000,000 people.
Friday prayers at the Dongguan Mosque were seen as prominent examples of cooperation between the local government and the mosque. The local government helped manage the crowds by sending traffic officers to direct heavy traffic on the street during prayers.
Although the entrance gate to the mosque, a recent addition built in the early 1990s, is by no means a “heritage” element, it remains a visible cultural symbol at the heart of the community. The fact that it is stripped of the iconography that visually connects it to Islam is shocking. The emotional impact of this decision on community members will undoubtedly be significant.
The future of Islam
To date, sinization has encountered little resistance. In August 2018, in rural Weizhou County, east of Qinghai, the community’s Great Mosque demolition project sparked protests from the clergy. While the building was ultimately spared from total demolition, its “Arabian-style” architectural elements were sinized, its dome removed and remodeled with a Chinese-style roof.
During my visit in early 2016, the people of Weizhou expressed their pride in their mosque, a sign of their community’s rise to moderate prosperity from the depths of rural poverty. The 2018 protests expressed shock to residents that their symbol of successful cooperation with the state could be targeted for demolition.
As the sinicization campaign comes to the door of China’s most important and culturally important mosque, such feelings of discontent will only increase. By adopting aggressive normalization measures, the party threatens to undermine the stability it seeks to preserve. The demolition of the front door has sparked frustration and mobilization, suggesting that strong currents of dissatisfaction are running beneath the surface.
David R Stroup is Assistant Professor of Chinese Studies at the School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.