Religion in China

Chinese Muslim poet Cui Haoxin fears his people will suffer as history repeats itself in wave of religious repression

  • Hui Cui Haoxin fears there will be violence if Beijing’s clampdown on Islam goes on
  • Efforts to ‘Sinicise’ religion have led to arrests and closures at places of worship
PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 December, 2018, 4:08pm
UPDATED : Friday, 28 December, 2018, 10:18pm

Poet and religious rights campaigner Cui Haoxin is too young to remember the days of his people’s oppression under Mao Zedong.

The 39-year-old was born after the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, when the Hui – China’s second-largest Muslim ethnic group – were tormented by the Red Guard.

Since then, the Hui generally have been supportive of the government and mostly spared the kind of persecution endured by China’s largest Muslim group, the Uygurs.

But there are signs that that is changing, and Cui fears both that history may be repeating itself and for his own safety as he tries to hold the Communist Party accountable.

In August, town officials in the Hui region of Ningxia issued a demolition order for the newly built Grand Mosque in Weizhou, although they backed off in the face of protests.

More recently, authorities in nearby Gansu province ordered the closure of a school that taught Arabic, the language of the Koran and other Islamic texts.

The school had employed and served mainly Hui since 1984. A Communist Party official from Ningxia visited Xinjiang, the centre of Uygur oppression, to “study and investigate how Xinjiang fights terrorism and legally manages religious affairs”.

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China under President Xi Jinping is clamping down on minorities and tightening control over religious and political activity.

In some places, a campaign to “Sinicise” religion has prompted authorities to seize Bibles, remove the halal designation from food products, flatten churches and strip mosques of loudspeakers, crescents and domes.

Cui spoke out against government intrusions and he is worried that violence lies ahead.

“One has dignity. For a person, it is his or her bottom line,” he said. “If the persecution is too unbearable, if something happens, there could be a disaster.”

Cui is one of the few Chinese citizens to criticise the party openly. For that, he has suffered censorship, detention, and “home visits” by police.

At his home in Jinan, a city in China’s eastern Shandong province where Cui’s family traces its roots back five centuries, police arrived earlier this year with a demand that he stop criticising the government online.

Cui posts attacks on Beijing’s policies related to Muslims in China and abroad, such as the government’s support of Myanmar despite widespread criticism of its treatment of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority.

A few months later, on November 27, police took Cui to the local public security bureau for hours of questioning.

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A recent Human Rights Watch report said that China started “targeting Twitter users in China as part of a nationwide crackdown on social media” in November. Cui refused to stop or delete his tweets.

The 10 million Hui living in China generally speak Mandarin – Cui is a former teacher of the standard Chinese dialect – and follow many Chinese cultural practices.

They enjoyed relative freedom of worship compared to the Uygur, some of whom call the Hui “tawuz” which means watermelon in the Uygur Turkic language.

“Green or Islamic on the outside, and red or communist on the inside,” wrote University of Toronto professor Isabelle Cote in a study on Uygur attacks on Hui in Xinjiang from 2009 to 2013.

Further back, Hui served Chinese emperors as shock troops, repressing Uygur rebellions.

While the Hui face prejudice from the Han Chinese majority, they are proud to be Chinese and have a “positive outlook for the future”, said David Stroup, a University of Oklahoma professor who met Hui across China in 2016.

Many saw an opportunity in China’s “Belt and Road Initiative”, a US$1 trillion trade and infrastructure initiative that runs across several Muslim-majority nations in central Asia and Africa, he said. They aspired to become middlemen on a revived Silk Road linking China with Islamic nations.

“It was going to be an opportunity for the Hui to play an important role as ambassadors to the Islamic world,” Stroup said.

It came as a shock, he said, when new regulations targeted the practices of Hui alongside those of other religious groups this year.

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Tension bubbled in August in Weizhou, where the town’s pride and joy is a mosque with four minarets and nine domes tipped with crescent moons that dwarfs a warren of brick and concrete homes.

Government officials issued a demolition order for the Grand Mosque, alleging it had been “illegally expanded” and adding that 1.07 million yuan (US$155,000) from foreign sources was received by four mosques – financing that would be illegal under Chinese law.

Hundreds of Hui flocked to the mosque’s courtyard to protest. The mosque remained unscathed, even if it was draped in a banner reading in Chinese: “Stick to directives of Sinicised religion”.

Weeks later, a senior Communist propaganda official in Ningxia blamed the incident on “an oversimplified administrative decision” by local authorities.

“It originally should not have happened,” said Bai Shangcheng, director general of the regional Communist Party department that oversees religious groups.

Dissent simmered quietly in the Hui community after the mosque incident, according to Cui, who circumvented China’s internet censorship to tweet about the protest and send video to a Turkish television station.

In November, the Communist Party-run Global Times reported that Ningxia had signed an anti-terrorism cooperation agreement with Xinjiang during a visit by Ningxia Communist Party chief Zhang Yunsheng.

There is a vast security apparatus in Xinjiang, with checkpoints and surveillance cameras. By some estimates, more than a million Uygur and Kazakhs have been detained in internment camps in what was purportedly a crackdown on extremism.

Two former camp detainees said that some Hui were swept up in the clampdown.

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The order to close the Gansu Arabic language school came this month, Global Times reported. An unnamed expert in Beijing told the newspaper that teaching Arabic sometimes aroused public concern if it crossed into preaching.

The article quoted China’s education law: “The State separates education from religion.”

Sixty years ago, Communist Party cadres descended on the Hui city of Linxia to excise “superstitions” in the city in a “struggle against the privileges of feudalism and religion”, according to a 2016 book by Matthew Erie, an Oxford University professor of modern China studies.

Red Guards lit bonfires with wood from demolished mosques and tombs, Erie wrote in China and Islam: The Prophet, the Party, and Law. They forced Muslims to wear signs reading “enemies of the state”.

Cui fears the current crackdown on religion will take China back to those days of blood.

At a teahouse in Jinan, as steam from his jasmine tea mixes with the scent from a tray of sweets, he recites from his poem Letter from Prison.

“It seems like I can see the bulldozer running wild in the Thousand and One Nights. The angel upon my shoulder urges me: ‘Tell the truth under the grey sky’.”