China’s Crackdown on Muslims Extends to a Resort Island
Sanya, China – A call of prayer passes through the streets of Sanya’s nearly 1,000-year-old Muslim neighborhoods, where towers rise above the roof. The government’s bitterness over the small, deeply pious community in this southern Chinese city has been subtle.
Signs on shops and homes that read “Allahu Akbar” – “God is the greatest in Arabic” – are covered with foot-wide stickers promoting “The China Dream”, a nationalist official slogan. The Chinese character for halal, meaning permissible under Islam, has been removed from restaurant signs and menus. Authorities have closed two Islamic schools and twice tried to prevent female students from wearing head scarves.
There is a community of over 10,000 Muslims in Utles, Sanya, to emerge as the target of a campaign against foreign influence and religions of the Chinese Communist Party. Their troubles show how Beijing is working to erode even the religious identities of its youngest Muslim minorities, with a push for a unified Chinese culture with the Han ethnic majority at its core.
The new restrictions in Sanya, a city on the resort island of Hainan, alter government policy. Until several years ago, officials had 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 reprisals.
The party has said that its ban on Islam and Muslim communities is aimed at curbing violent religious extremism. It has used that justification to justify an attack on Muslims in China’s far western region of Xinjiang. A series of attacks seven years ago. But Sanya has shown some unrest.
The tightening of control over the Utsuls “reveals the true face of the Chinese Communist campaign against local communities,” said Ma Haiyun, an assistant professor at Frostburg State University in Maryland who studies Islam in China. “It is about trying to strengthen state control. It is completely anti-Islam. “
The Chinese government has repeatedly denied that it opposes Islam. But under its top leader Xi Jinping, the party tore up mosques, Ancient temple And islamic Domes and towers In northwestern and central China. Its rift has focused heavily on the 11 million Central Asian Muslim minority Uygars in Xinjiang, many of whom are largely housed in detention camps and forced to leave Islam.
The effort to “censify Islam” intensified in 2018 after the State Council, China’s cabinet, issued a confidential directive authorizing officials to stop faith and religion from interfering with state functions. The directive warned against “Arabization” and the influence of Saudi Arabia or “Saudi-Ausification” in mosques and schools.
In Sanya, the party is going after a group with an important place in China’s relations with the Islamic world. The Undertones have hosted haircuts in Hainan province from Muslims across the country, and have served as a bridge for Muslim communities in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.
The Islamic identity of Utsul was celebrated by the government for years as China insisted on strong ties with the Arab government. Such links have been important to Mr. Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative, a program to finance infrastructure projects around the world and increase Beijing’s political stranglehold in the process.
The Utsuls “have become an important base for Muslims who have gone abroad to find their roots and examine their ancestors,” Government notice in 2017 Recalling the role of Islam in Hainan in the Belt and Road Scheme. “To date, they have gained thousands of scholars and friends from more than a dozen countries and regions, and are an important window for cultural exchange between people around the South China Sea.”
Despite being officially labeled as China’s largest ethnic minority, Hua, the Utsuls see themselves as culturally different from other Muslim communities in the country.
They are Sunni Muslims who are believed to have met long-distance fishermen and maritime traders from the Champa kingdom, who ruled the central and southern coasts of Vietnam for centuries. In the early 10th century, Cham fled into the Refugee War in what is now central Vietnam and travels to Hainan, a Maryland-sized tropical island.
For centuries, the Utsuls maintained strong ties with Southeast Asia and practiced Islam extensively. But during the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the ropes of Red Guards dedicated to Maotsse Tung destroyed mosques in Utsuul villages, as they did throughout China.
After China opened up to the world in the early 1980s, the Utsuls began reviving their Islamic traditions. Many families were reunited with long-lost relatives in Malaysia and Indonesia, including a former Malaysian Prime Minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, whose maternal grandfather was an imposter who grew up in Sanya.
To date, many Utsuls, also known as Utsats, speak a different Chaimic language used in Vietnam and parts of Cambodia, in addition to Chinese. A sour tamarind fish influenced by Southeast Asian flavors remains a local specialty, and the elders pass on stories of their ancestor’s migration to Hainan. Women wear colorful-headed scarves, sometimes beaded or embroidered, covering their hair, ears, and neck, a style that has been worn by Muslim women in Malaysia and Indonesia.
Yusuf Liu, a Malaysian-Chinese writer who has studied the Utels, said the group was able to maintain a distinct identity because they had been geographically isolated for centuries and held firm to their religious beliefs. He said that Utsuls were similar in many ways to Malaysia.
“They share many characteristics, including language, dress, history, blood relations and food,” Mr Liu said.
As Sanya’s tourism economy boomed over the last two decades, Utell’s relations with the Middle East have also grown. The young men traveled to Saudi Arabia for Islamic studies. Community leaders set up schools for children and adults to study Arabic. He moved away from the traditional Chinese architectural style and started building domes and minarets for his mosques.
While there were some skirmishes between the Utsuls and neighboring Han for decades, they have mostly been at peace, with both groups benefiting from the recent boom in tourism. By contrast, Beijing has long tried to suppress Uyghur resistance to Chinese rule, which has sometimes been violent. The party has said that its policies have been curbed in Xinjiang, describing it as terrorism and religious extremism.
But in the last two years, even in Sanya, authorities have pushed to limit greater expressions of trust and links to the Arab world.
Local mosque leaders said they were asked to remove loudspeakers that broadcast prayers from the top of the minarets and lay them on the ground – and, more recently, as well as to reduce the volume. The construction of a new mosque came to a standstill in controversy over its obstinate dimensions and allegedly “Arab” architectural elements; Its solid skeleton now collects dust. Residents said children under the age of 18 in the city have been barred from reading Arabic.
Utsul residents said that they wanted to learn Arabic not only to better understand Islamic texts, but also to communicate with Arab tourists who had visited their restaurants, hotels and mosques before the epidemic. Some residents expressed disappointment with the new restrictions, saying they questioned China’s promise to honor their 56 officially recognized ethnic groups.
A local religious leader who has studied in Saudi Arabia for five years said the community was told that they were no longer allowed to build the dome.
“Such are the mosques of the Middle East. We want them to build like us, so that they look like mosques and not homes. “, He said on condition of anonymity, as some residents were recently detained for criticizing the government. (In a sign of sensitivity to the issue, half a dozen plains police officers questioned Sanya about our reporting in mosques.)
The community has occasionally protested. In September, Utsul’s parents and students staged protests outside schools and government offices, following which several public schools prohibited girls from wearing head scarves in class. Weeks later, authorities overturned the order, a rare bow to public pressure.
Nevertheless, the government views China as assimilating various ethnic minorities to build a strong nation.
“We need to use ethnic differences as a foundation on which to build a unified Chinese consciousness,” said Xiong Kunxin, a professor of ethnic studies at Beijing’s Minzu University. “This is the direction of China’s future development.”
For now, the Utsuls co-exist uneasy with the authorities.
In the center of the courtyard of the Nankai Mosque, a red Chinese flag flies at the same height as the top of the minarets.
Keith Bradsher reports from Sanya and Amy Kin reports from Taipei, Taiwan. Amy Chang Chien contributed reporting from Taipei.