SHIAN, China—“Assalamu alaikum,” Ma Zhijun greeted me in Arabic, extending me peace and a broad toothy smile. We were strangers eyeing the same beef skewers in front of Shadian’s Grand Mosque, the largest in southwestern China, at the end of Ramadan in 2019. Food stalls lined Moslem Avenue; Eid al-Fitr had finally arrived, and Muslims in the Chinese town were eager to make up for a month of daytime fasting.
“Are you one of our Muslims?” he asked when I returned his greeting, perhaps puzzled by my proper beard but poor Arabic. “No,” I replied, prompting Ma’s invitation to the shade of palm trees that lined the mosque plaza, a refuge from the baking June sun. There, for much of the afternoon, he shared his faith with me until the call to prayer beckoned him away.
I welcomed the conversation. An imam in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, had described Ramadan for me in cursory English: “no eating, no drinking, and no sexing.” But I knew there were more restrictions in Shadian than merely fasting. Muslims in Shadian, a small town that’s now a suburb of Gejiu city in Yunnan, are in the eye of an increasingly paranoid and Islamophobic state—especially because of the city’s history as a flash point between Communist Party power and Islamic faith.
China’s religious policies are tightening, including new regulations enacted in 2018 and 2020, and Muslim communities across China are feeling the pressure. Uyghur Muslims, numbering about 12 million, have faced increasingly repressive policies in Xinjiang since ethnic conflict in 2009; an estimated 1 million have been placed in detention camps for what the state calls “reeducation” and “counterextremism training.” Hui Muslims are almost as numerous but rarely in the headlines due to better integration into Han-majority China. But in recent years, attitudes toward Hui have shifted, and some in the community fear the impact. I went to Shadian to find out how residents were experiencing the changes and where China’s religious policy was going.
The Grand Mosque is aptly named. Its crescent-topped green dome and soaring minarets were fashioned after the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, Saudi Arabia, built and used by Muhammad himself and now where he is entombed. It towers over Shadian—grandiose for a town of fewer than 20,000 people—but that was the plan. In the early 2000s, local officials decided to turn Shadian into a four-star Islamic tourism destination, and a new mosque was central to their vision. Local Muslims, flush with cash from private mining and China’s booming economy, donated generously while the government provided the land and signed off on the Middle Eastern design. Party officials, officially atheist themselves, even spearheaded an alcohol ban to make Shadian more authentically Muslim. They weren’t the only ones: Ningxia, another Hui-majority region, transformed itself into a center of the halal meat trade. China was hungry for foreign investment, and that included Middle Eastern money—even when it was used to spread religion.
In Shadian, mosques were closed, prayers were forbidden, Qurans were burned, and most accounts cite Han forcing Hui to eat pork.
That was an ironic vision, given the history of the town. Yunnan had been the heart of the Panthay Rebellion, a Muslim revolt in the 1850s that established an effectively independent sultanate in southeastern China for nearly 20 years. Other memories were closer and bloodier. The Shadian incident, as it was euphemistically termed, still lingered.
In 1968, China was at the height of the campaign to “smash the Four Olds.” The campaign to destroy pre-Communist elements of Chinese culture—old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas—played out with fanatical zeal in different ways across China, leaving smashed buildings and burnt books behind it.
In Shadian, mosques were closed, prayers were forbidden, Qurans were burned, and most accounts cite Han forcing Hui to eat pork. One mosque in Shadian was converted into a propaganda center where the Communist work teams lived, raised, and slaughtered pigs and allegedly threw bones into the well used for ritual ablutions before prayer. Hui formed militias and sent appeals to the provincial and central governments for religious freedoms supposedly afforded to citizens under the 1954 constitution of the People’s Republic of China. But the petitions went unheeded—and party officials saw resistance as insurrection.
Finally, in July 1975, the People’s Liberation Army was ordered to suppress the Hui resistance in Shadian. Troops surrounded the town before dawn on July 29 and for the next seven days bombed it with heavy artillery. “Shadian looked like a heap of ruins,” wrote Ma Ping, the head of the Institute for Hui and Islamic Studies at the Ningxia Academy of Social Sciences. “You could see pieces of arms and legs shredded. The air reeked with the nauseating stench of rotting corpses.” Some estimates suggest 1,500 people were killed, almost one-fourth of Shadian’s population at the time.
In 1979, after Mao Zedong had died and the chaos of the Cultural Revolution had subsided, the liberal-minded national leader Hu Yaobang, himself purged twice in the past, wrote a letter absolving Shadian Hui of blame and issuing reparations. The same army that had reduced Shadian to rubble was ordered to return and rebuild it. By the 2000s, officials were reimagining a town once famous for religious clashes as a site of peaceful tourism.
But Shadian’s ambitions for tourism vanished in March 2014. Eight Uyghurs from Xinjiang armed themselves with knives, entered the Kunming Railway Station, and began slashing passengers indiscriminately. Thirty-one people were killed and more than 140 injured before four of the attackers were shot and one apprehended. The other three fled to Shadian, where they were arrested two days later.
Prior to this event, Hui and Uyghur Muslims were distinct in the minds of China’s Han majority. Many regarded Hui as the model Muslim minority. “Hui look Han, talk like Han, and have assimilated better into a Han-centric society,” said Darren Byler, an expert on Uyghur technopolitics. “But Uyghurs look foreign, have their own language, and have a territorial homeland.” According to Byler, the double threat of separatism and Islamist terrorism is why the Chinese Communist Party’s policy toward Uyghurs in Xinjiang has been so brutal.
But after the Kunming attack, public sentiment toward Hui Muslims hardened, and Shadian was labeled a center for “ethnoreligious extremism.” Netizens complained about the fact that national food delivery apps provided halal options and about the alcohol bans in Shadian and some other predominantly Muslim areas. “Chinese people have the unalienable right to drink alcohol,” wrote one enraged netizen in the aftermath of the attack. Meantime, the 2015 Paris attacks and Islamic State violence in Syria and Iraq reinforced perceptions of the threat of Islam, while Islamophobic narratives generated by Western far-right activists were fed back into China through WeChat groups, unbothered by otherwise vigilant censors.
“That is not our Islam!” Ma Xiaoxiao told me. She had large dark eyes and a round face framed by a fashionable bob cut. A mutual friend had introduced me to her husband, Wang Gang, who was driving their Range Rover with the air conditioning blasting. “We are not…” she paused, searching for the English word, “…kongbu fenzi!”
“Terrorists,” I filled in.
“Right! We are not terrorists. Those people use the Quran and religion to defend their bad actions.”
As a person of faith, I sympathized: “Many religious people don’t let Scriptures affect what they want to believe.”
Wang parked in an alley, and Ma put on a hijab, covering her hair and neck, before we strolled through a street market. “Everyone here still wears one,” she said, almost apologetically. Ma and Wang live in eastern China, where few wear traditional Muslim dress. Having met attending a foreign university, they admitted their thinking was different than many Hui in Shadian. In fact, Wang wasn’t Muslim until he fell in love with Ma and converted.
While some Muslim practices might be loosening, China’s policies toward Hui Muslims are tightening in the name of Sinicization.
“Here the older generation is still closed-minded,” she continued. “Our generation wants to go out to understand and share with the world. I believe mine, and you can believe yours,” she told me. “That’s what I love about our mosque here. It has no walls. It’s open to everyone—inclusive—like our Islam.”
But as we drove past the Grand Mosque, a Chinese flag flew front and center flanked by a black surveillance van labeled “Police.” While some Muslim practices might be loosening, China’s policies toward Hui Muslims are tightening in the name of Sinicization. In 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping did not mince his words to the 19th Party Congress: The Communist Party will “insist on the Sinicization of Chinese religions and provide active guidance for religion and socialism to coexist.”
Then in 2018, party leadership implemented revised regulations on religious affairs followed by five-year plans to Sinicize Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism—those religions permitted in China that are most suspect of foreign influence. As these sweeping regulations have come into effect, well-known Protestant house churches in Beijing and Chengdu have been closed, the Communist Party has exerted authority to appoint Catholic bishops, and efforts to retranslate and annotate the Bible are underway to establish a “correct understanding” of the text.
Muslim communities have seen mosques demolished or domes and crescents removed from them. Religious education has been banned, and unauthorized religious activities are prohibited. The Religious Affairs Bureau in one county has ordered mosques to play the Chinese national anthem instead of adhan, the call to prayer, and last spring I visited three house mosques that had been raided and chained shut by authorities, as reported by Foreign Policy.
Policies are always localized, so enforcement varies across China. In Shadian, sometimes the government’s approach appears softer, while other times it wants to make an example of Shadian to China’s Muslim communities. “Other Hui are watching us,” a groundskeeper at a mosque told me. “The government knows Shadian is a flash point. That’s because of our history.”
In 1979, a memorial was also erected at the top of Phoenix Tail Mountain overlooking the town. I walked up a narrow concrete road, winding past hundreds of unmarked burial mounds to the monument. Victims’ names are carved into the base: Ma Jinguo, Ma Jiacai, Ma Fuguang, all sharing a surname as common as “Smith” among Chinese Muslims. A stone pillar reaches 30 feet into the sky, topped with a crescent moon—like those now being forcibly removed across China. The pillar reads, “Memorial to the Shadian Incident Martyrs.”
Men used to cram shoulder to shoulder on their prayer rugs around the monument every Eid al-Fitr, recalled Li Minghong, a childhood friend of Ma Xiaoxiao. “I grew up saying prayers there,” she told me, “but most young people don’t know a lot about it. We were educated to love this country and believe the government.” In 2008, prayers were moved to the newly built Grand Mosque. “I thought it was a space issue,” Li said, “but later I learned that the government did not want people to gather at the memorial.” That Eid al-Fitr, I was alone at the monument.
Restrictions have tightened in Shadian since my visit. Leading up to National Day in October 2019, hijabs were prohibited in state institutions like schools and universities, hospitals, and government buildings. All kindergartens, most of which had provided religious education, have closed, with the exception of one government-operated school. Arabic script is now prohibited.
“There’s no policy on paper, but there’s pressure,” said Ruslan Yusupov of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Yusupov did two years of fieldwork in Shadian and has felt the tightening environment. “It travels in the atmosphere. Everyone talks about it. You inhale it. The government will let you know what it wants you to know.”
Even the Chinese characters for “halal” have been prohibited in some provinces, forcing restaurants and street vendors to get creative to save their signage.
These are trends across China, not just in Shadian. Even the Chinese characters for “halal” have been prohibited in some provinces, forcing restaurants and street vendors to get creative to save their signage. Some vendors have simply changed their halal signs from the traditional green logo to red as a way around the ban. Street signs in Ningxia that once included Arabic to help overseas Muslims do business there have been replaced. Even a river named after one of Muhammad’s wives has been renamed to sound more Chinese.
“It’s so counterproductive,” one Western academic told me on condition of anonymity due to their active research in China. “The government and businesses have spent millions developing the halal industry and attracting overseas investment and tourism. Now all for nothing.” More foreboding is that the authorities are now forcing academics to limit research and remove academic articles on Hui issues—“even innocuous topics such as culture, dress, and food,” the scholar added, flabbergasted.
In February 2020, additional regulations went into effect to reinforce the revised religious regulations from 2018. The new Administrative Measures for Religious Groups state that “religious organizations must support the leadership of the Communist Party of China,” or CCP. They must also “adhere to the Sinification of religion, embody the core values of socialism, and safeguard national unity, ethnic unity, religious harmony, and social stability.” In practice, writes the sociologist Massimo Introvigne in Bitter Winter, “religious organizations exist to promote the CCP and its ideology, rather than religion.”
“The CCP has become unsettled about losing the battle for heart allegiances of the people, especially to organized religions,” Adrian Zenz, a leading researcher on Uyghur detention camps in Xinjiang, wrote to me. He suggested that policies now being implemented among Hui Muslims elsewhere in China were initially enacted in Xinjiang as a testing ground. Chen Quanguo, who became Xinjiang’s party secretary in 2016, introduced repressive ethnic and religious policies that he first developed as a party chief in Tibet and has overseen the build-out of mass detention centers. Last year, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on Chen and other officials deemed responsible for human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
But Chen’s work is spreading. Xinjiang has hosted cadres from Ningxia and Gansu, home of Hui enclaves, to share best practices to counter extremism. In a telling piece on China’s stance on human rights, Chang Jian, the director of the Research Center for Human Rights at Nankai University, wrote in the party mouthpiece China Daily that “other regions with similar conditions could draw some lessons from Xinjiang’s fight against terrorism and violent extremism.”
Zenz is unsure how far policies outside Xinjiang will go, but he’s sure of the long-term trajectory. “The Sinicization of religion is a pretext for the CCP to gain control and ultimately to subjugate these religions,” he said. Alarmingly, Sinicization is as vaguely defined as the “Smash the Four Olds” campaign that led to the Shadian incident, and similarly it is being carried out by zealous ideologues with too much power and little accountability.
When I asked about detention centers for Muslim communities outside Xinjiang, Zenz replied, “That possibility exists.”
During Ramadan last year, Ma Zhijun, who tried to convert me in the plaza of the Grand Mosque the year before, could not go to mosque for prayers. All mosques in Shadian were closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The town had no official cases, however, so the atmosphere allowed for a different mosque to open each evening for the final prayers of the day. Religious leaders were also vigilant about hand sanitizer and masks. While party officials in Xinjiang forbade fasting during Ramadan—even forcing students to eat at school and compelling Muslim restaurants to serve pork and alcohol—in Shadian, of all places, no one wanted to risk conflict or blur the lines between public health and religious restrictions.
By May 23, when Eid al-Fitr arrived, the Grand Mosque had reopened and welcomed all to communal prayer again—perhaps to preclude a gathering at the martyrs’ memorial. Ma was out for prayer when I called him from the United States, and he called me back at 3 a.m., not realizing the time difference. When I didn’t answer, he texted: “Hello friend. May the Great Creator God guide you along the path of Islam. Aminai.”
May God guide you as well, friend, in the days ahead. Assalamu alaikum.