China Targets Muslim Scholars And Writers With Increasingly Harsh Restrictions

Nov 21, 2020
Originally published on November 22, 2020 7:37 am

This spring, 14 men were brought into police offices, where, one by one, they were subjected to weeks of questioning about their online correspondence and political views.

Their offense? Buying Islamic books.

The men were detained in Yiwu, China, an international commercial hub on the country's wealthy east coast and home to a growing community of Muslims. The detentions are emblematic of increasingly harsh restrictions targeting spiritual and educational life for Muslims in China.

Once focused on giving minorities limited cultural autonomy, China's ethnic policy has shifted in the last decade toward an approach that favors complete assimilation with China's Han ethnic majority in language and religious practice. Muslims in China now fear that religious freedoms are regressing to those in the days of the Cultural Revolution, a decade of severe political and religious persecution in the 1960s and 1970s.

"Every household would burn their religious books in case they were searched. Shredders were sold out. People would flush the book ashes down the toilet, sometime clogging the pipes," one Chinese Muslim publisher says of that era. "The persecution we are facing now is worse than that time."

The publisher, who has fled China and continues to publish books from abroad, requested anonymity because at least 40 of his relatives have been detained or sentenced to prison for their religious beliefs or connection to him. Many in his publishing network have been arrested or fled the country.

"The state only wants its garden to have one type of flower," he says. "The red ones. Green, blue or white flowers: if they are not red, they will be cut down."

An ethnic Hui Muslim man stands in front of Laohuasi Mosque in Linxia, Gansu province, in 2018. Chinese Muslims are most densely clustered in the northwestern regions of Gansu, Ningxia and Xinjiang, but live across the country, as they have for more than a millennium.
Johannes Eisele / AFP via Getty Images

Targeting scholars and writers

"Intellectuals are the bearers of tradition. They're looked up to as the arbiters, the judges of what is the the real Islam, and so they make an attractive target for a government that is interested in either controlling cultural expression or trying to completely reengineer it," says Rian Thum, who studies Islam in China as a senior research fellow at Britain's University of Nottingham.

China is home to about 23 million practicing Muslims, according to its 2010 census, the most recent count — less than 2% of the country's population. Most are Uighur — a Turkic ethnic group — or labeled as Hui, ethnically and linguistically indistinguishable from China's Han ethnic majority. Chinese Muslims are most densely clustered in the northwestern regions of Gansu, Ningxia and Xinjiang, but live across the country, as they have for more than a millennium.

Last year, NPR reported that authorities had forced nearly all mosques in Ningxia and the eastern province of Henan to "renovate" by removing their domes and Arabic script. Demolitions have since extended to mosques in Zhejiang and Gansu provinces. But practicing Muslims say the most heavy-handed restrictions have targeted the intangible channels through which they have preserved their faith in China for centuries.

Beginning in 2018, new religious restrictions shuttered hundreds of Arabic language and Islamic schools across Ningxia and Zhengzhou, Henan's capital. Imams must now take political education classes as part of a revamped certification program. The program also mandates that they can only serve in the region where their household is registered, effectively disbarring hundreds of itinerant imams.

The restrictions have only intensified since then. Mosque demolitions have spread. The intellectual heart of China's Islamic community has largely been silenced as scholars, writers, religious leaders and their families are under constant state surveillance. A once-thriving academic and religious exchange between Chinese Muslims and centers across the Middle East and South Asia has halted, as those having business or religious ties abroad are subject to Chinese state harassment and detention.

"What dominates Muslim [government] cadres is the [Communist] party line and the official version of Islam promoted by government agencies and organizations," says Ma Haiyun, an associate professor at Frostburg State University, where he studies Islam in China. "The result of this restriction is to make traditional discourses on Islam more commercial, patriotic and Chinese."

The main mosque in Yiwu, Zhejiang province. Nearby business owners say the local government removed the mosque's arched doorways but ran out of funds to remove the mosque domes.
Emily Feng / NPR

"We lived like ghosts"

The door to Qingzhen Shuju — Islam Books — remains padlocked, the shop full of stacks of books in their unopened packaging.

Located in an upscale university neighborhood in Beijing, the bookstore and its accompanying website were a prominent publisher of Islamic philosophy works and the newest Arabic works translated into Chinese — until publisher Ma Yinglong (no relation to Ma Haiyun) was arrested in 2017 on charges of illegal publishing and terrorism. Two people close to him say he remains in detention in China's northwestern Xinjiang region.

A second influential publisher, Ma Zhixiong (no relation to either Ma), ran a prolific imprint called Tianma Publishing from China's southwestern Yunnan province until he too was imprisoned for selling illegal books, in 2015. He was released on probation this year.

"The printing plant was closed and our equipment and all books were confiscated. In the first days [of my imprisonment], I was almost completely cut off from the outside world," Ma Zhixiong wrote in an essay widely circulated this fall among chat groups on the Chinese WeChat app. "During my prison days, human dignity disappeared. Every day, people had to take off their clothes for inspection and to hold our heads while squatting down while being interrogated... We lived like ghosts."

The two publishers were a critical link in a world of writers, publishers and bookstores, the backbone for religious studies in China. Their arrests are evidence of a crackdown widening from its epicenter in Xinjiang, where authorities have detained hundreds of thousands of Uighurs and other ethnic minorities, sentencing some to lengthy prison terms for practicing Islam.

Despite international criticism, Chinese leader Xi Jinping declared the detention and security policies in Xinjiang "entirely correct" and a "success" at a September meeting of party officials. "We must persevere in Sinicizing the direction of our country's religions," he said.

Uighur men walk towards the Id Kah mosque to attend prayers marking the end of Ramadan, in Kashgar in China's northwest Xinjiang region, in 2019.
Greg Baker / AFP via Getty Images

The crushing of China's Muslim writing community is a marked reversal from a period of literary openness after economic and political reforms took hold in the 1980s.

Despite some restrictions, Muslim writers thrived in the laissez-faire atmosphere of those decades. For example, unable to get the commercial book codes — similar to an ISBN number — allotted to state-sanctioned publishers for state-approved volumes, writers and editors self-published their works and distributed them by mail to readers and religious bookstores that were ubiquitous for decades outside larger mosques.

"Many people have been oppressed for their speech in China but among the Muslim community, those who get into trouble for their writing or publishing have gone unnoticed," a prominent Chinese Muslim writer tells NPR.

He fled China last year after friends warned that police were seeking to detain him. He requested anonymity out of concern for the safety of his immediate family, almost all of whom remain in China.

He and hundreds of other Chinese Muslims used to moderate online forums and events and curated websites that discussed issues of scripture and philosophy. By 2016, those sites were shut down or censored within China's Great Firewall. They moved to WeChat, where the writer now runs chat groups of 500 people each, but doing so requires constant vigilance: "Even on WeChat," he says, "it is a continuous process of continually being shut down by censors and starting a new group."

WeChat would also ensnare the 14 people detained in Yiwu earlier this year; all had purchased this writer's books on history, scripture and philosophy through the app.

"They interrogated them about their relationship with several Muslim intellectuals and overseas Chinese Muslims. The police had printed out the text records everyone had had on WeChat with writers and publishers," said a friend of one of those detained, who requested anonymity to avoid detention for speaking out. "Now the police say every time they travel, they have to report to them beforehand when they are leaving and where they are going."

As for China's Muslim community leaders, "There are no imams who dare to speak out," says a scholar who leads a Quran reading group in northwestern China. "You can renounce your state-given imam certification and leave the mosque in order to speak out — but then you can be sure you will be constantly monitored."

"They know what you are up to"

Beginning in 2017, Chinese Muslims outside Xinjiang watched with dread as hundreds of thousands of Uighurs, a Turkic ethnic minority, were detained and sent either to "reeducation centers" or prison.

Soon after, Xinjiang security officers began fanning out to other provinces to send Hui Muslims with identity documents registered in Xinjiang back to the region.

One of those forcibly returned to Xinjiang was a young Hui woman who taught at a religious school in a mosque outside Xinjiang, after completing a theological studies degree at Egypt's prestigious Al-Azhar University. Last December, Xinjiang police abruptly detained her and brought her back to her hometown of Tacheng.

"We asked them, why send 30 men to apprehend a young woman and her infant at 11 at night. It was unbelievable," says a fellow teacher who asked to remain anonymous and keep his location withheld because he was detained and questioned after speaking to NPR.

He learned in March that the woman had been slapped with a seven-year prison sentence but doesn't know on what charges.

Four Hui Muslims born in Xinjiang told NPR they managed to change the registration of their identity documents, called hukou, to another province before 2017, as restrictions on Uighurs and practicing Muslims in Xinjiang became more draconian.

Others moved abroad, but even outside China, Xinjiang security officials continue to harass them through WeChat.

"My hometown police somehow knew that I had even moved apartments this year," says one Hui Muslim now living in Egypt who requested anonymity for fear of retribution from Chinese security officials. The police officers send "friendly" messages weekly, the person says, full of smiley faces, heart emojis and stickers, but their intent is clear: "It is meant to show they know what you are up to and to remind you of where you are from."

Efforts to co-opt Muslim leaders

Xinjiang policing has even reached a beachside city on Hainan, a Chinese tropical island province in the South China Sea. Home to a small community of historically Muslim Utsuls, Hainan's warm climes have begun attracting retirees and vacationers from other provinces during the winter months, including large numbers of Hui Muslims.

Last February, during Lunar New Year holidays, two Xinjiang public security officers set up a table at one of the six mosques in the city of Sanya to register identification documents of everyone who attended Friday prayers, according to two people who attended prayers that day. One of them evaded registration by slipping out through a side door.

In September, at the start of the fall semester, public schools in predominantly Utsul neighborhoods in Sanya began banning female students from wearing headscarves to class. Videos shared with NPR show the female students being cordoned outside the Tianya Utsul Elementary School because they refused to comply.

Local Communist Party regulations now ban party members from practicing Islam and call for increased governance of Muslim neighborhoods in Sanya, according to the South China Morning Post.

Chinese security forces have also been seeding the ranks of local branches of the Islamic Association of China, a state-run body which organizes the only officially permitted hajj pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia.

One Islamic scholar says his son was approached by Chinese security officers this year, shortly before his son's promotion as imam of a mosque and membership in the Islamic Association. NPR is not disclosing his name or location because he was detained and questioned after speaking with NPR.

"They offered [him] a full civil servant's salary and pension for the work and an appointment as board member of a local state company if he secretly worked for them," the scholar says.

His son refused the offer.

: 11/21/20

An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Ma Haiyun is an assistant professor at Frostburg State University. In fact, he is an associate professor.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

There's been much reporting about China's brutal repression of Muslim Uyghurs in the northwest Xinjiang region. Religious shrines have been razed, families separated, hundreds of thousands of people sent to detention centers. Less well-known is how China has also clamped down on non-Uyghur Muslims outside of that province. Government is targeting Muslim intellectuals across the country. NPR's Emily Feng has some of their stories.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Vocalizing).

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: The call to prayer sounds out one recent Friday afternoon in Yiwu, a city along China's wealthy east coast. It's an international commercial hub and home to a growing community of Muslims who pour into mosques for Friday prayers. Yiwu is also where 14 people were detained this year for buying books about Islamic history and scripture. Here is a friend of one of them.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Through interpreter) Police interrogated them about their relationship with several Muslim intellectuals and overseas writers. They even printed out the conversation records everyone had on WeChat with these people.

FENG: We agreed to keep this source anonymous. And we are distorting their voice because several people NPR interviewed have been detained and threatened with prison for speaking with a foreign reporter. Chinese security forces now closely surveil religious figures and their families.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Through interpreter) Now the police say, every time they travel, they have to report to the police beforehand when they are leaving and where they are going.

FENG: The detentions signal a new phase in China's crackdown on Islam. After economic and political reforms in the 1980s, Islam saw a revival. But now the government wants to rein religion back in. And it has turned its attention to Muslim intellectuals outside Xinjiang, many from an ethnic group called the Hui.

MA JU: (Through interpreter) Every part of society, not just the Communist Party, is being tasked with making religions, including Islam, more Chinese, which really means getting rid of religion.

FENG: This is Ma Ju, a prominent Hui Muslim who now lives in the U.S. He explains the creeping restrictions on religious communities across China.

MA: (Through interpreter) Imams are prohibited from traveling to work. And the work permits of many imams have been cancelled. The state has closed Arabic schools and has put Communist officials in classes as monitors. By 2017, they were demolishing the domes of mosques.

FENG: Now they're singling out writers and publishers. Rian Thum, an historian who studies Islam in China at the University of Nottingham, explains why.

RIAN THUM: Intellectuals are, in some ways, the bearers of the tradition. They're looked up to as the arbiters, the judges of what is the real Islam. And so they make an attractive target.

FENG: And one of these targets was the Qingzhen Shuju bookstore in Beijing, which for years was the place to buy not just the Quran but also virtually any Islamic or Arabic work. Now the store is padlocked. Piles of books lie untouched inside. I ask, in a neighboring shop, what happened.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: An employee there tells me he thinks the bookstore was closed three or four years ago because it was selling some kind of religious texts. The bookstore owner was arrested for illegal publishing and terrorism. His friends tell NPR he remains in detention.

A prominent Muslim writer I spoke with remembers what it was like trying to buy books on religion.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Through interpreter) They would take me to a discreet third location. It was like they were selling pornography. I said, how did Chinese Muslims reach such a low point that we have to hide the sale of books?

FENG: But they did reach that low point. So the writers and others moved discussions of scripture and Islamic philosophy online. By 2016, these online forums, too, had been shut down or censored. Last year, the writer fled China, fearing arrest. He, too, requested anonymity because his immediate family remains in China. His exile pains him.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Through interpreter) I'm a Chinese person who had been made an ethnic minority and given the identity of Hui Muslim. But we are actually Chinese. We are compatriots with Han Chinese, the ethnic majority.

FENG: The current atmosphere reminds a Chinese Muslim publisher I spoke to of the stories his parents told him of repression during the Cultural Revolution 50 years ago.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Through interpreter) Every household would burn their religious books in case they were searched. Shredders were sold out. People would flush the book ashes down the toilet, sometimes clogging the pipes. The persecution now is even worse than that time.

FENG: We're keeping the publisher anonymous because at least 40 of his relatives have been detained or sentenced to prison in Xinjiang. He says alternative visions for what it means to be Chinese have narrowed to one aligned with the Communist Party.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Through interpreter) It's like the state only wants its garden to have one type of flower, the red ones. Green, blue or white flowers - if they aren't red, they'll be cut down.

FENG: And Chinese Muslims are not the right kind of flower in Beijing's eyes, despite their insistence that they are, at their core, Chinese citizens who happen to have faith. Emily Feng, NPR News, Yiwu, China. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.