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The Myth of the Sinicization of Islam in China

In late May, an incident in China’s Southwest province of Yunnan drew significant attention to the situation of Islam and Muslims in the country. Reports emerged that the local police force of Najiaying, Yuxi city, an important Muslim stronghold renowned for its rich tradition in Islamic education, attempted to demolish the town’s central mosque, leading to a confrontation between residents and the police.

Many observers view this incident as the latest move by China to Sinicize Islam. The Sinicization campaign, believed to be initiated by President Xi Jinping himself in a speech in 2016, has gradually spread throughout mainland China over the past six years. Concurrently, the regime has also tightened control over the Xinjiang Autonomous region and implemented harsh policies against the Uyghurs, causing many to perceive these developments as essentially the same. There are, however, differences between the situations in Xinjiang and mainland China.

Ethnicity or religion?

While the underlying logic of strengthening the Party’s authority over all aspects of life remains similar, the policies in Xinjiang are predominantly ethnically focused. In contrast, the Sinicization campaign in mainland China specifically targets Islam as a religion, as there are no significant ethnic minority issues, and it lacks any historical precedent.

When we refer to the campaign as having “no precedent”, it implies that researchers interested in the topic struggle to identify an existing pattern or paradigm that adequately explains the campaign’s nature. Similarly, government institutions and officials responsible for implementing the policy lack prior examples to follow.

It is worth noting that the Sinicization campaign encompasses two types of measures. The first type revolves around ideology, with propaganda materials such as slates, banners, posts, and speeches in mosques promoting love for the country and the party. These are non-negotiable and must be adhered to by all. The second type concerns the display of religious symbols, such as those mentioned below, which may vary in negotiability depending on the local context.

Arabic or Chinese?

Thus, in the Sinicization practice, the approaches taken and their extent can significantly differ from one place to another. For instance, a nationwide “standard” practice involves replacing Arabic characters with the Chinese term qingzhen 清真 on restaurant signboards that previously displayed the Arabic halal sign. Additionally, some local governments mandate the removal of calligraphic works depicting Qur’anic scripts and images of the Ka’ba from the internal walls of restaurants, while others tolerate such Islamic symbols.

Similarly, the demolition of “Arab-style” domes at mosques is carried out in diverse ways. While some mosques have lost both their domes and minarets, others have been redesigned to feature traditional Chinese roofs while retaining their minarets. It is worth mentioning that there are also mosques that have managed to remain untouched amidst the demolition campaign.

Han or Hui?

The differences in approaches can be attributed, in part, to the actions taken by governments falling within a legal gray zone. Regardless of whether it is taken seriously or not, universal religious freedom is enshrined in China’s constitution as a fundamental right of its citizens, and Sinicization practices risk being interpreted as constitutional violations. Moreover, the connection between Islam and the Hui ethnicity creates a delicate situation where aggressive Sinicization measures aimed at Muslims could be accused of undermining “unity between Han and other ethnic minorities”, another constitutional value.

Although cases like mosque demolitions may not reach the courts in reality, the legal framework can at times become a powerful tool for local Muslims who have access to channels of petitioning higher-level authorities. And if they do manage to draw attention from the upper-level authorities, there is a favorable chance of obtaining rulings that call for the suspension of acts posing potential threats to overall societal stability.

The aforementioned process likely unfolded in Najiaying, where the mosque still stands despite the initial confrontation. Najiaying serves as just one example among many that exemplify how Sinicization is practiced at the local level. The incident sheds light on China’s Sinicization campaign and its effects on Islam and Muslims in the country. While there are similarities with the situation in Xinjiang, it is essential to acknowledge the uniqueness of the situation of Islam in mainland China, and only by exploring the local practices employed in the Sinicization campaign can we gain a deeper understanding of its implementation and the ramifications it poses for Chinese Muslims.

Jiang Xiaokun is a PhD candidate in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Utrecht University. His research focuses on Salafism among Chinese communities in China and Malaysia. Image: the Najiaying Mosque (copyright Jiang Xiaokun).