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.”
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 assistant 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.”
“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.