The attempted partial demolition of a mosque in China’s Yunnan province has sparked a clash between police and residents, raising international concerns about the Chinese government’s five-year plan to “Sinicize” Islam in the country. Riot police armed with shields and truncheons confronted angry local residents who hurled objects at them outside the Najiaying mosque in Nagu town. Videos of the incident were swiftly removed from Chinese social media platforms, and the local government issued a notice on May 28 urging individuals involved in the clash to cease all illegal activities.
Reports suggest that an undisclosed number of local residents have been arrested by the police. Hui Muslim activists residing abroad informed DW that authorities are pressuring those involved in the clash to surrender, while also reaffirming their intention to remove the domes and minarets from the mosque as planned.
“Local residents are steadfastly resisting the government’s attempts to demolish important structures of the mosque, and local authorities have not withdrawn the deployed police who assisted in quelling last week’s clash,” stated Ma Ju, a prominent Hui activist residing in the US, who has closely followed the situation in Yunnan.
The Najiaying mosque is not the first Islamic religious site to face the threat of partial demolition. Over the past few years, mosques in Ningxia, Gansu, Henan, and even Beijing have seen their domes and minarets destroyed by local authorities, only to be replaced with Chinese-style roofs.
These actions are part of the Chinese government’s strategy to “Sinicize” Islam, aiming to eliminate “foreign influence” from the religion and align it with traditional Chinese values as defined by the government.
“President Xi Jinping has expressed concerns about foreign religious ideologies or traditions in many of his speeches, and Islam is among those he is particularly worried about,” said David Stroup, a lecturer of Chinese politics at the University of Manchester.
In 2019, China enacted a law that set a five-year timeline for the Sinicization of Islam, emphasising the need to ensure compatibility with socialism, as reported by China’s state-run tabloid, the Global Times, in January of that year.
During a government meeting in September 2020, Chinese leader Xi reiterated the importance of guaranteeing the “healthy development of religion.”
“We must excel in ideological work and carry out the project of enriching Xinjiang’s culture,” Xi stated in an article published by China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency.
In September 2022, Wang Yang, former chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, urged leaders of the Islamic Association of China to continue promoting the “Sinicization of Islam” and to maintain an unwavering political stance of listening to and following the Party at all times.
Hannah Theaker, a lecturer in history and politics at the University of Plymouth in the UK, mentioned that some mosques in China have been demolished, while others are being merged together as part of a policy to reduce their overall number.
Theaker explained that the Chinese government has also closed numerous religious schools and institutions while intensifying ideological control over religious leaders. “These measures have been accompanied by increased and often highly intrusive surveillance of mosque communities and non-Han communities, especially migrants,” she told DW.
Overseas Hui Muslims informed DW that many Chinese Muslims are no longer able to maintain a lifestyle in accordance with traditional Islamic rules.
“The Chinese government initiates the process by destroying the religious venues where Muslims practice their faith, and then forces us to assimilate into the religious norms they have established,” said a Hui Muslim woman surnamed Ma, who resides in Malaysia but maintains close contact with family members in China.
Stroup from the University of Manchester added that Beijing’s Sinicization campaign seeks to establish an approved version of Islam endorsed by the Chinese Communist Party, with ethnic communities serving as “a vehicle for party-state values.”
“What we will likely witness is a state-sanctioned version of Islam overseen and dominated by party imperatives,” Stroup remarked to DW.
Many activists see limited room for Hui Muslims to resist Beijing’s efforts to “redefine” Islam. Ma Ju, the US-based Hui activist, noted that despite local community resistance, their pushback is generally “very weak,” and local governments often only temporarily halt mosque demolition efforts without entirely abandoning their plans.
“While the Chinese government won’t completely eradicate Islam, they will attempt to erode the social cohesion of the Muslim community in China, similar to what they do with other organised groups and communities,” he stated.
As the Sinicization campaign is implemented unevenly across China, Stroup argues that there have been few opportunities for the Muslim community to organise large-scale mobilisation or resistance.
“The program began in Ningxia, then expanded to southern Gansu, Yunnan, eastern China, and Qinghai. Suddenly, the community finds itself undergoing Sinicization without prior warning or an opportunity to mobilise,” he explained to DW.
Stroup believes that Beijing’s campaign could drive the practice of Islam underground.
“The state will determine what religious discretion is acceptable, and this is concerning as authorities may label anything not conforming to state ideology as potentially extremist, treating non-conforming religious discourse as a potential breeding ground for terrorism or Islamic fundamentalism,” Stroup cautioned.