Residents of a predominantly Muslim town in southwest China clashed with law enforcement over the weekend while attempting to prevent the demolition of a centuries-old mosque’s domed roof. This incident is part of the Chinese Communist Party’s ongoing efforts to control religious practices.
Videos sent to overseas activists and shared on Twitter showed dozens of officers in riot gear pushing back a crowd as they advanced towards the entrance of the Najiaying mosque on Saturday morning. Subsequent clips depicted the police retreating from the area, while protesters staged a sit-in outside the gate that lasted through the night. Another video revealed the arrival of armed police officers in camouflage on Sunday.
The root cause of the conflict appears to be a court ruling in 2020, which declared certain recent renovations to the mosque as illegal and ordered their demolition.
Attempts to contact local authorities on Monday resulted in busy phone lines, leading activists to speculate that the local cell service had been cut off.
Tonghai County police labeled the incident on Sunday as “seriously harmful to orderly social management” and urged those involved to surrender themselves to law enforcement before June 6 for a chance at a more lenient punishment.
The Najiaying mosque, which may have a history dating back to the 13th century, has undergone numerous expansions over the years, including the addition of buildings, four minarets, and a domed roof. In 2019, a section of the structure was designated as a protected cultural relic.
In recent times, the Chinese Communist Party has intensified its restrictions on religious practices, particularly targeting Islam and Christianity. General Secretary Xi Jinping has demanded unwavering political loyalty from faith communities and the “sinicisation” of religion.
Surveillance of religious leaders has also increased, with the launch of a nationwide database for officially approved Islamic, Protestant, and Catholic religious teachers this month.
The campaign has primarily focused on Islam and Christianity due to the party’s concern about faith being influenced by foreign elements. Authorities have also modified religious buildings that were deemed to lack a sufficiently Chinese appearance, alongside restricting international exchanges and donations.
The region most affected by these measures is Xinjiang, a northwestern area that was home to millions of Uyghur Muslims who speak Turkic languages. In Xinjiang, the push for sinicisation was accompanied by a “deradicalisation” program involving mass detention and reeducation, which the United Nations declared last year could constitute crimes against humanity. Thousands of mosques and shrines have reportedly been destroyed in the region.
Initially, the Mandarin Chinese-speaking Hui minority managed to avoid similar severe restrictions. However, the crackdown eventually spread to Islamic communities across the country’s northwest, including the Hui population in Qinghai.
Located in a remote and ethnically diverse region of China, the Hui Muslims in Yunnan are among the last to face scrutiny. The region has often been cited as an example of ethnic and religious diversity, where residents skilfully navigate multiple identities and display political flexibility when necessary.
Even government-backed researchers acknowledge that the Hui in Yunnan historically employed a flexible approach to avoid the worst consequences of the Cultural Revolution, during which many of China’s mosques, churches, and temples were closed. According to Li Hongchun, a researcher at the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences, the Najiaying mosque organised readings of Mao Zedong Thought and painted slogans on its walls, enabling worship to continue amidst political conflict.
However, the space for negotiation and nonviolent resolutions appears to be shrinking. As news of the recent unrest spread, nationalist commentators called for a strong response. On the microblogging platform Weibo, influential Marxist scholar Xi Wuyi, known for her hard-line stance against religious expression, advocated for “zero tolerance” towards what she labeled as criminal activities.