The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is pushing ahead in the Year of the Ox with policies of sinicization and "ethnic unity" targeting Muslim communities around the country, according to government websites.
In the southern island province of Hainan, provincial vice government Fu Caixing called on officials at the provincial religious and minority affairs bureau to ensure they have a "deep" understanding of a CCP term: "integration in a pluralistic Chinese nation."
Religious affairs officials should be fully aware of the "connotations" of this concept and "further deepen ethnic unity," Fu said during a visit to the bureau on Feb. 18, according to a report on the bureau's official website.
"Unity" has been used as an umbrella concept in the northwestern region of Xinjiang to describe assimilation schemes in which ethnic minority Uyghur families are "assigned" a Han Chinese family, who visits with them regularly and puts pressure on them to observe non-Muslim traditions, including drinking alcohol and eating pork.
"Unity" policies haven taken place in Xinjiang against a backdrop of the mass incarceration of at least 1.8 million Uyghurs and other ethnic minority Muslims in "re-education" camps, and their involvement in forced labor, as well as amid reports of the systemic rape, sexual abuse, and forced sterilization of Uyghur women in the camps.
According to Fu: "[Officials must] further educate [people] about what it means to unify and progress under a multicultural society with ethnic unity, so as to build on a sense of unity across the whole of the Chinese nation."
His comments came after a top official in the CCP's United Front -- a department charged with boosting support for the CCP overseas and in domestic groups outside party ranks -- in the central province of Hunan told Muslim leaders that the government was continuing its policy of "sinicization" in Muslim communities.
"We must carry on with the sinicization of Islam, as well as pandemic disease control and prevention in Islamic communities in this province," Xiang Enming, deputy head of the provincial CCP's United Front Work Department said in January, according to the website of the government-backed Hunan Islam Association.
Total ban on gatherings
Xiang said the upshot of these two policies was a total ban on religious gatherings and activities, especially in cities.
He also called for a change of leadership in the association.
"The re-election process must be carried out in accordance with deployment guidelines and it must proceed smoothly," Xiang told the association.
Rights activist Sulaiman Gu, who studies at the University of Georgia in the United States, said "sinicization" policies announced under CCP general secretary Xi Jinping are continually being rolled out across China.
He said any claim to preserving Islamic culture was largely cosmetic.
"While Chinese officials use Islamic culture to serve economic development as part of United Front work, they have always regarded the identity of ethnic minorities as a threat to totalitarian rule," Gu said.
"To eliminate the identity of ethnic minorities, they must first eliminate their beliefs."
Shih Chien-yu, a scholar of Islamic Studies at the Central Asian Society on the democratic island of Taiwan, said the CCP has already succeeded in cutting off many Muslims in China from the ummah, the global community of fellow Muslims.
"The so-called imams, the ones allocated [to communities] by Chinese officials, have been trained in religious schools run by the Chinese government," Shih told RFA.
"They may not have gone on [Hajj] pilgrimage, and they daren't modify the content that has been approved by China," he said.
He said the annual Hajj pilgrimage was an important way for Muslims to take part in a global religion.
"[On Hajj], Muslims share their faith experience, including what is orthodox, what is right, what should not be done, and so on," Shih said. "When they get back, they pass this stuff on quietly. They are also more likely to donate money to build new mosques."
"That's why China has started suppressing and trying eradicate the Islamic beliefs [and practices] of Chinese Muslims," he said.
Making Muslims less visible
The New York Times reported on Feb. 14 that authorities in Hainan are already working to make the island's Muslims less visible, by covering up signs that read "Allahu Akbar," or "God is Greatest," in homes and shops, with stickers promoting CCP slogans about the "Chinese Dream."
"The Chinese characters for halal, meaning permissible under Islam, have been removed from restaurant signs and menus," the report said.
It said the authorities have shut down two Islamic schools used by the 10,000-strong community of Utsul Muslims in the resort town of Sanya, and have twice tried to bar female students from wearing head scarves.
The report said the moves are in stark contrast to previous policy in the province, when "officials supported the Utsuls’ Islamic identity and their ties with Muslim countries."
Gu said the Utsuls are classified by the CCP as Hui Chinese Muslims, but are culturally distinct from them.
"Because of their common Islamic heritage, they have a high degree of mutual recognition with the Hui, and they are classified as Hui [by the government]," he said.
"But they retain many Southeast Asian customs and have been in constant contact with the Malay Peninsula," he said in a reference to the homeland of Cham Muslims in southern Thailand.
China is developing a five-year plan for the "sinicization" of Islam, according a report published Jan. 5, 2019 on the official website of the country's government-backed China Islamic Association.
The plan will focus on requiring mosques to to uphold "core values of socialism, traditional culture, laws, and regulations," according to a report on a meeting organized by the United Front Work Department.
Mosques will be told to "guide, mobilize, and inspire" Chinese Muslims with lectures and training sessions on such topics, and which uphold the spirit of a sinicized Islam by using examples of notable figures, the report said.
In late 2018, authorities in the southwestern province of Yunnan raided and forcibly evicted local ethnic minority Hui Muslims from three mosques at the end of last month, saying they were engaged in "illegal religious activities."
Reported by Han Jie for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.