Even as China is facing a lot of heat over its persecution of minority Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang province, another major allegation of human rights violation has surfaced against the country. While China continues to oppress Uyghur Muslims, Beijing has now shifted focus on another Muslim minority – the Utsuls of Hainan Island.
According to a report by The New York Times (NYT), the Chinese government has imposed new restrictions on the Utsuls residing in the Chinese city of Sanya to “erode the religious identity of even its smallest Muslim minorities”.
Utsuls, a Muslim community with less than 10,000 population in the Chinese city, are the latest to be targeted by the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) campaign against foreign influence and religions. The ethnic minority of Utsuls of Hainan Island in China faces increased surveillance and religious persecution similar to that of the Uyghur Muslim minority of Xinjiang.
The Utsuls are Sunni Muslims, believed to be descendants of the Cham, the long-distance fishermen and maritime traders of the Champa Kingdom, that ruled the country for centuries along Vietnam’s central and southern coasts. After fleeing the country in the 10th century due to continuous wars, Cham refugees reached Hainan, a tropical island the size of Maryland.
“The new restrictions in Sanya, a city on the resort island of Hainan, mark a reversal in government policy. Until several years ago, officials supported the Utsuls’ Islamic identity and their ties with Muslim countries, according to local religious leaders and residents, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid government retaliation… Their troubles show how Beijing is working to erode the religious identity of even its smallest Muslim minorities, in a push for a unified Chinese culture,” the NYT report stated.
Utsuls faces persecution, mosques demolished
The Utsuls maintained strong links with Southeast Asia and continued to practice Islam largely unfettered for a long time. With the coming of the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Chinese Army destroyed mosques in Utsul villages on Mao’s instructions. As China opened to the world in the early 1980s, the Utsuls began reviving their Islamic traditions.
However, the Communist Party of China (CCP) has used the same rationale to clampdown on religious minorities such as Utsuls just as it had justified the actions against Uyghurs citing “curbing of violent religious extremism”.
The imposing of restrictions over the Utsuls “reveals the real face of the Chinese Communist campaign against local communities,” said Ma Haiyun, an Islamic expert. “This is about trying to strengthen state control. It’s purely anti-Islam,” Haiyun added.
The report suggested that the Chinese government has repeatedly denied that it opposes Islam. However, under Xi Jinping, the party has torn down mosques, ancient shrines, Islamic domes, and minarets in northwestern and central China. The crackdown is mostly focused heavily on the Uyghurs, a Central Asian Muslim minority of 11 million in Xinjiang, many of whom have been held in mass detention camps and forced to renounce Islam.
Yusuf Liu, a Malaysian-Chinese writer who has studied the Utsuls, speaking to NYT, said that the minority group had been able to preserve a distinct identity because they were geographically isolated for centuries and held firm to their religious beliefs. He noted that the Utsuls were similar in many ways to the Malays.
“They share many of the same characteristics, including language, dress, history, blood ties and food,” Liu said.
No permission to use loud speakers, no Arabic designs in mosque construction
Further, the Chinese government has forced the local mosque leaders to remove loudspeakers that broadcast the call to prayer from the tops of minarets and place them on the ground. Recently, they have been asked to turn down the volume as well. The construction of a new mosque was also stopped in a dispute over its “Arabic” architectural elements. Most importantly, the city administration has barred children under 18 from studying Arabic.
However, the Utsuls claim that they want to learn Arabic not only to better understand Islamic texts but also to communicate with Arab tourists who came to their restaurants, hotels and mosques before the pandemic hit. Some residents have expressed anguish over the new restrictions, saying they called into question China’s promise to respect its 56 officially recognized ethnic groups.
“The mosques in the Middle East are like this. We want to build ours like that so they look like mosques and not just like houses,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because some residents had recently been briefly detained for criticizing the government.
In September last year, Utsul parents and students protested outside schools and government offices after the authorities had banning wearing of headscarves to class. The orders were relaxed after a few weeks.
In addition to the hijab ban, mosques must now have a member of the Chinese Communist Party sitting on their management committees. The restaurants are not allowed to use any Arabic words, such as “Halal”.