Muslims in official positions have been forced to break the Ramadan fast. But there is a remarkable exception to this grim picture of repression: the Hui.
China has two big Muslim groups, the Uighur of Xinjiang and the more obscure Hui. Though drops in the ocean of China’s population, they each have about 10m people, the size of Tunisia. But while the Uighur suffer, the Hui are thriving.
The number of mosques in Ningxia (cradle of the Hui, as one of their number puts it) has more than doubled since 1958, from 1,900 to 4,000, says Ma Ping, a retired professor at Northern Nationalities University. New ones are being built across the province. The Hui are economically successful. They are rarely victims of Islamophobia. Few Muslim minorities anywhere in the world can say as much.
The Hui’s religious practices reflect the waves of Islam that have washed over China. According to Ma Tong, a Hui scholar, just over half of them follow the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam, which was brought to China centuries ago. At the Najiahu mosque south of Yinchuan, Ningxia’s capital, banners adorn the entrance saying “ancient and authentic religion” and “cleave to the original path”. A fifth of the Hui follow the more austere code of Wahhabism brought to China in the 19th century (there are also a handful of more extreme Salafist converts resulting from recent contacts through the haj). And a fifth follow one of three Sufi schools of Islam, an esoteric and mystical branch derided as apostate by hardline Salafists. The Hui’s religious diversity makes it easier for the party to tolerate them. Divide and rule.
But the real secret of the Hui’s success lies in the ways they differ from the Uighur. The Uighur, of Turkic origin, are ethnically distinct. They speak their own language, related to Turkish and Uzbek. They have a homeland: the vast majority live in Xinjiang. A wall of discrimination separates them from the Han Chinese. If they have jobs in state-owned enterprises, they are usually menial.
In contrast, the Hui are counted as an ethnic minority only because it says so on their hukou (household-registration) documents and because centuries ago their ancestors came as missionaries and merchants from Persia, the Mongol courts or South-East Asia. Having intermarried with the Han for generations, they look and speak Chinese. They are scattered throughout China (see map); only one-fifth live in Ningxia. Unlike the Uighur and Tibetans, they have taken the path of assimilation.
At the new Qiao Nan mosque in Tongxin, the congregation is celebrating the life of an important local figure in the mosque’s history. The ceremony begins with a sermon by the ahong (imam). Then come prayers chanted in Arabic. At the house of the local worthy’s grandson, the worshippers read from the Koran, then visit the tomb. But the afternoon ends very differently, with a reading from an 18-metre-long scroll written by the grandson, Ma Jinlong. This consists of excerpts from eighth-century classical Chinese poetry, illustrated with his own delicate water-colours. Mr Ma is both a stalwart of the mosque and a Chinese gentleman-scholar.
A close connection with Chinese society is characteristic of the Hui. Some of the most famous historical figures were Hui, though few Chinese are aware of it. They include Zheng He, China’s equivalent of Columbus, who commanded voyages of discovery around 1400. Recently, the party chief in Jiangsu province as well as the head of the Ethnic Affairs Commission, a government body, were Hui.
Relations with the Han have not always been good. The so-called Dungan revolt by the Hui in the 1860s and 1870s was a bloodbath. But since the death of Mao in 1976, the two sides have reached an accommodation. Dru Gladney, of Pomona College in California, says a hallmark of the Hui is their skill at negotiating around the grey areas of China’s political system.
Thanks to this, they have been successful economically. They dominate halal food production (see article). They are emerging as the favoured middlemen between China’s state enterprises and firms in Central Asia and the Gulf. China’s largest school of Arabic is a private college, set up and partly financed by Hui, on the outskirts of Yinchuan. Most students are training to be corporate interpreters.
One sign of how far the government tolerates the Hui is that they are even able to practice Islamic (sharia) law to a limited extent. Sharia is not recognised by the Chinese legal code. Yet at the Najiahu mosque, the ahong and the local county court share the same mediation office. Every week or so, the ahong adjudicates in family disputes usingsharia. Only if he fails do civil officials step in.
Surprisingly, the Hui have not lost their religion or identity despite centuries of assimilation. Mr Ma, the retired professor, says Hui people often form close-knit communities and pursue similar occupations; restaurants and taxis in many cities are run by Hui. But their religion is “still the most important binding factor”, he says. The Hui maintain a delicate balance. They can practise their religion undisturbed thanks to assimilation. But it is their religion that makes them distinct.
This is a fine line, and it means the Hui are vulnerable to China’s shifting religious attitudes. They have so far mostly escaped Islamophobia. But bigotry is becoming more common on social media. “The greens” (a significant colour in Islam) has become an online term of abuse. So far the government has tolerated the Hui’s culture. But in Ningxia in July, Xi Jinping, the president, told his audience to “resolutely guard against illegal infiltration”—even though there is little sign of any. His government has become more repressive towards many religious groups. The Hui could be next.
But the lessons offered by the Hui’s experience are largely positive. Islam, the Hui show, are not the threat that party leaders sometimes imply it is. They show that you can be both Chinese and Muslim. At Yinchuan airport, a returning pilgrim is waiting for his luggage. He wears a white robe with “Chinese pilgrimage to Mecca” stitched in green Arabic letters below a Chinese flag embroidered in red, the symbol of an atheist party-state. “It was the experience of a lifetime,” he says of the haj—and disappears into a sea of white hats worn by hundreds of cheering fellow Muslims who fill the arrivals hall to welcome him home.
Strongholds for China’s Hui Muslims
WUZHONG, China — As the call to prayer echoed off the high walls of the madrasa and into the surrounding village, dozens of boys, dressed in matching violet caps, poured out of their dorm rooms and headed to the mosque.
That afternoon prayer ritual, little changed since Middle Eastern traders traversing the Silk Road first arrived in western China more than 1,000 years ago, was at once quotidian and remarkable.
That is because in many parts of the officially atheist country, religious restrictions make it a crime to operate Islamic schools and bar people under 18 from entering mosques.
Asked about the Chinese government’s light touch here, Liu Jun, 37, the chief imam at the Banqiao Daotang Islamic School, offered a knowing smile.
“Muslims from other parts of China who come here, especially from Xinjiang, can’t believe how free we are, and they don’t want to leave,” he said, referring to the far-west borderlands that are home to China’s beleaguered Uighur ethnic minority. “Life for the Hui is very good.” With an estimated Muslim population of 23 million, China has more followers of Islam than many Arab countries. Roughly half of them live inXinjiang, an oil-rich expanse of Central Asia where a cycle of violence and government repression has alarmed human rights advocates and unnerved Beijing over worries about the spread of Islamic extremism.
But here in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, a relatively recent administrative construct that is the official heartland of China’s Hui Muslim community, that kind of strife is almost nonexistent, as are the limitations on religion that critics say are fueling Uighur discontent.
Throughout Ningxia and the adjacent Gansu Province, new filigreed mosques soar over even the smallest villages, adolescent boys and girls spend their days studying the Quran at religious schools, and muezzin summon the faithful via loudspeakers — a marked contrast to mosques in Xinjiang, where the local authorities often forbid amplified calls to prayer.
In Hui strongholds like Linxia, a city in Gansu known as China’s “Little Mecca,” there are mosques on every other block and women can sometimes be seen with veils, a sartorial choice that can lead to detention in Xinjiang. “It’s easy to live an intensely Muslim life here,” said Ma Habibu, 67, a retired truck driver, whose surname, Ma, with its phonetic resemblance to the name Mohammed, is common among the Hui. “Even government officials here are very devout and study the Quran every day.”
Descendants of Persian and Arab traders who settled along the Silk Road and took Chinese wives, the nation’s 10 million Hui are a minority primarily defined by their faith and, in some cases, solely their culinary habits. Compared with the Uighurs, they have also demonstrated a remarkable ability to coexist with the Communist Party, an organization hard-wired to distrust those whose first loyalty belongs to a higher power.
Unlike the Uighurs, who speak a Turkic dialect and whose Eurasian features set them apart from the country’s Han Chinese majority, the Hui speak Chinese and are often indistinguishable from their non-Muslim neighbors. In much of China, the white caps worn by men and the head scarves worn by women are all that give them away. In many places, the Hui have so thoroughly assimilated that their only connection to Islam is a vestigial aversion to pork.
Most subscribe to a moderate brand of Islam, though tradition frowns upon intermarriage — Hui men who break convention by marrying outside the faith often demand that their wives convert to Islam.
Their loyalty to the Communist Party has been well rewarded. In places like Linxia, people can easily obtain passports and about half of the senior officials are ethnic Hui, according to local residents. In Xinjiang, by contrast, most important government posts go to the Han, and young Uighurs find it hard to get passports to travel abroad. Government workers in Xinjiang who go to mosques or fast during the holy month of Ramadan often find themselves unemployed.
But even in Ningxia and Gansu, official tolerance has its limits. During a recent five-day journey through Hui communities that fleck the arid foothills of the Tibetan plateau, several imams said proselytizing to non-Muslims was forbidden, as was contact with Islamic organizations outside China. Accepting overseas donations for the construction of a mosque was also sure to invite trouble from the authorities.
Religious leaders said that the government had become especially vigilant about tamping down competition and potential strife among different Islamic factions. Several imams said party officials were most concerned about Salafis, an ultraconservative Sunni sect whose strict interpretation of religious texts has been associated with extremism.
“The Salafi influence has been spreading fast in China, and this is worrying both us and the government because they think their religion is the correct one,” said Wang Jingcheng, a teacher at the Great Gongbei, a 300-year-old Sufi shrine in Linxia.
The Hui have not always coexisted so well with authority or other ethnic groups. In the 19th century, Muslim-led rebellions were brutally suppressed, killing hundreds of thousands. More recently, during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, the Red Guards tortured and jailed imams, defaced mosques and shuttered religious academies.
In recent years, there have been sporadic clashes between Hui and Han: In 2004, scores were reportedly killed during ethnic bloodletting in Henan Province, and in 2012, dozens of people were injured by the police during protests over the demolition of a mosque in Ningxia that the government had declared illegal.
Those tribulations, reinforced by the occasional expression of disdain from non-Islamic neighbors, have infused many Hui with a sense of determination that borders on exceptionalism.
In interviews, many Hui said their religion-inspired devotion to hygiene and personal integrity — and an avoidance of cigarettes, alcohol and gambling — set them apart from their Han brethren.
“The Hui used to live in separate neighborhoods, but these days, non-Muslims are moving to Muslim quarters because they are drawn to our clean food and our system of ethics,” said Ma Youming, 35, the production manager of a hat factory in Wuzhong that exports religious headwear to Indonesia, Malaysia and other Muslim countries.
The party is increasingly seeking to leverage this good will by positioning the Hui as mercantile emissaries to the Muslim world, a role that has been bolstered by President Xi Jinping’s national initiative for a new Silk Road, known as One Belt, One Road, which seeks to revive China’s ancient trade routes with Asia, Europe and the Middle East.
In places like Wuzhong and Linxia, officials have created special “Muslim products” industrial parks that offer inexpensive land and low taxes. Mr. Ma’s company, Yijia Ethnic Clothing, is among those that have benefited from favorable government policies.
Standing amid the rat-a-tat of computer-driven embroidery machines, Mr. Ma said Yijia Ethnic Clothing’s three factories now make 50 million hats a year and provide more than two-thirds of the world’s low-priced Islamic headwear.
That success is fueling a new venture for the company: a Muslim-themed real estate venture in Linxia that will include 6,000 apartments, two mosques, museums and a Halal food exhibition center spread across 190 acres.
During a recent visit to the company’s offices, Ma Chunbo, a senior executive, said that the project sought to capitalize on the growing wealth of Hui entrepreneurs but that he also hoped to attract non-Muslims.
“We want to show the world that Islam is a tolerant, peace-loving religion, not the religion of burqas and bomb-throwing that people see on the news,” he said.
He stood in front of a mock-up of the project, which includes scaled-down replicas of the world’s most iconic mosques. “We also want to show that in Linxia, we fully enjoy the lenient ethnic policies of the government,” he said.