Beijing’s crackdown on religious minorities takes aim at 10,000 Muslim Utsuls

An Utsul woman, member of the 10,000 people community living in the Southern island of Hainan.
An Utsul woman, member of the 10,000 people community living in the Southern island of Hainan. © Dru Gladney

While China’s oppressive measures against Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region has garnered international attention, Beijing has begun expanding its surveillance of another Muslim minority: the Utsuls of Hainan Island. But efforts to crack down on the peaceful religious minority could backfire and push it to radicalisation, experts warn.

Advertising
A January 1984 photo of an Utsul mosque in Sanya, where most of the 10,000 community members live.
A January 1984 photo of an Utsul mosque in Sanya, where most of the 10,000 community members live. © Dru Gladney
Uighurs are no longer the only Muslim minority falling under Beijing’s watchful eye. Even as the international community continues to condemn human rights violations in the western region of Xinjiang province, Chinese authorities are now launching a similar crackdown on another Muslim community, according to a report in the Hong Kong-based daily South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Expanded surveillance, bans on Arabic scripts and limits on the size of mosques are now being applied also to a little-known minority of around 10,000 Utsuls living on the southernmost island of Hainan.

The United Nations has said it has credible information indicating that a million ethnic Uighurs are being held in China, a policy on Muslim groups in Xinjiang the Chinese government has justified by citing terrorist attacks.

 

Earlier this month a ban was announced on the Islamic veil, or hijab, in schools and government offices, sparking fierce protests from pupils and their families at schools and in Utsul neighbourhoods, a community worker told the SCMP.

In addition to the hijab ban, mosques must now have a member of the Chinese Communist Party sitting on their management committees. Any use of Arabic words, such as “Halal” signs at food stalls, are also banned.

Expanded surveillance for ‘social order’  

According to official documents obtained by the SCMP, Beijing has deemed the surveillance of Utsul residents a key priority, in the interests of maintaining “social order”. Even local members of the Communist Party will now be subject to investigations to ensure they are not practicing Muslims, and could face punishment in case of religious observance.

But the restrictive measures affect the Utsul community specifically, sparing other Muslim minorities living on Hainan Island such as the Hui, China’s most populous Muslim ethnic minority. According to the four-page report obtained by the SCMP, the measures target two specific neighbourhoods in Sanya, Hainan’s regional capital, where most residents are Utsuls.

Beijing’s decision to target the Utsuls in Sanya is an astonishing one, experts say. The community never made any claims of independence and never presented any security threat, and their religious practices are similar to those of the Hui: primarily peaceful.

Dru Gladney, an anthropologist who has studied the Utsuls and is president of the Pacific Basin Institute for research in California, told FRANCE 24 that the Sunni Muslim Utsuls have never exhibited any signs of having been influenced by stricter branches of Islam such as Salafism.

According to Gladney, the Utsuls’ main difference from the Hui community is their language, Tsat, which is close to Malay and is not spoken anywhere else in China.

They are also the oldest active Muslim community in the country. “Utsul cemeteries are probably the most ancient Muslim burial sites in China and date back to the 12th century,” Gladney noted.

‘General suspicion’ of religion

The authorities did not cite security reasons for this crackdown, as they had for the Uighurs, who were behind sporadic attacks over the years

No reason was offered for the latest ban on traditional dress for Sanya’s Utsuls. Gladney noted that the veil was not really a religious symbol for the community members as much as a cultural one.  

For some, Beijing’s adopted stance on the Utsul community is part of a larger pattern. “This is a textbook case of the evolution of the Chinese Communist Party's policies towards minorities under Xi Jinping," Katja Drinhausen, an expert on governance issues at the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies, told FRANCE 24.

According to Drinhausen, President Xi Jinping has cultivated a climate of “general suspicion” regarding religious beliefs – even when it comes to peaceful, tiny and centuries-old communities such as the Utsuls. Other minorities, which were relatively safe from the Communist Party’s scrutiny until now, are also being targeted by this mistrust, including Catholics.

The situation in Hainan “proves how mentalities have changed”, Drinhausen said. These measures are actually “similar to other ones imposed at a national level for every religious minority, like in Inner Mongolia or in Gansu province or in Tibet, where many Muslims live,” she added.

Under Xi’s leadership, Beijing wants to bring every religious belief into the party’s control and achieve a “unified national identity” which he feels is the basis for social stability, Drinhausen said.

Backfiring into unrest and diplomatic incidents

But Beijing’s efforts to curb religious and ethnic differences for the sake of “national unity” is not without its own risks. Introducing re-education camps and extreme surveillance, and outlawing cultural heritage could backfire, “pushing communities to radicalisation since they would feel they do not belong in Chinese society any longer”, Drinhausen said, adding that this could lead to rising social strife in the long term.

Beijing’s moves could also create diplomatic tensions with Southeast Asian countries that have been building closer ties with the Utsul minority in recent years. Malaysia’s former prime minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, had an Utsul grandmother and visited Hainan Island many times, Gladney noted. Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, has also built close relationships throughout the region.  

And in its attempt to place a 10,000-strong Muslim minority more firmly under Beijing’s control, China could end up alienating its neighbours and undermining its own objectives of regional hegemony, Gladney warned. China has been trying for several years to increase its influence in Southeast Asia, but the pursuit of discriminatory policies could prompt a rise in anti-Chinese sentiment, he said.

This story was translated by Henrique Valadares from the original in French.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning