Documenting China’s systemic crackdown against its Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang is notoriously difficult.
Journalists who make it in are tracked and intimidated to leave, and China’s state-of-the-art surveillance system has made it nearly impossible to travel to the locked down province without your every movement recorded and monitored.
However, Al Bawaba has acquired a set of photographs that document China’s so-called ‘anti-halal’ campaign and wider efforts to coerce Uyghur, Kazakh and Hui Muslims from practicing their religion.
The photos, which were taken and provided by Dr. Joanne Smith Finley, a Senior Lecturer in Chinese Studies at Newcastle University, show mosques surrounded by razor wire and courtyards populated only by a Chinese flag in addition to restaurants with ‘halal’ signs ripped off their facades.
China has doubled down on its program to surveil Uyghur and Kazakh Muslims, as well as Christians, sending up to three million to detention and ‘re-education’ centers that are more accurately described as concentration camps. Amid growing international scrutiny into its crackdown, the Chinese Community Party (CCP) has retroactively legalized its surveillance and detention programs, effectively clearing the way for them to expand rapidly in size and scope.
Smith Finley’s photographs offer a rare insight into a region that is subject to a total media blackout by the CCP.
A Lifestyle Criminalized
The leadership of the CCP’s local branch in Urumqi, Xinjiang launched China’s ‘anti-halal’ campaign by ordering the party’s membership to swear to “fight a decisive battle against ‘pan-halalization.’”
The vague term frames the religious process of preparing certain foods and hygiene items to comport to Islamic norms as a threat against Chinese identity. From meat to toothpaste, goods prepared in a halal way are being effectively outlawed, forcing Muslims to consume and use goods that are explicitly forbidden according to their religious beliefs.
“'Qingzhen' is the Chinese-language term for halal. It literally means ‘pure and true’, and has been a stalwart of Islam in China for centuries. In Uyghur Arabic script it is ‘Musulmanchä,’” Dr. Smith Finley told Al Bawaba.
“Now, the state is systematically removing such halal signage from halal restaurants.”
In the beginning, Smith Finley said, party officials simply ripped off the characters from signs on the facades of restaurants, leaving a noticeable trace of old ‘halal’ signs left. Then they began to replace the entire facades of restaurants with signs that made no reference to religious practices. In a bid to avoid trouble with the CCP, Smith Finley added, some restaurant owners are now engaging in self-censorship: they are opening new, secularly branded restaurants.
Part of the CCP’s scheme to crackdown on its ethno-religious minorities’ distinct identities is by coercing them to self-police. One of its key strategies is called the “double-linked household management system,” where households are assigned to spy on each other and report any suspicious activity to the state.
Restaurant owners taking it upon themselves to secularize their business' marketing then, is likely seen as a success by the CCP: a sign that Muslims are internalizing the CCP’s goals of assimilation.
(Restaurant with ‘halal” ripped off facade of restaurant, courtesy of Dr. Joanne Smith Finley)
On the sign of this red colored restaurant, a trace of what used to be a ‘halal’ sign can be seen. Other signs of Islamic life in the region are also becoming sparse. Minarets with crescent moons are being torn down and prayers are rarely attended.
(Closed down halal restaurant with sign ripped off courtesy of Dr. Joanne Smith Finley)
Another restaurant Smith Finley noticed had its ‘halal’ sign ripped off was closed down permanently.
An Opaque Policing System
In Urumqi, the capital and rapidly developing economic hub of the Xinjiang province, its historic mosques are empty. Smith Finley walked by the Yan’anlu Mosque in the city, and noticed that it was closed off with high fences adorned with razor wire. She took a photo of its empty courtyard from the street.
(Yan’anlu mosque in Urumqi, courtesy of Dr. Joanne Smith Finley)
The only thing standing in the courtyard is the flag of China, a sign to worshippers that the CCP has the mosque under watch.
In another town, Kashgar, Smith Finley saw that anti-riot shields were placed at the entrance to the mosque.
(Riot shields in the ancient Heytgah Mosque in Kashgar, Xinjiang, courtesy of Dr. Joanne Smith Finley)
CCP banners filled with propaganda lace the inside and outside of mosques. One reading 'Love the Party, Love the Country,” is one of the most common, and has been seen in prayer spaces throughout the region. It stands as a not-so-subtle reminder to Muslims praying that the CCP and China, not God, require their utmost loyalty. Another common banner tells worshippers to “Actively Promote Chinese-Style Islam.”
What exactly is Chinese-Style Islam? From the policies the CCP has been enforcing with an iron fist, Chinese-Style Islam is a religion without a god meant to serve as an exotic but harmless flair to Xinjiang in order to convince tourists visiting the region that once upon a time, Xinjiang was culturally distinct.
In its ‘re-education’ camps, CCP propaganda videos showcase Uyghurs learning how to craft kitsch versions of traditional Uyghur rugs ready for purchase in souvenir shops. At the same time, the CCP has been encouraging Uyghurs to take part in pork and alcohol eating contests during Ramadan, the holiest month in Islam.
China has also been detaining those it deems to be attending prayers too regularly, stuffing them into concentration camps for indefinite periods of time, where they are subject to psychological and physical abuse. The mother of Dolkun Isa, the president of the World Uyghur Congress, died in one of the concentration camps for reasons that are unknown. She was 78.
Isa told Al Bawaba in an emotionally charged interview that he didn’t know about her death until investigative journalists poured through government documents and found record of her passing. They notified him almost a month after the date she was listed to have died.
As the camps expand, Isa’s mother will not be the last to be found dead inside, but the information blackout makes the inner workings of the camps opaque and closed off from the world.
Smith Finley’s photos stand alone as a rare glimpse inside one of the biggest and most systemic surveillance states in the world today, one that China has been working tirelessly to ensure continues in the dark.
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