The precise details of events in China’s Tongxin County last Friday are still vague, beyond the fact that some one thousand police officers entered a village called Taoshan and after clashing with locals, tore down a newly-refurbished mosque.
Reports that the police used tear gas, knives and batons against those seeking to defend the mosque remain to be confirmed, as do suggestions that some one hundred people have been detained, with others injured or even killed. Nevertheless, given the steady trickle of information along these lines and the Chinese authorities’ previous record of dealing with such incidents, it is relatively safe to draw the conclusion that notable civilian resistance was met with some degree of state violence.
The wellbeing of those involved, be they in detention, medical facilities or their own residences, is therefore a matter of serious concern and should be pursued urgently by both activists and the international community. Further to this though, it is important to examine what, if anything, the incident reveals about the Chinese government’s current approach to religious groups and more widely to civil resistance.
Tongxin County is located within the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, which has a large Hui ethnic minority – the majority of whom practice Islam. However, despite Beijing’s long history of repressing the religion, most notably and violently in occupied East Turkestan, Ningxia Hui has traditionally been relatively free of serious tensions. A report by the UN High Commission for Human Rights early in the 21st Century suggested that despite restrictions on religious practice, repression was not overtly severe and resistance was mainly limited to verbal protest.
In more recent years however, things began to shift, with China watchers noting increasing state discrimination against the Muslim Hui population. The wider attack on religious groups in the region also appears to have gathered pace, with the large Christian population facing severe crackdowns as recently as last year. All this, of course, tallies closely with the Chinese government’s overall stance – which has recently seen surging repression of Buddhism in Tibet, most notably through the occupation of monasteries and ‘patriotic re-education’ of monks; as well as concerted pressure on Chinese house-churches, including the detention of scores of Christmas Day worshippers.
Yet even within this context there appears something particularly provocative and arrogant about last Friday’s incident. For if local reports are correct, the mosque in question had operated peacefully for almost twenty-five years and was refurbished at some stage during 2011; before being declared illegal on 30th December and its destruction carried out immediately afterwards, by a vast number of readily-armed police.
To carry out such an action, and inevitably ignite resistance in a relatively calm area, suggests both confidence that protest can been contained, as well as a distinct determination to stamp down on organised Islam, most likely driven by the government’s utter paranoia of all things religious. Yet as has been demonstrated in East Turkestan- such repression can directly spur mass civil unrest- as well as violent resistance. If the defiance reportedly shown by the Hui people last Friday is repeated elsewhere in the region, the government crackdown could yet prove a costly mistake.