China's hidden Muslims find sense of belief

Teresa Poole on a religious revival on the wild north-western frontier

THE imam of Yinchuan's main mosque was not at his most devout that morning. Bao Jinggui - also known as Mohammed Younis - had earthly matters on his mind. In his office there was a flurry of activity as Mr Bao made final arrangements for that afternoon's farewell ceremony at the mosque to honour several dozen retired People's Liberation Army soldiers. The imam's mobile phone was buzzing with discussions about what clothes the soldiers should wear.

Then there were calls to a local meat-processing factory. A truck of sheep from Gansu province had arrived, and Mr Bao wanted to send it to the factory, but they did not seem interested. The livestock market next door is one of several enterprises, that include restaurants, hotels and clinics, run by the mosque.

In between the deals, Mr Bao seemed to be just the sort of Muslim that the Chinese government need not worry about. "In the Koran it says that believers of Islam must be controlled by the government of the country. The Chinese government gives us a very large freedom," he pronounced. Among the photographs on display in the mosque's courtyard were those celebrating the visit of President Jiang Zemin in 1991, and several showing the PLA helping to renovate the buildings. Mr Bao's only complaint was that the pounds 46,000 promised in 1991 by the Saudi Arabian ambassador for a new mosque school had still not materialised.

In the end, it was the gift shop that provided the surprises. Below the Mecca wall hangings stood a display case full of the sort of photographs one does not normally see in China: pictures of hundreds of local Muslims demonstrating in Yinchuan, banners aloft, in May 1989.

The protest was against a Chinese book called Sexual Customs, which China's Muslims said denigrated the Islamic religion. Across China, thousands of Muslims took to the streets, venting their fury. Very quickly the book was banned, its editors and authors punished - and the Chinese government must have breathed a sigh of relief. No Muslims were prosecuted.

Controlling China's Muslims is a task which Peking even then realised must be handled delicately. China's last census recorded 20 million Muslims, descendants of Arab and Central Asian traders who came to China from the 7th century onwards. The China Islamic Association is the official Muslim body which runs all the big mosques, and members like Mr Bao do not pose any threat to Communist Party control. But Islam is experiencing a wider grassroots revival in China, and establishing growing links with other Muslim countries. In 1979, for instance, 19 Chinese Muslims made the Haj pilgrimage to Mecca; last year it was several thousands. On Wednesday a group of 219 Ningxia Muslims, mostly farmers aged between 30 and 80, departed by air for Mecca on a self-financed Haj.

Like Buddhism in Tibet and Christianity across China, Islam is a force which Peking is anxious to contain. Last August, in a trial in Hotan, Xinjiang, 19 Muslims were convicted of possessing arms and belonging to a "counter-revolutionary" group, and sentenced to jail terms of up to 15 years. Nearly a year ago, five Muslim separatists were executed for involvement in a bomb attack on two buses in February 1992 in Urumqi, which killed three and injured 15.

Yinchuan is the capital of the north-western Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, home to the Hui people, the largest Muslim minority in China. About one-third of Ningxia's five million population is Hui, and since the end of the Cultural Revolution, when religion was suppressed, the province has built or restored 2,700 mosques. An Islamic Institute which opened in 1985 has had visitors from Pakistan, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Libya. "Islam is stronger in China over the past five years," agreed Ma Mingxian, a Communist Party member from the Institute's administration department.

The authorities may have firm control of official Muslim bodies, but the province still has a distinctive character. Unlike most of China, pork is not on the menu. Restaurants have traditional Arabic signs stating they are qing zhen - pure and true, indicating that they conform to Muslim customs - and lamb is the staple meat. In the Ningxia countryside, the resurgence of the religion is immediately apparent. Even in the impoverished southern counties, virtually every village, no matter how destitute, has a mosque and its own ahong, or priest. Since economic reform took hold in China in 1979, Ningxia's Muslims have had much greater exposure to the wider Islamic world. In the 1980s, thousands of labourers went to work in North Yemen, Egypt, Abu Dhabi and Kuwait. The contracts have since dried up, but for some workers the experience has given them a deeper sense of their Muslim identity. "After I came back from Abu Dhabi, I could tell people in Ningxia more about Islam in other countries," said Ma Cheng, who was in the Middle East for five years.

Although Muslims represent only a small proportion of China's 1.2 billion population, their predominance in the north-west, and geographical proximity to the new independent Central Asian republics, poses challenges to the Chinese government. To the west of Ningxia is Xinjiang province, where the Uighur Muslim minority is concentrated, and neighbouring Gansu and Qinghai provinces also have significant Muslim populations. While Tibet may take the international spotlight, Peking is equally fearful of a Muslim independence movement in the arid north-west.

In January, Peking imposed yet more restrictions on religious activity by ordering all places of worship to register. "Those who take advantage of religious reasons to split the country must be cracked down on," said the state councillor, Ismail Amat. Last November, Xinjiang's party secretary, Wang Lequan, warned against Muslim separatism: "Our success in promoting unity depends on controlling religion and wiping out illegal religious activities."

Tongxin is the heartland of the Hui religious heritage, home to one of the most famous of China's mosques. Visitors have come from Malaysia, Pakistan and Kuwait, and the carpets were a gift from Saudi Arabia. Although Tongxin is a very poor region, standards of living are slowly improving. So far, development appears to be strengthening the local Muslim culture rather than diluting it, as the Communist Party might hope.

Tongxin mosque has 13 trainee ahongs who spend their days translating the Koran. "The Muslim villagers know more about the Koran than in the past," said one. The only problem for the students is the oversupply of priests. "If the mosque wants me to go to a village I'll be an ahong," said one of the trainees. "Otherwise I'll work on the farm or do business."

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