LINXIA, China – Worrying signs first emerged two years ago in this Muslim pocket in China's heartland. Calls to prayer, once broadcast from local mosques, fell silent. The Qur'an, banned from sale, vanished from bookstores.
Members of the Hui minority, who number 10 million, hoped that the state crackdown would not arrive here, in the fertile valleys and loess hills of Gansu Province, as it had in Xinjiang, the homeland of the other major Muslim ethnic group in China, the Uighurs.
Hope faded in April. Government cranes began appearing ominously over Hui mosques. A video surfaced on social media showing workers taking apart the Gazhuang mosque's gold dome, then smashing it into the prayer hall. Local Hui saw an unmistakable metaphor: the Communist Party, which once handled religious life here with a light touch, now is running roughshod over it.
"Women were crying; others, like me, couldn't believe what was happening," said Ma Ha, a noodle shop owner. "We had 40 years of religious freedom. The winds are changing."
Under its leader, Xi Jinping, China's government has intensified efforts to assimilate ethnic minorities and curtail religions, such as Islam, that it considers carriers of foreign influence. For two years on the Xinjiang frontier, China has sent hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of Uighurs to what it calls re-education centers, where they are taught to renounce their religion and culture and embrace new state-prescribed identities as secular Chinese.
That tide of "Sinicization," as Chinese policymakers call it, is surging nationwide. A recent unescorted trip through Gansu, a corridor that once ushered Silk Road caravans and Islam into imperial China, revealed an accelerating campaign to assimilate another Muslim minority, the Hui, a Chinese-speaking people with no recent record of separatism or extremism.
The campaign targeting the Hui does not feature mass internment or pervasive digital surveillance, the most striking aspects of the Xinjiang crackdown. But it is a purge of ideas, symbols, culture, products — anything deemed not Chinese. It permeates life, in ways existential and mundane.
Domes and minarets are lopped off mosques and replaced with curving Chinese roofs. News broadcasts are forbidden to show pedestrians wearing traditional Hui skullcaps or veils. Arabic script is outlawed in public spaces, so practically every restaurant has a sun-beaten facade with dark traces where the word "halal" has been scraped off.
Strict new quotas throttle religious education to the degree that some Hui intellectuals predict their people could become largely irreligious, like most of China, in two or three generations.
Pressures are mounting against the Hui, the distant descendants of Persian traders, at a moment when the Communist leadership is stoking nationalism among the ethnic majority Han to bolster popular support. In officials' speeches, on TV and across billboards, one frequent refrain is the "China Dream" — Xi's vision of restoring China's historic power and wealth, its culture and its pride.
"The great rejuvenation of the Chinese people is actually a narrow-minded, xenophobic kind of nationalism," said Li Yunfei, an imam from eastern China and one of the last dissident Hui writers. "Anything that is defined by them as coming from abroad, they strive to eliminate through administrative means."
An April 2018 Communist Party directive obtained by the World Uighur Congress advocacy group showed the party's central leadership instructing local authorities to reverse what it deemed to be growing "Saudi" and "Arab" influences in architecture, clothing, religious practice and language.
The 22 million followers of Islam are not the only people touched by China's assimilation drive. Christian church steeples and crosses have been taken down across the country.
When party bosses inspected Tibetan regions in August, they told local officials to implement Xi's "important words on religious work," tighten control over monasteries and "focus efforts to Sinicize religion."