JINAN: Cui Haoxin is too young to remember the days of his people’s oppression under Mao Zedong.
The 39-year-old poet was born after the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, when the Hui – China’s second-largest Muslim ethnic group – were among the masses tormented by the Red Guard.
In the years since, the Hui (pronounced HWAY) generally have been supportive of the government and mostly spared the kind of persecution endured by China’s largest Muslim group, the Uighur.
There are signs, though, that that is changing.
In August, town officials in the Hui region of Ningxia issued a demolition order for the landmark Grand Mosque in Weizhou, though they later backed off in the face of protests.
More recently, authorities in nearby Gansu province closed a school that taught Arabic.
And a Communist Party official from Ningxia visited Xinjiang, centre of Uighur oppression, to “study and investigate how Xinjiang fights terrorism and legally manages religious affairs.”
China under President Xi Jinping is clamping down on minorities, tightening control over a wide spectrum of religious and political activity. In some places, a campaign to “Sinicise” religion has prompted authorities to seize Bibles, remove the “halal” designation from food products, demolish churches and strip mosques of loudspeakers and Islamic crescents and domes.
Cui has spoken out against government intrusions. He is working on a novel with a nightmarish plot: believers are brutalised by demons in a Cultural Revolution in Hell.
“The Muslims resisted and tried to protect the mosque,” he said, describing the work. “They failed.”
He worries that violence lies ahead.
“One has dignity. For a person, it is his or her bottom-line,” he said.
“If the persecution is too unbearable, if something happens, as I said, there could be a disaster.”
Cui speaks eloquently about his people, who claim descent from Persian and Arab traders who came to China 1,300 years ago.
The 10 million Hui living across China generally speak Mandarin. They enjoy relative freedom of worship compared to the Uighurs, some of whom call the Hui tawuz, which means watermelon in the Uighur’s Turkic language.
While the Hui face prejudice from the Han Chinese majority, they are proud to be Chinese and have a “positive outlook for the future, said David Stroup, a University of Oklahoma professor who met Hui across China in 2016.
Many saw an opportunity in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a US$1 trillion trade and infrastructure initiative that runs across several Muslim-majority nations in central Asia and Africa, he said. They aspired to become middlemen on a revived Silk Road linking China with Islamic nations.
“It was going to be an opportunity for the Hui to play an important role as ambassadors to the Islamic world,” Stroup said.
It came as a shock, he said, when new regulations targeted the practices of Hui alongside those of other religious groups earlier this year.
Cui is one of the few Chinese citizens disturbed and brave enough to criticise the Communist Party openly. For that, he has experienced censorship, detention, and “home visits” by police.
Cui posts attacks on Beijing’s policies related to Muslims in China and abroad, such as the government’s support of Myanmar despite widespread criticism of its treatment of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority.
A few months later, on Nov. 27, police brought him to the local Public Security Bureau for a few hours of questioning. A recent Human Rights Watch report said that China started “targeting Twitter users in China as part of a nationwide crackdown on social media.” Cui refused to delete his tweets.
At a teahouse in Jinan, as steam from his jasmine tea mixes with the scent from a tray of sweets, he recites from his poem Letter from Prison.
“It seems like I can see the bulldozer running wild in the Thousand and One Nights.
The angel upon my shoulder urges me: “Tell the truth under the grey sky.” — AP
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